Going Nature's Way
I am a tree hugger — literally and philosophically. Maybe it began in grade school after having to memorize the poem "Trees," by Joyce Kilmer. It begins, “I think that I shall never see; A poem lovely as a tree.” When I was a child trees were a source of endless challenge and fun, as climbing them became a regular pursuit. Even today I look at the lower branches of trees when hiking and analyze their suitability for climbing. I admit that occasionally I have tested a few, but with age comes a greater sense of our vulnerability and mortality and I stay on the lower branches.
Trees are vulnerable, too. That was very obvious after the last storm when straight line winds toppled, broke or uprooted large, stately trees that had sheltered many a home for decades. The saturated soil, along with the power of the wind was too much for many of these elders. Some fell on houses and garages, others flattened parked cars. Regardless of where they fell, they left a big hole in people’s lives. We take our trees for granted, until they are suddenly gone. It is always surprising to me how much empty space exists when a tree of any size is taken down. When it has happened in our own yard, I have always felt a sense of loss. While I do not cherish trees as I might a beloved pet, I feel them to be part of our lives.
They provide us with a place to hide from the hot summer sun, and a buffer from the winter winds. If you happen to have a slope in your yard, trees with their great, outstretched roots help hold the soil in place. They offer shelter and food to the birds that we so enjoy listening to each and every day. And the sounds of the wind moving through the leafy boughs can be a soothing night time lullaby. These are the ways we take advantage of trees living near us.
We need trees in so very many ways. You have probably heard them referred to as the lungs of the planet and so they are. While humans and all creatures in the animal kingdom exhale CO2, trees suck it up and in return, release oxygen. Over the past century, through industrialization, we have added more and more CO2 to our atmosphere, while at the same time drastically reducing the forests of the world. Not a good recipe for a healthy ecosystem. Trees not only take in CO2, they also store it in their tissue, creating a "sink" for this greenhouse gas.
And yet, I know very well that we need trees for so many other aspects of our lives. At our home we burn wood in the winter months in our cast iron stove. We sit on wooden chairs, eat on wooden tables, and sleep in wooden bed frames. We write on paper that comes from wood pulp. I know that we must and will continue to harvest trees for our needs, but I also know that our forest management must be sustainable and well planned. Too often in the past we have taken down the oldest of the old, trees that have stood for centuries and were perfectly healthy. These are the behemoths that give rise to others of their kinds and offer countless other species of animal shelter and food.
The Tongass National Forest in Alaska is currently facing some important management decisions. Although the Tongass covers nearly 17 million acres, more than half of the old growth has been cut down. Today, less than one half of one percent of the forest is made up of the giant tree stands.
Clear cutting is a practice that denudes hillsides and allows erosion to remove the irreplaceable topsoil, as well as the mature trees that can help generate new growth through their seeds. Timber companies are usually quick to replant, so that they will have a continued resource, but these trees are all the same age and species and do not provide the same services to the greater ecosystem that a diverse forest does.
We have seen in Colorado this summer what the earlier practice of removing fire from the forests has wrought. As people have moved into these areas, we naturally wanted to protect their homes and lives, but with a warming climate, insects have been able to attack and kill huge stands of conifers. The monstrous and disastrous fires that have blackened whole mountainsides were inevitable. The trees will come back, but in a dry state such as Colorado, it will be a very, very slow process.
I think a lot about the trees on our property. I revel in their summer green cloaks and the way they sway and wave in the wind, but we too live surrounded by forests and are just as vulnerable as those people in Colorado. I hold my breath each spring until things begin to green up and the fire season has passed. I watch the trees closely for signs of disease or decline. Each year we plant a few more, whether flowering crabs in the front yard or red pine seedlings along the fence line. I know I will not live long enough to see them reach great heights, but it still gives me pleasure and satisfaction to know that someone else will. Maybe even another tree hugger like myself.