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?

Lunch Break, with Chipmunks

While I was eating lunch yesterday, I noticed one of the chipmunks digging a shallow hole in the grout between two of our patio stones. Or, at least, I thought she was digging…really, she turned out to be uncovering a food cache she must have made some time before.

(A side note about chipmunk holes: what they dig up, they often re-cover…also, they’re aerating for free, so let them do their thing; chipmunk poisoning is terrible karma. *Ahem,* certain neighbors.)

Anyway, I watched the chipmunk unbury pieces of walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, and almonds; stuffing them in her cheek pouches and scurrying away to relocate them to another location. I remember seeing something similar last year, so I wonder if chipmunks engage in a sort of Fall pantry re-organizing?

This continued…

I grabbed my camera and knelt to take photos through the window. I focused on the hole at first, so it took me a few minutes to notice that the chipmunk was coming from two different directions. Because she was actually two chipmunks, not one!

I presume the first one was the original maker of the cache, and the second one- who I caught watching from a distance before darting in, once the first one ran off- was a little thief.

The second chipmunk alternated turns with the first, who it seems didn’t notice she wasn’t the only one re-pantrying…until she made one last trip…and found her cache already empty!

Her reaction? A deep-dive into the small hole, probably checking that everything was, in fact, gone; and then, a righteously indignant question-mark tail!

It was a lovely way to spend a lunch break.

In Which the Raccoons Steal the Show

Some mornings when we check the wildlife camera, we see there hasn’t been much, or sometimes any, action overnight. We haven’t been surveilling for long enough to tell if this is due to temperature, weather conditions, or some other variation (like the presence of a predator we can’t see, nearby street noise or traffic, the phase of the moon, or better offerings elsewhere). But other nights are the opposite!

In the latest wildlife camera montage, you can see some brief clips from the 26th, the 28th, and the 29th of September…but the real fun is the footage from the 30th.

We have Cougar the feral/outdoor cat; the appearance of a mysterious past-midnight bunny we’ve named Max (why is he out so late? is he a vampire? or just having a late-night snack?); Friday the young opossum; his mother, Star (she’s the larger possum with the leg injury; we have been following her for months and she is particularly dear to our hearts); and, finally, the dynamic duo of Bandit and Tanuki, raccoons at-large.

Enjoy the show!

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.