Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Secret Lives of Trees

For my father, the very first tree hugger I knew

Born 50 years ago in the center of North America, I grew up in country that just 250 years earlier had been thick with trees. These were not the enormous redwoods, spruce and cedars of the northwest coast from California to British Columbia and Alaska, but they must have been spectacular mature hardwood forests, concatenations of varieties of maples, oaks, and buckeyes, as well as sycamores, black cherry trees, pawpaws, poplars, dogwoods, sumacs, sour gums and sassafras, alternating with grasslands and prairies. Wildcats, bears, deer, wolves and wild boars lived in those forests, as did many varieties of smaller mammals and birds, and fish filled the streams and rivers.

People have inhabited this region since 13,000BC; the landscape is strewn with human leavings, from burial mounds and religious items to networks of trails and evidence of land clearings, longhouses and palisades, and various sorts of agriculture and warfare. Near waterways, some first nations cleared fields and planted them with the "three sisters:" corn, and varieties of beans and squash, as well as turnips, cabbage, parsnips, sweet potatoes, yams, potatoes, onions, and leeks; maple sap was also harvested and boiled to make maple syrup; first people also survived by gathering the wild rice that grew near the great lakes, hunting game, stockpiling nuts and berries, and trading footstuffs and other materials.

According to environmental historians, before the mass clearings of the 19th and 20th centuries, the rivers were slow and deep and well sheltered--more conducive to passage by small boats than they are today. Despite the richness of the land--or perhaps because of it, these were not peaceful spaces: at least seventeen nations occupied the land of present day Ohio when European settlers began to arrive, and the histories of strife between one people and another seamed the landscape.

Older nations and newer settlers simply divided themselves up into new alliances as newer settlers arrived, but many of the older battles continued:between the Algonquin speaking Shawnee, the Iriquoian speaking Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat or Huron; between the English and the French; and between human bodies, smallpox and tuberculosis.* By the 1840s, in the wake of the the Indian Removal Act of 1830, white American settlers had compelled Native Americans to cede all of their Ohio land and move westward, to the plains of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma, or as it was then known, "Indian territory." With this forced human migration of the last of its earlier inhabitants, the clearing of the land began in earnest.

By the time I was a child, in the 1960s and '70s, the once vast forests had long disappeared; so too had some of the farms that had supplanted them. Where there weren't significant concentrations of settlement, whole swathes of land were being strip-mined for coal and turned to dust.  Highways ribboned through this moonscape; enroute to my paternal grandfather's house, we passed through miles of mud, not a tree or even a blade of grass in sight.

But then the environmental movement gained traction. In the 1970s, new laws compelled strip-miners to remediate the land, to plant trees and grass, to ensure that the once fecund topsoil of the Ohio Valley didn't blow entirely away, leaving nothing behind but stony cracked earth. Plant life recolonized the ground; the rolling forms of the hills were once again visible beneath a carpet of green. Trees filled the medians, grew taller, and clustered in valleys, along streams, and at the borders of public and private land.

bird's nest lined with mosses and lichens

State parks, which then were often scrubby and bare, with newly planted saplings and sour-tasting sulfuric water, are now sanctuaries of spectacular bloom in the spring, and lush greenery in the summer. Streams and waterways clatter cleanly over stones and the trees fill with birds: owls, hawks, woodpeckers, sapsuckers, flickers, jays, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, treecreepers, wrens, thrushes, warblers, cardinals, sparrows, grosbeaks, blackbirds and crows.

Sometimes in rural Ohio now, one could imagine that the gritty air of my strip-mine filled childhood, the polluted rivers slick enough with oil to catch fire, were nothing by an apocalytic fiction, a nightmare. But it really happened, just as in the nearby states of Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Tennessee, "mountaintop removal" is now a standard coal-mining technique: our greed for what is in the earth outstrips our care for what is on it.

I learned my love of trees from my parents, urban missionaries, who got out of the city and into the woods as often as possible.

Mom and sister Lisa at a state park, 1970s

I remember going with my father on a trip with a group of inner city children on their first walk through the trees.  Although we could see the houses in a nearby development though the sparse ground cover, and the trees were etched with the initials of lovers, many of the young people on that trip were terrified of what might be lurking in the shade.  They had only ever seen tv forests, and their own urban jungle was full of wolves of a distinctly human type.  To break through their fear, my father got all of us engaged in hugging trees. First he did it, then we all did it.  "I love trees!" he said, wrapping his arms around a burr oak. "Feel how strong this tree is. Touch the bark. Is it smooth or rough?"  He got us to collect leaves and to look at them.  In this way, Ohio's trees got under my skin.

