I am a restless person. Left to my own when confronted with free time I like to go elsewhere, to get away and explore places near and far, other countries, other landscapes, other neighborhoods, and I am fortunate that circumstances allow me to do so.
Restlessness has had its rewards. It has introduced me to different people and cultures, to new perspectives and has broadened my sense of natural and human history and activity. At the same time, it can take a lot of resources to be on the go, including time, money, and pollution-emitting carbon.
Through hiking, exploring and guiding forest therapy walks, I spend much time in the presence of trees, pausing to take in their presence, to notice their form, and to contemplate their lives. Unlike animals, trees can't run away from their predators. They live their entire existence, sometimes hundreds of years, in one place (200 years in the life of a tree is the equivalent of 40 human years). Not able to run away or fight with tooth and claw, they carry their own medicine and systems to ward off danger. There's a reason so much of our medicine derives from plants: Imagine what trees have witnessed over the years as their trunks grow tall and thick and their branches reach skyward!
Of course, trees are hardly still. From large vascular systems transmitting xylem and phloem to micro-activity on a cellular level, there is much movement, even if it isn't always visible to us. Yet, other than through the disbursal of seeds, trees are not mobile, whereas we are. As a human, I am animal, with muscles and limbs that enable me to ambulate and senses that enable me to to be drawn to what I need or to turn away from what is unpleasant or dangerous. This way of being is as central to me as it is to any other creature in the animal kingdom.
Yet there is much that trees can teach us. Lately I've been thinking a lot about tuning in from time to time to a tree's perspective and the lessons to be learned. Without the impossible task of abandoning my animal self, maybe there is something to be said for staying more local, for standing tall while the activity of the world happens around me. What lessons would I absorb? What powerful medicine might I generate from such a stance?
I recall the snarky word play, "Make like a tree and leave!" Cute, maybe, but what a brusque and inapt dismissal of our botanical, oxygen-providing neighbors on which we depend.
Maybe it's time we "Make like a tree... and stay."
They stand tall, nurturing their offspring to enhance their chances of growing steadily and sturdily. They support their neighbors, transmitting messages across vast and intricate networks to ensure the community’s safety and well-being. They have withstood the cycles of many years, including challenging conditions, yet persist with grace and beauty. They are mothers – mother trees.
Much attention has focused lately on the networked nature of forests. Trees exist not simply as individuals but within a highly collaborative, interconnected system, communicating through elaborate circuitry of fungi and root tips. "Forests", notes forester Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees, are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies" Key to this interconnectedness are "Mother Trees", a notion pioneered by Scientist Suzanne Simardin (who appears as a fictionalized character in Richard Powers' The Overstory, the subject of the prior blog). The dominant trees in forests, Mother Trees function as central nodes for extensive underground networks of roots and mycorrhizal fungi. They nurture young trees by spreading fungi to them and conveying needed nutrients.
Mother Trees also restrain the unfettered growth of young trees so that they can grow in ways that make them sturdier and more resilient.Writes Wohlleben:
" Young trees are so keen on growing quickly that it would be no problem a all for them to grow about 18 inches taller per season. Unfortunately for them, their own mothers do not approve of rapid growth. They shade their offspring with their enormous crowns, and the crowns of all the mature trees close up to form a thick canopy over the forest floor. This canopy lets only 3 percent of available sunlight reach the ground and, therefore, their children's leaves. Three percent--that's practically nothing. With that amount of sunlight, a tree can photosynthesize just enough to keep its own body from dying. There's nothing left to fuel a decent drive upward or even a thicker trunk .... [S]low growth when the tree is young is a prerequisite if a tree is to live to a ripe old age. ... Thanks to slow growth, their inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the tree flexible and resistant to breaking in storms."
Slow growth also makes trees resistant to disease-bearing fungi,, which has difficulty penetrated the their tougher trunks. In the meanwhile, over a period that could last 200 years (the equivalent of 40 human years), the Mother Tree passes along sugar and other nutrients to the offspring. "You might even say they are nursing their babies," notes Wohlleben.
