Welcome to the Halloween/Samhain/Day of the Dead edition of the Festival of the Trees! No forest is more full of the dead — or more teeming with life — than an old-growth forest, and what could be spookier than a swamp? So for illustrations this time I’m using some photos my brother Mark Bonta took in his adopted state of Mississippi last spring, on a visit to the Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area. It’s not a so-called virgin or primary forest, since some trees were cut there a century ago, but the biggest and oldest trees were left because they were hollow. Mark says the preserve contains hundreds of giant baldcypress trees with a typical diameter at breast height of 10 feet, as well as the state — and possibly national — champion baldcypress, which is considerably larger than the “average” specimens in these pictures. The best time to visit is in fall, when woods are no longer flooded.
Trees and the Global Environment
Let’s begin where the last edition of the Festival concluded, with a note about my favorite new tree book. At Burning Silo, Bev reviewed Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, by scientist and dancer Nalini M. Nadkarni. (Festival regulars may remember Jade Blackwater’s interview with Nadkarni back in August.)
Trees and forests were implicated in several big news stories this past month. An ongoing study commissioned by the European Union, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) review, finds that the global economy is losing more money from the disappearance of forests than through the current banking crisis. The director of the Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of 37 scientific institutions in 19 countries dedicated to the promotion of forest ecosystem services, observes however that
in global markets today, rainforests are worth more dead than alive. Poor and often opaque governments, with little to sell, offer their rainforests to raise revenue, attracting largely risk capital with strings attached.
The only way to do this is to convert rainforests into something else, usually timber, beef, soy or palm oil that Westerners, and now prosperous Asians, have a burgeoning appetite for.
Most deforestation today is enterprise driven and funded by hedgefunds, pension funds, and other sources of liquidity from capitals often far from, and blind to, the forests they are destroying. Billions in green dollars end up on investors’ balance sheets, but there is a catch: billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide goes up in smoke from the trees burned in the process — and the risk to everyone is building up to a climate credit crisis.
The findings paralleled those of Britain’s Eliasch Review on Climate Change: Financing Global Forests, concerning which the blog for the Woodlands Trust Campaign comments,
By admitting the forest sector to global carbon markets, the role of forests in providing a carbon store to the world is acknowledged but world leaders also need to hear it for all the other life support systems which forests provide us with — clean air, shading, soil protection, water management. All of these and more will be vital in a world where we need to adapt to the change which humankind has already made inevitable as well as trying to mitigate its worst effects.
These European reports come fast on the heels of a new study in the journal Nature which concluded that old-growth forests are the best carbon sinks, not younger forests, as many foresters had thought. And it isn’t just tropical rainforests; northern forests are valuable bulwarks against global warming, as well. Science Daily has the story.
Just yesterday came news of a new study, to be published in the Royal Society journal Philosophical Transactions A, that further strengthens the case for a tie between ancient boreal forests and a stable climate. It seems that conifers release clouds of chemicals called terpenes — I mean, literal clouds, the kind that help block sunlight. So much, perhaps, for the argument that dark forests help accelerate global warming by absorbing more sunlight! Quite the opposite, in fact:
Because trees release more terpenes in warmer weather, the discovery suggests that forests could act as a negative feedback on climate, to dampen future temperature rise. The team looked at forests of mainly pine and spruce trees, but Spracklen said other trees also produce terpenes so the cooling effect should be found in other regions, including tropical rainforests.
The Forest Protection Blog points out that the ongoing logging of ancient forests, some of it allegedly sustainable, flies in the face of these new findings. But if evidence from Tasmania is any indication, it may be a while before politicians in the pay of timber interests get the message.
Tree-huggers are probably having a hard time deciding what to think these days, since from an environmental perspective it’s difficult to assert that a global financial downturn is bad news for the planet. But nowhere was the disconnect between conservationists and capitalists more apparent than in the disparate ways we tended to react to this next piece of news: The citizens of Ecuador voted to adopt a new constitution which is the first in the world to recognize that other species and natural ecosystems have a right to exist, as Grist reports. And I’m proud to say that a Pennsylvania-based group, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, helped draft the language.
