| Last week, we had to take down a tree. I really hated to do so, but its precarious tilt toward the area where we park our vehicles left us no choice. We held council, walked around it several times, debated possibilities, delayed as long as possible the final decision, and finally came to the conclusion there was no way to save it. The tree was a Post Oak, and though not large in diameter, had over the decades stretched itself to quite an admirable height. Thick Poison Ivy vines grew up its sides all the way to the tangle of limbs toward the top. The strong winds from the south a few weeks ago had bent it northward and uncovered many of its large roots. The storm from the north that came through last week tilted it the other way and uncovered many more roots. It did not have the healthy look of the other oaks around it. Its bark was pale gray, deeply fissured and peeled away as if it were a shucked ear of corn. Beneath the bark, insect furrows ran the circumference. Small, circuitous channels bored with years of relentless gnawing into the very heart of its pulp. Few of its limbs had leaves. Early in its history, barbwire had been wrapped around it. As the tree grew, it gathered the wire into its bosom and made it a part of its woody sinew.
A friend came over with his chainsaw. He laid the malicious clawed teeth of the chain against the trunk and in but seconds, the mighty oak topped from its state of dignified grace and crashed ignominiously to the earth like a fallen warrior.
Donald Peattie in his wonderful book, The Natural History of Trees, writes of the Post Oak:
Look for this Oak on poor or sandy upland soils, where it
Stands forth, bold but somewhat ungainly since it is a
Knotty tree whose dead limbs tend to adhere to the trunk.
But its sturdiness commended it to the pioneers, who
chose it for their fence posts and thus gave it a name.
It might, however, as well be called Crosstie Oak, since
some of the first rails in America were laid upon it, so
that in its way it was a pioneer itself.
I think the reason I like trees so much is that I grew up in West Texas where trees are as scarce as a frog at a Heron rookery. The only prevalent tree was the Mesquite, which only merits the designation "tree" by the almost complete lack of competitors. Close to creek beds (nearly always dry), Cottonwoods could be found but they always had the look of wishing to be somewhere else and actually on their way there. Huge limbs were shed by the ever-present wind, clumps of leaves littered the ground around them, and even their shade seemed reluctant to cast its shadow in the presence of the merciless sun.
Another contributing factor to my appreciation of trees was the fact that my father loved them. In our front yard, he planted two Cottonwoods that grew to majestic height and seemed so satisfied with their surroundings, they never dropped limbs or clumps of leaves as did their less-satisfied cousins in the dry creek beds. On the north side of the house, he planted a Mimosa tree surrounded by a brick-circled flowerbed. He left the backyard free of trees as a contribution to my adolescent social life, for it was here each evening, fifteen-to-twenty of my neighborhood friends would gather for games of football, Red Rover, telling of tall tales, and other games we came up with to wile away the evening hours in each other's company. I knew he would like to have had trees there, too, but his well-kept yard was too much of a draw for us kids. It provided an important venue for the gaining of social graces and the inevitable, but equally important, broken bones and hearts.
At the pens for the bird dogs, he had me plant Salt Cedars, the only tree that would grow in the alkaline soil surrounding the oil refinery where all our neighbors were employed. The high-strung dogs seemed to appreciate the minimal amount of shade provided to them, as they lay deathlike on hot summer afternoons.
E.O. Wilson, the famed Harvard sociobiologist, thinks humans have a love/hate relationship toward trees. He suggests it stems from an archetypical memory deep in our genetic recesses from the time of our origin on the African savannahs. Not only were humans present, but also large, hungry predators of humans. Those of our ancestors who had an appreciation of low-cut grass around their abodes and of cropping the trees surrounding them were able to see danger coming and thereby protect themselves from becoming an early evening snack. Thus, they survived and produced offspring with the same taste for well-mowed lawns and trees with their low limbs cut off and foliage formed into a round canopy. Our ancestors who had no such taste found themselves low on the food chain and, thus, did not have offspring who shared their less successful aesthetics.
The "hate" part of this relationship comes from the ancient fear of what might be lurking unseen in the deep foliage of trees. I have friends even today who feel much safer in the domain of urban malls than in the secluded woods of even a nature preserve. This antipathy is historic in nature and without other reasonable explanation since such predators have long been vanquished from our world. But the antipathy is still real.
I think it helps explain an event that took place here at Edge of the Earth Rd. barely a week after we moved in. The county decided to make our road an "all weather" road. Little did I know the devastation that would follow on the heels of that decision...
