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.