Doctor Tree
The care and preservation of trees

Philip J. Zurawski

Melissa M. Scallan
c/o The Sun Herald
Gulfport, Mississippi


Open Letter to my Gulf Coast Friends,

Recently, a good friend and lifelong Gulfport resident alerted me to the controversial proceedings over the destruction of the Alamo Hotel live oaks. The news struck me with bewilderment and distress. I was troubled, because I couldn't understand how caring, community-conscious folks (as I have found Gulf Coast Mississippians to be) could permit the tinder of this controversy to flame to its current blazing state. I was apprehensive, because something instinctive began gnawing at my viscera. Some familiar inner ghost began buzzing in my brain and rumbling through my soul, nagging that I should do something to help save the lives and collective spirit of one of my country's great natural legacies—the live oaks of coastal Mississippi.

But, what could I do? After all, my home is in Illinois. I only visit Gulfport/Biloxi about ten times a year on business. What right did I have to stick my nose in other people's affairs? I concluded I did not have that right. I am not privy to all the economic, social and political factors that shape the daily lives of my Gulf Coast friends. All I could do was share my feelings and beliefs, for what that was worth. I visited the Alamo Hotel site one day. I mingled my energy in the rustling life force of a small live oak forest with its fleshy, green canopy and tangled community of contorted, sturdy boughs. I could only imagine the virtually infinite matte of living, thriving roots that had bulwarked the soil for over a century, maybe a millennium. I actually confronted one of the more prominent patriarchs and ran the tender flesh of one finger over its furrowed bark. No, I did not embrace it. I could almost feel the flowing vitality of a noble life somehow greater than mine—greater, at least, in prominence and history. I breathed in the sylvan musk of one of Mississippi's greatest natural gifts, just so I could take the memory home with me. But, God help me, I did nothing else. I just whispered a silent "tsk, tsk" and headed off for the airport.

I know that every morsel of life on this planet, even the life of a tree, is way too precious to be thrown away for any reason. As a society, we are tormented by nightmares that haunt our hopes for the future of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These nightmares often become too real. We worry about how callus humankind has become toward respect for each other and for life, in general. In daily coffee clutches, in casual conversations at the mall, in resounding debates among legislative bodies, over a couple of brews at a local bar, even at our most revered church assemblies, we rave among ourselves. Red-faced and with our fists pounding, we declare a need to rally the righteous in battle against the abominable evil that plagues our society. We recognize that atrocities like murder, war, pollution, and general disrespect for each other and for the natural world are at the very core of this evil. We are frustrated. We desperately seek answers from anywhere, but mostly, we plead to the highest power in the universe. We are often dismayed, because the answers don't seem to come; and the evil continues to prosper.

I have been blessed with a gift for eternal optimism. Deep in my bones, I know that humanity is as compelled to preserve life, as it is capable of destroying it. I know love, caring and wisdom will eventually win out. The alternative is unthinkable. It's just that our priorities get a little screwed up from time to time. I really believe the answers we seek are right in front of us. They are obvious and decisive, but we seem to be blinded by ulterior motives—motives destined to someday rot in the desert like Ozymandias. We fail to recognize the obvious truth. I believe the truth we seek glows in a little grove of oaks struggling to persist on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

I travel extensively on business. Over the past four years, I have traveled to each of the forty-eight connected states at least twice. I have spent 200+ days in coastal Mississippi. I have witnessed the generic evolution of virtually every regional culture in this country. Franchise retailing, Interstate travel, the World-Wide Web, cable TV, the incursion of Hollywood values, booming infrastructures and proliferating technologies are turning every community into every other community. We are compromising our regional, cultural treasures in lieu of an amorphous convergence of social values. We are beginning to speak, look and believe alike. In a Disneyland, big-screen cinema, e-everything world, we are evolving toward sameness. The only beings on this earth that still seem to preserve our regional uniqueness are our natural flora and fauna. I have seen the saguaros of Arizona, the sequoias of California, the vast, treeless grass oceans of the Great Plains, the brilliant crimson, gold and russet autumns of the North Central and Northeast hardwood forests, the misty, mystical rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, and the dense, lush pines and ancient sprawling oaks of the South. The trees (or lack thereof) seem to be all that's left to put a unique face on the individual life aspects of each beautifully diverse region of this country. Truly, our natural heritage is the last remaining vestige of the "Nature" of who we all are. Our trees are symbols of the regional and cultural diversity that have made this country great. Only we can protect them from ourselves.

My friend just mailed me the December 16, 2000 front page of The Sun Herald. The full-color photo of men and machines tearing away the living essence of the very tree that had honored me with its spirit only a month ago saddened me. It occurred to me that in the land of Audubon, the same land that John Muir heralded as a jewel during his trek across the country, there should be a heightened awareness to the real wisdom people have around them. Somehow, that thought compelled me to write this letter.

Friends, I have no stock in the decisions you make, which directly affect the quality of life you chose for your community, nor do I have any right to tell you how to decide. I cannot tell you what morsel of your lush natural heritage you should savor for all time. My home is a thousand miles away. Every time I ponder in awe under the sweeping embrace of the Friendship Oak or the Patriarch in the courtyard at Mary Mahoney's, I feel, deep within the very grist of my soul, the warm nudge of the wisdom you all must surely possess. The fact that those great trees have survived thousands of years of human achievement and uncertainty, is a living testament to your wisdom. But, I also feel a sense of being universal connectedness to what you have so thoughtfully preserved. I feel akin to the life essence of your great arboreal treasures, and I feel at home amid the vibes that prove your sagacity. We are all connected. We are all family. We all have a stake in the preservation of our natural heritage. The decisions you make affect us all. Please, decide wisely; and God bless you all.

Philip J. Zurawski