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!

Born Again

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(author’s Cottonwood Portal)

“Let me sing to you about how people turn into other things.” (Ovid)

Years ago I placed my brother’s ashes in a shallow depression that I had dug near a granite fern and moss covered boulder. The brook flowed just a few feet away and at the last minute I scattered a few filaments over the shallow waters, returning them to the sea. A week later I planted a hazel nut tree nearby. A fossilized spiral ammonite marks my brother’s grave.

Thanks to the underground highway created out of millions of tree/plant roots, the extensive net of fungal hyphae and this communal system’s miraculous ability to exchange nutrients/minerals/sugar, my brother lives on as part of this forest…The gracefully spreading hazel and all the other trees (spruce, maple, balsam, hemlock, ash) that are scattered around this hallowed woodland grove have been nourished by the bones of one I loved.

Yet only recently have I been possessed by revelation.

I want to be buried under one of these trees so I can become one too. I spent my childhood living in a tree, was sheltered, fed, and loved by them as a young forlorn mother, and chose them as my closest companions (except for dogs and bears) when I built my small camp in the woods, and later my log cabin. By mid life the deep intimacy between us had flowered into articulation. What was happening to the trees was happening to me. Trees paved the road to eco – feminism.

I long to become a tree whose context is community, whose focus is on the whole, who lives on in a sacred form that is 400 million years strong.

Trees are also my relatives. Although we parted ways 1.5 billion years ago we share 25 percent of our DNA.

Everything about trees is about living in relationship to other beings. Trees shelter, feed, protect, create life out of death and ask for nothing in return.

Well not exactly nothing. Over the course of my life trees have taught me that they love to be loved. Of course, I am grateful to them for each breath I take, and for their extraordinary beauty, but mostly I love them because they exist. A life without trees is not one I would choose to live.

I think of all the rootlets – luminescent hyphae interpenetrating, nourishing, sending impulses, singing under ground. Almost daily I touch sturdy tree trunks that have provided me with support and deep abiding joy, comfort during times of distress. Sometimes, during the warmer months I listen to tree trunks making an almost imperceptible gurgling sound. The compounds that trees breathe out at night lower my stress level. My heart beats more slowly in response, in resonance with this night rhythm. I experience unimaginable aching beauty when trees are leafing out, birthing spiky top knots, coming into bloom while scenting the air with a perfume so sweet that it transports me into another realm. I lean into blessed tree shade during intolerable heat. Trees speak in tongues that I can feel or sense and sometimes utter a word or two in my own language. Is it any surprise that I am perpetually flooded with awe and wonder when it comes to trees?

No wonder I want to become one in my dying.

Tree conversation never ceases above or below. Just now because it is winter the tree’s sap, its sugary/mineral rich blood, barely trickles, though it still acts as nature’s antifreeze. The living tissue just below the bark, precious cambium, is lined with water so pure it doesn’t crystalize. Trees lean into the dark grateful to rest quietly as frost or snow covers bare branches or bends evergreen boughs to the ground. In the spring’s warming sun sap chants as it rises, flowing upward (defying gravity in the process) to the highest branches, the most delicate twigs, the sharpest tips of needles, causing the latter to bristle with new green growth. Flowers and leaves appear on deciduous trees. Pale yellow, orange or dusky brown pollen thickens the air with scent and purpose.

With adequate water trees will flourish all summer long photosynthesizing – producing bountiful amounts of oxygen as they breathe in poisonous carbon dioxide. Made of light, they transpire, offering clouds of steam, releasing precious moisture, compounds, and minerals into the air until autumn, when their life – blood begins its annual decent. Journeying back to their Source, withering leaves and needles begin to drift earthward (some needles, others scatter in early spring). Cascading leaves flutter to the ground, peppering the precious earth with the stuff of dying, twigs, uneaten fruits, seeds, and nuts, producing a layer of detritus soon to become nourishment for next year’s growth.

