The Ecology of Bark



(the wonderfully wrinkled bark of an old Cottonwood tree that I love)


Wandering among the trees and bushes in the Bosque each day has peeked my curiosity about bark and it’s less obvious functions.

Some trees like aspen and birch have smooth skin all their lives, others like the Cottonwoods end up with heavily wrinkled bark that sometimes turns reddish with age in the Southwestern sun.

The term “bark” is often used to describe only the corky, visible outer surface of trunks and branches. In botanical terms, though, bark includes the entire, multi-layered shell of a tree that can be detached from the wood -that is, everything outside a thin ring of tissue called the vascular cambium. Cells divide and grow in the cambium layer, producing a ring of wood in the inside and a layer of bark tissue, called the active phloem, on the outside. The phloem transports sugars and nutrients throughout the tree, and is typically hidden from view, beneath the outer bark.

Outside the phloem, trees have three additional bark layers, collectively called the periderm. The first two layers are virtually invisible; the inner layer – the cork skin – usually contains chlorophyll and does some photosynthesizing. The middle, cork cambium layer facilitates cell growth. The third, outer layer is made up of cork cells that die soon after they mature. This cork layer protects the tree from infection, infestation, and drying out. The smooth, unbroken outer bark that all trees start out with is this cork layer.

As a tree grows, its wood thickens and pushes out against the bark that surrounds it. The different ways in which the outer bark adapts to this pressure is what gives each species its distinctive appearance. Some species maintain their original outer layers for their entire lives. In such cases, the outer bark expands to match the growth of the wood beneath it, and it remains unbroken.

However, in other trees pressure from the faster-growing wood soon causes the initial periderm to split as a new layer forms in the inside, usually in overlapping sections that vary in shape, size, and thickness according to species. This process can repeat itself as a tree grows. Alternating layers of old periderm and dead phloem form the thick, craggy, wrinkly outer bark that is found on most mature trees.

In each tree species, the bark’s appearance is determined by the shape of the overlapping sections of periderm, the type of connective tissue, and the rate at which layers of bark break apart.

Thick outer bark is generally a good investment, since it better protects a tree from wounds and provides more thermal protection. The outer bark’s air-filled cells function much like home insulation, keeping the inside warmer or cooler than the outside. Ridges, scales, and vertical strips can dramatically increase the outer surface area and help maintain a more even temperature. Contoured barks also hold moisture, which slows the transfer of heat through the outer bark. I think these characteristics are really easy to see on the trunks of adult cottonwood trees.

Thick bark is especially important for fire protection. Redwoods, for example, have bark that is almost a foot thick making the tree impervious to all but the hottest fires.

Rapid temperature changes can also damage or kill sections of bark. In winter, for example, direct sunlight can warm bark to temperatures much higher than the surrounding air. When temperatures plummet rapidly, cooling bark can crack as it contracts. Extreme temperature changes create havoc.

With all the protective advantages of thick bark, why does the bark of some trees remain thin? Smooth bark is easier for the tree to grow but a major advantage of thin bark is its increased ability to photosynthesize. Scraping away the outer bark on a twig or young branch reveals the thin skin that photosynthesizes in some cases almost as efficiently as the leaves of trees can.

Since thick bark blocks most or all sunlight from reaching the cork skin, photosynthesis levels are usually much higher in species that maintain thin bark on their trunk and branches. Energy produced by bark photosynthesis is thought to support regular cell maintenance in the trunk and branches and can help trees recover from defoliation due to insects, storms, or severe drought. Bark photosynthesis works best when leaves do not shade the bark. Even in a seemingly dormant forest if the sun warms the bark it can photosynthesize even when air temperatures are below freezing.

Thin bark also helps thwart mosses, lichens, and algae. Epiphytes can block sunlight preventing efficient photosynthesis. They can also absorb heat, which increases a tree’s risk of damage from temperature changes. Some trees, like paper birch, feature strips of bark that peel away from the trunk and take with them any light-blocking epiphytes that may have become established there. An amazing adaption, that!

Outer bark also protects a tree against intruders. In general, thin-barked species like American beech are easier to penetrate than species with thick bark. But bark of any thickness has weak spots at pores, cracks, and furrows, and at branch junctions where wrinkles bring the inner bark closer to the surface. Wounds in the outer bark open pathways for fungi, bacteria, and insects, but in healthy trees the bark’s chemical and structural defenses can often overcome infections and infestations.

For example, resins in conifers and the gum in black cherry bark repel insects and infectious agents, seal small wounds to prevent infection; they also trap insects. Betulin a substance that whitens the bark of paper birch, deters gnawing animals, fungi, insects, and other invaders. The inner bark of aspen and other members of the willow family contains, salicin which deters bacteria, fungi, and insects.

Structural mechanisms also defend a tree against infection and infestation. Fungi that breach the outer bark, for example, can be walled off, or compartmentalized. This action contains the infection, but it also kills sections of bark by blocking the incoming flow of water and nutrients. The resulting small areas of discolored, sunken, or cracked bark are called cankers.

Even when an infection or infestation is controlled, a tree must contend with the breach that has occurred in the protective outer bark. The inner bark generates cork to surround a wound, and can close small openings and narrow or close large gaps over time. In Maine Eastern hemlock is the only species that produces wound cork in annual increments that you can count – like rings of wood – to determine a wound’s age. Unfortunately, despite its multiple chemical and structural defenses, bark can’t protect trees from all attackers, especially introduced organisms for which a species has no evolved resistance. In many cases foreign pests successfully kill a tree.

However. Some bark-inhabiting fungi and bacteria do no harm. Other fungi and bacteria defend their hosts by out-competing or preying upon canker-causing fungi. These beneficial organisms are often found near weak areas of bark where pathogens might gain entry. When tiny insects, such as springtails and bark-lice, inhabit bark and feed on mosses, lichens, and fungi growing there, they can benefit their host tree by attracting spiders, ants, and other predators that can help control populations of defoliating insects.

At any given moment there are thousands of interactions between the bark and its environment that most of us take for granted. Especially during the winter months if you pay attention to bark you may, like me, develop a deep respect for the unparalleled beauty and for the protective skin of every tree.

The Portal: How Do We Know What We Know?


