Charismatic cows, trees contracting like drinking straws, and other wonders

July 13, 2017 at 2:31 pm (Book review, books, Nature)

  Many are the moments of beauty contained in this small gem of a book. The most central of these is the eponymous tree, a majestic red oak presiding serenely in Harvard Forest.

Author Lynda V. Mapes tells us that in the eighteenth century, surveyors would designate certain trees as boundary markers. They were the original witness trees. She decided that the term would serve admirably for the large red oak around which she would orient her year long study of the Harvard Forest and its numerous plant and animal denizens.

Mapes often waxes lyrical when describing her year long immersion in nature:

This was the splendid time of the spring ephemerals, the woodland wildflowers precisely timed. They had been coming on with the sun since the spring equinox, the display growing in color and diversity as the sun gained in its height and heat, day by day, capturing the brightest light the understory would receive all year, right between the melt of the snow and the leaf-out of the trees. Four-petaled bluets, their blooms the size of a pinkie nail, paved the crown of the wagon road in nodding blue and white flowers. Sun flecks found pools of deep purple: the broad-leaved wood violets, turning their white-whiskered faces to the sun. The elegant, single nodding bloom of sessile bellwort, with its graceful, winged leaves, stood in creamy-white perfection at the feet of the trees. Bees, wasps, flies, and beetles sought these early-spring nectar sources, returning the favor with pollination, in a meetup essential  to each.

This is particularly when she’s talking about trees:

Trees are interstitial beings, connecting the atmospheric and terrestrial realms. They are rooted in the ground, but made from thin air, conjuring the sky, the atmosphere, and the sun to earthly form. For this alchemy they embody wonder; they are a transubstantiation that has amazed people for centuries. For really, who would think something so solid and long-standing as a tree could be made from the limpid, quicksilver ingredients of sun, water, and air?

The ‘charismatic cows’ were brought into the forest to help in maintaining an area of pasture land. Their presence is something of a holdover from the days of the Sanderson Farm, “one of the core properties from which the Harvard Forest was created.”

The cows, I noticed, had charisma. They were the first thing tour groups typically wanted to stop and look at when they came to visit the Forest, and they always drew smiles. People brought their kids by on weekends just to pet the cows through the fence. The pasture is small enough that it could just as easily have been mowed twice a year, but the cows were themselves historical reenactors, co-opted into our living exhibit of a New England pastoral landscape. Using animals to defend the open meadow from the encroachment of the Forest was the whole historical point.

From Lynda Mapes I’ve  learned many fascinating facts about trees. The ‘drinking straw’ phenomenon alluded to in the title of this post is part of a lengthier explanation of how trees handle water:

The tree does all that pumping against the countervailing forces of gravity and friction, without making a sound or using a calorie of energy. The number of interconnected water transport conduits— xylem cells— can exceed hundreds of millions in the trunk of a large tree such as the big oak, and their total length can be greater than 200 kilometers, or some 124 miles. The speed of water flow up a ring-porous tree such as the oak is also impressive, on the order of twenty meters or sixty-six feet per hour. The forces involved are enormous; a tree will actually slim ever so slightly in shape on a hot, dry day, as the suction of evapotranspiration pulls in the sides of the tree like a drinking straw. The tree replumps at night, as it refills with water.

Don’t know about you, but I found this simply amazing!

I was especially pleased that Mapes found several occasions in which to reference two of my historical  heroes of the conservation cause: Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold.

 

Aldo Leopold 1887-1948

Here’s Leopold in his paper “Phenological Record for Sauk and Dane Counties, Wisconsin, 1935– 1945”:

“Each year, after the midwinter blizzards, there comes a thawy night when the tinkle of dripping water is heard in the land. It brings strange stirrings, not only to creatures abed for the night, but to some who have been asleep for the winter. The hibernating skunk, curled up in his deep den, uncurls himself and ventures forth to prowl the wet world for breakfast, dragging his belly in the melting snow. His track marks one of the earliest dateable events in that cycle of beginnings and ceasings which we call a year. From the beginnings of history, people have searched for order and meaning in these events, but only a few have discovered that keeping records enhances the pleasure of the search, and also the chance of finding order and meaning. These few are called phenologists.”

How beautiful this passage is, both for its appreciation of the skunk’s awakening slink after its long sleep, and the connection Leopold draws for us to the pleasure of noticing the world around us and seeking to understand the land’s inner workings. He kept track of the first crowing of the pheasant, the first arrival of the marsh hawk, the emergence of the woodchuck from hibernation, and arrival of the bluebird. When the gray chipmunk first popped out of its burrow in spring, and eastern meadowlarks arrived, Leopold made a note. He tracked the first time the prairie mole made its active run up and around in broad day, the breakup of the ice on the Wisconsin River, and the arrival of the killdeer. He logged with precision the first calls of the Canada goose, woodcock, and leopard frog. He noticed when the first adult moths of the spring cankerworm flew in the trees, and the first song of the cardinal, brilliant red in the still-bare trees. He marked well the first bloom of the pasqueflower, the wood sorrel, and the toadflax, the bird-foot violet, penstemon, and coneflower.

Mapes adds at the end of this passage: “What a wonderful way to live.”

Indeed.

In aid of ongoing research,  Webcams have been placed strategically throughout Harvard Forest.  And here is a video about the Witness Tree Project:

As I was reading, one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare kept coming back to me. It’s from As You Like It. The speaker is Orlando. He’s commenting on the unexpected pleasures of his exile to the Forest of Arden:

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stone and good in everything.
I would not change it.

I should add here that the Harvard Forest is not “exempt from public haunt.” Visitors – both human and animal –  are cordially welcome.

You’ll note that this post is largely comprised of direct quotes. I felt it was useless, if not impossible, for me to attempt to paraphrase the text. Instead, if you care at all about trees, nature in general, climate change in particular, and a host of other related subjects, I urge you to read this book. It confers blessings one minute, promotes anxiety the next, but never relinquishes a sense of wonder. All this, in slightly over two hundred pages!

Lynda v Mapes

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Kay Wisniewski said,

    Thank you so much for reviewing this book. I was fascinated by everything from the omniscient squirrels (who can detect the presence of a weevil in an acorn with 92% accuracy) to the results of many of the studies conducted in this forest–they have a lot to tell us about climate change and the ability of some trees to cope with it. Oaks like this one are now growing much, much faster than they used to, which may or may not be a good thing. If you live in Maryland and you need to plant a tree, a red oak is a very good choice–at least until globalisation brings some deadly insect from Asia to attack it.

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