Seeds take root almost invisibly, seeking Earth’s warmth, minerals and other nutrients and most important – relationships with others – kinship begins beneath the surface of the soil.

Ah, to become a tree…

I will sleep and dream away the winter, bow respectfully as I wince in raging winds. Early spring brings my willow catkins into flower; blossoms that feed my much beloved and starving Black bears. Deer, and moose nibble my first twigs and buds. In the heat of the late spring sun I become tumescent, swelling buds that will produce flowers of every conceivable shape and color, those complex structures that will eventually bear fruit or seeds. Translucent lime green leaves appear and deepen into emerald. My scent is so sweet that bees seek me out and I thrive under their buzz and hum. As summer begins my leaves shower the earth in luminous dappled light shielding tender wildflowers from a sun too bright, too fierce. With the first clap of thunder I turn my thirsty leaves and stretch out my needles towards the life bringing rains. Birds who sought out the shelter of my branches to bear their young are feeding their hungry progeny. Woodpeckers hammer holes in some of my trunks for insects, creating new homes for others in the process. Flying squirrels and owls seek my protection from summer’s harsh brightness, the kind that outlasts the night. Wild bees burrow under my bark or under my feet. A myriad of insects like cicadas find homes in my canopies and sing cacophonous songs of praise at dusk. Wailing winds cease as I listen to a myriad of voices – the forest speaks.

To become a tree in a thriving  forest is an act of Natural Grace.

For me “becoming tree” means that something of who I am lives on – a “not I” who continues her work – feeding animals and birds, planting and nurturing more trees and plants – those same creatures and plants (and hopefully others) that have sustained me throughout my life. Learning. Inscribing. Evolving. Until the end. In this way “the not I” continues to serve life in a way that is meaningful to Nature as a whole.

Giving back what has been given without a price tag attached.

Just the thought brings me deep peace.

Recently, someone made a statement to me that felt like truth; “You have a pure heart.” Although I didn’t have the faintest idea what was meant by these words, some kind of resonance vibrated deeply throughout my body, spiraling me towards ‘home’. With awkward surprise I heard myself agreeing with this remark. Then understanding struck.

Every tree has a pure heart.

As long as trees continue to exist they will teach us that in every end there is a new beginning. Without Tree Presence, we are truly lost.

 

Bless Be the Trees that Bind

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Photo credit Lynn Rogers

 

Today I begin to honor all trees as we enter the dark months of the year. The (three) Days of the Dead are on our doorstep and the veil thins – this is a reality that so many refuse to experience out of fear. This weekend we will return to “natural” or Indigenous time – giving us a chance to rise with an early morning sunrise and to allow a darkening sky to wrap her velvet cloak around us as the days continue to shorten. Nights are long and sweet, inviting contemplation, dreams, and deep abiding gratitude to befriend us.

 

This year, perhaps more than any other, I am crossing this threshold feeling a peace that I haven’t felt in months. Not because my life is simpler – it isn’t – I face so many unknowns – conflicts remain and some have escalated as well as darkened, health issues are unresolved. However, I am emotionally aligned with this seasonal change and the loss of harsh white light – a fierce light that casts no shadow. We live in such a frenzied culture. I am so negatively impacted by the monstrous amount of violence, the hatred, the lack of empathy that surrounds us … somehow the darkness helps me to process these daily atrocities with more equilibrium…

 

When the Great Bear rises in the early evening at this turning of the wheel I give thanks knowing that bear slaughter is coming to an end in a few weeks time. Hopefully, because of the cold, most bears that survive the hunt are bedding down beneath the roots of welcoming trees…

 

All trees are my steadfast friends. Around the house I have tied bits of orange ribbon to new seedlings that will someday spread their canopies over an unyielding desert floor (if left to grow when I am gone).

 

I continue to water my junipers who are so well adapted to desert conditions that they can continue to absorb moisture much longer than other trees, these same junipers that are being sprayed with deadly herbicides to kill them off.

 

Inside during the next few days I will be adorning the base of my Norfolk pine with a ring of white lights to celebrate this season of tree gratitude.

