KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 11: Spring 2019
Essay: 1,728 words
including
footnotes

Trees Please

by Jack Cooper
 

Plein-air painting by MaRco Elliott: Low tide at Strawberry Hill, Oregon coast
Low tide at Strawberry Hill, Oregon coast
Plein-air painting by MaRco Elliott (July 2018)1


When is the best time to plant a tree? Ten years ago.
—Landscaper’s adage2


I’m in love with trees, and aren’t most of us, really? Few beings hold a more central place in our cultures and myths than trees. Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge. Buddha meditated under the Bodhi Tree. Darwin constructed the Tree of Life. Dr. Seuss created an imaginary species called the Truffula Tree.3 I’d wager that not a single novel has been written without the word “tree,” that there is no artist who has never drawn one, that no inhabitant on earth can claim to be independent of them, even if, like the Inuit, they live north of the line where most plants stop growing.

During the time I spent as a biology student in college, my childhood love of trees turned clinical: measuring photosynthesis, diagramming venation, examining xylem and phloem. Not until after I left graduate school, however, did I take it upon myself to become a lifetime advocate and steward of our tall, green friends. Since then, I have cared for existing trees in four states and three countries, and estimate that I’ve planted some 200 saplings—apple and apricot, fig and fir, pomegranate and ponderosa, a virtual arboreal alphabet. I also sponsored the planting of a California Live Oak in my mother’s name through Tree People and made several contributions to the Arbor Day Foundation,4 among others.

While I’m proud of my tree legacy, Johnny Appleseed (born John Chapman), by comparison, probably planted and managed 100 times as many in his own nurseries across Ontario, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and present-day West Virginia. In Allen County, Indiana alone, he maintained four plots, including a nursery in Milan Township with 15,000 trees.5 One of his trees still lives to this day on a farm in Nova, Ohio, and its seeds and cuttings have been used to propagate hundreds of new ones over the years.6

A study led by Yale University researchers found that there are around three trillion trees on Earth, or just over 400 for each person on the planet.7 That may sound like a lot, but this figure represents less than half the total number of trees that had existed before the rise of humans.8

And more trees are being felled than ever before. Amazing new machines can move through a whole stand of mature hardwoods in minutes, cutting, stripping, and loading in one smooth operation. According to Conservation International, nearly half of the world’s rainforests have been cleared since the 1960s, and tropical forests are being destroyed at a rate of about 31,000 square miles a year—“an area equivalent in size to the state of South Carolina.”9

Unknown title and photographer: Archival image of Chipko forest protectors
Archival photo of Chipko forest protectors10


What a relief to learn that one young engineer refuses to take this news sitting down. Topher White of Rainforest Connection rigged up old cell-phone parts to listen for chainsaw noises in the jungles of Borneo in order to send signals on illegal logging to patrolling rangers. His idea has begun to spread around the world.11

Climate change has brought a different set of traumas to trees. According to Tree Hugger, bristlecone pines, gnarly antiquarians that have survived in an extreme environment for thousands of years, are now dying prematurely. The trees’ survival depends on the long winters and cool mountain climes of the eastern Sierras, now threatened by global warming.12

While higher temperatures have caused some trees to succumb to catastrophic fire, insect, and fungal damage, others are actually growing faster and taller, taking advantage of an extra three weeks of annual warmth on average. A recent study of the forests of Central Europe “suggests the higher temperatures—combined with pollution from auto exhaust and farms—are making wood weaker, resulting in trees that break more easily and lumber that is less durable.”13

Bucking the trend several years ago, Africa began creating a Great Green Wall 10 miles wide and 4,350 miles long across the center of the continent. “The desert is a spreading cancer,” said Abdoulaye Wade, Senegal’s president.14 The goal, to plant 11,000,000 acacia trees to reverse desertification, didn’t work at first. Too many trees were dying. After adopting “simple water harvesting techniques and protecting trees that emerged naturally on their farms,” the plan now seems to be working (Jim Morrison, writing for Smithsonian.com).

Whereas multinational cooperation may be crucial to global reforestation, we shouldn’t discount the potential of more Johnny Appleseeds heeding the call. On an island in India’s Brahamputra River near the borders of Bhutan and Tibet, Jadav Payeng, “The Forest Man of India,” has spent 40 years planting tens of thousands of trees, says Julie McCarthy on NPR. Flooding over time had caused the buildup of sandbars, which choked the vegetation and left the land dry and treeless. But today, it’s teeming with greenery and wildlife. “The dense forest bearing his nickname, Molai, now sprawls over 1,300 acres,” McCarthy says. “Jadav Payeng has single-handedly changed the landscape....”15

Most recently, 1.5 million volunteers from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh set a new Guinness World Record in 2017 by planting more than 66 million tree saplings along the Narmada River in just 12 hours. The previous record had been set the year before by the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, where 800,000 participants planted 50 million trees in one day.16

It could be that the trees themselves are helping these visionaries succeed. Forest ecologist Suzanne Simard gave a Ted Talk a couple of years ago called “How trees talk to each other.”17 Simard, who has conducted research in the field for 30 years, believes that trees communicate among themselves as well as with other plants and animals around them—above ground with seeds and below ground with chemicals. Their “complex, symbiotic networks in our forests—at the hub of which stand what [Simard] calls the ‘mother trees’—mimic our own neural and social networks,”18 giving us one more reason to respect these collaborative living beings.

Trees are emissaries between sky and earth, between breathing in and breathing out, between birth and death. They are color, shade, and sustenance. They are our history and our future. Trees make possible countless life forms, from bird to mushroom. They give people roasted chestnuts, fences, bridges, houses and, yes, crosses, and, yes, poetry.