My favorite part of the Bosque


Every morning I walk to the river in the velveteen hour between the vanishing blue night and the coming of the first scarlet, pink, lavender, purple or golden ribbons that stretch across the horizon. Sometimes clouds with heavy gray eyelids mute first light. Either way all my senses except that of sight are on high alert; a deep peace embraces me in the dark. My body knows the way. I murmur to the willows as I pass through the veil and under their bowed bridge. Their response is muted, a song beneath words.


At first my footsteps are barely audible on the narrow serpentine dirt path but as I pass by the river I note that she too is singing; and my senses quicken. If the Crane spirits are with me I hear the first brrring of Sandhill cranes as they take flight. “Freezing” I am crane struck; the involuntary need to stand still is overpowering. Body -mind viscerally absorbs Oneness as I breathe in a multitude of crane songs or perhaps only that of a few. Now my eyes are suddenly open, straining to see the familiar brrring materialize into startling graceful heads, necks, and stream lined bodies…. I note the shimmering waters beginning to mirror blushing pastels or the gray smoke that stains the horizon. Sometimes these hues deepen into rose, blood orange, or scarlet.


The rusty creaking gate opens the portal to my refuge.


Papery heart shaped leaves crunch under my feet, cottonwoods, junipers, cattails, and scrub reach out to touch me with feathery or wiry fingers, perhaps thorns; I am serenaded, slipping into a light trance. I begin to round the Bosque feeling the earth moving under my feet. Listening for the voices that come through image, sensation, silver filaments threaded through thin air. Illuminations, and occasionally, revelations erupt like volcanoes. A profound inner silence soothes me as I follow my feet, touching smooth branches, prickly juniper twigs, ribbed trunks in response, raising my gaze to marvel over the shapes of bare trees branches, cross – hatched, twisting to reach the sky to bring down the rains, perceiving each unique pattern as if for the first time, flooded by awe at each turning though I know the shapes by heart. At this time of day the Bosque is humming her collective love song without interference and it is possible to discern each voice. As I walk through the inner cottonwood path, sometimes surprising a rabbit or two I can feel this particular family of cottonwoods rising up to embrace me. Listening to their collective voices strumming a song that speaks to Love without Boundaries, I offer my gratitude for ‘what is,’ this moment in time.


Working Notes


Almost every day I walk down to the river in the early morning twilight, that space between worlds. But it is not primarily the river that calls me these days, it’s the Bosque, and once I have entered this refuge I feel an eerie sense of Becoming One with All That Is.


Bosque derives its name from the Spanish word for woodlands. This diverse habitat is found along the riparian floodplains of streams and river throughout the Southwest, especially along parts of the Rio Grande. I am fortunate to spend winters on one of its tributaries, Red Willow River, and to have a dear friend and kind neighbor who cares deeply for this particular Bosque which is located on the boundary of this property. The little forest is full of Cottonwoods, Mexican Privets, Junipers, Willows, Russian Olives, Apache plume, Cattails and many other bushes, plants, and grasses that parallel the waters and are still receiving, what I hope, is adequate moisture to feed thirsty roots and a complex underground fungal network…


For me the Bosque is a magical place full of wonder; a true refuge – a place of shelter and protection from the ravages of sun and wind. It is also a sanctuary, a holy place where the veil of Nature is thin, allowing for both underground and above ground communication, some of which occurs through scent and touch, sensing and feeling. Occasionally I will hear a word or two emerging from a place inside and outside of my body. Other times our conversation occurs telepathically (instant knowing). All my senses are engaged – my body/mind, though I must stress that the latter aspect must be emptied of rational thinking or chatter in order to hear those voices. Seeking that trance state with focused awareness puts me in that mind- still place. The Bosque knows I love her and that I see her in all her complexity – this seeing is an inner state and has nothing to do with sight in the usual sense. I believe Love helps open the door. I also keep an open mind and am a receiver by intent as well as by nature, and I think developing this ability with awareness contributes to our daily conversations.


It was not always this way, although I fell in love with the Bosque the first time I entered it. It takes time and attention to develop an intimate relationship with place, and only after four years have the Bosque’s inhabitants begun to speak to me. Even now, virtually all of our exchanges occur only during the pre-dawn twilight hours. Stillness, inside and out, appears to be another critical key that opens the door.


Engaging intimately with place then requires time and attention, repeated contact, an intention to communicate born of love (and at least in my case a deep need for reciprocity), the use of all bodily senses, a quiet but open mind, an ability to receive, stillness, and silence.


All of Nature sings a song of creation and destruction, one that is predicated on joy as well as sorrow. I think we must be willing to embrace both aspects of this process in order to be fully present for this song to keep on singing. What I don’t mention in the prose above is that in the Bosque I also receive messages about the cottonwoods struggling mightily to survive ever-increasing drought.



Natural History Postscript:


Scientists are just beginning to learn something about how plants communicate, even over long distances. The complexity of this communication is as yet poorly understood but involves both underground networks that connect trees/plants to one another, and communication that occurs above ground through the air.


Here’s a great example of what happens underground. Coyote willows, which are abundant around here and in the Bosque sprout from a single root system that scientists call cloning. What this means practically is that clusters of willows are related – they have an identical genetic structure. Some of these willow clones are more than 1000 square feet in size; other smaller clones also thrive in different places. Cottonwoods, Aspens, and Poplars, the other members of the Willow family also use the same strategies for reproduction. 88 percent of cottonwood reproduction occurs through cloning, so all the trees along the property line on this property are also related, as are the cottonwoods in the Bosque. On that inner path in the Bosque the sense I have of being embraced by these trees is the strongest, and I think the reason for that is that this spot is a kind of epicenter for the rest. The Willow family by the way is relatively young – only about 100 million years old. All members have symbiotic relationships with other plants.

DSC_1416 BDA Salix exigua.JPG.jpg

(Coyote Willows and Cranes – Bosque del Apache)


How do we know what we know? Mystics, visionaries, Indigenous peoples, poets, and naturalists have “known” that trees and plants communicate between themselves and with us for a very long time even though we have rarely been believed. Now we have proof that interspecies communication occurs at least between plants, even if we still don’t believe it can happen with us.



Redwood Quest


(Addertongue only grows in a Redwood forest Biome)


A whole ecosystem….


