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“Do Not Destroy: Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought”

May 28, 2012

We treated ourselves to a visit to an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, entitled “Do Not Destroy:  Trees, Art, and Jewish Thought.”  The title is taken from a commandment in the Torah (Deuteronomy 20:19):

“When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, do not destroy its trees, wielding an ax against them.  You may eat of them but you must not cut them down.  Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city?  Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed…”

This admonition is expanded by modern Jewish thought to encompass man’s responsibility to protect all of nature from harm.  The tree is a universal symbol of all nature. 

The Jewish Museum invited over 50 international artists to create original works of art inspired by the Jewish holiday which honors trees, Tu B’Shevat.  One of these works of art was awarded first prize by a public popularity contest. 

“Fauxliage: No Birds Sing” by Lisa Kokin. with permission. Photograph by Lia Roozendaal

At first glance, the viewer sees a branch of a eucalyptus tree with its graceful sickle-shaped leaves in a skeletal state, seemingly long-since dead. 

We must look more closely to appreciate the symbolic message of this evocative piece.  The leaves are in fact made of the pages of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.   Silent Spring was published in 1962, so we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of this ground-breaking book.  The pages have been shredded and wired together with thread and wire to create the delicate skeletal frame of each leaf. 

“Foliage: No Birds Sing” Detail with permission. Photo by Lia Roozendaal

The poetic justice of this piece took our breath away.   Silent Spring forever changed the public’s perception of the pesticides that were used in the environment at that time.  Rachel Carson informed us that these pesticides—particularly DDT—were killing our birds, silencing our springs when birds should be singing as they claim their nesting territories and attract their mates.  Although DDT was banned long ago, and many birds have recovered from the damage it caused, new pesticides have been developed and are being used to kill eucalyptus and many other non-native plants and trees.

 We have no way of knowing the artist’s intention in creating this work of art, but we commend her for celebrating the beauty of the eucalyptus and for the deeply ironic reference to the pesticides being used to kill them.  The public’s vote for first prize for this beautiful piece is evidence that there are many fans of the much-maligned eucalyptus.

[Edited to add:  We have received this comment from the artist, Lisa Kokin:  “The only thing that struck me was the sentence that begins, ‘We have no way of knowing the artist’s intention…’  It seems a bit paradoxical, given that you do understand why I chose Silent Spring to embed in the piece.  It is my concern about the environment and its destruction by corporate greed that motivated me to use Carson’s book and create a piece that speaks of that destruction in a poetic, rather than didactic, way.”]

We urge all lovers of trees to visit this exhibit which will continue until September 9, 2012.  And we ask native plant advocates to consider the commandment of the Torah and the Old Testament:  Do Not Destroy our Trees!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Gillian Greensite permalink
    May 28, 2012 1:06 pm

    Thank you for alerting me to this amazing exhibit. I will certainly make the visit to the SF Contemporary Jewish Museum. Santa Cruz, my home, has its share of mindless native plant folks who are intent on destroying every last eucalyptus, many of which are well over a century old. They have support from the city of Santa Cruz which is undertaking a revision of its Heritage Tree Ordinance to remove eucalyptus from protection, thereby opening the flood gates of destruction. The draft General Plan for the first time advocates the removal of “non-native invasive species’ which includes eucalyptus despite the fact that aerial photographs over the past 50 years clearly demonstrate that eucalyptus groves are shrinking.
    Keep up this wonderful work! Much appreciated.

  2. Don E permalink
    May 28, 2012 4:05 pm

    DDT did not kill the birds.
    http://junkscience.com/1999/07/26/100-things-you-should-know-about-ddt/
    Webmaster: Technically, you are correct. DDT made the shells of their eggs too thin to survive and hatch. So it was the reproductive success of the birds that was harmed by DDT. We took a bit of a short cut in our explanation but the outcome is the same.