Blogger Ben Connor Barrie sounded a note of caution, though. “During my time living in Ecuador, I became acutely aware of the discrepancy between the country’s laws and their enforcement,” he writes. But he agrees that the impact could be far-reaching, noting that Nepal has already been in touch with the CELDF about drafting similar language for its new constitution.
Our intrepid cypress swamp explorers are Eva Bonta, Jim Stallings, and Larry Pace. Sky Lake WMA is located near Belzoni, in Humphreys County, Mississippi, along a 773-acre oxbow lake. The big-tree portion is interspersed with private forest land, and my brother says it is critically important to contact state conservation officer Rob Heflin or local landowner Mark Simmons before attempting to enter the area. Other large trees include water tupelo, hackberry, and willow species, and the area is of immense value to wildlife, due in part to its location along the Mississippi flyway in a heavily agricultural part of the state. It’s also potential habitat for the ivory-billed woodpecker, should that will-o’-the-wisp-like species indeed persist, as some ornithologists now believe based on sightings three years ago from the Arkansas side of the river and other evidence.
The healing power of trees
Of course, many tree species that aren’t major old-growth components provide valuable ecosystem services. Hardy, early succession species play a vital role in preventing erosion and restoring the soil after natural or anthropogenic disturbances. And sometimes, it seems, they can help heal the wounds of war, too. Local ecologist reports on a lecture about war and trees, focusing on Sarajevo. I was interested to learn that the most successful colonist after the war is a tree I know very well, a native of the eastern United States: the black locust, a type of acacia. “The black locust is not a preferred species, but people are loathe to remove any trees because of the destruction that occurred during the war.”
A series of short posts on the drought-tolerant, fire-resistant black oaks (Quercus velutina) at Christian Naturalist intersperse photos with snippets about their identifying features, life history and ecology. As with many other hardwood species, “A lot of regeneration after clear cutting are sprouts from stumps or damaged advance regeneration. Sprouts will grow fast because of the large root system they have to draw from.”
It spits seeds for long distances rather than letting them fall to float on the wind.
The inner bark has long been used to brew a tincture to ward off skin ailments and relieve pain.
Its branches were and maybe still are used as dowsing rods to find water or minerals underground.
Can you guess the species?
I’m sure most readers won’t need to be convinced of the value of trees to mental health. A poem in Poetry Daily — Labor, by Baron Wormser — dwells on the pleasures to be gained from cutting and splitting wood:
I lost interest in everything except for trees.
Career, ambition and politics bored me.
I loved putting on my steel-toe, lace-up
Work boots in the morning. I loved the feel
Of my feet on grass slick with dew or frost
Or ice-skimmed mud or crisp snow crust.
I loved the moment after I felled a tree
When it was still again and I felt the awe
Of what I had done and awe for the tree that had
Stretched toward the sky for silent decades.
The first ritual, however, after the visitation of Brailey’s Firewood and Trucking is not to stack the wood but to breathe and admire it. The smell is sweet and pungent, particularly the oak, and Larry is always sure to get some right up his nose.
If God is the bread, the wine, and the table, presumably of wood, then God is also the three cords of green firewood, cut and split. Take, heat, this is my body which is given for you. The Eucharist, to me, means that the very substance of the world is the body of grace. We eat it, drink it, piss it, breathe it. We are inseparable from it. Love these atoms; this material body matters.
I got religion here myself a few days ago in a post called The Oak Goddess.
Another blogger who takes an experiential approach to religion and healing is Lady Penelope of twisted rib, who introduces us to a new word, botanomancy: “Divination by leaves.” Lady P. doesn’t just define it, though — she tries it out. The results are surprisingly poetic.
They are generally serviceable trees, as well as handsome; they grow fast, live long, and coppice well. The nuts are an optional bonus now, but in past centuries many a French rural dweller was saved from death by famine by eating chestnuts. The timber is good, and has been much used for building. It is said that spiders dislike it and won’t make webs on chestnut wood, so it was practical for chateaux and other high-ceilinged buildings where dusting off cobwebs might pose a problem. It’s reasonable wood for burning, if a little smoky.
Peg Aloi, a blogger with the Boston Nutrition Examiner, writes about eco-apples, which “feature a method of growing that minimizes spraying and utilizes IPM, also known as Integrated Pest Management… [and] take advantage of the ideal growing conditions of Northeast area orchards, like the rich soil and autumn temperatures.”