Totally by accident, I discovered a picture of a most beautiful flower commonly called Adderstongue (Scoliopus bigelovii) that I had never seen before. Of course I had to look it up…

I learned that Adderstongue only grows in old growth forest in the understory of the ancient Redwood trees of California in moist mossy places that are shaded. It grows from a rhizome, and I immediately suspected the plant must have a symbiotic relationship with the Redwood’s underground fungal network. The flower is pollinated by fungus gnats, the fruit is a drooping capsule and when it bursts the seeds are carried away by ants. The moment I laid eyes on the picture I longed to see one in the flesh… and this is what got me started on my Redwood Quest.

Once Redwoods grew throughout North America as well as along the coasts of Europe and Asia, but now they are now restricted to the Pacific coast. And I have never seen one.

The earliest Redwoods -Sequoia sempervirens -(the name Sequoia is Cherokee in origin) appeared shortly after the dinosaurs disappeared. Redwoods have lived in their present form for about 240 million years although California didn’t become their home until about 20 million years ago.

A coastal Redwood tree can grow to 350 feet or more and have a width of 22 feet at its base. Compare this to the tallest pine tree that might be 270 feet high. What amazed me initially was learning that a Redwood’s tap root system extends into the ground for only 6 to 12 feet. However, Redwoods compensate by creating surface roots that grow at least 50 feet from their trunks, and because they live in groves the trees literally support one another by intertwining their trunks and surface roots. Consequently, they have the strength to withstand powerful winds and flooding. Taking down even one tree creates havoc for the whole ecosystem.

Redwoods live a long time perhaps even longer than the 2000 plus years that are allotted them. Many Redwoods around today are 100 – 150 yeas old but a reasonable number reach an age of 600 years.

Studies show that coastal Redwoods capture more carbon dioxide than any other tree on Earth. And, as the climate changes, the Redwood forests are one of very few places that can provide a refuge for plants like the Adderstongue. Many wild creatures thrive in these forests because the area has many micro – climates, and is cooled by coastal summertime fog. California’s North Coast provides the only such environment left in the world. A combination of longitude, climate, and elevation limits the redwoods’ range to a few hundred coastal miles. The cool, moist air created by the Pacific Ocean keeps the trees continually damp, even during summer droughts. Fog precipitates onto the forest greenery and then drips to the forest floor. Fog accounts for about 40 percent of the redwoods’ moisture intake. When fog isn’t present, a grove of redwoods will make its own: a single large tree can transpire up to 500 gallons of water a day. The fog condenses on tree crowns and drips to the earth below. A Redwood’s ability to perpetually move this water hundreds of feet straight up from ground to crown defying gravity is a source of awe to me.

Exactly why the redwoods grow so tall remains a mystery.

Resistance to natural enemies such as insects and fire are built-in features of  coastal Redwoods. Diseases are virtually unknown (or were until recently) and insect damage insignificant thanks to the high tannin content of the wood. Thick bark and foliage that rests high above the ground provides protection from all but the hottest fires.

The Redwoods’ unusual ability to regenerate also aids in their survival as a species. They do not rely upon sexual reproduction, as many other trees do. New sprouts may come directly from a stump or downed tree’s root system as a clone.

Cloning is defined as the process of producing genetically identical individuals of an organism either naturally or artificially. Cloning in biotechnology refers to the process of creating clones of organisms or copies of cells or DNA fragments. Although grammatically correct, I object to the use of the word clone because it suggests to most people an artificial process – one that distances us from the fact that we are talking about a living organism that is reproducing itself. The Redwood’s ability to clone itself means that many of the forest’s trees are related to one another.

Cathedral or family groups are trees that have grown up from the living remains of the stump of one fallen Redwood, and since they grew out of the perimeter, they are organized in a circle. The genetic information in the cells of each of these trees is identical to that of the stump they sprang from.

Amazingly, Basal burls — hard, knotty growths that form from dormant seedlings on a living tree — can also sprout a new tree when the main trunk is damaged by fire, cutting, or toppling.

Undoubtedly, the most important environmental influence upon the coastal Redwood is its own biotic community. The complex soils on the forest floor contribute not only to the redwoods’ growth, but also to a verdant array of greenery, fungi, and other trees. A healthy redwood forest usually includes massive Douglas-firs, Western Hemlocks, Tanoaks, Madrones, among others. The emerald ferns and leafy redwood sorrels, mosses and mushrooms help to regenerate the soils. And of course, when Redwoods die they eventually fall to the forest floor where they decay and provide more nutrients to create new life.

The coastal redwood environment recycles naturally; because the 100-plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other, living and dead for their vital nutrients. The trees need to decay naturally to fully participate in this cycle, so when logging occurs, the natural recycling is interrupted.

Many different shrubs populate the understory of old-growth redwood forests. Among them are berry bushes such as red and evergreen huckleberry, blackberry, salmonberry, and thimbleberry. Black bears and other inhabitants of the forest make use of these seasonal food sources.

Perhaps the most famous and spectacular member of the redwood understory is the brilliantly colored California rhododendron. In springtime, rhododendrons apparently transform the redwood forests into a dazzling display of purple and pink colors.

The survival strategies of these trees like their ability to reproduce identical relatives astonishes me. A Redwood that is knocked over will attempt to continue growing via its limbs. If undisturbed, the limbs pointing up will turn into trees in their own right.

Another unusual survival strategy is the Redwood burls. The growth of a burl is held in check by the presence of chemical signals in a living Redwood. However, if the tree should die, or even be stressed, say by drought or fire, the chemical signal weakens or vanishes and the burl will burst forth into verdant life. Burls kept in a shallow pan of water will grow almost indefinitely. They can also continue on to become a full grown redwood tree.

Sexual reproduction can also occur by seeding. About 20% of today’s present Redwood trees sprang from seeds ( some Redwoods don’t even produce them). The rest came from one of the various cloning/family-based proliferation strategies. This means that some of these trees could be the latest incarnations of the same line that stretches back 20,000 or 30,000 years.

Coastal Redwoods also have the unique ability to survive rising soil levels. Rising ground levels are commonly brought about by flood deposits, deposits that typically smother other trees root systems, killing them. The Redwood simply grows a new lateral root system. Seven successive layers of roots were observed on one fallen Redwood meaning that the ground level had risen dramatically up the tree seven times and each time the tree responded with a new root system. It has been observed that some 1000+ year old Redwoods have experienced and survived rises in ground level of as much as 30 feet.

