Op-ed: You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone

If you live in or visit Darien, you’ve no doubt noticed the red oak tree that rises majestically along the Post Road near Sedgwick Avenue. With a canopy as big as a hot air balloon and a trunk more than 3-feet thick at its base, the old oak has likely been shading the sidewalk and thoroughfare into town since the horse-and-buggy days.

That rich history is coming to an end, for the stately tree has been given a death sentence, prompted by the short-sighted actions of three actors: the Connecticut Department of Transportation, which controls the state roadway; the Town of Darien; and the owner of the corner property on which the oak tree lives, which includes the building that houses the headquarters of Friends of Animals.

Founded 65 years ago and based in Darien for the past 20, FoA fights to protect animals from cruelty and exploitation around the world. We now place habitat protection and biodiversity at the core of our mission. We’ve long acted with the belief that the well-being of wildlife and the planet are inextricably linked.

That fact hit home this spring when the Public Works Department began removing healthy trees abutting the sidewalks around the office and service station across the street — a plan put in place after someone sued the town after tripping on a nearby sidewalk.

The doomed tree marks the beginning of a succession of mature trees that line both sides of the shopping district that surrounds the train station. Few if any of these trees are as healthy or as grand as “our” oak, and many are more seriously impinged by the same sort of sidewalk issues that have seemingly sealed its fate.

Is the town going to raze all of them, too?

Better the public demand that well-proven remediation efforts take priority over a chain saw — countless other municipalities have found viable ways to protect trees while ensuring public safety.

Studies show that tree-filled neighborhoods are safer, more sociable and lead to higher property values, energy savings and cleaner, cooler air. And while Darien is currently paying the price for prioritizing parking spaces over open spaces — it experienced severe flooding twice this summer — tree-lined commercial districts do attract more frequent, longer shopping.

Our urban forest also serves the greater, global good; a single large tree sequesters 50 pounds or more of atmospheric carbon each year.

You’re going to miss all that, and more, for Darien is soon to lose not just any old tree but the best native tree of all.

“Ecologically, oaks are superior plants, and it would be easy to make a convincing case that they deliver more ecosystem service than any other tree,” says Douglas W. Tallamy, author of “The Nature of Oaks.”

For a community prone to flooding, the promise to offset the loss of this beautiful and prodigiously productive tree by planting a new sapling elsewhere doesn’t hold water, quite literally: “Oaks are also superior at stalling rainfall’s rush to the sea,” adds Tallamy. “Their huge canopies break the force of pounding rain before it can compact soil, and their massive root systems, some extending more than three times the width of the canopy from the main trunk, prevent soil erosion and create underground channels that encourage rainwater infiltration instead of runoff.”

Planting the right trees properly is something FoA supports, but the truth is we cannot plant our way out of the climate crisis. It will take another generation for the saplings recently planted at Town Hall to capture meaningful amounts of carbon. Loss of existing trees is devastating for wildlife and the climate, and we look forward to helping create a Tree Advisory Committee after Election Day to prevent the further deforestation of Darien.

As they say, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time? Most will tell you the answer is “Today.” But really, the best time to plant a tree was a century ago.

Leave Darien’s Post Road oak standing to continue to work its wonders for decades to come.

Pricilla Feral is the president of the Darien-based nonprofit Friends of Animals.