Wednesday, April 1, 2020

On Trees

In her March 21 post on Facebook, Katia Grubesic wrote "More forests; less capitalism."  She's so right in so many ways.

But let me begin at the beginning.  Trees have always played an outsized role in my life.  When I was growing up in Michigan, we had an American Elm in the back yard that sheltered my bedroom from the western sun.  But because it was an American Elm, a new world elm, it was subject to Dutch Elm disease, believed to be from Asia but identified by two Dutch phytopathologists.  My parents paid quite a lot for a company to come in and spray the tree twice a year, a process that always involved washing a lot of windows afterwards, some of them on the second storey.  As well, my father was endlessly troubled by the fact that he couldn't get grass to grow over its roots, so there were years of heavy seeding and watering, other years when he dug in plugs of zoysia grass and watered heavily.  Neither ever took.  I suspect, after having gardened in and around firs and pines that make growing grass impossible because their roots soak up every molecule of water, that he simply couldn't keep them moist enough.  As well, the grass was constantly shaded--either by the house or the elm.  But my father, a TV repairman since 1955, was a great problem solver.  He installed an industrial-strength fan in an unused bedroom, blowing out to create a vacuum, and on summer nights we opened windows in the rooms we wanted to cool.  My room, shaded by the elm tree, was cool on the warmest of days. That's still how I "air-condition" my house.

The elm created work, though my parents got me to do a lot of it.  I did most of the raking, having fun making outlines of the rooms in my ideal home with rows of leaves, playing for a while, and then getting down to business.  For a couple of years we had a tame squirrel living in the tree who would hop into my lap while I sat on the stairs, take whatever treat I had, and walk to the end of my knees and turn his back to eat it.  I have never forgotten how light and insubstantial the body of a squirrel is--maybe an early lesson in the vulnerability of nature.

My carefree tree was next door, a twisted cherry tree whose cherries were never gathered by anyone who lived there.  It had several places where you could settle down in the crook of a couple of branches and read, snacking on cherries when you got hungry.  In the next back yard there was a mulberry that attracted gazillions of birds at the end of summer who ate too many berries, got riotously drunk, and shat all over everything.

Both houses I have bought had troublesome evergreens in the front yard, and it's only after I bought the second one that I wondered whether this was a pattern.  We have green in the front yard all winter long, and I find it deeply comforting during the dark days to see white snow on green boughs.  The first time, I did what my dad had done, trying to grow grass.  This time, I've worked around the trees to create an ever-changing perennial garden--ever-changing because I never know what will survive the winter.  (The year it was so cold and we had no snow cover, I lost all of my hostas.)  But those evergreens are not only a lovely green, they keep me cool.  So here's the energy pay-off I calculated and thought about for a millisecond.  I could cut down the trees, put in grass that needed quite a lot of water, and get air conditioning, or I could leave the trees and water a perennial border and the rose bed.  I should say that I also have a veritable shelter-belt of trees on the west side of my back yard.  Yes, it's hard to grow grass, but when you walk into the yard from the back lane on a hot day, the temperature drops several degrees.

Walt Whitman loved trees, and credited a particular stand with helping him recover after a stroke.  He once said he could hear spring, but didn't know quite what he was hearing--a passage I've used as the epigraph of a poem that was part of the trio longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize.  What he was hearing, we now suspect, was a tree's heartbeat.  I've been curious about trees for years, as a couple of posts on senescence will testify.  I've read about how they "pump" water up their trunks--that water evaporating from the leaves, along with oxygen, creates a vacuum that pulls water up from the roots.  But that never made complete sense to me:  how do they get the sap going, which moves well before trees are leaved out?  Scientists now think they are hearing a kind of heartbeat, a contraction that pumps water up the xylem.  We also don't know much about the various hormones that play a role in trees' decision to turn colours in the fall, though if you walk along the bike trails east of Elphinstone, you'll see that some whole stands of willows have turned yellow, while another stand not far away has not.  They talk to one another, maybe even make decisions, just as Tolkien depicted the Ents doing.