Redwoods compensate for induced leans caused by shifting slopes, collisions of other trees, flood pressure and tectonic induced tilting, by the unusual ability to “buttress” their undersides through accelerated growth on the downhill side. What this means practically is that it is possible to find whole groves of trees that are leaning in the same direction.

Recalling that as a human I share 25 percent of my DNA with trees, it seems quite natural that I would want to meet a forest composed of my most astonishing relatives and perhaps visit with the Addertongue in the process!

Photosynthesis in Winter


(in the Bosque…note the distinct greenish – yellow color)


I began to get very interested in the possibility of the bark of some trees photosynthesizing in winter as a result of my predawn meanderings in the Bosque. I noticed, for example, the pale skin of Mexican Privet and the young branches of Cottonwood trees. Both had a pale greenish tinge. I also recalled the Aspen and Poplars on my land in Maine that also had greenish bark.


When I was researching for an article on Aspens I learned that the willow family that included Aspens, Cottonwoods, and Poplars as well as our Coyote Willows did indeed photosynthesize all winter long as long as temperatures stayed above freezing. If sunlight warms bark on the south – and southwest – facing sides of trunks and branches, it makes it possible for bark to photosynthesize even when air temperatures are below freezing.


Energy produced by bark photosynthesis is thought to support regular cell maintenance in the trunk and branches and can help trees recover from defoliation due to insects, storms, or severe drought.


I keep a sharp eye on the Coyote Willows because I don’t want to miss the changes that are subtle; they are already starting to turn. Anthocyanins and carotenoids are plant pigments that produce the red, brown and purple colors in willow stems while carotenoids produce yellow and orange hues. Both anthocyanins and carotenoids protect photosynthetic pathways from being damaged by New Mexico’s intense spring light before the narrow leaves appear. My observations suggest that the only time the willows approach dormancy is during December and January (at least this year).


Because we have spent most of the winter with above freezing conditions this may have been a particularly good year to notice subtle changes in young bark. It turns out that Birch and Beech, two northern trees, are adept at this process as well. I only recently discovered that some northern deciduous trees continue to photosynthesize even under the snow! There is filtered light, beneath the snow – pack. And plants are able to harvest that light once temperatures get above freezing, most notably in wetlands – good examples are pitcher plants and cranberries. And, not surprisingly, low growing alpine plants, also avail themselves of this strategy in the harsh alpine zone, where the growing season is so short.


We all know that plants and trees use their leaves to convert sunlight into sugar, or carbohydrates during the warmer months, and some folks are aware that evergreens continue to photosynthesize all winter as long as the temperatures are above freezing; one reason we continue to water our evergreens at regular intervals in New Mexico.


Although I don’t have adequate research available to support my hypotheses I suspect that many trees and bushes with thin bark in our areas take advantage of this phenomenon. Certainly Chamisa must; their lime green bouquets are stunningly beautiful by February. I also suspect that my two pear trees may be doing the same thing. In just the past three weeks the bark has lightened to a pearly eggshell. Unfortunately, for young trees and bushes this tender sweet bark with cambium beneath provides a sugary treat for hungry rodents.


Many people don’t know that extreme temperatures of 100 degrees or more will stop photosynthesis completely in trees, and around here summer temperatures hover well above the 100’s in the sun. Thus, beginning the photosynthetic process early in the year has definite survival value for our trees and bushes especially as the Southwest heats up. Did you know that according to NOAA, 2019 was the hottest year in recorded history?


Another aspect worth mentioning is that early photosynthesis helps with buds that are getting ready to swell. I am fortunate to live near a cottonwood bowery so I can watch those photosynthesizing buds and twigs every single day, and they have definitely begun to become engorged. But even in the Northeast the buds are visible. Those of red maples are swelling, weeping willow twigs develop a yellow tinge, as do the pussy willows. There is a narrow window to spot them during the time between snow – melt and when the buds burst into flowers and leaves. Scientists call that period the “vernal window.”


According to Rebecca Sanders-Demott, a research scientist at UNH, the length of time between melt and blooming can have implications for how much carbon dioxide goes into or out of a tree’s system on an annual basis. Demott been researching this vernal window. If snow melt occurs very early in mid-February for example, we know that leaf out won’t happen until early May so there is an extended “vernal window”.


That extended window has different effects on different species, but scientists are in agreement that changes to the window impact how much photosynthesis occurs during the rest of the season.


In New Mexico the vernal window is a long one that helps the trees and bushes to maximize photosynthesizing before summer heat strikes its lethal blow.


Photosynthesizing tissue, whether buds, the year’s new shoots, or tasty branches and saplings are a welcome arrival for animals in any region this time of year.


Yesterday I had a couple of very unwelcome cows who were just about to devour my crocus, planted only inches from the house; one had already begun to feast on my favorite juniper when my dogs went berserk as did their mother. As a self-responsible animal ‘owner’ I balk when others allow their animals to trespass illegally. At the very least cow owners could feed their livestock so they stay home.


Just for fun I am experimenting with willow twigs, but the wily rabbits are onto me; they systematically demolished my first experiment with ease. Undeterred, I have devised a different method to foil them, but I carry grave doubts of its success because ‎Lagomorphs and other wild animals are much smarter than me!

Uncovering What’s Hidden


( I call this native grass Grandmother’s Hair)



is the shadow

of being unloved,



strung out on need.


Shame paralyzes;

slamming into reverse

actions that would

create new intentions

including hope

of love.


Shame blots out


snapping the thread

of interdependency.

Plant Consciousness

restores it to life.





This morning while walking through the Bosque marveling over the sight of bare trees against a pale pink sky, I heard the brrring of crane presence.

Offering up the dream that had so distressed me, I received an instantaneous response from the ground beneath my feet.

“Look at us! We are all dependent upon each other,” the grasses murmured.

More cranes flew by.

The shadow of undeserved shame vanished – it’s illusion shattered.

I walked on…




Richard Powers, the author of The Overstory believes that humans need to cultivate a “plant consciousness”, that is, an awareness that cultivates the reality that all species including humans are interdependent. Trees, for example provide us with the oxygen we need to breathe, offer their offspring and other trees minerals and water so that they thrive; Deciduous trees send evergreens extra carbon during summer reversing the process in the fall. Trees and plants have thrived for 400 million years because they are connected by underground networks that support one another in times of need.


