The Forest Has a Heart and S/he Sleeps Too

 

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The heartbeat of the tree is hidden in its trunk…

 

The Forest has a heart?

Scientist Diana Beresford Kroeger proved that the biochemistry of humans and that of plants and trees are the same – ie the hormones (including serotonin) that regulate human and plant life are identical. What this means practically is that trees possess all the elements they need to develop a mind and consciousness. If mind and awareness are possibilities/probabilities then my next question isn’t absurd: Do trees have a heartbeat?

According to studies done in Hungary and Denmark (Zlinszky/Molnar/Barfod) in 2017 trees do in fact have a special type of pulse within them which resembles that of a heartbeat.

To find this hidden heartbeat, these researchers used advanced monitoring techniques known as terrestrial laser scanning to survey the movement of twenty two different types of trees to see how the shape of their canopies changed.

The measurements were taken in greenhouses at night to rule out sun and wind as factors in the trees’ movements.

In several of the trees, branches moved up and down by about a centimeter or so every couple of hours.

After studying the nocturnal tree activity, the researchers came up with a theory about what the movement means. They believe the motion is an indication that trees are pumping water up from their roots. It is, in essence, a type of ‘heartbeat.’ These results shocked everyone. At night, while the trees were resting, slow and steady pulses pumped and distributed water throughout the tree body just as a human heart pumps blood. It has been assumed that trees distribute water via osmosis (a process that defies gravity and never made sense to me) but this and other new findings suggests otherwise.

Scientists have discovered the trunks and branches of trees are actually contracting and expanding to ‘pump’ water up from the roots to the leaves, similar to the way our hearts pump blood through our bodies. They suggest that the trunk gently squeezes the water, pushing it upwards through the xylem, a system of tissue in the trunk whose main job is to transport water and nutrients from roots to shoots and leaves.

But what “organ” generates the pulse?

Recently forest science researchers have found that the pulse is mostly generated by diameter fluctuations in the bark only. This was somewhat surprising, as traditionally it was thought that bark is totally decoupled from the transpiration stream of the tree. To better understand this mysterious situation, we need to have a closer look at the bark.

Bark can be divided into a dead (outside) and living (inside) section. The living section contains a transport system called phloem. The phloem relocates sugars – produced during photosynthesis in the leaves – to tissues, which require sugars for energy. The direction of transport leads to a downward directed stream of sugar-rich sap in bark towards the roots. The phloem uses water as transport medium for these sugars, and under certain conditions it appears that this water can be drawn out of the phloem into the transpiration stream of the stem. Plant biologists were able to show that these conditions are most likely to occur during the rapid increase of transpiration in the morning hours. During this time, the tension in the capillaries that transport the water upwards in rapidly increases.

Just like a rubber band, too much tension would cause the water column inside the capillaries to burst; this is one horrible way that trees can die during drought.

To prevent this snapping, water from phloem is drawn into the capillaries, and the loss of water from the phloem causes the stem to shrink. Once the tension in the capillaries declines as a consequence of decreasing transpiration, the formerly lost water will be replaced back into the phloem, and so the stem expands again.

The exact pathway of this water transfer takes place within the phloem that acts like a sponge that gets saturated and squeezed continuously.

The only difference between our pulse and a tree’s is a tree’s is much slower, ‘beating’ once every two hours or so, and instead of regulating blood pressure, the heartbeat of a tree regulates water pressure. Trees have regular periodic changes in shape that are synchronized across the whole plant.

It seems obvious to me that the ‘heart’ of a tree extends through its entire trunk just under the bark, the place where the pulse of a tree beats continuously.

 

Part 2   Trees Sleep?

In 2016, Zlinszky and his team released another study demonstrating that birch trees go to sleep at night (now we know that all trees – at least all the trees that have been studied so far – do sleep at night).*

Trees follow circadian cycles responding primarily to light and darkness on a daily cycle. The researchers believe the dropping of birch branches before dawn is caused by a decrease in the tree’s internal water pressure while the trees rest. With no photosynthesis at night to drive the conversion of sunlight into simple sugars, trees are conserving energy by relaxing branches that would otherwise be angled towards the sun. Trees increase their transpiration during the morning, decreasing it during the afternoon and into the night. There is a change in the diameter of the trunk or stem that produces a slow pulse. During the evening and the night tree water use is declining, while at the same time, the stem begins to expand again as it refills with water.

When trees drop their branches and leaves its because they’re sleeping. They enter their own type of circadian rhythm known as circadian leaf movement, following their own internal tree clock.

Movement patterns followed an 8 to 12 cycle, a periodic movement between 2 – 6 hours and a combination of the two.

As we know, plants need water to photosynthesize glucose, the basic building block from which their more complex molecules are formed. For trees, this means drawing water from the roots to the leaves. This takes place during daylight hours.

The movement has to be connected to variations in water pressure within the plants, and this effectively means that the tree is pumping fluids continuously. Water transport is not just a steady-state flow, as was previously assumed; changing water pressure is the norm although the trees continue to pulse throughout the night as tree trunks shrink and expand.