For the really startling qualities of trees, you want to read Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees.  Trees are altruistic.  If a sapling in a stand of trees isn't doing well, other trees of the same species will use the Wood Wide Web, a term coined by Suzanne Simard, to provide it with nourishment. The web is made of micorrhizal fungi that grow amongst tree roots--I have seen these white threads in the soil beneath the fir in my front yard.  Trees provide some nutrients to the fungi while the fungi carry messages to other trees.  Trees' altruism shows that they think ahead:  they help struggling saplings so that when they fall from old age or a freak storm, another tree will be there to fill in the canopy.  Some aging trees will divest themselves of their resources even before they die.  They are communal, growing more successfully in groups, though their "crown shyness" keeps them from edging in on one another's space.  They know that through their community they can share resources, that a community can resist high winds or extreme weather events or droughts.  When they are attacked by a pest, they have two possible responses.  Acacia trees being eaten by giraffes will turn their leaves bitter and release a pheromone telling other trees that giraffes are about.  (This was originally noticed when giraffes would leave one Acadia and go quite a distance away before snacking again, and people wondered why they didn't simply turn to the next tree.) Or they will release pheromones that attract insects that will eat their pests while sending a message via the Wood Wide Web to other trees to let them know they need to take precautions. 

The Japanese have an old custom of "forest bathing," or Shinrin-Yoku whose effects have recently been measured.  Forest bathing is simply a slow, mindful walk in the woods, noting the rich diversity of the environment, listening to birds or wind in leaves or whistling along pine needles.  I am enchanted by the numerous shades of green--so different from that green crayon you used as a child to represent a tree--and the textures of plant and leaf and bark that reward all my attention and inspire wonder.  Did nature really need to be this various?  I suspect it did, but I also suspect that nature is sometimes just having fun seeing what it can come up with next.  Scientists have measured the effects of forest bathing and found that it promotes "decreased anxiety and a strengthened immune system. Japanese studies have shown that people who spend time in the forest inhale beneficial bacteria, plant-based essential oils, and negatively charged ions. The Association of Nature & Forest Therapy lists myriad benefits including reduced blood pressure, increased energy, and increased ability to focus."  This is according to the website listed below, which is a pretty good primer to forest bathing. 
It's my good friend, Katherine Arbuthnott, who knows all about the benefits of time in nature--whether with trees or prairie grasses, particularly if it a diverse environment--not miles and miles of wheat.  We are kinder when we have spent time in nature, and more generous.  Our stress levels go down.  We are smarter and can think more clearly when we've been lazing in a garden.  (This explains why I headed for the University of Michigan Arboretum with my Russian textbook during spring exam time--though of course, I didn't know it then.) We are more pro-social--that is, we do what is best for our society rather than for ourselves.  We are  healthier in so many ways.  I have spent the last few days reading Hope Jahren's direct, engaging, damning The Story of More.  Toward the end she writes "Indeed, if we look to the most comprehensive measures used to estimate the elusive quality of 'happiness,' we find that our increasing consumption of food and fuel over the last decade has not made us happier--quite the opposite....Americans [are] the unhappiest they have ever been....despite the fact that they [are] working, eating, driving, and consuming more than ever before."  Katia is right:  spend more time in forests and less in malls and you will be significantly happier, as well as doing the right thing for the planet and your fellow human beings.

 When Bill and I were in Victoria, I was struck by the trees, but not by the usual things we notice--their leaves, flowers, or seeds.  It was the architecture of the unfamiliar trees that struck me.  I think we see trees with leaves as part of a forest, whereas I find bare trees more individual. Each species of tree has its own architecture, its own shape,its own distinctive trunk and bark.  As you can see from the photograph, Swedish Aspens are the upstanding citizens of the tree world, whereas many of the other trees grow more horizontally.  But within those architectural boundaries or geometries or rules, trees can do what they want.  For some reason, the idea that no two snowflakes are the same piques our imagination.  I doubt, though, that any two trees are the same--or two  clouds.

I love bare trees--that first clean view of trees springing out of new snow.  I love bare trees at dusk on a damp evening:  their lace is an inky black quite different from their grey or brown selves.  I love trees in hoarfrost, as if nature is appreciating their individuality and decorating each of them just so.

Forest Bathing in B.C.

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