The tree—the common tree, in all of its forms—occupies a curious role in human life. We need them. We protect them. We cultivate them. We harvest them. Subconsciously, we fear them. Countless folk tales tell stories of the danger that lurks among them, in the woods. Myths from Hansel & Gretel to Stranger Things recognize the curious, imposing nature of trees, assembled en masse. Humans may be the dominant species on the planet, but trees, towering over us, carry implications of which we rarely speak.
We’re right to distrust these grand arboreal beings. Trees, science suggests, understand self-interest, and organize accordingly. As German forester Peter Wohlleben wrote poetically in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World, trees protect themselves from parasites as a group: connected by the tips of their roots underground, trees emit a chemical to make their leaves bitter after being made aware of the threat to their community. He writes of the beech and the oak, which protect their own but are suspicious of the other. He writes of the willow, the loner, whose “seeds fly far from other trees, many kilometers,” and who don’t live long as a result. He writes of the birch, which battles other trees to ensure that its crown has more space to grow. Trees are soulful creatures, and make active choices about how to interact with the world around them.
Armed with Wohlleben’s wisdom, I make the argument that one of these creatures is evil: the cedar tree, which dominates the landscape of Central Texas. If, as Wohlleben writes, trees possess some degree of sentience, some spirit, some personhood that guides them in the way they act, then it is my opinion—arrived at without scientific acumen or research, but with the conviction of a sufferer—that cedar trees are villains.
Traditionally, cedar is considered an invasive species in Texas, introduced from Mexico by settlers in the early 1900s. But some suspect a more nefarious path. The letters of Ferdinand Lindheimer, “the father of Texas botany,” provide evidence of cedars along the bank of the Comal as long ago as 1845, and pollen research shows cedar in Texas as far back as the Ice Age. Cedar’s improbable defenders argue that we only believe the species is invasive because of a paperwork error: in a possibly-apocryphal City of Austin document, an unchecked box indicated that the ashe juniper was not a native plant, leading developers, planners, and landscapers to come away with the conviction that the cedar does not belong here.
To the city clerk who erroneously filled out that document, whether by mistake or design, I say, “thank you.” The provenance of the cedar does not interest me. It may have been here for millennia, but it is ill-suited to the current use of the land of Central Texas. The tree is a poor neighbor to ranchers, its pollen inflicts suffering upon city-dwellers, and it increases the risk of both brush fire and drought throughout the entire region. Under many circumstances, it is boorish to declare that the natural world should be subservient to the whims and caprices of the humans who currently serve as stewards of the land, but the dispute between man and mountain cedar is an exception. The dilemma is not one of beautification, although cedars are objectively the ugliest of trees; it is not one of developmental convenience, although the proliferation of cedar trees throughout the Hill Country does cause hassles for those seeking to build on cedar-infested land. Rather, the dilemma is existential. Man and cedar co-exist poorly, and to cede the terrain to the ashe juniper is to cede defeat by a vile plant that poisons the air with its pollen for weeks every year, that chokes out other, friendlier vegetation by hogging resources, and that increases the risk of catastrophic fire through its quick burn.
That cedar burns quickly is one of its paradoxes. Certainly, burning cedar trees carries with it some amount of satisfaction. When I became a homeowner a few years ago, cutting down a juvenile cedar tree on the property was one of the first things I did. I did so out of spite, and found it so satisfying that I regretted that I had only one tree to kill. I’m not alone in my vengefulness. In 1930, in Blanco County, a 65-acre stretch of land was purged of its mountain cedar by the method of hand-cutting; the remains accidentally caught fire, leading to a blaze across the grass. The sight of the conflagration brought such joy to the hearts of nearby ranchers that burning the trees became a local passion; The Cattleman reported in 1939, after 63,000 acres of cedar were cut and burned in Blanco County alone the year prior, the accidental blaze was the “great stimulus in Blanco County that started the ranchers to cutting and burning their cedar.” Afterward, the ranchers reported miraculous findings: dormant springs returned to life, quail that had left the area half a century earlier returned, the carrying capacity of livestock were increased fourfold, and horse- and deer-flies vacated the area. The magazine, proud of the New Deal-era commitment to subsidizing ranchers who rid themselves of cedar, declared it “the best program the government has ever put on,” insisting (four years after the launch of Social Security) that it “means more to the country than any other move yet attempted.”