This work is just one example of a growing body of literature indicating that trees have lives that are more similar to ours than we could have ever imagined. When we mindlessly destroy trees we are destroying a whole ecosystem and a part of ourselves in the process because we are all related through our genetic make up. A sobering thought, for some.

Personal footnote:

Having lived in the North Country surrounded by evergreens of all kinds (balsaam, fir, spruce, hemlock, and white pine) for most of my life, I have always suspected that trees sleep during the winter months. On frigid mornings one glance at my closet neighbors shows me the needles are drooping, the needles turning almost gray. If the temperatures do not warm during the day the trees remain bowed, even if no snow is present. During a thaw the trees come back to life raising their branches towards the sun. Even their various greens intensify in color. Although I have conversed with my trees asking them how they are doing, I had no idea that what I observed was simply one aspect of a continuous process that was occurring with all trees every single day/night. I have not seen research on this wintering behavior of northern trees but now I am speculating that winter sleeping might be an unexplored aspect of northern tree behavior?

The Ecology of Bark

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(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.

Redwood Quest

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(Addertongue only grows in a Redwood forest Biome)

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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

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(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!

BLM Deforestation Practices

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(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.

Willow Magic

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Pussy Willows

 

The Willow Family (Salicaceae)

 

Every morning on my way to the Bosque I keep a sharp eye out for subtle changes in the color of the Coyote Willows – Salix exigua – that line the ditches and the river. In a month or so these slender shoots and bushes will turn burnt orange or a deep rose red depending upon their pigments and perhaps the soil in which they are planted. Here in Abiquiu they signal that spring is on the way. These flexible fronds are used by so many Indigenous peoples to make baskets, trays, etc – some even use them as thread. What I love best is their shape-shifting color especially when framed against an azure sky.

 

Because I have two home places I also think of another willow – Salix discolor – commonly called the native Pussy Willow. By mid February I am impatiently waiting for the first fuzzy paws to appear on the bushy branches of the pussy willows on my property. In Maine, winters are long and the advent of the pussy willow signals the coming shift of seasons long before it becomes apparent in more obvious ways, except for the warming sun. Snowfall is often heaviest during this month, and I have been known to tramp through heavy snow on snowshoes to reach some of my favorite clumps. I clip a few twigs from each bunch to put in the house.

 

All willows are flowering plants that have abundant watery bark sap which is heavily charged with salicylic acid – the precursor of aspirin – soft, usually pliant, tough wood, slender branches, and large, fibrous roots with an astonishing ability to anchor themselves securely to the ground even when water is rushing by. The roots are remarkable for their toughness, size, and willows readily sprout from the aerial parts of the plant.

 

Few folks know that willows (true for other members of this family too – cottonwoods, aspen, poplar) absorb poisons like lead and other toxins cleansing the earth and water of pollutants wherever they happen to grow. In my opinion, we should all take a few moments to give thanks for having such ‘giving trees’. In Maine, some of my poplars are diseased, and I have often wondered if this is a result of their penchant for removing toxins from the ground and also contributes to these trees’ and plants having a short life – span.

 

Willows are among the earliest woody plants to leaf out in spring and the last to drop their leaves in autumn. Leaf out may occur as early as February depending on the climate and is stimulated by air temperature. If daytime highs reach 55 °F for a few consecutive days, most willows will attempt to put out leaves and flowers. Leaf drop in autumn occurs when day length shortens to approximately ten and a half hours. This dropping of leaves varies by latitude occurring as early as the first week of October for boreal species and as late as the third week of December for willows growing in far southern areas. This January while visiting the Bosque Del Apache to be with the Sandhill cranes for the second time this year I discovered clumps of willows that had not dropped their leaves at all.

 

The buds form along the branch and are usually covered by a single scale that acts like a cap. This is especially obvious on pussy willow branches. Most leaves of willows are slender and feathery – quite delicate and graceful. The colors of the leaves vary depending upon the type.

 

The flowers possess both and female catkins on separate clumps and often they appear before the leaves. The pussy willow paw is a catkin in the making.

 

Willows are often planted on the borders of streams if they aren’t already growing there naturally, so their interlacing roots may protect the bank against flooding water. Frequently, like the coyote willow, the roots are much larger than the stem that grows from them. Just try to uproot one and you will be in for a surprise!

 

Willows are important in other ways. For some native pollinators, willows offer the first, important source of pollen and nectar (this is definitely true for pussy willows). Look closely at the male catkins that follow the buds and you will see a roil of small wasps, ants and bees and varieties of flies all crawling, burrowing around while foraging the flowers for nectar and pollen.

 

Some list willows as second only to oaks in value as host trees for butterflies and moths like the mourning cloak, sphinx and viceroy.

 

Leafrollers, sawflies, borers, midges and gall gnats produce an ornamental aberration called a pine-cone gall, easily visible on twig tips when willows shed their leaves. All of these represent long-evolved plant-insect associations, not to be confused with infestations more often caused by introduced insects.