A press release from the Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation quotes noted dendrochronlogist and baldcypress expert Jim Stahle: “Sky Lake contains some of the largest and oldest baldcypress trees that remain on earth, and they have international scientific significance.” He adds, “We have obtained small core samples from some of the living cypress trees and dead logs that litter the swamp floor at Sky Lake, and many of these individuals are in the 800 to 1,000 year old range. I believe that some of the oldest baldcypress at Sky Lake likely lived for 2,000 years.”
At Creature of the Shade, Jarrett wrote a series of posts on the unique endemic plant species of New Caledonia, including trees such as Dacrydium araucarioides, a strange conifer whose “scales take on a mottled texture that suggest a reptilian agenda” after death. He has the photos to prove it. In another post later in the month, Jarrett writes about a much more common group of trees native to his adopted country of Australia:
Am I the only person who thinks of Doctor Seuss when considering a Eucalyptus? In fantasylands of his children’s books, masses of foliage up in a tree could be platforms, as though the leaf-clouds were firm enough to walk on. I often wondered if the tiered habit of eucalyptus (widely planted in San Diego, where he lived) had been part of his inspiration.
Fish without faces takes us on a photo tour of a bristlecone pine forest: incredibly graceful, ancient beings to whom living seems to be a bit of an afterthought. The UK-based treeblog goes for a wander in Millstones Wood. And trees, if you please takes a walk in the garden — the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, to be exact.
Jean Morris at Tasting Rhubarb, inspired by the new site Postal Poetry, has been making poetry postcards with arboreal themes. Check out Strip, Briefly, and for Halloween, Ghoulish. I can’t quote them without ruining the synergy of image and text, so do go look.
Over on the science end of things, Jennifer at A Passion for Nature introduces us to some denizens of speckled alder and silver maple that are covered with wool and are often the products of virgin birth. “As if that weren’t fascinating enough,” she adds, “you will often find black, sooty spots on the branches. And from these will grow strange, sometimes golden, sometimes black fungi.” And speaking of strange things, in another post this month, Jennifer tells her mother about oak galls.
The Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Foundation is mounting a fund-raising drive to build a boardwalk at Sky Lake. If a small part of this magnificent forest can be made a bit more accessible to the general public, perhaps more people will be inspired not only to protect what they have, but to begin converting other areas into future old-growth forest for the health of the planet.
Living and Dying
“What’s it Like in Michigan these Days?” asks Wrenaissance Reflections. Well, appropriately for the season, it seems that dead trees are much more in evidence than at other times of the year, even as the leaves on living trees die their spectacular deaths all around them.
I am always entranced by incongruous snowfall. This week’s snow washed away all the red-gold autumnal glow. The snow’s gone and we had sunshine today, but the remaining leaves are pale. The pear tree has still not dropped its load of fruit.
Speaking of incongruities, an elderly oak surround by longleaf pine saplings reminded Mary Beth (Switched at Birth) of Monty Python — “I’m Not Dead Yet!”
Hedgerows like these are an increasingly scarce artifact of our agricultural past. As metro regions expand into farmland these patches of rough trees aren’t always held in high esteem. Planted in the 19th century by early settlers to the Midwest these tattered strands are often considered now as nothing more than “junk trees.” This part of the Chicago region is growing rapidly. Only time will tell how long they persist.
Trees can, perhaps, remind us how to live. Here’s something I found this month at my favorite commonplace blog, whiskey river:
I am like a tree in a forest, full of leaves, blossoms and fruit.
Birds come to eat and nest, and animals seek rest in its shade.
Yet the tree does not know itself.
It follows its own nature.
British poet Fiona Robyn contributed two original tree-related poems to the festival, “Autumn” and “Red Tree” —
just a tree most of the year
but in October it cracks open like an egg,
becomes the colour of fights, of lips
men would kill to kiss.
It’s dangerous to talk too long to willows.
Their arguments are twisty turny, and
They flicker in the sun. They will soon have you
Agreeing that there is no difference
Between a sparkle in the air and
The life of an honest man.
Trees don’t think like we do.
…Which sums up as well as anything could the essential strangeness of trees.
Next month, the festival moves to A Neotropical Savanna. Email your links to panamaplants [at] gmail [dot] com by Nov. 29.