Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Oak Wilt Saga Continues: Prologue

In the spring of 1989 I was chosen by my classmates to give the commencement address for the University of Minnesota College of Natural Resources.  I wasn’t sure what I had ever done to them to make them hang that millstone around my neck, but I vowed to repay their cruelty with the longest, most boring graduation speech in school history.  Mission accomplished.

It’s true what they say:  You never remember what your graduation speakers say.  Even if – perhaps especially if – that speaker is you.

I do remember two things I said.  The first is that I quoted Aretha Franklin, something not generally done during a forestry school commencement speech.  Thank you.

The other is that I told a story – a parable really – that went something like this.

A lawyer, a doctor and a forester attend a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend.  Let’s call him Ed.  Over cocktails Ed turns to the lawyer and says, “My company is getting sued by a competitor for…” but before he can even finish his sentence the lawyer holds up his hand to halt him, saying, “Sorry, Ed, but I never discuss legal matters in a social setting.  If you’d like, please set up an appointment with my secretary and I’d be happy to discuss your case at length.”  Ed, ever the genial host, takes no offense and makes a mental note to set up an appointment with the lawyer.

Later, over hor d’oeuvres, Ed says to the doctor, “Say Doc, I have been having this shooting pain in my lower back and I was wondering if…” but once again he is amicably but firmly cut off in mid-sentence by the physician who said, “Sorry Ed, I never discuss legal matters in a social setting.  If you’d like, please set up an appointment with my office and we can discuss your symptoms in detail.”  So once again Ed makes a mental note to call the doctor’s office the following week to make an appointment.

Just as the main course – a sizzling steak with a piping hot baked potato and perfectly steamed broccoli – hits the table, Ed mentions in passing, “You know, I have an oak tree in the back yard that looks sick and…”  For the third time that evening he doesn’t finish his sentence.  Only this time he is not interrupted.  This time the forester has already put down his napkin, stood up and is heading for the back door to examine the ailing tree.  Reluctantly, Ed takes a longing look at his perfectly prepared steak and follows the forester out the door.

Over the course of the next 45 minutes Ed receives an impromptu tree care seminar, on everything from proper planting and watering, to insect and fungal pests of oaks.  Ladders, pruning saws, and ropes are involved.  By the time they return to the table the forester is dripping in sweat, the dinner is stone cold, and Ed has received about $3000 worth of free advice and services.

My point – and I did have one – was not that foresters shouldn’t be generous in sharing their knowledge and expertise.  It was simply that we should place a higher value on that expertise.  Until foresters start placing a higher value on their own specialized knowledge, how can they expect others to do so?  How can they expect to earn the r-e-s-p-e-c-t (yes, this is where Aretha came in, and no, I did not sing it) deserving of a profession every bit as noble and important as medicine or law?

I think that part of the reason foresters don’t value their expertise more highly is that they are more acutely aware of – and more deeply troubled by – the limits of that knowledge.  Medicine can go from leeching and releasing bad humours to radiation therapy in less than 150 years and still maintain the fiction that they have all the answers, that they have reached the acme of health care.  Lawyers can argue contradictory precedents at $400 per hour, and as long as people pay them to sue others will hire them to defend.

Yes, this is all apropos something, a bigger story.  And yes, it does have to do with oak wilt.  And I will (finally) get to the point... in the next post!

1 comment:

  1. Chris,

    I may be able to help you get those articles you need. Unfortunately my computer broke down and I don't have access to my contact list anymore so I will need to get your email. Mine is dntl at