I first planted a tree with my maternal grandfather. At the time we planted the maple sapling in his front yard, the tree and I were the same age--four or five years old.  It was was a bit larger than I was. But by the time I was an adult, its branches rose high into the sky.  When my sister Lisa, my brother Les, and I were all our 20s, my grandfather took pictures of us in front of that tree.  It was as he had told me it would be: we and the tree had grown up together.

Brother Leslie and sister Lisa beneath grandparents' tree, 1993.

Me beneath the same tree, 1993. I am 29.

Strange then that several years ago, after I had been living by the sea in Nova Scotia for a number of years, where hardwoods are scarce, but the black spruce grow to the water's edge, on a visit to Ohio I did not recognize the sound of the wind in the leaves of the maple outside of the window of my parents' house. How could I have lost this sound from my aural repertoire? Forgetting it was like forgetting some part of my own name. As I had longed for trees when my family had moved from the leafy suburbs to the stricken scrub and concrete of the inner city, I realized that seaside, I longed for the company of hardwoods, the sound of wind in the branches and the scent of fallen leaves crackling underfoot.

Remnant of old black spruce in salt-wrecked juniper on a Nova Scotia headland

I began to photograph trees then, in part because once again I was living in a place where another sort of industrial stripping, clearcutting, was popular and permitted; it is even of late officially redescribed, particularly when that wood and all of its leavings are destined for pulp mill boilers, as a green practice: thus the stripping and burning of "biomass" counts as a provincial effort to get more of power from an ostensibly renewable resource.   Never mind that it takes many more years to grow trees here in this rocky maritime spot than to harvest and burn them, or that nothing can grow when all of the cover and leavings have been removed from the land.

Nova Scotia clearcut, near Malay Falls

Where I live now, hardwoods once covered the hillsides, or so some of the older people say. In their lifetimes, lynx, bear, deer, moose, mink, otter, wolves and coyote were plentiful and the sea was full of cod. No longer. We have harvested many of the fruits of the earth into extinction; most, so long as we are here, cannot hope to recolonize the earth.

The trees perhaps are an exception, and so we have planted many.  Maples again redden the yard.

Why are trees so compelling? There are many reasons. Like us, they struggle and grow and flower, then wither and tumble; older trees in a mature forest provide canopy for younger trees (sugar maples, for example, cannot survive without this canopy). When trees fall (if they're not scooped up in a "biomass" burning project), the rotting logs become nutrient rich nurseries for all sorts of life, including younger trees. Too we may find shelter or comfort in trees; climb into a tree and you sway in the wind, listen to the birds, drowse against a living body larger than your own.

Brother Leslie in redbud tree

But perhaps we ought to find trees compelling because we are so utterly dependent upon them: in the vast forests of the northwest, historically the highest concentrations of biomass on the planet, nutrients from decayed salmon carried deep into the forest by feeding bears or eagles are found in the cellular structure of the trees. The richest forest growth is found in those spaces thus fertilized. These, too, were frequently the first zones inhabited by people on this continent, where food and shelter were ready to hand and plentiful.  The lifecycles of trees are thus not just metaphors for human growth and development; our past and our future are also written there; if we fail to care for trees, we have sealed our own fates on many parts of the planet.

Cortes Island, British Columbia

It is hard for city dwellers to see and understand this: they think that life is built from concrete and commerce, but every piece of our contemporary existence--even in places where there aren't any trees-- unfolds thanks to trees and the fossilized remains of trees. No aspect of our lives is sustainable without them: not shelter, not warmth, not refrigeration or air conditioning, not air travel, not cooking, not the paper and power and plastics that make up the hardware and software and networks upon which I write and publish this piece or any other.  Let us not forget then to plant and praise and care for trees and the earth and the creatures which they shelter. Without their sanctuary, we would not long survive.

* For a vivid account of what life in the these forests and clearings may have been like several centuries ago, see Joseph Boyden's novel The Orenda. Set in the 17th century, and tracing the struggles for territory and trade networks between Iroquois and Huron nations, The Orenda makes plain that settlement of this continent was, from the outset, a complex and international affair, with many unintended consequences.  See Charles Foran's review in The Globe and Mail here:

Pictures were taken in Nova Scotia, Ohio, and British Columbia.

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