IOWA DERECHO 2020

When trees are more than just trees to us

An tree is uprooted Aug. 10 in southeast Cedar Rapids after a derecho with straight-line winds of more than 100 mph move
An tree is uprooted Aug. 10 in southeast Cedar Rapids after a derecho with straight-line winds of more than 100 mph moved through Iowa. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Just one week before the Aug. 10 storm hit, my aunt and cousins came to visit. It was the first time they’d been to my house since I moved to Cedar Rapids five years ago, and as we walked along the shade-dappled streets of my southeast side neighborhood, they remarked how lovely it was, this place, with these trees, planted when the neighborhood was plotted a century or more ago.

We walked to Bever Park, where residents of the town’s early days would ride the trolley for a day of enjoying nature and leisure. The trolley is gone, and the city has grown to enclose the park, but the sentiment remained, of thanks for the parks and pockets of greenery and trees dotted throughout our town.

Now, those parks lie in ruins, officially closed to the public until the toppled trees are removed.

As a journalist covering the response to the storm, talking with residents who felt abandoned, who couldn’t charge their oxygen tanks or who were sleeping in tents because they didn’t know where else to go in the first days after the winds raged, I have felt a current of anger in the air.

To be sure, it runs alongside a current of community spirit and resourcefulness and some Iowa stoicism (“Oh, we’re so lucky it wasn’t worse!”). But the anger, and exhaustion of people facing this latest in a litany of 2020 disasters is real, and palpable, and it seeps under my skin.

Before, when I was angry or sad or overwhelmed, I would walk my neighborhood streets and take comfort from the trees, from their peace. In these quarantine days and months devoid of meetings with friends at restaurants after work and live music and summer festivals and all the things that normally serve as stress relief and distraction, nature has been my outlet.

Almost every night after work I would escape my house for a long walk. Now, even that escape feels stolen away. Each walk reminds me of the changed landscape, with jagged stumps jutting from yards and dead branches piled on curbs.

A text from the city, as I write this: As of Thursday, Cedar Rapids has picked up more than 100,000 tons of tree debris. The number is so large it feels meaningless. So many cumulative centuries of growth, being ground into wood chips. All of our gardens will be well-mulched for years to come, I suppose.

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The city’s website brags Cedar Rapids has been recognized as a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation for 35 consecutive years, declaring that is the longest consecutive record of any city in the state. In a way that might be hard to explain to outsiders, I think of our trees as part of our town’s identity, part of the very fabric of who we were.

So I’m grieving for the trees, which feel like much more than simply branches and leaves.

Of course I am hurting for our people, for those who lost their homes or livelihoods or are wondering how they will keep food on the table. But I’m also letting myself mourn the beautiful old oaks and lindens and maples that once lined these blocks.

I know that in the coming months and years we will plant again. And I hope that in a century, even if we ourselves do not live to see them grow so tall as we remember, future generations will look back and wonder about us, and what led us to plant such a beautiful canopy.

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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