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Friday, July 15, 2005

A warning from a silver maple

"Another tree is down." When my father-in-law heard the news, he rounded up his three "expert" helpers: myself, and his two strapping grandsons. Chain saw in hand, safety glasses on, he began cutting up the downed silver maple. A trained forest ranger, he made quick work of the once impressive tree. Piece-by-piece, we carried it away.

What made this giant fall?

The question haunted me while working together that day. Finally, as we examined the trunk, I saw my first clue. Hundreds of ants scurried along the contours of the twisted trunk, diving into cracks, working away as if nothing had happened, as if their wooden home was still in vertical position, and not laying defeated on the damp ground. My father-in-law came over and had a look. "Those aren't just any ants," he told me. "Those are carpenter ants, and they can fell a tree."

How long had those ambitious creatures been gnawing away on the trunk of that silver maple? Had it been weeks? Months? Years? The havoc they were gradually wrecking went unnoticed. It was happening on the inside. Though invisible on the outside, eventually, its effects could no longer be hidden; they were obvious to all.

A proud silver maple fell.

Carpenter ants are a warning to individuals and societies. As individuals, we can sometimes hide from others the shameful actions that risk shattering the trust upon which our relationships are built. As societies, we can sweep under the carpet practices that later negatively affect us all. It's never hard to rationalize at the time, but it's excruciating later to pick up the pieces. There's always a price to pay, whether it's an affair that rips apart a family, or embezzlement that brings down a company like Enron.

Time to take action. Silver maples can fall, and so can we.


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