  3. Don E permalink
    May 29, 2012 9:03 am

    Many experiments on caged-birds demonstrate that DDT and its metabolites (DDD and DDE) do not cause serious egg shell thinning, even at levels many hundreds of times greater than wild birds would ever accumulate. Experiments associating DDT with egg shell thinning involve doses much higher than would ever be encountered in the wild. Laboratory egg shell thinning required massive doses of DDE far in excess of anything expected in nature, and massive laboratory doses produce much less thinning than is seen in many of the thin-shelled eggs collected in the wild. Years of carefully controlled feeding experiments involving levels of DDT as high as present in most wild birds resulted in no tremors, mortality, thinning of egg shells nor reproductive interference. Egg shell thinning is not correlated with pesticide residues. To the extent egg shell thinning occurred, many other substances and conditions could have been responsible: Oil, Lead, Mercury, Calcium deficiency, Phosphorus deficiency, Stress from noise, fear or excitement and disease, Older birds produce thinner shells, Dehydration, Temperature extremes, Decreased illumination, Human and predator intrusion, Simple restraint, Uncovering eggs after parents bird are removed or frightened off.

    Among brown pelican egg shells examined there was no correlation between DDT residue and shell thickness. Egg shells of red-tailed hawks were reported to be six percent thicker during years of heavy DDT usage than just before DDT use began. There was no significant correlation between DDE and egg shell thinning in Canadian terns even though the eggs contained as much as 100 parts per million of DDE. Thickness of eggshells from Florida, Maine and Wisconsin was found to not be correlated with DDT residues. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists fed large doses of DDT to captive bald eagles for 112 days and concluded that “DDT residues encountered by eagles in the environment would not adversely affect eagles or their eggs.”

    Webmaster: We try to make clear to our readers that we are not scientists, but we try our best to provide reliable information from reputable scientists. Naturally that requires us to sometimes decide between conflicting versions of what science says. In this case, we must notice that Steve Milloy, publisher of the junkscience.com blog which you quote at length, is not himself a scientist, much less an ornithologist with particular knowledge of egg shells and DDT contamination. We also notice that he is a “climate change denier,” which does not recommend him to us. We don’t consider evidence of climate change “junk science.” His use of Fox News as his outlet does not add to his credibility, in our opinion. Without links to follow, we can’t easily verify that the studies he cites reach the conclusions he claims for them.

    On the other hand, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is made up of academic ornithologists who are unambiguous in saying DDT was implicated in the post-war crash of several bird populations, including peregrine falcons, brown pelicans, and bald eagles. The same is true of most biologists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Although they say DDT doesn’t account for all of the egg shell thinning they observed, it was the major factor. And the populations did recover rapidly when DDT was banned.

    We just don’t believe in vast conspiracies of professional scientists working to maintain “myths” that their evidence refutes.

  4. May 30, 2012 8:49 am

    Sure a beautiful piece of work Land-Art poetry so brilliantly made.
    Just imagine it hanging in a true Eucalyptus tree flowing in the wind.

  5. Don E permalink
    June 3, 2012 11:58 am

    I provided a link, 100 things you should know, which provides citations for the scientific studies done by reputable scientists. You may not be a scientist, but you are capable of critically reading scientific studies. Discussing the facts is preferable to name calling and appeal to authority, both Aristotelian logical fallacies. Milloy’s political and economic philosophy is not relevant. Calling someone a denier is intended to denigrate them and to dismiss what they have to say by associating them with holocaust deniers.

    It true that Bald Eagles were taken off the endangered list after DDT was banned but saying that because B follows A that A caused B is another logical fallacy I often see in claims that DDT harmed birds. The facts are that Bald Eagles were endangered before DDT was used, and started to recover when DDT use was at its height. Those facts and citations are provided on the link. What conspiracies? No mention was made of that.

    I would appreciate citations or links to the Cornell Lab opinions.