The sight of burning cedar, then, should be a glorious one. Yet uncontrolled wildfires, especially of such flammable trees, are anything but. In lush times, the threat is low, but in drought, as cedar trees dry out, the high amount of resin contained within them makes them among the most combustible trees in Central Texas. Cedar, then, is the unique sort of loathsome parasite whose destruction represents even more trouble than its continued existence.
As we contemplate the ecological hazard presented by the vile tree during times of drought, it’s also worth considering its outsized impact in facilitating those conditions. Mountain cedar is not merely a greedy, thirsty tree—it is also, as if by malignant intent, designed to cause drought-like conditions.
The ashe juniper doesn’t merely drink up water. The tree’s needles capture rain before the water ever touches its roots, according to researchers at Texas A&M University. There, it evaporates. Cedar’s defenders have used this argument to insist that the tree is not abnormally thirsty, but who cares? Whether the cedar tree sucks up water from the aquifer at rates disproportionate to the live oak is irrelevant, if its prickly, scale-like needles prevent the water from ever reaching the ground in the first place. Even if the tree doesn’t maliciously hog groundwater, it nonetheless condemns others to thirst by its mere blooming. Which is the greater scourge: the one that drains the ecosystem in order to sustain itself, or the one that does so just for the hell of it?
And then, of course, there is the ashe juniper’s relentless drive to reproduce.
Such behavior is necessary to sustain life, but overt expressions of that desire are frowned upon throughout polite society. Yes, trees must pollinate; it is the way of things. I’m no prude. But the ashe juniper relentlessly makes us all aware of its reproductive urge. The trees emit their yellow reproductive material into the air with casual disregard for others for weeks, and sometimes months, each year. That pollen is a poison to humans, coated in proteins that, combined with overwhelming quantities (especially in years like this one) redefine noxious for an entire population.
This winter, the cedar count on the season’s most contaminated day amounted to 10,441 grains per cubic meter. By contrast, the day with the highest mold count was worth a mere 3,594. The cedar is relentless in its reproductive drive, and its pollen is cruel. If one were to attempt to design a tree that would act to drive humans out of a shared habitat, one might well have come up with the ashe juniper and its itch, cough, sneeze, scratch-throat, red-eye, headache-inducing pollen. Furthermore, the tree remains a poor neighbor as time passes. Those who move to Central Texas from elsewhere may well feel immune to the consequences of cedar. Surely there are newcomers reading now who find all of this an overstatement, and whose contrary impulses lead them to believe that cedar is receiving a bad rap. But they need only wait. The concentration of cedar pollen in the air results in a cumulative effect; once a person has been inundated with a critical mass of the contagion, the allergy begins, and returns year after year until the idea of moving outside the boundaries of the Red River and the Rio Grande begins to feel tempting. We are all merely future victims of the cedar’s reproductive urges.
All of which leads to the question: What to do with the cedar?
The answer is complicated. For nearly a hundred years, the urge to destroy it has been strong among the residents of Central Texas; for nearly a hundred years, the coexistence of the two species, man and tree, has been uneasy. It would be arrogant, ahistorical, and unscientific to suggest that finally eradicating the cedar is truly an option. The tree, simply by its overwhelming presence, does provide the ecological benefit of shoring up river banks against erosion. Any tree could do this, of course—it is not an attribute unique to mountain cedar—but it is the tree that exists here, and thus we accept this benefit even as we condemn its existence. The impossibility of its eradication is partly the tree’s design: completely removing it would require a replacement, and cedar’s water-hogging and fierce reproductive drive renders such a possibility moot.
But I am not here to urge a conciliatory attitude toward the trees that we are forced to live amongst. Rather, I am here to suggest that harboring a healthy hatred for the ashe juniper can be its own reward—and that, indeed, this tradition, celebrated by the ranchers of the 1930s who found solace in the conflagrations that raged across Blanco County, is righteous and good. A tree that inflicts upon us such suffering is our natural enemy, regardless of whether it has malicious intent.
And this, perhaps, is the true silver lining of the cedar tree. It is ugly, dangerous, and noxious. If trees do indeed have emotional inner lives, the cedar’s is spiteful and cruel. But that is a mere subject of speculation, while the inner life of humans are clear—and humans are creatures of complex, contradictory emotions. Our temperaments lead us to argue about so much, to create division and discord even among our neighbors and loved ones. But on the subject of the ashe juniper, those who have felt the sting of its pollen, who have dealt with its blight upon our landscape, who have seen springs run dry and fires burn by its proliferation, can stand united. We can despise this tree, together, as one species united. A collective hatred of the cedar can bring humanity together—and for that, we must thank it.