Humans seek commodities instead of cultivating genuine relationships; this universal greed and indifference has brought us to the edge of human extinction, and still we do not see.

Matricide in Spring



Buttery yellow petals

open to

a warming sun.

The snow seeps deep;

parched soil receives a gift.

Crocus sing!


Harbingers of spring

diminutive tuliped cups

break ground in January

-blossoming earth stars-


soar and freeze –

I marvel at such tenacity.


Persephone rises…

Freed from her oppressor

her joyful mother

celebrates as the Earth

swells buds on every branch.

Migrations begin…


My mother died

in April just as

the frogs began

to croak, laying

strings of jellied eggs

across still waters.


Matricide in spring

makes her presence

known as each

cell of my body

grows weary

from weeping.


I live my mother’s hell

strung up by the neck –

Forced to repeat the pattern

I turn away from

this tortured body,

combing the Earth for light –

With a prayer

to the Crocus Goddess

to help me heal the split.


Working Notes:


The goddess of spring is a flower. Mythic stories abound with this truth – For example, Persephone’s return to the earth -body is heralded by one of the first flowers of spring – the yellow crocus, which also happens to be one of my favorites.


Once I loved this season of light, but as I have grown older, the sun hurts my eyes, and except for the momentary joys I experience participating in Nature’s renewal I feel increasing bereft during this season.


Baffled, I am gradually learning to see.


When my mother died I hoped that our torturous relationship had come to an end; I forgot that my mother’s cells live on in my body, as mine once inhabited hers (Science backs this up).


Like my mother, I was socialized into a culture of mind-body splits. (A woman’s mind is always suspect; a woman’s body is always objectified; sexually, any woman – of any age remains the object of the pornographic male gaze).


My mother was male identified, and taught me to be the same. I learned to privilege men over women.


I also learned to despise my body just like my mother did.


In this process I lost access to me because it was this body that held the truth of who I was.


My dreaming body helped me see. My love for and identification with Nature eventually saved me. Becoming a woman’s advocate helped me begin to understand woman’s suffering; opening the door to dealing with my own pain, and eventually that of my mothers. I began to ask questions about how the mind – body split operated in me.


After my mother’s death in 1993 (at first I felt relief) I was able to forgive her for not being capable of loving her daughter because she despised the woman in herself. I hoped that I could move on.


Instead, I began to suffer the most crushing depression each spring. It has only been recently (thanks to an article by Carol Christ) that I was given access to the insight that this cyclic descent of mine is attached to matricide.


What is matricide? Definitions vary but the general idea is that the mother is murdered by her own daughter (or her own son). I grew up witnessing my mother’s hatred for mothering, my mother’s hatred of her own mother, and lived my mother’s lack of love for me, eventually coming to hate her for her indifference.


Even though initially I reactively adopted the other extreme- Mary – self sacrificing ‘mother of god’ as my ideal as a child/ adolescent/young adult (hardly a solution) unconsciously I carried mother hatred in the cells of my own body.


When I became a mother I turned that hatred on me; the results were devastating.


The most frightening aspect of this intergenerational matricidal pattern is that it lives on through both of my children whose hatred for me mirrors that of my mother’s hatred of herself, her daughter, my hatred for myself and the five year period I went through towards the end of my mother’s life when I actively hated my mother too…


Each spring I fall into the Abyss – I am forced to re-live the horrors of matricide and how it continues to affect me today through depression.


I may not be able to shift a pattern that is both personal and cultural but I have done the necessary work to deal with my own issues around matricide and most importantly, have forgiven both my mother and myself.


At this point in my life I pray for a keen awareness each spring. It is only when I can hear those murderous voices rising that I have a chance to deal with them.


Developing the capacity for endurance has helped.





PS – My beloved spirit birds the CRANES BRRR in the next field as I write these words – Nature is listening, and I am not alone.

Disembodied – And Closing the Gap


Art Work  –  Iren Schio



The drifting root

floats through empty space

a piece of lifeless wood

split in two directions.

One skyward, the other leans right

both paths lead nowhere.


The feather preened

and left behind

has no bird attached,

becomes a warlock’s wand.

Tattered two toned wing

suspended root, draped

over dead white – a reminder

of what has been –

and will soon be lost again.



Roots sink deep

in lively conversation

beneath the forest floor

exchange news,

cooperate with elders

who surrender

ancestral wisdom to

to feed starving children.


The Cloud People

pour down

mineral rich

moisture, soaking

desert scrub

healing cracks

and splits.

Bare paths

ooze mud.


Red Willow River

shrinks and swells.

One storm –

rain or snow

sprouts sprigs

of green mint,

buttery crocus.

Spring bulbs

defiantly break ground.


Sky’s skin

is papery thin –

gilded by golden sunrises

ever deepening blue.

A white moon

bathes winter nights

in shadowy translucence.

Venus, a star shrine

weaves her way

west to east.


The birds

soar through

the sky bowl,

migrating on

the wings of

each season.

Spiraling and dipping

soaring on thermals

eagles and cranes

circle higher and higher…

And in the

‘space in between’

spruces and fir

cottonwoods and juniper

scent Bosque and Forest –

provide shelter

and breathe for all.

Evergreen tips bristle.

Swelling cottonwood buds

anticipate spring’s turning.


The ‘Trees of Life’

forge interconnection

closing the gap

between root and sky.



My artist friend and I are collaborating on a project for publication. After Iren sent me the photos I chose one to write a poem about. This exercise is somewhat different from how I usually craft poems because normally they are inspired by some aspect of living nature, although the commonality is the power of the image.

When I first looked at Root and Sky I loved the composition, and reacted by writing a poem that projected LIFE onto the somber image, by interjecting trees. I was unconsciously responding to the disembodied – lifeless sense of an old discarded feather and roots – neither of which was attached to bird or tree.

It took three days to finish the poem – a long time for me.

Then yesterday I went for a brief walk. As sick as I felt the walk through the Bosque helped – and when I got home I suddenly saw Root and Sky as a death field – a place of disembodiment – a place where roots are no longer part of a living system – a place where only discarded feathers remained. I was shocked and immediately crafted a second poem in a matter of a few minutes.