 

Willows comprise North America’s largest genus of tree-like plants. There are approximately one hundred species plus a number of hybrids. Most willows are short-lived.

 

Willows have a wide natural distribution from the tropics to the arctic zones and are extensively cultivated around the world.

 

In Maine ‘an old field speckled with budding pussy willows is like a constellation come to earth, descended from the heavens and hovering just above the ground’

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In Abiquiu the advent of spring bursts with the glorious burnished golden sheen of the coyote willow!

Nature’s Gold – The Aspens

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Nature’s Gold – The Aspen

 

Every morning I set off to the river and to my refuge, the Bosque, walking under dying cottonwoods whose bark is peeling away from dead tree limbs. Just in the past summer a few of these magnificent matriarchs have crashed to earth providing nutrients that will one day support some other kind of ‘tree of life’.

 

My dreams tell me that new as yet unknown species will begin life here, offering me comfort because as a dreamer I have learned that my dreaming body knows what I do not, no doubt because she is attached to the body of this precious earth.

 

When I pass by the coyote willows I think about how cottonwoods, aspens, and poplars are part of the Willow family. Recent genetic testing reveals that this diverse group also includes passiflora (my beloved passionflowers) and wild violets too! – I was astonished by this last piece of information until I realized that all require adequate water to thrive.

 

Coming from the Northeast where quaking aspen can be found throughout the state of Maine I was still surprised to learn that these trees stretch across the entire continent. Aspens hold the title of being the most widespread tree in North America. They can be found from the Midwest, across Canada, north into Alaska and across the West through to Arizona and into New Mexico.

 

One aspen tree is actually only a small part of a larger organism. A stand or group of aspen trees is considered a singular organism with its central life force hidden underground in an extensive root system that I think is analogous to the human brain (I am not alone in this speculation). Before a solitary aspen trunk appears above the surface, the root system may lie dormant for many years until conditions are just right. In a single stand, each tree is a genetic replicate of the other, hence the name – a “clone” of aspens used to describe a stand.

 

Older than the massive Sequoias or the Bristlecone Pines, when the Pando clone was discovered, scientists named it with a Latin word that means “I spread.” Pando is an aspen clone that originated from a single seed and increases by sending up new shoots from its underground expanding and complex root system.

Pando is believed to be the largest, most dense organism ever found on earth. It weighs nearly 13 million pounds (6,600 tons). The clone spreads over 106 acres, consisting of over 40,000 individual trees. The exact age of the clone and its root system is difficult to calculate, but it is estimated to have started at the end of the last ice age. It was first recognized by researchers in the 1970s and more recently proven by geneticists. Its massive size, weight, and prehistoric age have caused worldwide fame.

Located in central Utah (Fishlake National Forest), Pando is dressed in verdant green throughout the summer. Her fluttering leaves bring relief from summer’s intense basin heat. In autumn the oranges and yellows and sometimes crimson leaves rival the most spectacular New Mexican sunset.

However, there is deep cause for concern because Pando is showing signs of decline. The organism is not regenerating, invasive insects are present, as are diseases. Unfortunately throughout the west, diebacks of other aspen stands are becoming more common. No one mentions climate change or loss of habitat as an issue.

The prevailing logic is that even if the trees of any stand are wiped out, it is still difficult to extinguish an aspen’s root system permanently due to the rapid rate in which it reproduces, thus there is hope.

It’s hard to decide what is most memorable about aspen: the vibrant gold leaves in fall, the startling pearl white stands, or the magical sound of the “quaking” leaves.

Among swaths of dark green conifers, the deciduous aspen stands thrive in a variety of environments. Aspens quickly colonize recently burned or bare areas (with birches in areas that support the latter like they do in Maine). They prefer moist soil but can survive near springs in desert conditions. Like the rest of the willow family these trees must have access to water. Because the Southwest is under siege from increasing drought as a result of climate change, I wonder if lack of adequate water is the reason why these trees are not regenerating.

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of aspens is that they grow all winter, a fact I didn’t know, but should have suspected because the trees around my house have a greenish cast. Beneath the thin, white outer bark layer is a thin green photosynthetic layer that allows the tree to create sugars and grow when other deciduous trees are dormant. This characteristic is unique among deciduous trees. During hard winters, the green, sugary layer provides necessary nutrients for deer and elk. Throughout the year, young aspens provide food for a variety of animals including moose, black bears, beaver, porcupine, grouse and rodents.

 

Perhaps most impressively, quaking aspen along with sister species (distributed in Europe and Asia) occupy the broadest range of any tree species in the world. Why is that so? Possibly one reason might be because the bark carries out photosynthesis all year long allowing the stands to expand their geographic range.

 

Aspen drops its leaves in winter but, of course, remains alive and thus requires metabolic energy. The soft tan to greenish hues often visible in aspen bark mark an important photosynthetic capability provided by the differing levels of chloroplasts. Stem photosynthesis contributes significantly to aspen’s over-wintering survival capabilities. The disadvantages of this type of bark include low fire resistance, ease with which people carve their initials in these trees creating space for disease to enter, and that the trees are an excellent food source for elk, deer etc. Numerous insects and fungi that attack the bark are also considered potential problems.