 

I have already tipped fragrant fir, pinion, and juniper greens for a wreath that I will weave some time in the next few weeks to honor the Circle of Life.

 

Outside, my adopted juniper provides juncos, sparrows, chickadees, thrasher, and flicker with predator protection. My tree was starved for water after four months of probable, not so benign neglect in my absence, her growth stunted, bunches of needles withered and dry.

Interrupting this cycle with watering, quiet conversation, and the power of touch I notice the tree has responded by turning her needles a dark spruce green – a welcome change from former ashen gray. This tree has a star at her center to celebrate the sanctity of our bodies – the importance of genuine feeling – When I think of trees I also think of women, especially the women of myth who turned themselves into trees or were turned by others into them – but I also associate trees with genuinely kind, loving and heroic men like Dr. Lynn Rogers who has advocated for white pine trees in Minnesota for decades…

 

Because of my intimate relationship with trees and plants I experience their losses on a visceral level, and am presently dealing with the violence that one man enacted on the limbs of the gracious cottonwoods that once created a cathedral on the path to the river. I told this man that what he did to the trees by chopping off their limbs, he did to me, and of course, that was his intent. This act of personal revenge for some imagined slight has left me grieving.

 

What I didn’t realize until this morning is that my dreams forecast this egregious action before it occurred. It was written into the stars and part of one man’s pathology. What he gained is questionable because as a tree woman I will not forgive him… I create a deliberate intention to remember… and perhaps in the process I can in some way “re-member” those broken cottonwood limbs returning them to wholeness like the girl who lost her hands.

Forgiveness is sometimes a way to release one’s hold on truths that often need personal attention. And violence is perhaps most deadly when it occurs covertly because hidden brutality paves the way for “forget it and just move on,” not surprisingly, this tree maiming man’s philosophy… he lives it well.

So I approach this time of year grieving personal loss and giving thanks for the trees that bind; all of whom hold me in their arms with Love.

Where We Are Now

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I have this frightening dream after I finally fall asleep election night.

Just an image: I see bleached, broken, slashed, and severed tree roots scattered over the entire horizon – which seems to stretch out in front of me in all directions – the ground, as far as I can see is flat and has become a wasteland. The only color in the dream is ash gray.

Context:

In my personal mythology I see the “Tree Mothers” as Wise Ones, Guides, some are personal friends of mine who literally support and nurture me (and all creatures and peoples) on the Earth.

Without trees I cannot (literally) breathe. Either can other mammals.

On an archetypal or collective level the image speaks to the World Tree or the “Tree of Life.” The trees have been shattered, severed and uprooted. The trees are dead. The bone –like aspect of the trees is “familiar” – the tree roots look like human bones.

Roots are what hold us in place. Roots attach us to trees, each other and to the earth – we have been severed from our roots.

The ground is barren – unable to support life

The bleached tree, person/animal like bones speak to death and the wasteland ahead.

Commentary:

When I came here to the high desert of northern New Mexico I fell in love with every fragrant juniper and pinon pine. People who come here complain the the trees are not big enough, and I watch how the birds fly in and out of their thick boughs which in the fall are thick with “berries” and can only feel gratitude that these trees will get to live out their natural life spans – Junipers can live to be thousands of years old. I find the gnarled trunks of the junipers especially beautiful and the roots extend out in the most imaginative ways – snaking around stones and the infrequent flooding of the washes.

My home in Maine has many trees on it that have been nurtured and loved by me for thirty years. As much as I love it here I still miss my northern trees. What I don’t miss is knowing that the trees (except for mine) will be slaughtered before they reach thirty years old because we log continuously in the area where I have my home… Maine has less than 16 percent of “mature” forest left. To be living in a place where I can simply be with trees in peace without ongoing grief has been such a reprieve.

So to have this bone – dead tree dream here in a place where I can appreciate trees and their roots, not to mention their age, on the night of the election seems especially alarming.

It is apparent that Nature knows she is under siege like never before.