Eulogy for the Trees

Editor’s note: This article is part of a larger conversation about the College’s four-year sustainable energy project. Read the Review’s reported coverage here

In my vocation as an Episcopal priest, communication is key. I rely on communication not only at the pulpit but also in my relationship with members of my flock and the community in which I live, move, and have my being. I have lived in Oberlin for 25 years now. So I feel compelled to speak to what I see as a major failure of communication between Oberlin College and the Oberlin City Council; between the Public Works Department and the City Council; and between the College, City officials, and the citizens of Oberlin. 

Before I proceed any further, I want to say that I applaud Oberlin College’s commitment to achieving carbon neutrality by 2025. It is a bold vision. What I am far less enthusiastic about is the way certain big changes were not communicated to the residents of Oberlin — especially with regard to the felling of 56 trees along the curb lawns of West College and South Professor Streets. 

On April 19, Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar posted a letter to the College community to “current students, faculty, staff, and students” with information about the project. The residents of Oberlin were never addressed. This was a missed town-gown opportunity. Also, on the same day, the College’s Chief Facilities Officer Kevin Brown made a presentation to City Council to update them on the carbon neutrality project. Mr. Brown introduced his presentation by saying that it was his effort to “improve and keep an open communication level between [the College] and the city,” presumably with regard to the project. At no time during his presentation did Mr. Brown mention that 97 trees would need to be felled — neither did Mr. Jeff Baumann, head of the Public Works Department, even though the College obtained permission from the Public Works Department to fell trees on the curb lawns around West College and South Professor Streets. That City Council passed both an Arbor Day proclamation (expressing an “appreciation for the abundant excellence of trees”) and an Earth Day proclamation just prior to the presentation by Mr. Brown at that April 19 meeting was incongruous, ironic, and disingenuous especially since so many city officials present and Mr. Brown knew the number of trees to be felled. Let me reiterate, the members of the City Council were not apprised of the plans until alarmed Oberlin residents began to inquire about the loss of the trees.

On May 17, the College’s Office of Communications distributed a glossy in-house memo entitled “Carbon-neutrality project becomes more visible with temporary tree removal.” To the best of my knowledge, this memo was not made available to the residents of Oberlin. On the morning of May 26, I took my dog for a walk down West College and South Professor Streets and counted 56 stumps where trees had been just days before. The shock of this finding caused me to be physically sick and angry. Oberlin has been hailed as a Tree City USA  for 21 years. What happened to these trees? Why did they have to be taken down? When I made inquiries from a worker donning a hard hat near the service building on campus, I was told that someone would get back to me.

To her credit, Assistant Vice President of the Office of Environmental Sustainability Meghan Riesterer called me before the end of the morning. We had a good conversation which was empathetic and followed talking points that were eventually made public. But I wrestle with and respectfully disagree with her statement in the Chronicle Telegram that, “when all is said and done, the campus will be restored. It will look just like it did before.” I don’t know that, because I haven’t seen a schematic about how the campus will look, and I feel generally uninformed about the project. I suspect I am not the only citizen in town who feels this way. In our conversation on May 26, Ms. Riesterer pointed me to the project website as a source of information: Scanning the website that day, I found no statement about the need to destroy a total of 97 trees for the project. A few days later, I was told that a video of an information session from May 26 had been uploaded to the site. In that 59-minute, 34-second presentation, the subject of tree removal is mentioned at the 49:58 mark during the Q&A portion of the program. The question is couched in the need to “get more information out into the community.” Ms. Riesterer’s response to this mirrored what she had told me earlier in the day. Again, she is knowledgeable, empathetic, and authentic in her response. As a resident of Oberlin, I wish I had heard her before the shock of seeing the trees gone. She explains why the trees needed to come down, and while I still disagree with the decision, I now know and understand the “why” portion of this unfortunate destruction of the landscape near where I live. She mentions that the project team is “working with the City on communication.”

Most importantly, she acknowledges that while the campus has been informed about the project, especially the tree removal — see the campus communications sent on May 17— the residents of Oberlin have been less-informed. She mentions the City government and the Public Works Department as being informed. And, she says, “there’s lots of communication going out on our campus as well as in the community.” We disagree on that point. Ms. Riesterer then moves into an invitation for the audience to sign up for weekly emails and even text messaging. The presentation ended with an invitation for the audience to suggest other ways in which communication can be fostered. I’m glad this information session video was uploaded. I’m also glad an article appeared in the June 11 issue of the Chronicle Telegram which also addressed the felling of the trees. I would suggest that these means of getting the information out after the trees came down would fit under the modus operandi of damage control. Nevertheless, I’m grateful to have the information.

I would welcome the opportunity to sit down, now that COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted, with College officials, City officials, City Council members, other interested Oberlin residents, and the College arborist Al Shauck to hear why the trees already felled were sacrificed, to see if there might be ways to prevent any of the remaining 40 some trees seemingly destined for the chopping block from being sacrificed, and most importantly, to have some open communication about the implication which these decisions will have for generations to come. The College may replace, tree for tree, those being felled. The City could even replace two trees for every tree taken down. But I will not live long enough to see these replacements reach the stature and beauty of those trees which have already disappeared. And that makes this Episcopal clergyman and Oberlin citizen’s heart sad.