Bare Trees and Butchers: An Autumn Reflection
Waking up to bare trees on a fog bound mid October morning is distressing because fall is my favorite season and it has been cut short. Most of the leaves have already slipped to the windless ground, many maples without having become our astonishingly pure “fire on the mountain”. Day after day of summer-like temperatures and nights that followed suit have blurred the edges of autumn, confusing even the tree frogs that continue to sing. Last night clouds drifted across a waxing moon like a torn veil. How much I miss crisp fragrant fall mountain air…
Although the deadly fires continue to burn in the west releasing a good portion of the world’s 2.7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the Windy Fire in Sequoia National Park is 88 percent contained. Hundreds of ancient sequoias perished in this blaze… foresters saved some of the big ones like ‘general sherman’ – disgusting name for a tree – but no one seems to be aware that losing whole forests means that tree suffering is profound – some scientists inform us that trees ‘scream’ through releasing chemical scents into the atmosphere, and saving the big trees probably won’t make a difference long term because any forest is a whole social organism – all the trees depend upon each other for sustenance and reproduction. This fire burned too hot destroying potential seedlings that were released by the cones.
It may sound fanciful but it seems to me that the sudden loss of so many leaves of our trees here in the east may have something to do with the destruction of whole forests out west, aside from the obvious – that the air pollution we experience in Maine is directly connected to the fires in California. Trees that grow together grieve and often die when one of the two is cut. We know that trees communicate above through air and below ground through mycelial networks, and I suspect that trees also convey distress over great distances in the same way, through smoke, and/or in other ways as yet to be discovered.
Trees can hear sounds although they don’t have ears; for example, their roots gravitate towards running water. Trees need to sleep at night and when they do their fronds, branches droop, sometimes perceptibly. They also have a circulatory system that pumps water into the branches/needles, releasing some through transpiration, and then what’s left cycles back down to the roots to begin the process again (without transpiration clouds don’t form so clear cutting whole forests heats up the earth and prevents rain from falling). Trees breathe the way humans do, only at a much slower rate. The difference is that they breathe in toxic CO2 and breathe out the precious oxygen we need to live. We have a tendency to think that all trees photosynthesize all day long but mostly this process occurs in deciduous trees during the first part of the day. Once the temperatures rise too much (90 degrees is the cut off point) broadleaf trees shut down to rest; conifers can continue to photosynthesize although they don’t do it as quickly/efficiently as deciduous trees do. Needle bearing trees can eat light all winter long if temperatures stay above freezing, and the bark of thin skinned trees like cottonwoods/aspens/poplar (the willow family) also photosynthesize through their bark during the winter months as long as the temperatures permit. Trees nurture the seedlings of their own kin and also share carbon and nutrients with their neighbors. They warn each other about insect invasion above ground through scent, below through fungal networks. Suzanne Simard’s research indicates that old Mother trees (both male and female) are connected to every other tree and plant in their forests.
Trees can deal with normal climate changes; they have been doing so for millennia. When the next ice age hits, we will lose the trees we have, but others will take their place as ice sheets recede. The problem that trees are facing now is that Climate Change is occurring faster than our trees can adapt; that and the fact that we continue to clear cut and create plantations with foreign species that will grow too fast, developing weak root systems in the process. These trees are vulnerable to insects like the pine bark beetle that kill whole plantations rapidly; shallow root systems encourage blow – downs. In Germany where there are no real forests left, 57 percent of the plantation trees die from either poor root systems or insect invasion. Former forester and author Peter Wohlleben states that foresters are not tree protectors – they are tree butchers. Trees cannot withstand Climate Change alone; they must be part of a forest in order to survive.
Foresters continue to ignore the fact that Northern species like spruce and fir will not thrive in warmer climates; they continue to grow them because these trees mature fast and can be harvested in a short time. Climate Change continues to be ignored. Androcentric thinking dominates forestry practices; trees are expected to behave like crazed humans do. Faster is always better and more profitable (of course). Trees live out their lives in the ‘slow lane’ normally living hundreds or thousands of years (bristlecone pine/spruce – the latter 10,000 years old). Many humans don’t live as long as I have, 77 years.
Because our global culture demands that trees conform to human standards our forestry practices remain exactly the same as they were 40 years ago. We insist upon projecting our machine mentality onto trees. Any attempt to use language that the average person can understand is criticized as being anthropomorphic. Calling an ancient tree a ‘mother tree’ or stating that trees suffer are prime examples even though we have solid scientific evidence that supports trees mothering their kin or trees that die of grief. Misinformation abounds. Last summer I attended a gathering and listened to foresters pontificate on how selective cutting encourages wildlife to thrive even as I was standing on parched ground where any seedling would struggle to survive. The impeccable research that demonstrates the sentience of trees is totally ignored. As a dedicated tree advocate and naturalist I find this attitude incomprehensible.
I recently learned that European scientific research indicates that plantations are unhealthy places for people to visit. The distress signals that the foreign trees on a plantation emit (spruce and pine) cause human blood pressure to increase. The exact opposite response occurs when these same people walk through native beech and oak trees. Blood pressure decreases (Peter Wohlleben).
I regularly walk through a forest that hasn’t been logged since long before the industrial logging machine took over in the eighties, and each time I go there I feel a profound sense of being restored to myself – I am ‘coming home’ and experience a kind of peacethat only an untouched forest can emanate. I have had to stop hiking near any land that has been brutally logged because even if where I am walking has healthy trees if it is close to a slaughtered shred of forest the whole area depresses me. I believe that butchered forests radiate a kind of chaos and misery that any sensitive person can feel.
As I look out my window into a woodland that has matured in the years that I have been here because I have left it alone, I spy beech, witch hazel, and moose maple who still have some leaves that are drifting earthward in the silence of this moment. I call out to them “I love you” as I give thanks for all trees and this golden haze that animatesme – body and soul.