Aspen form individual patches comprised of numerous stems, each with its own trunk, branches, leaves and a shared root system. All of these structures originally arose from a single aspen seed that germinated in the distant past; The patches remain connected via root systems, and if the root system between patches is severed, the patches form physiologically separate clumps but are generally still considered part of the same clone because they are composed of genetically identical parts. The boundaries of different clones stand out most clearly in the early spring when flowering and leafing-out occur (in that order). Aspen have male and female catkins, unlike the majority of tree species, which support both male and female reproductive parts on each individual.

 

During early spring in an aspen clone the reproductive male catkins produce pollen while the female produces eggs. Huge numbers of viable, tiny seeds mature and float off from the female on a tangle of cotton-like seed hairs that catch air currents, sometimes traveling great distances. Immediately after shedding their pollen and seeds, the clones then produce leaves that usually appear at the same time in all stems of a given clone revealing the boundaries between clones most visibly. In the fall the striking leaf colors do not mark clonial boundaries as reliably because the chemical processes that produce the colors tend to be very sensitive to local micro-climate conditions. A single clone may also exhibit multiple colors simultaneously. In aspen, all the pigments that give rise to these glorious colors can be found in the leaf from spring all the way through fall when the aspen begin to first break down the green chlorophyll molecules that are responsible for spring and summer color. Other pigment molecules then become more and more visible.

 

For many years, most western forest ecologists thought aspen reproduction from seeds was rare. However, it turns out that successful establishment of aspen via seeds occurs more frequently than previously believed. The ability of aspen to produce whole stands of “trees” vegetatively provides yet another key element in explaining the species’ ability to occupy huge geographic ranges.

There are several benefits of asexual expansion. The clones share resources. One part of a clone might be near an important water source and share its water with drier parts of the clone while those in a drier area may have greater access to the vital soil nutrient, phosphorous, and share that resource with those that are low in this nutrient.

 

Quaking aspen also tends to be a disturbed habitat species, meaning it often lives where avalanches, mudslides and fires occur frequently. So both the regenerative capability and the clonal reproductive capability allow aspen to initially establish or to re-establish into an area after disturbances like mud slides occur. Similar patterns often follow forest fires. Rarely will a fire burn hot enough to kill the entire root system from which these stems arise, so an individual clone may occupy a given space and be completely wiped out on the surface but re-grow from the root system many times.

 

If an aspen stand does not experience periodic disturbances such as natural fire or avalanche, more shade-tolerant conifers tend to establish and shade out the high-light-requiring aspen stems. If the disturbances are too frequent, then the clone cannot spread.

Clone structure varies with geography but also varies due to the strong influences of rainfall and relative humidity. The largest clones generally occur in semi-arid environments such as the mountains of the western and southwestern US. Clones tend to be smaller in areas where the climate supports seed germination.

The last particular attribute of quaking aspen important in contributing to its ability to occupy huge ranges derives from the comparatively high level of genetic variability among clones. These interclonal levels of variability provide raw material for evolutionary change across generational times. The large number of seeds produced from genetically variable sources generates an enormous array of potentially successful genotypes for establishment in newly opened areas and probably takes place at higher rates.

One of the most enchanting aspects of aspen is their ability to quake and tremble in the slightest breeze. Why do quaking aspen leaves quake and tremble? This is due to the physical structure of the leaf stem which traces a flat, oblong, elliptical pattern when viewed in cross section so it has strength in one dimension and minimal strength in the second dimension, so even a gentle wind causes produces movement and a hypnotic sound. Plant physiologists have pointed out several reasons for the trembling leaf behavior. They include minimizing the risk of too much sunlight as well as reducing the risk of overheating in intense, high elevation. Trembling also improves photosynthetic rates by keeping a fresh supply of carbon dioxide near the leaf surface where the plant takes up that compound. Insect damage may also be reduced by fluttering leaves.

This tree species seems to almost have it all: powerful, opportunistic, sexual reproduction, long-distance seed dispersal, effective vegetative spread, clonal reproduction, regeneration from roots, high levels of genetic variability, living bark and a potentially enormous life span.

And in my mind, Pando certainly represents one of the most remarkable “families” among all living organisms.

 

Postscript:

The language used to describe these remarkable organisms that cooperate by share root systems, information, and resources seems woefully inadequate. To call a phenomenal organism like Aspen a “clone”, although grammatically correct, is to reduce it to its lowest denominator. These trees live harmoniously within a family that supports the continuation of life, not just for one tree but for all its relatives. Most important this species has been self- sustaining for millennium.

