Speak for the Trees

I remember the moment it occurred to me that trees could be older than me. I was eight years old, in my grandparents’ yard, marveling at a (to me) giant tree that had a swing hung from one of its branches. I’m sorry to say that I don’t know what kind of tree it was, but I remember it had grayish corrugated bark, and it was too big for me to throw my arms around. I had previously considered that adults had seen things that I hadn’t, but that was the first time I imagined a tree living through a different historical era.

Many years later, my husband and I visited Elizabethan Gardens in Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and saw an ancient live Oak that horticulturalists estimate to be over 400 years old. It’s at the back of the Great Lawn, near Roanoke Sound, and of fame because its life intersected with the arrival of the first (and subsequently “lost”) English colonists. Though the gardens are beautiful and tranquil, that ancient Oak is, for me, the highlight. It has witnessed and withstood so much and it reigns over the place where it’s planted.

I’m thinking about all this today because, this weekend, I did some photography work for my realtor husband, and it involved me taking photos of some land for an out-of-country investor client of his.

The land is not far from where we live; it once held a mansion, a carriage house, a pool, a sculpture garden…so many trees. It was the sort of place you could *just* glimpse from the main road and, if you’re a reader, complete a mental picture of by drawing from your exposure to The Secret Garden and The Great Gatsby. I could, anyway.

The mansion was abandoned, fell into disrepair, was looted, flooded… someone bought the land and razed the building. Razed everything, actually. With no care even for the marble statues, which were bulldozed into a heap and left for anyone with access to a backhoe to salvage and sell or transport to their own properties.

This made the place tragic enough for me already, from a distance; my husband, whose work had allowed him to go on-site at various points throughout the estate’s decay, warned me it would get worse.

And it did.

I don’t know how many trees were cut down, exactly. I expect some of them needed to be cut…but I can’t imagine SO MANY of them needed to come down. Maybe 100? It made me angry…and then, it pierced my heart. Towards the back of the property, we saw an enormous Oak stump that was well over 4 feet in diameter. Even a conservative estimate puts its age at around 250 years old; that means that tree was not only older than me, than us…but that it was older than the U.S. itself, and now it has been decimated into nothing.

I don’t know how someone sleeps at night after cutting down, or ordering cut, a tree like that. I don’t believe trees can be haunted…but this stump was morally haunting.

I don’t care if that sounds dramatic.

I know there are plenty of things to decry in the world…and this is still one of them. In the wise words of The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Musings on Squirrels and on the Limits of Science

When ripe acorns start dropping off of the many Oak trees in our neighborhood, the squirrels mostly disappear from our garden for about six weeks. We still see them when we walk the dogs; working during all the daylight hours and into twilight, gathering acorns one by one and carefully burying them in different spots. But they rarely come to the feeders, and we no longer happen on them dozing in the sunbeams filtering through the leaves of the Dawn Redwood in the afternoons.

But once Squirrel Scramble Season (as my one daughter named it years ago) passes, they decisively return to our garden. Not only do they frequent the feeders again, but they venture onto the patio and beyond (one or two even come up and peer into our kitchen windows and make tail signals).

We put a mix of hazelnuts, pecans, and walnuts out especially for them; some they bury, some they sit in the garden and eat. Some days, a morning feeding is enough to satisfy them, but if it’s really or suddenly cold, we put smaller amounts out at various times of the day (so their nuts don’t freeze). 

Last winter, we gave the regulars names and kept track of how often they visited. So far this year, our visitors all look like yearlings… but they seem more trusting, faster.  Maybe some of them were the young ones brought by their mother late this spring

Some people think of animals as having to learn every bit of not inherited behavior from scratch every generation, but there’s evidence that some species, like apes and crows, relay information across generations. Let me rephrase that: there’s evidence we humans have detected, collected, quantified. 

I greatly respect science…but the more I live in the world, the less it satisfies. Whether we want to acknowledge them or not, there are definite limits to what we can notice and understand into proving. In the natural world. In everything.

What if we met this shortfall by dwelling in possibility?

…As this relates to squirrels, what if we entertained the idea that squirrels too might have a tradition of passing down stories of friends, enemies, adventures and quests across generations…whether we could prove it or not? Whether we could interpret the stories or not?

What would it change if we spent time not just reading about scientific findings, but also considering the vast and astounding possible?

