Haunted tree

honey locust pods

“We live on a continent of ghosts,” paleoecologist Paul Martin once wrote, “their prehistoric presence hinted at by sweet-tasting pods of mesquite, honey locust, and monkey ear.” The honey locust pods with their sweet pulp and indigestible seeds seem designed to tempt a very large mammal with indiscriminate eating habits — a ground sloth, a mastodon, a mammoth. Today’s critters might eat the pulp, but they don’t touch the seeds. Were it not for humans planting honey locust cultivars, the tree might still be restricted to wet areas, its seeds dispersed only by flood waters.

honey locust thorns

There’s something especially haunting about the locust’s formidable thorns, hard enough to make a serviceable substitute for nails, and growing several meters up the trunk. Nothing alive today presents much of a threat to the tree, but imagine bearing a yearly bonanza of tempting sweets on brittle wood and not having some way to keep a herd of hungry mastodons from trampling you or a ground sloth from ripping down your limbs.

honey locust pods

The Appalachians are a haunted landscape in many ways, as I’ve written before. Their ecological communities are still reeling from the loss of such key species as the Eastern cougar, the American chestnut and the passenger pigeon in the 19th and 20th centuries. The forest itself is ghostly, a nearly transparent outline of its former self. And as species such as the honey locust and the Kentucky coffee tree attest, even the Pleistocene wasn’t so long ago. The Indians whose arrowheads may be found in abundance in the field a stone’s throw away from this tree in Sinking Valley, Pennsylvania, may not have hunted for mastodons, but their ancestors surely did.

painted rock

13,000 years isn’t a very long time — not even for people. Artists were painting the European megafauna as early as 16,500 years ago in Altamira Cave, in what is now France. Today, their distant descendents spray-paint the rocks outside a small limestone cave at the foot of the aforementioned field, across the road from the honey locust tree.

Humans, too, evolved with megafauna, and I believe some of our behavior patterns still reflect this association. We tend to reproduce, for example, as if we expected a saber-toothed tiger to eat half our offspring. And in our nightmares we are stalked by monstrous things which often have no real counterpart in the world as we know it — or should I say, as we have made it, we and our ancient hunting partners, the dogs. Together we have tamed the earth, and orphaned ourselves in the process. Which is, perhaps, the scariest thought of all.

Written for the November 1 edition of the Festival of the Trees (deadline: October 29).

14 Comments


  1. Here in Aotearoa/New Zealand we too live in a haunted landscape, but the ghosts are those of birds, particularly moa. They’re long gone, but live on in peculiar aspects of our flora — for example, the high incidence of divaricating shrubs is sometimes considered (albeit controversially) an adaptation to protect the plant against moa browsing.

    That penultimate sentence is very well put, Dave. It reminds me strongly of Thoreau’s famous and widely misquoted claim, “In wildness is the preservation of the world”. The all-too-common misquote replaces “wildness” with “wilderness” — a very different concept (Jack Turner has an excellent essay on the subject in The Abstract Wild), but

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Yeah, I’d heard about the moas — and like our megafauna, their disappearance followed the arrival of human beings. Sad. and you’re right, wildness is different and more important than mere wilderness. It can permeate our lives if we let it. It doesn’t have to remain apart.

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  2. Doh!

    but… what? How did that get there? What thought got away?

    Maybe someone else will complete it.

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    1. Have you spent time in Japan? In conversational Japanese, most sentences end with “but,” I think!

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  3. I just finished Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Prodigal Summer, one of the major themes of which is the haunted nature of the Appalachian forests: the ghosts of red wolves and Carolina parakeets and chestnut trees. So this was very timely. I remember the first time I heard the theory about locust spines being a defense against mammoths and their kin – it took my breath away. It’s amazing that creatures so long gone continue to shape our landscape.

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  4. even the spines have spines! enjoyed this, thank-you.

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  5. thanks for the walk back into time. this is still hard to grasp: “13,000 years isn’t a very long time — not even for people”

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    1. Not very long in comparison with our existence as a species, I should’ve said. It’s only the near edge of deep time, really.

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