Just to the south of our property bordering the road is a deep ditch, once a creek bed. It was filled with Cottonwood, Southern Catalpa, and native oak trees. First to appear were men with chainsaws who came and began cutting down any tree whose limbs overhung the roadway. Following them were the men driving diesel bulldozers and backhoes. Before I could even respond to their presence, the backhoes began to claw at the most vulnerable of the smaller trees, pulling at the roots and dislodging them from their fragile earth footings. The bulldozers then took aim at the larger ones and raced furiously into the fray, pushing over Cottonwoods and oaks that had stood for decades. I went to them, pleading with them to desist and asking them why such devastation was necessary. "It's our road," was the only answer they gave. Again and again, I watched powerlessly as the assault continued. Huge limbs snapped and trunks gave way with resounding cracks I could only imagine as screams.
The carnage lasted four days and when it was over, the ditch looked like a bombing site in Kosovo. Instead of having tall, majestic stands of trees sheltering our house from sight, now there were huge gapes in the canopy. The fallen trees were piled against the few remaining ones, bending them with the weight of the refuse. Even the trees that remained had marks left on them from the battle. Huge gashes in the bark wept with sap.
Since then, I have had much of the fallen timber cut away from the live trees to relieve the strain, but even with that, four large trees have since died and the largest of the Cottonwoods is definitely not well.
When a tree comes down, all the life that was that tree and existed in that tree comes down with it. Decades of growth are laid waste. Coming down with it are insect colonies, bird nests, roosting habitat, food supplies, protective cover and, most importantly, all the potential for what it would ever provide. In the movie "Unforgiven," Clint Eastwood says, "It's a terrible thing to kill a man; you take away all he ever was and all he ever will be." The very same poignant statement could be said of a tree.
So, it was not an easy decision to bring down the Post Oak, even as diseased as it was. I counted the rings on the stump. Twenty-eight of them gave me a biography of its life, the good years and the not-so-good. The limbs were stacked in a second brush pile in the pasture to give cover to rodent, hare, and the shy sparrow. Three large logs were cut and retained. They will be used somewhere around the place in an effective manner of wildlife preservation.
Late in the afternoon, after the tree had been cleared away, the small timber stacked, and the large limbs and vines put in the brush pile, our friend helping us found a snake coiled within a couple of feet of where he was working. I came over to look at it. It was a Copperhead, I think the most beautiful of all Oklahoma reptiles. Its dark cream and off-white color pattern is a perfect match for the background in which it resides. I asked my friend if he would like for me to take the snake on into the woods and release him there. He shook his head. "Nah, I'll just work around him."
That is a sentiment I most respect and appreciate. I like to think that is what we do around our place, just "work around nature." Respecting it and giving it room to provide all that it does.
"The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug...."
Wendell Berry, "The Man Born to Farming"
At least, that is the way we see it here at Edge of the Earth Road.
|Edge of the Earth Rd. Journal|
July 2, 2001
give me trees with the fur on."
|(c) Copyrighted by Phil Floyd 2002|
|Henry David Thoreau|
I have recently been thinking about trees. This surprises me a bit since I am more of a bird, reptile, mammal, insect, and blooming flower kind of person. I think the reason I am more given to the above list than to trees is due to the lack of freelancing trees do. Where they were last year is where they will be this year, and the leaves they put on last year will look pretty much like the leaves they put on this year. Maybe they grow a bit taller and add a bit of canopy width but on the whole, the tree I saw last year is the tree I am seeing this year.
This is not true with birds, reptiles, mammals, insects, and blooming flowers. All these move in varying patterns from year to year even though they show up in timely fashion within days of the date of their appearance last year. So far this year, eighty species of birds have already appeared here at Edge of the Earth Road. There are five more I have heard but not seen and have not been able to identify by their song. (Never have been very good at that. Tin ear, I suppose.) Have not seen very many reptiles other than a couple of skinks and the small Copperhead that made three early winter appearances on our living room floor. All the usual mammals are here but make their appearances in subtle, nocturnal visits so as to elude detection by our ever mammal-sensitive dogs. The insects are slow to arrive en masse but watching the birds voraciously feed, I know their presence, though unseen by me, does not go unnoticed. I should report, though, that just today I found a Walnut Sphinx moth and Gulf Fritillary Caterpillar on the front porch.
Ah, the blooming flowers! By far this is the best year yet as they line the roadways, cover the fields, and use every niche between rock and tree to gain hold and burst forth in botanical flame. Just sitting here at the window I can see Ohio Spiderwort, Asiatic Dayflowers, False Dandelion, Wine Cup, Queen Anne's Lace, and Indian Paintbrush. It is true they look as they did last year but with such an unexpected annual flair of petal exuberance, each year's sighting seems as if the first.
With spring's visual assault by the above-mentioned flowers, however, trees seem to pale in comparison. In fact, when I think about it, trees really only come into their own as they move toward dormancy, their leaves dying with short-lived flashes of color, and dropping like fallen warriors to leave bare for winter the bark-shrouded limbs. Trees are stately and magnificent in their demeanor but without the accompanying adornment of sexual attraction possessed by the less rooted of spring.