Some Philosophical Thoughts on Instinct

There’s something about this time of year, as (in the Northern hemisphere, at least) the Earth starts its tilt away from the Sun: the sunlight moves through the day faster; its angle bathes the greens in golden tones; the nights are cooler, clearer, starry; the morning dew burns into blue-skied sunshine by midday. On afternoon walks, I notice that the branches haven’t yet begun to burst into flames of color, but a few early-yellowing leaves have been blowing off our river birch. They speckle the lawn, not yet piles.

If Spring makes me feel hopeful, and Summer makes me feel centered, Fall makes me feel restless. At worst, this manifests in heightened anxiety and irritability…at best, in inspiration.

I’ve been thinking about this restlessness while watching the backyard animals and wondering if a part of my response to Fall is instinct. So far removed from the wild life, it’s hard to tell…but I’ve been thinking about what an instinct feels like to an animal. From the inside out, is it like an itch? An urge? A creative drive? 

One of the chipmunks that lives behind our garden boxes was spotted taking mouthfuls of leaf litter into its burrow recently. Beyond our ability to notice, his or her fur has already begun growing thicker. Instead of eating seeds in the sunshine, he or she has begun cacheing hazelnuts. I’ve noticed squirrels too, moving more purposefully than playfully this month. 

And the hummingbirds are a rare sight now. Theirs is the first migration I usually notice (by their absence), followed by the monarchs. The thought of just knowing when to go, and how, and where, when you weigh as much as a sheet of paper, is so awe-inspiring.

All this behavior is instinct. And, though we humans are more practiced at drowning it out, as fellow animals, we must have something of it, too, right?

So what’s the deep, wordless, magnetic wisdom our bodies direct us with this time of year? 

Planning Trees

Before we built our house, there were two dead Oak trees on the lot that we had to have cut down. They were in the way of where our house was going to sit and seemed like a magnet for lightning. Even knowing that, having them cut down pained me. Now, a dozen years later, we have about 30 trees of different kinds on our third of an acre (arborvitae, Japanese maples, Cleveland pears, smoke trees, a redbud, a flowering crabapple, a maple, an oak, a hydrangea, and a river birch). And this fall, we’re planning to plant more. 

There are so many reasons to plant trees– you only need one to spur you to action. (Incidentally, even if you do it yourself, it’s easier than you might imagine. I speak from the experience of, when our kids were tiny and our daylight hours were super busy, planting a tree by flashlight around 11pm at night.)

Trees purify the air we breathe, exchanging the carbon dioxide we exhale for the oxygen we inhale, and filtering dust and pollutants. They provide habitat for wildlife, each one nourishing and hosting communities of fungi, lichen, insects, birds, and mammals. They help the watershed by capturing rainfall and releasing it back into the atmosphere through evaporation…instead of letting rainfall run off over roads, eroding them, and picking up pollutants before going into streams, rivers, and lakes. Trees offer shade, cool the air, and reduce wind speeds. They reduce noise pollution, transforming the whoosh of traffic into the whisper of leaves in a breeze. As far as making a positive environmental impact, planting a tree (or ten) is probably the easiest, cheapest, and most environmentally significant thing most of us can do in our lifetime.

It’s also a good health decision. Trees help lower blood pressure and heart rate. They improve stress and anxiety, and help lift depression.

And undeniably, they stimulate our imaginations. When I was little, each tree was a castle I could climb into, play under, daydream in…I remember some favorite trees in as much detail as I do former houses. I even have favorite animated trees (the ones from Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro). I still daydream under trees as often as I can (and, honestly, I still climb into one when the opportunity presents itself).

And unapologetically, I hug them.

Recalibrating

I’ve been quieter than I’d like to be here lately. Last month, my grandmother died. She lived to be 96 (and a half) years old, and died peacefully at home. Her death was not unexpected, but it was still a loss, and in the weeks since, I’ve been experiencing time in that weird, sometimes-lengthened/sometimes-compressed way you do after a big event or transition. I feel like I need recalibrating.

Being outside usually helps my body snap back into sensing the season/month/day/time correctly, independent of a schedule, but I haven’t been spending as much time outdoors as I’d like either. After my grandmother’s passing, there were the arrangements, the visitation, the funeral, the luncheon…; then, a week-long parade of back-to-school season check-ups and appointments for me and my kids; I developed a skin issue that forced me to stay out of the sun and the prickly heat; then, it rained. I’m getting back to it, but I’m out of my usual rhythms.