Plein-air painting by MaRco Elliott: The old chestnut in flower, Péchal
Le vieux marronnier en fleur, Péchal
(The old chestnut in flower, Péchal)

Plein-air painting by MaRco Elliott (August 1980)19


Tree as metaphor takes a particularly interesting turn in William Blake’s famous poem “A Poison Tree,” from his 1794 volume Songs of Experience. The poem is commonly thought to be about the deadly consequences of repressed anger.

A Poison Tree
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Even if Blake’s poison tree can be read as a warning about the dangers of emotional dishonesty, why is the poet “glad” to see his enemy dead? Wouldn’t he rather have a chance to root out this wrath from his heart? What if the poem were about healing? What if the foe, knowing that the beautiful apple belonged to the poet, took it as a sign of reconciliation, ate it with relish, and merely fell asleep under the apple tree, the proverbial Tree of Knowledge.

Speaking of healing, the expression “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” obviously contains a seed of truth. Apples, like most fruits, are high in fiber, low in calories, and well supplied with potassium, calcium, and vitamin C.20 The Growing Air Foundation describes a couple of dozen reasons, beyond providing apples, that trees make life better on earth, from producing oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide, preventing erosion, offering shade, and filtering rainwater, to providing food, medications, and wildlife habitat.21

Poisonous trees do exist, but their contributions didn’t make the list.

 

Footnotes:

  1. MaRco Elliott. Low tide at Strawberry Hill, Oregon coast: gouache, plein-air painting (July 2018). For more information, see Marco Elliott: Two Paintings here in Issue 11 of KYSO Flash.

  2. Laurie L. Dove. “Are Johnny Appleseed’s trees alive today?” HowStuffWorks.com, 11 November 2014. https://history.howstuffworks.com/revolutionary-war/are-johnny-appleseeds-trees-still-alive.htm

  3. Dr. Seuss. The Lorax (Penguin Random House LLC, 1971)

  4. The Arbor Day Foundation can be contacted at www.arborday.org. Join for $20 per year, and this respected nonprofit will give you 10 free trees guaranteed to arrive at the ideal planting time for your location.

    The dedicated staff members at Tree People plant trees throughout Los Angeles. In exchange for a specific level of donation, they will put your or your loved one’s name on a tree or grove of trees. Contact: www.treepeople.org

  5. “Johnny Appleseed.” Wikipedia.com. Accessed 3 February 2019: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Appleseed

  6. Dove, “Are Johnny Appleseed’s trees alive today?” (see footnote 2 above)

  7. Lucinda Peng. “Trillions of Trees: Yale study finds three trillion trees on Earth.” Yale Scientific, 3 February 2016. http://www.yalescientific.org/2016/02/11815/

  8. Steve Connor. “Earth has ‘lost more than half its trees’ since humans first started cutting them down.” Independent, 2 September 2015. https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/earth-has-lost-more-than-half-its-trees-since-humans-first-started-cutting-them-down-10483189.html

  9. Conservation International. “Deforestation: 11 Facts You Need to Know.” Accessed 3 February 2019: https://www.conservation.org/stories/Pages/11-deforestation-facts-you-need-to-know.aspx?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIs6vDjdyx3wIVtyCtBh2 vcQ-CEAAYASAAEgKl8PD_BwE

  10. Unknown photographer and title. Archival photograph of forest protectors of the Chipko Movement. For more information, see “The Original Tree Huggers: Let Us Not Forget Their Sacrifice On Earth Day” at Women’s Earth Alliance. Retrieved 16 February 2019: http://womensearthalliance.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-original-tree-huggers-lets-not.html

  11. Topher White. “What Can Save the Rainforest? Your Used Cell Phone.” TEDxCERN, September 2014. https://www.ted.com/talks/topher_white_what_can_save_the_rainforest_your_used_cell_phone/up-next?language=en

  12. Margaret Badore. “What is the fate of the oldest trees on earth?” TreeHugger, 8 January 2014. https://www.treehugger.com/climate-change/what-fate-oldest-trees-earth.html

  13. Lakshmi Supriya. “Climate change is making trees bigger, but weaker.” Science, 22 August 2018. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/08/climate-change-making-trees-bigger-weaker

  14. Jim Morrison. “The ‘Great Green Wall’ Didn’t Stop Desertification, but it Evolved Into Something That Might.” Smithsonian, 23 August 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/great-green-wall-stop-desertification-not-so-much-180960171/

  15. Julie McCarthy. “A Lifetime Of Planting Trees On A Remote River Island: Meet India’s Forest Man.” NPR.org, 26 December 2017. https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/12/26/572421590/hed-take-his-own-life-before-killing-a-tree-meet-india-s-forest-man

  16. Lorraine Chow. “1.5 Million Volunteers Plant 66 Million Trees in 12 Hours, Breaking Guinness World Record.” EcoWatch.com, 3 July 2017. https://www.ecowatch.com/india-trees-world-record-2452569239.html

  17. Suzanne Simard. “How trees talk to each other.” TED Summit, June 2016. https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_ each_other/transcript

  18. TED. “Suzanne Simard studies the complex, symbiotic networks in our forests: Why you should listen.” Retrieved February 3, 2019: https://www.ted.com/speakers/suzanne_simard?c=73567

  19. MaRco Elliott. Le vieux marronnier en fleur, Péchal (The old chestnut in flower, Péchal): gouache, plein-air painting (August 1980). For more information, see Marco Elliott: Two Paintings here in Issue 11 of KYSO Flash.

  20. University of Illinois Extension. “Apple Nutrition.” Retrieved 3 February 2019: https://extension.illinois.edu/apples/nutrition.cfm

  21. Growing Air Foundation. “Tree and Rain Forest Facts.” Retrieved 3 February 2019: http://www.growingairfoundation.org/facts/

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