Poems are like dreams – they always speak the truth – and these two poems reflect that reality. One was grounded in my imagination – a place where healing what is broken becomes possible, at least in theory as spring approaches… the other simply spoke to “what is.” Disembodiment is the disease of our time. We are unable to stay present in our bodies with awareness to what is happening to the earth and to humans.

It wasn’t until I finished that I saw that they both went together beautifully – one explicates the problem, the other imagines a solution in the form of trees that are rooted in the earth, providing shelter and resting places for birds and other creatures; At the same time the trees are reaching into the sky and become part of the firmament. The tree of life is a universal symbol of LIFE, both as a symbol and an actual sacred tree (all cultures have one). If anything speaks to embodiment – that is – living on this earth in a body that is capable of communicating with all other living beings with awareness and as a receiver, the tree is it.

The Echo Makers Song


(author’s picture taken at the Bosque del Apache in January 2020)


I was planting

red willows

around a pond

crafted from shining


when I first heard

the choral refrain.

Was that when I

remembered the coyote’s

mourning howl,

a swollen day moon,

my upset stomach,

Magpie’s unexpected visit?


Changes lay ahead…


I always heed

the signs…


You circled

around me crying out

to others who shifted direction

to join you rising,

soaring on the thermals,


higher and higher

gathering as One.


I strained my eyes

to vision…

six foot wings

dip and soar

arms circling

blue as I

climbed with you

into a deep sky sea,

your songs

a Calling .


I’m sure you know

I hear your voices

before I sleep.


You didn’t have

to stay so long,

riding the thermals overhead

flying higher and higher

but you did.


You brrrred my name

for almost an hour

as I stood riveted to

sound and sight

Gray wings whistling

trailing black threads…

each circle

a benediction,

until your

bountiful bodies

were lost in air too thin.

Voices echoed on…

trumpeting goodbye for now.


You set the course.

heading due Northeast

above reptilian mountains,

repeating last year’s pattern,

with perfect precision

– a form of Natural Grace that

only the Blessed possess.


Such a perfect day,

for you to soar!

Feathered and warm

with enough

wind to ease the flight.

I imagine you may glide tonight

under the moon’s white light.


While you are here with me

the bogs keep us rooted

in earth, grasses, and water,

bound by winter grace…

As woman and bird

we make

bi – annual journeys…


After your voices faded,

I resumed willow work,

weaving our lives

into a single braid –

part woman part crane –

Oh, I will miss you –


And until we meet again

I Love You.


( Photo Credit Frank Sheldon)

BLM Deforestation Practices


(author’s withered juniper needle clumps)


Did you know that the Federal government is overseeing a program of massive deforestation on Western public lands? Some 7.4 million acres of pinyon-juniper forest in the care of the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, Utah and southern Idaho are targeted for destruction over the next several years.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Soil Conservation Groups are using Tebuthiuron, an herbicide to ‘control ‘unwanted plant growth. BLM, in partnership with the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District and the Farmington Field Office here in New Mexico, treated approximately 9,000 acres of juniper, pinion, sagebrush and other plants beginning last October.

These treatments occurred on BLM-managed, State, and private lands within San Juan, Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties. The herbicide was dropped by low flying planes to kill trees, especially junipers, sages, shrubs, and vines “to keep land from being taken over” by anything besides grasses and forbs for grazing. The poison must be activated by “adequate” rainfall to penetrate the soil. It is absorbed by the roots of targeted plants to a depth of two feet, and transported to the leaves and needles where it kills the offending tree or plants (slowly) by inhibiting the plants’ ability to photosynthesize.

In Socorro N.M the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in partnership with the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District also treated 4,100 acres of creosote bush and juniper with the same herbicide in early November 2019.

According to BLM the herbicide has minimal impact on desirable grasses and forbs. Because Tebuthiuron is applied in pellet form by low flying planes BLM tells us it doesn’t drift from the treated areas. When the pellets dissolve with ‘favorable’ precipitation, they are absorbed into the ground to a depth of approximately two feet and taken up by the target plants root system. The pellets are not dropped near waterways (no mention is made of the distance required for safety) or on steep slopes. Tebuthiuron has been used to thin many bush species including creosote bush and juniper trees since the 1980s.

Past studies indicate that Tebuthiuron pellets killed about 76% of the treated junipers. Where pinions grew with junipers, more than 50% of the trees were eradicated. Wavyleaf oak, sagebrush and other bushes were also wiped out by Tebuthiuron. To date, the plan has treated more than 3 million acres across the state.

BLM assures us that although Tebuthiuron is moderately toxic when consumed by humans, the herbicide is only ‘slightly toxic’ if inhaled and is ‘practically’ non-toxic through the skin. It may cause eye irritation, they admit. Tebuthiuron does not ‘appear’ to cause developmental or reproductive effects, or to cause cancer although residue of the herbicide ends up in meat and milk products. BLM folks would have us believe the risks to exposure are minimal.

In contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency considers this herbicide to have a great potential for groundwater contamination due to its high water solubility, low soil particle absorption, and the fact that it has a half –life of 360 days; it remains in the ground for at least a year.

Tebuthiuron has been detected in ground water in Texas and California. According to the EPA Tebuthiuron may be nontoxic to birds, fish and aquatic invertebrates, but it is slightly toxic to mammals. Tebuthiuron may pose a significant risk for on- and off-site endangered terrestrial, semi-aquatic, and aquatic plants.

In Europe, Tebuthiuron has been banned since November 2002.

According to BLM the objective of all these treatments is to improve plant species diversity, which will benefit wildlife, rangeland and watershed health by reducing the density of sagebrush, junipers etc. These actions will result in an increase of native grasses, other herbaceous vegetation to hold soil in place and decrease erosion.

BLM couches the deforestation as environmentally friendly. The agency claims that erasing large swaths of pinyon-juniper will cut down on fires and create new habitat for the endangered greater sage grouse, a ground-nesting bird. It even claims that destroying pinyon-juniper forests will restore the threatened species.

Pinyon-juniper woodlands are the primary forests of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin and these fragrant trees cover the otherwise sparse reptilian mesas and mountains in our area and elsewhere in New Mexico. Some are old-growth trees, squat and humble, gnarled surviving many hundreds of years in the extreme cold and heat of the arid West. Junipers can live up to 1,600 years. Some Pinion pines alive today have been dated to the Renaissance.

