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One tree at a Time

Beginning in the Fall of 2017 I took a three-year leave from my teaching at the University of Maine Farmington to pursue a Master’s of Divinity degree at Harvard Divinity School. So far, it’s been an intellectually and spiritually challenging experience that has helped me grow as a thinker, a teacher and a person-in-the-world. One of my favorite classes has been “The Tree at the Center of the World: Sacred Trees in World Religions,” with Dr. Kimberly Patton. It was this class, along with the course I took from HDS Writer-in-Residence Terry Tempest Williams, “Apocalyptic Grief and Radical Joy,” that helped me get up the courage to be a witness to, and speak on behalf of, a nearly 200-year-old Red Oak that is slated to be cut down to make way for a renovation of Andover Hall, the campus’s gothic-style main building. The conversation over the “Divinity Tree” has garnered lots of attention. Here’s a link to a January 4, 2019 story by Barbara Moran, the environmental reporter for Boston’s NPR affiliate, WBUR. 

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The large red oak tree is at the center of a debate at the Harvard Divinity School. The tree is slated for removal to make room to renovate and expand Andover Hall. 


Andover Hall is the heart — and soul — of Harvard Divinity School.


Built in 1911, the Gothic stone building needs some upgrades: modern classrooms, better accessibility and a new meeting space. Divinity school officials also say they have a "moral imperative" to reduce the building's greenhouse gas emissions.


But officials say they need to cut down a tree to make way for the new meeting space. And not just any tree — a towering red oak about 75 feet tall and about 150 years old. Students and community members call it The Divinity Tree, and some are protesting the expansion plans.


"I'm not at war with the dean or these well-meaning administrators who are trying to ensure the future of [Harvard Divinity School]," says second-year master's of divinity candidate Gretchen Legler, who has applied for state "legacy tree" status in an effort to save the tree. "I'm thinking more about institutional power; about imagination and creativity and taking the time to make sure that the most creative options are looked at for this renovation so that this tree can stay here."


Ralph DeFlorio, director of operations for the divinity school, says the architect has explored other options, but there’s no way to add the extension, keep the hall’s historic façade, obey zoning laws, and save the tree. He says builders will plant trees to replace the one lost, and the renovations will lower the building's overall carbon footprint.


"The energy profile of this building as a result of this project is dramatically improving," says DeFlorio. "So you kinda run into this crossroads where you have to do something that's not ideal, and you'd rather not do if you didn't have to, but look what you get as the result."


The controversy comes as the city of Cambridge undergoes its own "canopy crisis," losing 31 acres of tree cover each year to construction and development, as well as storms, insects and other threats. Urban trees are increasingly seen as necessary for combating the effects of climate change, like flooding and extreme heat.


"I think one of the things that is slowly dawning on us is that we have taken trees for granted for many decades," says Cambridge Vice Mayor Jan Devereux. "We've detected a pretty alarming decline in the canopy and that has major implications for climate change resiliency and preparation."


Cambridge already plants about 500 to 700 trees each year, says Devereux, who notes that the city has no say over whether Harvard removes The Divinity Tree. But initial findings released last year by the city's urban forest task force say Cambridge needs to plant 2,500 trees a year for the next 50 years to maintain the current canopy. For this reason, say advocates, each tree matters.


"In a city like Boston, or like Cambridge, or the whole Boston area, we’re facing real challenges with climate change," says David Meshoulam, executive director of the advocacy group Speak for the Trees, Boston. "If it continues to be just one tree, just one tree, just one tree, we're gonna turn around in 10 years and we're gonna be flooded, we're gonna be hot, we're gonna have dirty air. We need to start having a different paradigm for how we think about just one tree, especially when it’s a 150-year-old tree."

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