 

 

Tree Talk: Dr. Susan Simard

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(Spirit Bear – Canadian temperate Rainforest)

 

Scientist Susan Simard is a professor of forest ecology at the University in Vancouver, British Columbia, who has been studying the below-ground fungal networks that connect trees and facilitate underground inter-tree communication and interaction. Over a period of more than thirty years this field scientist and her students have learned how fungi networks move water, carbon and nutrients such as nitrogen between and among trees as well as across species. Her research has demonstrated that these complex, symbiotic networks in our forests — at the hub of which stand what she calls the “mother trees” — mimic our own neural and social networks. This groundbreaking work on symbiotic plant communication has far-reaching implications that include developing sustainable ways to ‘manage’ forests, and to improve tree and plant resistance to pathogens. Although much of Simard’s research occurs in forests, she has also studied the underground systems of grasslands, wetlands, tundra and alpine ecosystems.

 

Under our feet there is a whole world of biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and share resources and information. Other scientists who study these networks (like Dr. Merlin Sheldrake) agree with Susan who suggests that the forest behaves as though it’s a single cohesive organism.

 

When Simard first studied forestry she discovered that the extent of the clear-cutting was alarming, and the spraying and hacking away of aspens and birches to make way for the more commercially valuable planted pines and firs was frightening. By the time she was doing graduate work scientists had discovered in the laboratory that one pine seedling root could transmit carbon to another pine seedling root, and Susan hypothesized that this kind of exchange was exactly what occurred in real forests. Although many believed she was crazy Susan finally procured funding for conducting experiments deep in the forest. She grew 80 replicates of three species: paper birch, Douglas fir, and western red cedar believing the birch and the fir would be involved in two way communication underground while the cedar would not (cedar and maple have a symbiotic relationship of their own). To test her idea she injected two isotopes of carbon into the trees (in plastic bags) and within an hour the birch and fir exchanged carbon through their root systems.

The carbon isotopes revealed that paper birch and Douglas fir were in a lively two-way conversation. It turns out at that time of the year, in the summer, that birch was sending more carbon to fir than fir was sending back to birch, especially when the fir was shaded. And then in later experiments, she found the opposite. Fir was sending more carbon to birch than birch was sending to fir, and this was because the fir was still growing while the birch was leafless. The two species were interdependent.

Douglas fir and birch were conversing not only in the language of carbon but also exchanged nitrogen, phosphorus, water, defense signals, allele (gene) chemicals and hormones.

Scientists already had learned that an underground mutualistic symbiosis called the ‘myco-net was involved in this exchange. Mushrooms are the above ground reproductive evidence of the underground fungal threads that form  mycelium, and that mycelium infects and colonizes the roots of all the trees and plants. And where the fungal cells interact with the root cells, there’s a trade of carbon for nutrients, and that fungus gets those nutrients by growing through the soil and coating every soil particle. The web is so dense that there can be hundreds of kilometers of mycelium under a single footstep. Mycelium connects different individuals in the forest, not just individuals of the same species but also works between species, like birch and fir. Hub or “mother trees” (can be male or female) have the most powerful fungal highways. These trees nurture their young, the ones growing in the understory. In a single forest, a mother tree can be connected to hundreds of other trees each of which can send excess carbon etc. through the mycorrhizal network to understory seedlings, but especially to their own kin. Mother trees recognize and colonize their kin with bigger mycorrhizal networks. They send them more carbon below ground. They even reduce their own root competition to create space for their seedlings to grow. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send carbon and defense signals to the next generation of seedlings helping the youngsters to resist future stresses.Through back and forth conversations, trees increase the survival rate of the whole community.

What makes the forest so resilient is that there are many hub or mother trees and many overlapping networks.

Unfortunately forests are also vulnerable, vulnerable not only to natural disturbances like bark beetles that preferentially attack big old trees but also to clear-cut logging. It is possible to remove one or two hub trees but not many of them; there is a tipping point after which the whole system collapses.

Trees may not have nervous systems but they can feel what is happening and can experience something analogous to pain. When a tree is cut it sends out electrical signals like wounded human tissue does.

Thirty years ago Simard hoped that her initial discoveries would change the way forestry was practiced. She was wrong. Forestry practices remain the same everywhere. In 2014, the World Resources Institute reported that Canada had the highest forest disturbance rate of any country worldwide, and that includes Brazil.

Massive disturbance at this scale affects hydrological cycles, degrades wildlife habitat, and emits greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere, which creates more disturbance and more tree diebacks.

Worse, foresters continue to plant one or two species of trees for harvesting and weed out other trees like aspens and birches. These simplified forests lack complexity, and they’re really vulnerable to infections and insect infestation. As climate changes this is creating a perfect storm for extreme events to occur.

Simard explains her frustrations with Western science. “We don’t ask good questions about the interconnectedness of the forest, because we’re all trained as reductionists. We pick it apart and study one process at a time, even though we know these processes don’t happen in isolation. When I walk into a forest, I feel the spirit of the whole thing, everything working together in harmony, but we don’t have a way to map or measure that.” In her view her research and that of others is exposing the limitations of the Western scientific method itself.*

The one hope is that forests as complex systems have an enormous capacity to self-heal. Simard has demonstrated this capacity with recent experiments in which retention of hub trees, and careful patch cutting can lead to regeneration and recovering species diversity.

