By Jeffrey M. Bowen
When we moved to our rural location, we were greeted by several towering maple trees that bordered our property and the country road past our house. We estimated they were about 100 feet high, five feet in diameter, and more than 100 years old.
They were dying slowly, if not from old age then from road salt. Every year storms would break off massive limbs and send bushels of leaves into the next county. Roots swelled the ground and threatened mower blades. As these ancient beauties succumbed and were carved down to stumps holding potted flowers, we felt a bit wistful, like we were losing old friends. Little did we think about how the trees might have felt.
Our feeling was not for lack of trees. Miles of hilly woods surround us. Our property is home to apple trees, oaks, black walnut, mountain ash, locust, cottonwood and sumac, among others. We live in a house of wood. Although we have no pines, except around Christmas, many folks out here plant them in rows because they grow fast and afford both privacy and wind breaks.
My affection for trees goes beyond practical. Remember those youthful times when you either climbed up one, or when you had to call the fire department to rescue your cat? Think, too, about all those woodsy refrains like “Norwegian Wood,” “Weeping Willow” or “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.”
Tree imagery is nostalgic and powerful. Joyce Kilmer’s classic line rings true: “I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” Recently I heard a line from the musical “Paint Your Wagon.” It began, “I talk to the trees, but they don’t listen to me.”
Oops, yes they do listen, but in their own language. My heightened awareness of the life of trees was inspired by a PBS special hosted by the actress Judy Dench. She names each tree on her country property after a person. In the broadcast, she interviewed tree experts who showed her how the upward rush of water in a tree trunk is actually noisy if you listen through a stethoscope. She marveled at finding her beech trees respond as a group to the underground networks of fungi extending out from their roots.
Thus made curious, I purchased a little book titled “The Hidden Life of Trees,” by veteran forest manager Peter Wohlleben. I learned that besides supplying essential oxygen and disposing of carbon dioxide, trees prefer to live in forested communities where they share nutrients with their own species and create an ecosystem to moderate heat and cold, store lots of water, generate humidity, and even care for sick companions and help them recover.
I love the smell of pine needles, but had no idea that scent is a crucial method of communication among trees, while fungi provide what amounts to a forest internet and resource exchange system.
My appreciation of trees and forests has grown exponentially. Recently I saw a cartoon showing an axe driven into a stump, with a split log lying on the ground. A comment drifted out of the nearby woodpile: “Oh my God! Not Greg!”
This is funny but real. I am not a true tree hugger, but now I recognize they are social beings and act amazingly human. It just takes them longer than we realize to show it.
Jeffrey M. Bowen, of Delevan, is attuned to the hidden life of trees.