On the ground one of the primary agents of tree destruction is a Bull Hog, a bulldozer with a spinning bladed cylinder on the front end. It knocks down and chews up everything in its path wherever it is used. In the space of an hour, the machine can eradicate an acre of pinion-juniper. The Bull Hog, paid for by taxpayers, devastates the biome (ecological community), spitting out shattered trunks and limbs, the nests of birds, the homes of animals leaving the landscape flattened, the soil denuded, the air choked with dust. Once a Bull Hog has ravaged a forest the surface soil dries out because the trees that capture precipitation and hold the soil in place are gone. Erosion becomes a brutal reality.

I was aghast when first reading about BLM dropping herbicides by planes to kill junipers and sage in our immediate area last fall because our juniper trees and plants are superbly adapted to deal with the ever increasing drought conditions associated with Climate Change, and they provide shelter and food for so many birds and animals.

What I didn’t realize then was that what is happening here in New Mexico is also occurring throughout the rest of the Southwest on a massive scale.

With Climate Change our greatest global threat it is incomprehensible to me that we would allow BLM to continue to destroy the Juniper and Pinion forests when Carbon sequestration is a global priority for human survival.

Carbon sequestration is the process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide is taken up by trees, and other plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (trunks, branches, foliage, and roots) and soils. One tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester 1 ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old. Older trees sequester even more carbon. Combined with oceans, the terrestrial biosphere removes about 45% of the CO2 emitted by human activities each year. Planting small seedlings will actually do the reverse; until they are old enough, tree seedlings actually release carbon into the atmosphere.

Climatologists assure us that the Southwest is becoming dryer and hotter each year. Junipers and pinion as well as sagebrush are superbly adapted to deal with these worsening drought conditions. Other trees are not.

Without pinion, junipers, and oak to provide food and shelter our wildlife population is in deep peril. Junipers are one of the top ten species that support all wildlife. Audubon predicts that by the end of this century we will lose 2/3 of our bird species and almost all of our southwestern birds need junipers and pinion forests to survive. The pinion-juniper biome provides refuge for kestrels and hawks, black capped and mountain chickadees, black-throated gray warblers, flickers, gray flycatchers, scrub jays, pinyon jays and poorwills to mention a few. According to the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, pinyon-juniper forests host more than 70 species that must have a healthy habitat as North American bird populations collapse. Nearly 3 billion birds are already missing. And by the way, regarding the sagebrush grouse, wouldn’t it be far less destructive overall to improve sage-grouse habitat by restricting livestock grazing in the areas that sage grouse currently occupy?

Removing junipers, pinion, sagebrush and other trees and bushes creates another problem. In order to remain vigorous any biome must support plant diversity and decimating the tree/plant population means that only grasses and forbs are left to feed cattle. Lack of diversity weakens the entire ecosystem and creates a perfect storm for insect infestation and disease to thrive. Deforestation of any kind, of course, adds tons of carbon into the air.

There are a few comments that I also want to address regarding the use of low flying aircraft to drop the herbicide Tebuthiuron in pellet form on the ground.

Today it is so windy that a dark raging cloud of dust totally obscures the field beyond my house. It is impossible for me to believe that once a pellet begins to disintegrate (or even if it remains whole) that winds like this wouldn’t pick up pellets/particles and disperse them elsewhere. We are prone to these winds at any time of the year and it is impossible to predict when they will hit.

BLM makes a point of stating that the pellets need “adequate” rainfall to dissolve the poison which then has to leach into the ground for two feet in order to begin eradicating the tree(s). The pellets were dropped in this area in October 2019; it is now February and this has been a dry fall and winter. My guess is that insufficient rainfall has left pellets disintegrating on top of the ground possibly posing threats to birds and wildlife.

Extreme flooding creates the opposite problems – runways for moving water – and contamination of ground water. This issue has already been addressed earlier in this article (EPA).

The fact that BLM admits that Tebuthiuron is ‘slightly toxic to mammals’ leaves me in a state of unease… my little 5 pound dogs could easily swallow one of those pellets…

Here in the Southwest we are dealing with pollution at levels that continue to increase at a disturbing level. Adult trees also absorb pollutants like lead and other toxic substances not just from the air, but from deep underground (the Poplar family which includes cottonwoods are one example of trees that clean up both the air and soil).


I also want to add an observation of my own. As some people know Western junipers are also an “indicator species.” If they are showing signs of stress from lack of water/poisoning then other less resilient trees are even more threatened. Not to take heed of this juniper tree warning would be a grave mistake…

I have a good-sized juniper that lives outside my front door. I adopted this tree as soon as I moved here watering her profusely. She rewarded me even during the worst drought I’ve witnessed (2018) by adding at least 6 – 12 inches to her girth and height with new growth. Last summer I was away and she evidently did not get enough water, because on my September return she was showing signs of stress that included lack of any new growth and many withered brown patches of dead needles were present throughout the tree (It’s important to note that some clusters of brown needles are normal but a continuous presence of withered needles indicates a problem). After removing all the dead bundles I immediately began watering her and continued this process into December because I know that junipers can photosynthesize/transpire much longer than other trees. Instead of responding to this treatment in a positive way my tree continues to develop shriveled brown patches that I am still removing. I have just started watering her again (its early February) but just yesterday noticed that the tree in general just doesn’t look as healthy as she once did. Low flying planes hovered over this area last fall and now I am starting to wonder if my tree has been poisoned…

In closing I want to remind folks that it took 300 million years for trees to provide the earth with enough oxygen for us to breathe. And at present we are destroying the source of that oxygen at a catastrophic rate.

Do Trees Have Rights?



Yesterday I walked to a friend’s house while a fruit tree was being pruned back quite severely. Had I known this pruning process was still occurring I would have made a choice not to be present because historically whenever I am faced with tree destruction of any kind, the pain the tree experiences ends up in my body. Almost instantly my head started pounding turning into a migraine that lasted for the remainder of the day.


Last night I dreamed that a lawyer was stunned when he formulated a question that had never occurred to him before: Do trees have rights?