Simard leaves us with three simple solutions:

  • Spend time in your forest, grassland etc – learn about local conditions of that particular micro-climate.
  • Save our old growth forests – these are the repositories of genes, mother trees, and mycorrhizal networks. We need this information to be passed on to the next generation of trees to help them withstand future stresses (as of 2019 we have less than 3 percent of our old growth forests left)
  • We must regenerate our forests with a diversity of species and genotypes by planting and allow for natural regeneration to occur.

Because it is January, the time of year that bears give birth I want to close this essay with a bear – tree – carbon networking story. On the west coast in the Pacific temperate rainforests bears sit under trees and eat salmon leaving their carcasses behind. Researchers have discovered that the trees are absorbing salmon nitrogen and then sharing it with each other through the underground network. According to the Smithsonian this creates an interlinked system: fish forest fungi.

Someone forgot to mention the role that bears play in this story; the last sentence should read: bears, fish, forest, fungi.

 

*Postcript:

Using reductionism and the scientific mechanistic paradigm as a baseline – scientists can think, intuit, even sense but they can’t be allowed to feel. Our bodies carry our feelings/emotions. When we refuse to credit emotional intelligence as a form of knowledge we cripple ourselves. Without using our capacity to feel we can’t help but distort our perceptions, skewing results – scientific or otherwise. We need all our faculties to problem solve efficiently…. Field scientists and ethologists like me probably have a better handle on this than most because we are looking at a bigger picture.

Truth and Consequences

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From a greater perspective it no longer matters that people dismiss the holocaust we have created, because life on earth is changing in ways that are forcing humans to confront the horrors of what we have done through climate change.

 

The earth is on fire, trees are being slaughtered by the billions, we suffer from air pollution because dead trees can no longer provide us with clean air. Loss of precious oxygen, potable water, fertile ground, massive flooding, overpopulation, – all are taking a death toll.

 

Of course, non-human species suffer first because they have no voices with which to protest, and the extinction of so many troubles few, but these fatalities are harder to ignore when humans begin dying too. In the U.S. we currently live in a bubble that is about to burst because soon we will be living the horrors the rest of the world is already facing. Educating didn’t work. Love was not enough.

 

Let’s face it, part of the problem lies with human selfishness. The majority, at least in this country, predicate their lives on pleasing themselves – such a self centered perspective is not seen anywhere else in Nature. For example, trees don’t focus their lives on “having fun”, or living in “virtual” reality, or knocking off the next adventure on their bucket list. Trees live mindful lives focused on serving others as well as themselves and are focused on the continuation of all life as a whole. This is not to say that trees don’t feel pleasure or joy or suffer intensely. Standing under a single healthy tree with an open heart, mind, and body allows the tree to communicate directly how much s/he celebrates being alive. Conversely, listening to a screaming tree starved for water will bring a person to her knees in tree grief. Trees also thrive on being loved, as anyone who tends to trees and plants like I do, can tell you. Trees and plants need to be cared about just like animals and people do.

 

Reciprocity is normalized in Nature; it is conditional between humans. What is wrong with this picture?

 

Those that are “red in tooth and claw” are humans who as a whole have not evolved into a species that is capable of caring for others (in particular non human species), or the Earth, our home.

 

I am not suggesting that all people are like this; some are not, but there are not many of us – and critical mass is required to shift any paradigm. In order to change the present story into one that supports life instead of destroying it humans have to make radical changes, and it is abundantly clear that the majority of people aren’t remotely interested.

 

“Extinction Illness,” a phrase originally coined by Deena Metzger, describes a state of being in which those of us who are sensitive enough to feel the catastrophic changes that are occurring on Earth are suffering with the planet and experiencing despair, hopelessness, and depression. We are in the minority.

 

A friend told me recently that she believed that humans can’t imagine “not being” and I think this statement is true. I know I can’t imagine my not being, (unless I place myself within the context of Nature as a whole).

 

The hole that will be opened up by the death of our kind (the youngest and most destructive species on earth) may create the space for a new unimaginable kind of beginning.

 

Sentient Nature possesses memory. S/he creates patterns and S/he is also evolving, so Nature is capable of annihilating whatever S/he creates that doesn’t support life as a whole. Allowing humans to evolve was a mistake, and Nature is much too wise to make the same error again. Earth will be habitable for perhaps four more billion years giving her time to create a kinder place, I believe, one in which extant species will be able to live more peaceful lives thriving as a community that focuses on life for all its species, not just one.

 

Human extinction is an illness that we will not recover from. And perhaps this is the greatest gift of all.

 

Postscript: Reaching this point of acceptance of ‘what is’ and ‘what will come’ has been a journey that has taken me a lifetime. In retrospect, my inability to let go of hope became the obstacle I could not overcome, because without clinging to hope what was left? I couldn’t know then that by experiencing this deep letting go that I would finally find peace and acceptance.

