It’s a poem we heard — probably back in Miss Jacobsen’s third grade class — but its message remains timeless. Joyce Kilmer’s poem, “Trees,” begins: “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.”
I remember sitting at my cast-iron-framed oak desk — complete with its old inkwell — and contemplating how there’s really nothing in our world grander than a tree. And yet, most of us grow up to take trees for granted. We picnic beneath them, seek shelter from the summer downbursts and find our breath taken by the colors they wear in autumn. They become daily staples of the scrolling, seasonal scenery of our lives, but that doesn’t make them any less miraculous.
Today we can do a little creative manipulation of those lines from Kilmer’s famous verse. It’s worth considering: Trees stood erect long before mankind did, and, in a sense, their life stories bear similarity to our own.
When forest fires threatened America’s most beautiful lands, conservationists were forced to ask the question: Should we follow a policy of diligently mobilizing the smoke-jumpers and fire-fighting crews, or should we simply accept the fact that nature has its own life cycles, and death is one of them?
Back in 1988, Yellowstone was on fire. On Aug. 20 of that year, more forest was consumed by fire than the cumulative total since the park’s 1872 opening. Three-quarters of a million acres were consumed and Americans understood that the park would never be the same during their lifetimes.
Our forestry experts debated the question: Should fires be controlled or were they just part of nature’s legitimate plan for the forests’ health? Americans, understandably, were not happy with the outcome, for the government allowed the fire to run its course. It lasted for months. The argument was that the millions of old trees were both crowded and unhealthy, so it made perfect sense to allow the old to die.
Since then, the Yellowstone forest has done a remarkable job of re-creation. The fire, it turns out, was indeed a catalyst to opening the pine cones, releasing the new seeds and creating an ash-enriched soil to foster a crop of healthy new trees.
I recently had a safe-distancing phone conversation with one of my older children about coronavirus, and she expressed the same sentiment as the Forest Service had back in 1988. She had the insensitive audacity to tell me that the coronavirus pandemic is nature’s way of thinning out the old and infirm.
As she was saying it, I kept thinking, “Doesn’t she realize that I’m one of the vulnerable, over-seventy seniors who may well be culled?”
When I mentioned my concern about her attitude, she seemed embarrassed, admitting that she never looks at me as being elderly. It’s true. I am probably one of the younger 73-year-olds, but her attitude was pretty horrifying.
It made me think, “If everyone over 65 died, how much would be saved on medical expenses, and how much money would be forfeited from their hard-earned Social Security Retirement fund?”
Mathematically, eliminating the old actually made sense.
I realize that America and the world are at a crossroads, one which focuses on practicality rather than sentiment. Is it really OK to simply write-off the elderly, understanding that they will make way for the younger, healthier and more vibrant?
Somehow, I find it hard to reduce the personal aspects down to a mere mathematical equation. And, more importantly, those elderly who are healthy, active and keen possess a wealth of knowledge and experience that can only come with age. They are a national treasure of diversity, wisdom and the vivid enhancements of fall colors.
Is COVID-19 a fortuitous solution to the growing number of retirees and the cost of keeping them healthy? Should the floodgates of commerce be opened at the expense of the old? While the aging population bears a statistical resemblance to Yellowstone’s trees, we must not forget that, except, perhaps, for those who face old age without any possible quality of life, America’s elderly should not be marginalized or forgotten during this pandemic.
We must not view them as a drain on our resources, but as a vital asset of our society.
Michael S. Robinson is a former Vietnam-era Army assistant public information officer. He resides in Riverton with his wife, Carol, and the beloved ashes of their mongrel dog.