This scene was immediately followed by another in which I am standing next to an ancient maple tree rubbing its deeply grooved gray ribbed bark lovingly. This big tree also seems familiar to me…


Do trees have rights I queried when I awakened feeling quite startled? No, they don’t I realized, not having thought about trees in this context before. It is the fact that trees don’t have rights that turned me into a fierce tree advocate… Even though Nature wants each species to develop into its full potential it is not possible for a tree to do that when humans make choices as to how a tree should grow by pruning it, for example, so it will bear more fruit for them. Trees are at the mercy of people who shorten the tree’s life by such practices, not in human terms perhaps, because people don’t live very long, but a healthy tree will live hundreds if not thousands of years. And forcing a tree to work so hard to repair pruning damage each year will shorten its life and make it more vulnerable to drought, disease, and insect infestation. It is also posited that trees experience something akin to human pain when their boughs and trunks are cut. Current scientific research supports these ideas.


Earlier this week I also discovered that my nearest neighbor plans to cut down ‘his’ cottonwoods along the edge of this property. The reason? These trees drop unsightly branches and fall on cars that are left below them. And yes, they sometimes damage cow fences too.


Twice in one week I have been faced with the reality that it isn’t just the logging companies, controlled and uncontrolled forest fires, herbicides and land management folks that are harming trees; my friends, people who genuinely about trees, are doing so too. And my neighbor doesn’t even see his cottonwoods; he just sees a mess.


Mercifully, I have reached the point where I can accept that I can do nothing to change what people think and do. And what a relief to know that it is not my responsibility to carry others un -owned feelings. I may grieve but I have an antidote. I write about my personal experience and then I let it go. How ironic, because it is living with trees that have taught me how to do this. I can’t explain to anyone how they managed to accomplish this feat beyond saying that most of our communication occurs telepathically.


It’s important to note that in the past that I have hurt trees I loved by deliberately removing some, or by acting unknowingly, out of ignorance, or willfulness, so I am culpable too


However, my relationship with trees is an unusual one. I have loved trees since I was a child – climbing them, listening to them, taking refuge in their arms. I think this is why the image of the big maple was so familiar to me in my dream. Trees like him have been supporting me for a long time. The fact that I am touching this old tree suggests to me that we are communicating through our senses. And recently I learned what the child in me has always known – that indeed we are family because we share a genetic code (and probably a morphic field as well). Although we parted ways 1.5 billion years ago, we share 25 percent of our DNA.


What’s wrong with humankind? This is a question I am always asking. Why can’t we see trees for who they are? Trees are the lungs of the earth, providing us with the oxygen we need to breathe, each tree puts a hundred gallons of water into the atmosphere each day, trees are beings who absorb toxic substances, provide us with medicines, sequester deadly carbon, provide us with wood to burn, wood for shelter, furniture, paper towels, paper products – we use trees for everything, and destroy them by the billions… These are ancient beings – 400 million years old – beings who cooperate sharing resources for the good of an entire forest, an entire ecosystem. It took 3 billion years for trees to create enough oxygen to support life as we know it today. Yet we continue to dismiss trees as mere resources.


As I see it, part of the problem seems to hinge on the fact that most westerners seem incapable of imagining a tree as a sentient being. Even though science is breaking down this denial with radical new research we apparently can’t hear what is being said – or don’t want to? The notable exception, of course, is Indigenous peoples who have always known that trees are sentient and sacred, have powerful medicine, provide them with everyday needs too numerous to mention here, and who are honored to have them as relatives.


For westerners the idea of tree sentience taken seriously (if not openly ridiculed as insane nonsense) would turn our lives upside down, forcing us to make radical changes, some of which would be incredibly difficult. If trees are sentient we have to admit that we know virtually nothing about them beyond making the observation that when a forest cooperates above and below the earth behaving like a living organism we end up with something that has intention. And if trees experience pain then they can feel. It follows that if trees are suffering from mistreatment then humans are culpable. Since only 2 – 5 percent of old growth forests remain in this country – the history of their mindless slaughter amounts to a holocaust…And the people who colonized this land in just the past few hundred years are responsible.


I have also learned through painful personal experience that trees also want and need to have relationships with us.


I was 39 when a maple tree on my property was deliberately rammed by a dirty yellow bucket loader as I doubled up in anguish, crying out, begging the men to stop. The men, laughing uproariously, gouged out the tree at its center, as every blow slammed through my gut.


What the hell was happening to me?


I retreated to the house in shock, trying to make sense out of what seemed like bizarre and monstrous physical pain that I continued to experience for the rest of the day. It occurred to me that I might be dying.


I loved that maple. In the fall she was dressed in the most brilliant colors, crimson, bittersweet and gold, and I thought of her as a kind of house guardian along with the ancient apple trees that graced my property. She stood at the end of my driveway, and I had watched her mature from a sapling into a beautiful tree over a period of 27 years. Now she was mortally wounded. As a result of this trauma I made a rash and hasty decision to leave the area and my home…


Little did I know that I would experience worse anguish by moving to the western mountains of Maine. Because I have written about this story elsewhere I won’t repeat the particulars of what happened except to say that I was surrounded by dying trees everywhere, except on my own property. By this time I was ready to surrender recognizing that nature knew what I did not. Consequently, I made the choice to pay attention to what wanted to grow on the land naturally and to support nature’s intentions. What emerged from this effort was a sanctuary for animals and birds, full of diverse deciduous and coniferous trees, shrubs, bushes, and groundcovers that thrived! Thirty – six years later I still make my home in this small mostly wooded oasis that overlooks a brook where wild bears splash around in cold mountain waters.


Occasionally, over the years a tree would fall during the winter, or worse I would have to have one cut down because it was too close to wires or had fallen across my road. How I dreaded the cutting down of any tree. The feelings of loss and the physical pain that I first experienced at 39 continued to engulf me with each tree’s untimely death. I never got used to it, and I never understood why this tree identification was so intense but gradually I came to accept that living with tree pain must be my personal fate.


Often after a tree’s removal I could still feel the tree’s presence – sometimes for months. The trees spoke to me in dreams, warning me of danger, and sometimes they spoke to me by pulsing or using a few words that I experienced as coming from inside and outside my body at the same time. I learned to trust trees implicitly, though I spoke to no one about these experiences until recently.


How did the obvious escape me for so long? The trees and I shared a mind and a body. Somehow we merged into one “tree – person” so that when one suffered the other did too. I wasn’t living some private hell; I was simply living in intimate relationship with all trees.


Today, trees assure me that even if humans accord them no rights or sentience, it is humans that will destroy themselves, and it is the trees that will be around to begin again.