    Webmaster: Perhaps it would have been more politically correct to say that Mr. Milloy denies the reality of climate change than to call him a “climate change denier.” However, they amount to the same thing and anyone who visits Mr. Milloy’s website will see that he is unconcerned with the niceties of political correctness. For example he calls people who are concerned about climate change “the forward-to-the-Middle-Ages crowd.”

    Here are links to the Cornell Ornithology website about the impact of DDT on birds:
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/brown_pelican/lifehistory
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/sharp-shinned_hawk/lifehistory
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/conservation/success/peregrine_falcon
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/osprey/lifehistory

    And here are links to US Fish & Wildlife articles on that subject:
    http://www.fws.gov/contaminants/pdf/historic/19820308a.pdf
    http://www.fws.gov/midwest/eagle/recovery/biologue.html

    Mr. Milloy does not provide links to any of the publications he cites. If you will provide links, I will make a commitment to read them.

  6. Don E permalink
    June 3, 2012 2:37 pm

    Thanks I will look at them. In most cases where there are no links I can usually find them using Google.

    I found the Cornell website on Google and searched DDT. In most of the sections they say DDT was harmful but provided no scientific citations to back that up. However, in the Peregrine falcon section Cornell cites Hickey and Anderson to support the claim that DDT harmed the falcons. Ironically, Milloy also cites Hickey and Anderson. So if Cornell considers Hickey to be reputable then Milloy cites reputable scientists.

    The decline in the U.S. peregrine falcon population occurred long before the DDT years. [Hickey JJ. 1942. (Only 170 pairs of peregrines in eastern U.S. in 1940) Auk 59:176; Hickey JJ. 1971 Testimony at DDT hearings before EPA hearing examiner. (350 pre-DDT peregrines claimed in eastern U.S., with 28 of the females sterile); and Beebe FL. 1971. The Myth of the Vanishing Peregrine Falcon: A study in manipulation of public and official attitudes. Canadian Raptor Society Publication, 31 pages]

    Milloy also cites Hickey on red-tailed hawks: Egg shells of red-tailed hawks were reported to be six percent thicker during years of heavy DDT usage than just before DDT use began. Golden eagle egg shells were 5 percent thicker than those produced before DDT use. [Hickey, JJ and DW Anderson. 1968. Science 162: 271-273]

    I read much of what Milloy says on climate. He does not deny climate change only that it is driven by natural forces, CO2 is a minor factor, human contribution to CO2 warming is trivial, CO2 is good for life, warming is not a major problem (it may even be good for life) and that policies to curb CO2 do more harm than good, that stopping all economic activity would avoid a very small amount of warming in a 100 years. His issue is government over regulation and human rights. I think he is a libertarian and a defender of the free market. The DDT issue is part of his fight against harmful government regulation as DDT saves human life or as he terms it: “DDT is a weapon of mass survival.” Of course if science comes up with a way to prevent or cure malaria I assume he would change his tune.

    Webmaster: Mr. Milloy has misquoted Hickey. Here’s what Hickey says in his 1968 article in Science:
    “Catastrophic declines of three raptorial species in the United States have been accompanied by decreases in eggshell thickness that began in 1947, have amounted to 19 percent or more, and were identical to phenomena reported in Britain. In 1967, shell thickness in herring gull eggs from five states decreased with increases in chlorinated hydrocarbon residues”
    Available here: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/162/3850/271.short

    DDT was used heavily during World War II. By 1945, US Fish & Wildlife was already warning that “…it [DDT] is capable of considerable damage to wildlife, beneficial insects, and indirectly to crops…” Available here: http://www.fws.gov/news/historic/1945/19450822.pdf

    In other words, Milloy claims that thinning shells preceded DDT use. He is wrong. Hickey reports thinning shells after DDT use.

    I do not feel the need to debunk Mr. Milloy. Anyone who wants to form their own opinion can visit his website and decide for themselves if he is credible. I do not consider him credible and I don’t feel obligated to prove that to you. I consider this thread closed.

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