My grandmother would not have ever thought of herself as an outdoorsy person, but (like a lot of people) she probably enjoyed nature more than she realized. When she was young, she loved lying in the sunshine and working on her tan; as a wife, mother, and grandmother, she planted flower beds and hosted backyard picnics; when she became home-bound, she loved to hear about my garden and its wildlife, and we set up a feeder outside her living room window so she could watch the birds (and deer, and squirrels) from her favorite chair.

Her favorite bird was the cardinal– I don’t know if because of its personality or its plumage…or just the fact that it is easily identifiable.

The other day, I saw one in the dawn redwood tree and, in spite of feeling out-of-sorts, I felt compelled to follow and photograph it. It kept finding great pockets of light, and it struck me as scrappy and cheery. I don’t believe it was a gift from my grandmother (what do I know?) but I do believe it was a gift, that a reminder of her visited me and recalled her.

A Little Rant on Behalf of the Vulnerable Among Us

Every Fourth of July, I wonder if (American) animals think it’s the end of the world. Imagine what not just one sparkler or firework smells and sounds and looks like to an owl or a deer or a bear or a mouse (or to any farm or domestic animal); imagine thousands popping up in all directions, in no apparent pattern; with little to no warning (unlike, say, storms or forest fires, which at least usually allow some opportunity to run for cover). These traditional celebrations are supposed to inspire pride and patriotism and gratitude for America…but, if you think of them from a different point of view, they’re terrifying.

I tell my kids that the way we treat those who are vulnerable among us says a lot; that you can tell a lot about someone by the way they treat the ill, the foreign-born, the downtrodden, the elderly, children, animals…among many others. That call to compassion and kindness is a challenge for all of us every day, I understand that. But a key to compassion is imagination, and imagination requires some effort.

It’s not just the animals who might feel like it’s the end of the world tonight. Think of veterans with ptsd, people living with anxiety, children with sensory disorders…think of people, if that helps you be kinder to animals (or animals, if it helps you be kinder to people). Does anyone deserve to feel paralyzing panic or a frenetic surge of survival instinct? A terror so great (even if irrational to others) that it triggers your freeze or flight or fight response?

I don’t think this compassion is unpatriotic. Would it be so controversial other days of the year? Other holidays? I love being a (hyphenated) American, but I can celebrate my patriotism in ways other than by burning and blowing stuff up.

Would it be so hard for our towns and cities to transition to quiet fireworks, set off only during certain hours (instead of all weekend long), in designated places (as far away from wildlife as possible)? And for friends and family to celebrate with picnics and stargazing (as an option)?

Some of my family members will be sitting outside watching the display tonight, but some of us will be inside, in the basement, with all the pets. I wish I could extend that offer of freedom from fear to other creatures who might need it.

Stay safe, everyone.

Desire Paths

Reader, here is where I confess that perfectly manicured lawns (and gardens) make me anxious. You will never (ever) find me using pesticide sprays; I will never be accused of over-mowing (on the contrary, sometimes when my husband or son plan to mow the grass, I distract or persuade them out of it).

I love the sight of clover, of grass that’s just tall enough to ripple in the wind like waves (or like fields in Studio Ghibli movies). Even in a tended garden, when I’m outside, I prefer my reminders of humanity to be subtle. And nature, though it has definite elements of symmetry and order, also leans into a fecund sort of untidiness.

And so, the grass over here is often longer (and greener!) than it might be elsewhere in the neighborhood. And recently, I’ve noticed that this has a new practical consequence: in a lawn a bit in need of mowing, the garden wildlife’s desire paths become easier to spot.

I first learned of “desire paths” years ago, when I read Dominique Browning’s book Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener. Also called “desire lines” (or “free-will ways,” or “pirate paths,” or “social trails”), desire paths form out of the erosion of use and convenience, rather than out of design. Mostly, they have to do with the comings and goings of people.

But in the case of the most likely makers of desire paths in our garden (chipmunks and rabbits and squirrels), they lead between food source and cover. Hungry, then satisfied, their lightweight bodies are just heavy enough to part the sea of grass through innumerable round trips of gathering.

I love seeing these little open-air channels through the lawn. And, in trying to create a better environment to track the garden wildlife in, I love having an excuse not to mow too often.

Plus, existentially, these desire paths give me hope that all the little mundane movements all of us creatures make daily leave a mark in some way.