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An open letter to Indianapolis about trees

There’s a span of the Pennsy Trail on the far east side of town, right after Cumberland but before the Hancock County line, that is just great. You stroll along and suddenly the tree canopy reaches from each side of the trail as if nature itself is trying to provide a little extra protection.

When the leaves change in the fall, the experience is remarkable. It’s easily the most beautiful span of the whole trail. There’s another stint nearby where the trail curves gently through more trees and dense shrubbery that is also excellent.

A paved trail curves gently through fall leaves and foliage.

You have to go a long way out east to get these sections. More internal to the city, the trail has a few charming places worth being, but given the relative new-ness of much of it, the path doesn’t connect to me. So it’s disconcerting to me when large swaths of it are, frankly, ugly. There’s trash, junkyards, gobs of graffiti, and all sorts of fences and other junk lying around.

It’s easy to dismiss that as the cost of living in a city. Except, it doesn’t actually have to be this way. Which is why it’s even more disconcerting to me when trees are cut down for what are the stupidest of reasons. Like this tree I used to walk by every day, right next to another (and another) that was cut down across the sidewalk. All so this person could park their car.

A shitty Chevrolet something or other sits atop a pile of tree stumps.

When we moved to Irvington my only reason was because of all the mature trees. There are many around, but they’re becoming rarer. Two have been cut down on my street and I still lament their loss. Another is slated for removal given its ominous pink mark. In September or early October someone went around marking trees. Some, like this one along the trail, clearly fully died and the falling branches will inevitably pose a risk.

A leafless, dead tree extends into the blue sky along a trail.

But others are slated for removal because, I guess, the guy looked at them after their leaves already fell and decided they must be dead. Some are actively being removed that are still alive. I know because I walk and ride along these paths and sidewalks about 3-5 times a week. I tend to notice things like that. One along Butler provides a huge amount of shade and beauty to an otherwise dumpy little dead end street. So, naturally, someone decided we’d better remove it. It’s only been there for 80 years, so off with it.

There’s a cottonwood tree along Hibben that, for a brief period in the spring, produces a show akin to snow. Last time we walked through children were walking by proclaiming, “It’s snowing!”

Cottonwood falls lightly along the street in Irvington

That tree, which is fully alive, not near power lines, not harming or impeding a sidwalk or really anything, is slated for removal. I’m cynical enough to think whoever marked it got paid by the tree.

The loss of this and other trees, including one across the street from me has just made me impossibly sad.

For one, I know that someone with some ridiculous truck, saws, and mulchers are going to show up — you won’t know when, you won’t know for how long — and just buzz the shit out of everything they see. They won’t just remove the dead branch, they’ll just saw it at the base and move on. Which means:

  • A massive amount of noise and disruption at random. Which is impossible to work with when you work from home, have sleeping babies, or are nursing elderly people.
  • There was and remains no communication.
  • The stumps will be left as monuments to these trees, never being removed and forever posing a barrier to literally anything else.
  • Because this is Indianapolis, no one will do anything with them. A hundred years from now children will be walking around these things.

The excuses are legion. “We don’t have the money to grind the stumps!” Which tells me it’s yet another thing we can’t “afford” to do right. Just another half-assed job. I’d rather nothing be done than half of it.

“They’re being removed for safety!” Given this logic, we should just fly over town with napalm and Agent Orange, removing all forms of vegetation, including grass, which kids could eat and then die. Removing healthy, fine trees is not a safety issue. It’s an issue with respect.

These trees are surely among some of the oldest in the urban-est parts of the city. They’ve been there for roughly a century, and they provide significant value. I hear pushback on this and wonder, “Have you seen how much it costs for a mature tree? It’s like $20,000. That’s just market forces at work!”

Removing them and replacing them with nothing devalues my home and my neighborhood. It also makes my neighborhood justifiably uglier, often exposing nothing but crummy-looking stuff like cars that never move, power substations, garbage, junk, and crumbling infrastructure.

Even more annoying is that we can’t be bothered to actually remove literal junk. Like these old telephone poles that held the wires along the defunct Pennsylvania Railroad. I’m sure the excuse for this is, “That was the Railroad’s responsibility.” Which is dumb. These things are everywhere, falling all over themselves, including one over an elementary school.

A dilapidated telephone pole leans aimlessly against a dull, gray sky.

It’s hard not to by cynical to recognize the plan, if there is one, seems to be, “Trees are bad because they might do something. So here, look at these bleak sticks in the mud against your battleship gray skies for the rest of your life.”

Because even planting a tree today means I won’t see them as tall and overarching as they are today for the rest of my life. It’s bad enough there’s no respect for nature, the science of forest bathing and access to nature, but it’s also criminally rude and tone-deaf that no one’s told anything or allowed to prepare in an age when more people work from home than ever before.

IndyGo can’t build a dozen little bus huts in the middle of an oversized street dotted with children’s signs pleading mercilessly for people to slow down without breathless attention over MuH BuSsinesSS, but cut down living trees that provide stupid things like “oxygen” and “shade” and no one cares.

This is why people move to places like Carmel, where even if the stuff isn’t quite as mature or full of history, at least the man-made stuff looks nice, is designed, and it’s hard to imagine them leaving rotting stumps everywhere. It makes me not want to live here. My neighbors are fearful of losing this kind of character and value. And all because one man in an orange vest and a can of pink spraypaint who doesn’t live here decided willy-nilly to remove them.

Leave the trees alone. Talk with the people who live in the place you’re working. Give us reasons why.

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Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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