We have a huge walnut tree in our backyard I pass every time I walk the dog in the linear park behind our house. Actually, it’s not technically in our backyard, thank heavens.
I say “thank heavens” because to me, untrained in forestry as I am, the tree appears not long for this world.
Our land is adjacent to a woodlot owned by the township in which we live, part of a linear park. The property boundaries are kind of sketchy. I wasn’t sure precisely where our lot ended and the park began.
The park used to be a dairy farm where cows grazed in the meadow by a very small stream. The cows were fenced in, of course. Our neighbor, the farmer, did not want his cows roaming the neighborhood eating residents’ petunias.
Following a search, I found the remnants of a wire fence that marked the limit of the cows’ territory and also the property boundary embedded in the trunk of the giant walnut tree. The wire was on our side of the tree, so the trunk of the tree is on the township’s side.
The tree, a black walnut, is a behemoth, its diameter much greater than my arm span, probably more than a hundred years old.
Trees, according to Jack C. Schultz, a professor of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri, “are just very slow animals“. Trees communicate, fight predators, protect their young, and move with purpose.
When we look at a grove of aspens, we see individual trees of varying heights, diameters, and shapes all flinging their pale arms fringed with golden leaves skyward. Underground and unseen, however, they are connected by a root system completely intertwined and interdependent.
Events that affect one tree impact all of them. Just like our human support networks.
We may appear like upright, strong, individual people, but there is an unseen connection, a community, that provides us with sustenance and defense.
Also like humans, parent trees nurture their offspring by pumping nutrients into their systems. Young trees, growing up in the shade of a parent may lack sufficient sunlight to photosynthesize.
In response to this, older trees transport sugars to their vulnerable immature neighbors to help them survive their first perilous years.
Trees think about time differently than we humans do; they are in it for the long haul. They move at a much more leisurely pace.
There is a (quite possibly true) story told about the huge oak beams that span the ceiling of the dining hall in New College, Oxford, constructed in the fourteenth century.
In the late 1800s, an entomologist discovered that the beams, infested with beetles, required replacement.
This presented a problem. In the intervening 500 years since the construction of the hall, forests in England and, in fact, much of Europe, were felled. After much searching, there were no suitable oak trees to be found nearby which could provide beams measuring two feet by two feet.
Fortunately, it was eventually discovered that a grove of oak trees had been planted on a remote parcel of land owned by the college immediately upon completion of the construction of the dining hall for exactly this use. These 500-year-old oaks provided the beams needed to replace the crumbling ones.
One striking difference between humans and trees is the often short-sighted behavior of modern people. We value profit in the short-term over the benefits of preserving standing trees in the long-term.
Over half a million square miles of forest land has been intentionally destroyed in the past three decades.
Not only do trees absorb the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and water vapor from the air, but they also sequester them in their bark, wood, and leaves.
Cutting down forests escalates water pollution through the destruction of root systems responsible for preventing soil erosion. When it rains, the unbound soil gets washed into nearby waterways.
While individual trees are firmly rooted in one place and even the famous “walking palm trees” of the tropics don’t actually ambulate, populations of trees have been shown to migrate.
Studies show the single-leaf piñon pine has been migrating northward for thousands of years, since the last ice age, both by natural seed dispersal and through human assistance by ancient Native Americans.
In the last three decades, populations of sugar maples, white oaks, and others have been migrating north, west, and up (to higher elevations) in response to climate change.
The problem with climate change is that it occurs in human-time, not tree-time. Increasing temperatures and changing weather patterns are happening faster than trees can move. Trees migrate over millennia, not decades.
Trees weakened by the effects of climate change are more susceptible to insect infestation, outbreaks of pathogens, increased frequency of forest fires, and invasive alien species.
In the Bible, we are told to expect a day of righteousness, “(W)e are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” We are also told, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven.”
Until then, it’s up to us, here on earth. We are expected to take care of the place, to protect and care for all Creation, to eschew immediate profit for sustainability, to take the long view, to think like a tree.
What acorns can we plant today?
You can find the places I link up here.