This morning, I found myself daydreaming about some of the famously strange trees of the world that I have yet to see: baobabs in East Africa, the Tule cypress, the fig trees whose roots are trained into living bridges in Cherrapunji, India, the dragon’s blood trees of Socotra Island… Then I remembered that I have actually seen some pretty great arboreal sights in my time: a cloud forest in Honduras, 2000-year-old bristlecone pines, Japanese maples at the moss garden temple in Kyoto, giant redwoods and sequoias, and an old-growth baldcypress-tupelo swamp forest in Arkansas came to mind.
And then I started thinking about some of our visitors here over the years to whom our own homely trees must’ve seemed a little exotic. In my last year of college, for example (1987 if you want to know), I was friendly with some grad students from northern China, and they invited themselves out in mid-October to see the fall foliage. It was a little early for our oaks, but they oo’d and ah’d over the flaming maples. The thing that struck them most of all, though, was the fact that all these trees grew on their own without having been planted, and that we also didn’t have to water them — they just couldn’t get over that.
Another time, my parents hosted a friend from Peru, a sociologist and poet who’d gotten a teaching gig in Kansas for the year and came out east to visit us. It was early spring, and he was agog at all the damage that an ice storm had wrought among the brittle black locust trees all along the upper edge of the field. After listening to my dad talk about disturbance regimes and forest succession for a while, he stopped and said, “But Bruce — how are you going to FIX them?”
Actually, the amount of standing dead trees and fallen woody debris in our woods might strike many native Pennsylvanians as a bit strange, too. Most forests, private and public, have been managed more intensively than ours; the market for hardwood being what it is, relatively few oak forests around here are allowed to age much beyond 80 years. In fact, our former neighbor Margaret, who grew up in the 1920s and 30s when the hollow was still recovering from being cut-over in the late 19th and early 20th century, told us before she died in 1991 that she thought the hollow had become very messy. She couldn’t remember ever seeing so many logs on the ground.
And since the majority of Americans now have grown up in the suburbs, they are probably used to seeing pretty well-groomed stands of trees. One exceedingly urban colleague of my dad’s at Penn State years ago simply refused to believe him when he told her that we had to carry a chainsaw in the back of the car, because trees regularly fell across our mile-and-half-long access road. This didn’t happen in any of the local parks, as far as she knew. “There must be something wrong with your trees!” she insisted.
It’s all in what you’re used to looking at, I guess. One thing about forests almost anywhere in the world: they’re very good at confounding one’s expectations. And the older they get, the stranger and more perverse they become.
Update: See the follow-up post, “Arborophobia,” for some more reactions to our woods.