I want to make it abundantly clear that letting go and acceptance doesn’t mean that I don’t continue to grieve for what is being lost. I do. I am in love with the earth and her sentient beings, but I am also feeling peace knowing that the Earth will go on creating for a long time to come. And meanwhile there is NOW, and every day I find joy on my doorstep with each crane sighting, with each dog kiss, each predawn sky, each walk in the Bosque… I celebrate the gift of living a life of meaning. 

Bear as Healer – “He Who Frightens Away Illness”

THE NAVAJO MOUNTAIN WAY CHANT

 

 

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Navajo ceremonial practices emphasize healing human illness, emotional, mental, and physical, while restoring balance and harmony between humans and the rest of Nature. The most sacred of these ceremonies occur during the winter months. The best known of these is probably the Night Chant that lasts nine days and nine nights and is held sometime around the winter solstice – the timing of these ceremonies is fluid. Like the Night Chant the Mountain Way Chant probably stretches back into prehistoric times from 60,000 – 4000 B.C.E.

 

This second and equally sacred although less well known ceremony is also a nine-day/nine night chant that marks a transition between the seasons of winter and spring. The Mountain Way Chant takes place in late winter before thunderstorms strike and the spring winds arrive (around the spring equinox). One of its purposes is to call up the rains. It is also a ceremony led by a medicine man that addresses in particular, the mental uneasiness and nervousness associated with transitions, helping to bring individuals and their extended families back into balance and harmony.

 

Navajo cures target body, mind, and spirit, calling on everyone – the individual, kin, the medicine man, and the Spirits of Nature to help restore harmony. Before a medicine man (they are seldom women), is called, a hand trembler (often a woman), will diagnose the source of illness. Through prayer, concentration, and sprinkling of sacred pollen, her hand will tremble and pinpoint the cause, which then determines the proper ceremonial cure. Then the “singer” (medicine man) who knows the proper ceremony is called and preparations are set in motion.

 

There are nearly a hundred Navajo chants and each is nuanced and complex. All reflect different aspects of the Navajo Creation myth. Each includes purification rites, chants, songs, dancing, prayer sticks, and sand paintings. In order for a ceremony to be effective, everything must be done exactly as prescribed in the Navajo Creation Story. Besides these nine day ceremonies there are others whose ceremonies require four days, and many simpler ones requiring only a single day, each with its own dry-painting (sand painting).

 

In this essay I will not attempt to discuss the entire Mountain Way Chant – its much too complex – but will focus on the roles that the bear gods play in the sand paintings, mention briefly the role of plants, trees, and discuss bear songs that are pivotal to this ritual.

 

To the Navajo, bear gods are sacred and central to the healing of disease and disharmony all year long but especially in the early spring, (curiously, the Mountain Way Chant occurs just before the bear’s actual emergence from the den). The Navajos also understand that bears are close relatives and call them “The Mountain People”.

 

The Dine’ who now number over 200,000 in population, are the largest, and one of the most culturally intact Indian tribes in North America. Reigning over a reservation of some 25,000 square miles in size, the Navajos, like many other tribal peoples have long respected and honored bears as being fellow “beings” with whom they share the land. For the Navajo the bear is the Guardian of the West.

 

Historically there were two main species of bear that resided in Navajo territory: the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) and the black bear (Ursus americanus). While the grizzly bear has been hunted to extinction in the Southwest, the Black bear still inhabits mountainous areas including those within the Navajo Reservation. Bears are believed to be guides and guardians embodying great strength and self-knowledge.

 

The Navajo also believe that bears have tremendous healing powers (western scientific studies are just beginning to tap the mysteries behind a bear’s ability to heal itself, recycle body waste, and prevent bone and muscle loss during hibernation).

 

To the Dine’ the bear also embodies the powers of introspection, soul searching, insight. Additionally the powers of the bear also include death and rebirth. The bear apparently dies in the fall (because it hibernates) and is reborn in the spring; and the female emerges (every two years, hopefully) with new cubs or last year’s yearlings in tow. For all the above reasons bears have played a major role in Navajo tribal legends and ceremonialism. It is hardly surprising that they are central figures in the Mountain Way Chant.

 

On the fifth night of the Mountain Way Chant a dry painting of the bear in his den is created under the direction of the medicine man. Using powdered clays of various colors, the purpose of the ceremonial painting drawn in the center of the Hogan, is to summon up the powers of the bear as healer to frighten the patient, and thus banish illness and disharmony. The name of the first painting is called “Frighten Him On It.”

 

The bear as a powerful healer “scares” illness/disharmony away. The bear also appears in the same capacity (in an identical sand painting) during the fifth night during the Night Chant.

 

The sketch pictured as a whole represents the den of a hibernating bear. Colored earth picture bear-tracks leading in; bear-tracks and sundogs* are represented at the four quarters, and the bear himself, streaked with sunlight, is the center image. The twigs at the entrance of the bear den represent the trees, behind or under which bears often dig their dens in the sides of mountains. Everything in the sand painting is supposed to remind the individual of bears. The person enters the painting and sits down on the animal. The room is bathed in deep silence. Suddenly, a man, painted and clothed as a bear (historically a grizzly), rushes in, uttering terrifying snarls and huffs. All the assembled participants join in to frighten the illness away.