A hundred and fifty years ago, the whole area that encompasses where I live was a vast forest known as the Cross Timbers. Washington Irving passed through the area in the early 1830's and named it "The Cast Iron Forest." He did so after the short-statured but densely entwined limbs of the Post Oak literally ripped his riding cloak from his person. It was as if the trees were aware of his presence and determined against his exploration of their secrets.
For centuries the Cross Timbers seemed an impenetrable barrier between east and west that not even the American Indian tribes traversed. With the arrival of early pioneers and jubilant immigrants in the late 1800's, the forest found itself under full assault. Post Oak carries its name due to the fact that it made such excellent posts for fencing. Fencing, building small dugout shelters, fuel for cook stoves, and the desire for open land on which to plant crops, thinned the forest to its present state of a few disconnected stands of trees, a poor replica of what it was and certainly never will be again.
The assault is not over and I think this is why trees have been on my mind lately. Evolutionists have suggested the type of tree a human most likes is possessed of high limbs and a cropped canopy. The reason is these kinds of trees do not allow for a hidden attack from above by a predator. Our evolutionary ancestors liked these kinds of trees, too. Their peers who liked the deep dark tangle of dense forests were eaten and therefore deprived of the opportunity to produce heirs. Thought we no longer must endure the presence of real predators, our attitude toward trees carries a remnant of genetically empowered distrust.
In driving the back roads southeast of Lexington the past 3 months, I have noticed a great deal of work being done on the small roads that make up the one-mile grids of access we who live out here use. Some are being paved while others are being widened and fresh gravel laid down. I presume this is for the sake of progress; however, I must say I enjoyed the old ruts and narrow bottlenecks now gone. Meeting an oncoming vehicle required both of us to slow to a snail's pace which gave ample opportunity to roll down a window, give a friendly wave, and maybe even exchange a few words. Now, I only fear for my windshield as we pass each other in the haste we all seem to share of getting from here to there.
It is the trees, though, that have suffered the most. Every back road worked on has vast areas of earth bordering the road itself denuded of all vegetation. Trees hundreds of years old have been bulldozed, hacked, and piled in towering lumps like the bodies of the poor during a medieval plague. Where the bird, squirrel, climbing vine, and boring insect once abided is now a sterile patch of muddy earth, reminding me more of a vacant lot than a country road.
Why this animus to trees? Recently a family moved in on one of these roads by bringing in a sizable trailer and settling in. Before they did so, all of the trees of the woods were hewn and now the trailer sits exposed on a landscape bare of anything even resembling nature. When my wife and I moved into our house on Edge of the Earth Road four years ago, the very first week the road crews came in and bulldozed down the old Cross Timber forest that shaded us from sight of the road's travelers hastening to their private destinations. Our protests did not fall on deaf ears but rather only encouraged the wrath of the bellowing dozer as it hammered away at the stately oaks that finally gave way with the horrible shrieks of breaking timber.
I recently read an excellent analogy on nature and our relationship with it. Imagine a giant machine filled with huge wheels, chains, levers, and other assorted parts. The machine is wonderful in its workings. On inspection, it is noticed that all the larger parts that seem to do all the work are somehow filled with smaller and smaller parts whose purpose is a mystery. Only a fool would remove these small gears and cogs and still expect the giant machine to work beautifully. Only a fool.
Nature works beautifully. It is an absolute wonder. It awes us at every turn. However, we have been more than a bit foolish about it. The small things within it of which we can discern no immediate purpose, we have removed for generation after generation, in this case, one tree at a time.
The epigram that introduces this article is from the movie, "Pulp Fiction." Pip, the character who says it, is a killer. He is explaining to someone he is fixing to kill why he seldom gets to eat hamburgers. His girlfriend is a vegetarian. Therefore, that makes HIM a vegetarian. It is a very, very funny line.
I have never met anyone who did not say that they "love nature." Of course, we all love nature. Who could not love nature? Nature's beauty is plentiful enough to easily spread around among us. Back to Pip. We all realize that having a girlfriend who is a vegetarian does not make US a vegetarian. Do we also realize that sharing a love of nature in no way makes us lovers of nature? To love something, respect for it is the greatest requirement. Without respect, love is even less than a four-letter word.
I am not a "tree-hugger." I have never hugged a tree in my life although I have nothing against anyone who might wish to do so. I readily admit, however, that I do respect them and their place in our world. I wince at the thought of another one falling to human whim.
So my advice to all of us is next time any of us encounters a tree, show a little respect. It is the difference between loving nature as if it were something separate from us and being lovers of nature of which we are but one part.
|"My girlfriend is a vegetarian so that pretty much makes me one."
|Pip in "Pulp Fiction"|
|May 18, 2003
(copyrighted by Phil Floyd 2003)