I must speak about this.

Over half of my life has been devoted to trees and the care of them. It has been my privilege to work with beautiful beings. And by that, I mean both the arboreal beings that make Atlanta green – but I also mean the living, breathing beings that have done the climbing, and the cutting, and the heavy lifting with me for over two decades. I am blessed to work with people from varying backgrounds; the tree industry attracts people who aren’t afraid, who persevere, and who are, for the most part, not the recipients of a trust fund. Boutte Tree workers all want a better life for their children. They believe it’s possible. And they need the promise of America to be kept in order to do it.

America is a young country, in arboricultural terms. There are trees alive today on the East coast that were saplings before we signed our Declaration of Independence. In that Declaration, we declared as a people that we would not tolerate unequal treatment before the law. America became that place where the ideal of equality would make an attempt at reality. An attempt 244 years in the making.

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights were the documents that made the promises explicit. The very first article is the freedom to assemble, to speak, to protest.

When George Floyd lost his life under the knee of a police officer, he was but the latest link in a chain of tragedies – those tragedies are all the times when America failed to live up to its promise. The tragedy is racism, which occurs when a group of people isn’t equal before the law. George was treated differently than a white person would have been treated, creating another tragedy. This tragedy occurs when we allow ourselves to be divided by the color of our skin; the way we talk, or our religion, or whatever. This racism is a decay that destroys our strength because it threatens the promise we hold out to the world.

With trees, decay takes the form of a fungus, which reproduces and survives by consuming the wood of trees. Fungal spores are microscopic, they are released by the billions into the air, and when they land on a tree they can start the spread of decay if they land in an open fissure of the tree. Every tree has fissures. A single spore can spread through the cells of the tree, consuming the wood which the tree relies upon for support. If it goes unchecked, it can weaken a tree until the day comes when a moderate wind topples it. Do you see where I’m going with this?

The tree can fight back. The fight occurs on the same level as the disease – the microscopic level, the level of the cell. The cells near the decay create impervious internal barriers that check the spread of decay internally. The cells join together and begin to seal off the decay by preventing it from advancing. Eventually, after the decay is contained, the tree continues its growth, and the marginal damage done by the fungus is minimized.

As a country, we have the obligation to fight against racism. We must do it, peacefully and purposefully, until the decay is contained. Racism must be stopped at the individual level, at the moment when it occurs. It occurs a lot, so it’s easy to see how some will come your way. You don’t have to stop all of it, only that which is in front of you. Your fellow Americans will stop what is in front of them. We can – and we must – unite together. There may not be a unifying leader that calls us to action, but we know what to do. If we are not afraid, if we persevere, we will see this great country stand strong for a long time – as long as the lives of many old oak trees.

-Tierson Boutte