Tag Archives: Lab Girl

Earth’s Second Chance

photo by Paul Mayer

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

“A culture is no better than its woods.” W.H. Auden

 

Even in fiction, trees seem to be leading characters in every book my friend, Diana, and I are reading lately. One book runs into another, no, it grows into another and gets passed back and forth. I see no end to it. We are on a tear, Diana and I.

The Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren

The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

The Living, by Annie Dillard

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

 

You have to remember: one third of the earth’s land was once forested.

Many of us have a tree we remember from childhood, when trees really were main characters in our lives. It was an apple tree for me in Connecticut. Its branches were as familiar as the fingers on my hands. Being up in the tree was nothing less than Swiss Family Robinson in my mind, until I was called down for dinner.

Two trees in particular captured Diana’s imagination growing up in Pittsburgh. One was a neighbor’s large mulberry tree with branches reaching into her yard. She and her friends constructed tents, “sort of girl clubhouses,” by hanging sheets from the branches. “Late in the summertime, there would be blue/black mulberries all over both yards, and we’d always have stained feet and shoes from running around back there.”

“The other personal tree was a tall fir in front of my grandparents’ summer cottage in Slippery Rock. As a young girl, I used to climb high into that tree, and just perch up there. It smelled like Christmas, and I loved being up in that tree. Nobody knew where I was, nobody could see me up there… my own private getaway.”

Decades later, Diana is once again fortunate to have a certain tree in her life, known as Grandfather Tree. “What can I say about him?” she asks. “Well, it starts with thinking about how long he’s been here, keeping watch over everything… It’s weathered storms and heat, it once held a treehouse where kids played, it survived the awful chainsaw “trimming” of limbs, it’s a favorite perch for bald eagles when they are in the neighborhood, it’s got families of ants running up and down its trunk all day, and it just feels sacred to me.”

In white hands, most of our trees were cut down east to west and on both sides of the US/Canadian border. With a few old-growth exceptions such as Grandfather Tree on island, most of our woods today are second-growth. Today we respect our forests as we do our gardens, but the early twentieth century woods witnessed unbridled logging much like whaling at sea.

“When a colonist looked at a pine tree he saw a ship’s mast; in an oak he saw barrel staves.” (Michael Pollen, Second Nature)

Native Americans knew how to look at trees, how to live with trees, and love them. “The Indian landscape was animated by all manner of spirits, and trees were thought to possess venerable souls one was careful not to offend. In the shade of certain trees one found insight. Trees had feeling, eyes, and ears… and you did not cut one down unless absolutely necessary. Even then,” continues Michael Pollen, “you took the trouble to explain your reasons to the tree and beg its forgiveness.”

Second-growth forests are earth’s second chance, so to speak. And another opportunity for us to recapture, as my friend has, what we knew when we were young.

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Filed under colonists, logging, Native American

Bonanza

photo by Paul Mayer

 

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

After her divorce, my youngest sister moved closer to the center of town. Her street is a cul de sac primarily of duplexes, inhabited by highly educated, multi-ethnic, mixed-aged residents, both married and divorced. This is where she now rents and where she has found a real neighborhood.

A small creek runs behind my sister’s house, visible from the window over the kitchen sink. And just beyond the homes at the end of the cul-de-sac: train tracks. Where a commuter train frequently comes whistling through, connecting ‘burbs such as hers to downtown Boston.

The sound of the train gives me comfort when I visit. Day and night it’s a type of clockwork. As in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, everything seems to be running on time, as it should. But I know I derive more pleasure from this than my sister, for train trips had filled our family’s earliest vacations. By the time she was born, our family was flying.

After my divorce, I flung myself out to California. The seed for that, I believe, was planted long ago on those family train trips west to explore the national parks and reach The Pacific. I will always credit the railroad for opening my world. Whether the seed was planted in me, or I left a part of myself there, I don’t know. But I came to live out west and have given it the greater part of my life.

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known to only that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow. 

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited. Hope Jahren, Lab Girl

The west calls to me with its wide open spaces and quietude—even in the cities, where drivers don’t lean on their horns and honk. I applaud that. When I fly back to Seattle from Boston, even the freeways feel like meditation. After all that honking and yelling and road rage.

One girl’s Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood; the other girl’s Bonanza. In one scenario a track runs round n round an idyllic village on a model train table. In the other, the tracks go the distance and seem to disappear, only to start a whole new life somewhere.

What calls people west? What makes some New Englanders stay and others go? Come to think of it, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood was not only what my sister needed at the time, but what she has always wanted. Whereas I was always pushing out.

We are each given one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable.

My husband must be the same sort of soul. We recently recounted to a friend all the places we had lived since marrying, and how long now in The Pacific Northwest. “You are like the pioneers,” he smiled and said, “who settled here because this is where the wagon wheels fell off.”

I think that’s it. We age and we slow down or find ourselves at last.

Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.

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Filed under moving west

Of Trees and Seas

Starfish

BY KIMBERLY MAYER

When Susan Orlean asked John Laroche in her book The Orchid Thief why he loved plants, “He said he admired how adaptable and mutable they are, how they have figured out how to survive in the world.”

But I wonder… we may outfox them yet.

I recently picked up and devoured Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, a memoir of a woman in the natural sciences. But whereas I might come at nature from the I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree brain hemisphere, Jahren, recipient of three Fulbright Awards in geobiology and tenured professor at the University of Hawai’i in Honolulu, sounded alarms good and loud from the science department.

“Planet Earth is nearly a Dr. Seuss book made real: every year since 1990 we have created more than 8 billion new stumps,” she states. “If we continue to fell healthy trees at this rate, less than 600 years from now, every tree on this planet will have been reduced to a stump.”

Some disappearances happen almost without notice in the course of one’s lifetime. Some in a matter of decades—like the colorful coral reefs in the Caribbean, now bleached. And some practically before one’s eyes, such as the magnificently large orange, red, and purple sea stars that lit up our boating trips to marinas in the Puget Sound just a few short years ago.

You know it’s a good book when what you are reading puts you in the author’s mindset. Lab Girl had me seeing like a scientist. While she examined seeds, soil, and trees, I hopped on a dock at Ganges Marina on Salt Springs Island, British Columbia and spotted starfish—something whose disappearance we have witnessed. The West Coast starfish Plague. First they go clear, and then they are gone.

You can’t imagine my delight in finding one.

Like sea life, “plants have more enemies than can be counted,” notes Jahren.

At the end of her memoir she requests that each reader plant a tree, nurture, and protect it. And “to try to see the world from its perspective.” For we are all in this together, the trees, sea stars, and us.

Here’s hoping Lab Girl sells, and sells well.

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Filed under starfish, the environment, trees