 

There is a second sand painting used on the sixth night of the Mountain Way Chant that is supposed to be a representation of the bears’ home in the Carrizo Mountains (not pictured). In the center of this painting is a bowl of water covered with black powder. The edge of the bowl is adorned with sunbeams, and external to it are the four sunbeam rafts, on which the Nature Spirits, the Yei stand. There is a close relationship between the Yei and the bears. In the Mountain Way Chant, Talking God, Water Sprinkler (often pictured as a rainbow) Growling God (bear), and Black God are always present.

 

Bears and Light are related. In the first dry painting there is light that surrounds the bear and light in the form of sundogs that are positioned in each of the four directions. In the second, sunbeams are present in the center and also in each of the four directions providing places for the Yei to stand. It’s very difficult not to draw the conclusion that the light that we are speaking of is an inner light, not an outer one, and this is consistent with the qualities of healing, insight, and introspection that the Navajos associate with the bear.

 

After each sand painting has been created and used for a healing it is then destroyed. With the bear painting erasure begins by destroying the tracks of the bear and moves around the circle obliterating the four directions beginning in the west.

 

Many aromatic plants are also used during these ceremonies to help restore harmony reflecting the importance of the ‘plant people’ to the Dine’ and to the bears.

 

The last dance of the Mountain Way Chant occurs inside a huge Circle of Spruce boughs that are brought in to a circle and then burned at the very end of the ceremony. Although this next point does not directly refer to bears I want to mention it briefly. Although grizzlies did not, Black bears co – evolved on this continent with trees during the last ice age and even today cannot be found in areas where they are absent. Black bears must have trees to climb in order to protect themselves and their young from predators. My point: Black bears and trees co –exist as a unit. And the importance of spruce boughs representing the sacred trees in these ceremonies cannot be stressed enough.

 

What follows are translations of three songs “that the women who have become bears sing.” These women have become holy people.

 

(1)The maiden that becomes a bear

walks far around

on the black mountain.

She walks far around.

Far spreads the land.

(this song is repeated once substituting blue for black –

black represents a male bear, blue a female bear)

 

(2)The young woman who becomes a bear

sets fire in the mountain

in many places; As she

journeys on

there is a line of burning mountains.

 

(3) In ancient times during a year of great drought

the holy ones set fire to the mountains and the waters.

The smoke arose in great clouds from which rain descended onto the land.

The woman who sought the gods found them.

 

Throughout the Mountain Way Chant both male and female bears are present at different times as bears and as holy people.

 

As a Black bear researcher I am struck by the correspondence between the details of the first painting and the way bears actually hibernate. Black bears prefer to den with openings to the south side, and because they walk in their own tracks they can enter and leave a den invisibly leaving no tracks at all. Note that in this sketch of the painting the tracks only go one way.

 

I am also struck by another healing aspect of the bear that doesn’t seem to appear in the extensive research I did for this essay, and that is the bear’s apparent ability to treat itself when it is ill by ingesting certain plants. It may be that these plants are part of the ceremony but are not mentioned by name (or names that I would recognize). Certainly the Navajo knew about these plants and tubers because they were the first naturalists, people who learned directly from animals, plants, trees, through keen observation.

 

That the bear would be so important to Native peoples in the Northern Hemisphere is also not surprising if one considers that Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is among the oldest recognized patterns in the sky. This prominent cluster of bright stars is circumpolar for mid-northern to polar latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. Interestingly, throughout the Americas Indigenous people of all tribes called this constellation the Great Bear.

 

Although today this star cluster conjures up other images to other peoples – stories about this particular constellation may date back to the Ice Age when ancient people could cross over the Bering Strait to North America. At that time, cultures in both Siberia and Alaska shared a common heritage. It is even possible that the constellation Ursa Major actually got its name 50,000 years ago because of a Paleolithic bear cult that existed in Europe.

 

Maybe the next time you look up into a velvet night sky towards the North you will see the Great Bear and think of him as being one of the most important animal healers of all time.

 

 (1) For those that don’ t know – sundogs occur when ice crystals acts as prisms, separating the sunlight into different colors and forming a sundog. … Mainly, sundogs are visible while you are facing and looking towards the sun while rainbows occur in just the opposite location. Here in New Mexico one sees them frequently.

 

Postscript: It is important to note that although the Navajo have lived in the Southwest for about 1,000 years, they are related to the woodland Indians of western Canada and Alaska. They speak Athabaskan, the language native to the western sub arctic and once lived in the boreal forest and made their living much the way Athabaskan peoples do today. When they migrated south along the Rockies they ended up in Arizona and other Southwestern states, and took on attributes of the Pueblo peoples. But the foundation of their culture lies in the North Country. It is theorized that they may have reached this continent by way of Siberia. However, some sources suggest that Native peoples have been here all along. Navajo people did not hunt bears unless they were starving because they considered all bears their relatives and complex rituals surrounded any necessary kill.