To borrow a phrase, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am really, really glad government and private forces are coming together to save the Bartram Oak.
The gigantic tree has watched over generations of history at the convergence of Lake and Volusia counties on the St. Johns River at State Road 40.
Ninety inches wide at its trunk, its canopy stretching to 125 feet wide in good times, this tree deserves our reverence and respect, and whatever we can do to give it the longest, best life it can possibly have.
Yet, the front page of the April 7-13 edition of The Beacon gave me pause, as I gazed at the photograph of 15 talented individuals — most of them government employees — who had gathered their collective wisdom in the town of Volusia to collaborate over the tree’s future.
Where is this show of social prowess, I wondered, when the homeless man makes his bed on a bench on Artisan Alley night after night to sleep alone and cold? Where is this collective determination to do good when one of the street people who call Downtown DeLand home is stumbling north on Woodland Boulevard, smelling of urine so strongly that we must cross the street to avoid the stench?
I admit to a momentary vision of 15 compassionate and talented folk — most of them government employees — gathered around that cold and hard bench, determined not to leave until a solution is found, preferably one involving a warm and safe bed, regular showers and restroom facilities, food and other simple necessities that you and I take for granted every day.
Yes, I know the differences and the difficulties. I know that a tree can be made to take its medication, and a human being cannot. I have firsthand knowledge of the challenges of trying to help a mentally ill homeless person, and I colossally failed.
Yet I am not 15 people, representing a half-dozen taxpayer-funded agencies, united in a mission to do what obviously needs to be done.
It’s wrong, of course, to draw this juxtaposition between a suffering tree and a suffering man. Helping one doesn’t preclude helping the other.
But it’s not wrong, I think, ever, to question how and why we allocate the resources we collectively give to fund our common government and its many functions.
Why is there never enough money to help the poor, to support the mentally ill, to house the homeless, to raise up the children growing up in dysfunctional families and struggling in poverty? And plenty of money to give incentives and tax breaks to the rich, and to build streets and utilities for well-heeled developers?
Does this happen to you? It happens to me routinely. As I’m checking out at this store or that, the kindly cashier suggests that I might qualify, as a business shopper, to avoid paying tax.
No, thank you, I respond. I like schools, law enforcement, roads and social services. I’ll gladly pay whatever is due. In fact, I think many of us could afford to pay at least a little more, and we would feel really good about it, too, if the wealthiest among us were also paying their fair share.
I want to pay handsome salaries for my 15-person dream team. I’m not waiting for my homeless friends to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They can’t — no more than that magnificent tree can fix itself by tugging on its own roots.