Thanks to the attentiveness of Mother Trees, young trees can grow up strong and resilient, and forests can thrive. The same can be said for the roles of mothers (and fathers) within human families and communities. On this Mother’s Day, consider the Mother Trees around you.
New York is the epicenter of the book publishing industry. So, in exploring NYC nature connections it is apt to note the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction awarded to Richard Powers' The Overstory, a novel in which trees shape the lives of nine characters and are so vividly evoked as to be characters too. In addition, Victoria Johnson's American Eden was a finalist for the Pulitzer for history. American Eden is a riveting biography of David Hosack, visionary physician and botanist during the early Republic who created the New York's first botanical garden (more about this terrific book in a later blog).
Nature certainly received much attention from this year's Pulitzer Prize Board.
The Pulitzer Prize Board describes The Overstory as "An ingeniously structured narrative that branches and canopies like the trees at the core of the story whose wonder and connectivity echo those of the humans living amongst them."....a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of—and paean to—the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, The Overstory unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours—vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe."
With stirring, incisive descriptions, Powers awakens deep, limbic understanding of humans' biological and emotional connection to the natural world and the primacy of trees. “This is not our world with trees in it" he writes. "It's a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” And what lessons there are to be learned from trees. Here's a passage I particularly like, one that portrays survival of the fittest not as fierce drama played out through competition among individuals but rather as a result of successfully networked, interrelated, and cooperative communities:
"The things she catches Doug-firs doing, over the course of these years, fill her with joy. When the lateral roots of two Douglas-firs run into each other underground, they fuse. Through those self-grafted knots, the two trees join their vascular systems together and become one. Networked together underground by countless thousands of mile of living fungal threads, her trees feed and heal each other, keep their young and sick alive, pool their resources and metabolites into community chests.... Her trees are far more social than [she] suspected. There are no individuals. There aren't even separate species. Everything in the forest is the forest. Competition is not separable from endless flavors of cooperation. Trees fight no more than do the leaves on a single tree. It seems most of nature isn't red in tooth and claw, after all."
There is much to learn from trees.
Trees are bursting forth in flower in our parks, offering heady, sensory ecstasy of color, shape, and smell. Yet missing from the vibrant whites, pinks, yellows, and purples on some trees is a touch of green. On these trees, flowers are blooming but leaves have yet to appear.
Why is it that some trees -- Eastern Redbuds, Cornelian Cherry Dogwoods, Magnolias, and Crabapples to name a few -- flower before their leaves unfurl? With most plants, leaves begin to unfold and then flowers bloom, but for some the sequence is reversed. An insightful friend with a sense of humor likened this behavior human adolescence, with often distracting reproductive hormones triggering well ahead of long-term sustaining activities, like education and career advancement.
Flowers, as you know, are plants' reproductive structures. Once pollinated, they form fruit that bear seeds that enable new life. Leaves, on the other hand, are plants' source of sustenance, enabling the production of food through photosynthesis. Through chlorophyll and tiny stomata found primarily on the leaf's lower surface (a square centimeter of a leaf contains anywhere from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands) leaves breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out blessed oxygen on which we depend, while producing sugar for plant nourishment. And through transpiration, water absorbed through root hairs evaporates through stomatal openings from the leaf surface, enabling water and minerals to be absorbed from the soil and conducted to the top of the plat.
Without leaves, trees die once stored sugar is depleted. Why would a tree flower before leafing out?
Hysteranthous -- the behavior of leaves expanding after flowers have opened -- occurs for a variety of reasons, which give these trees an edge in reproduction. These trees often pollinate through wind (19% of all pollination), which drifts more freely through a tree canopy in the absence of leafy vegetation, making it easier for these trees' inconspicuous flowers (catkins and cones) to be pollinated. And for the 80% of trees that pollinate by vertebrate or insects, early flowering offers the advantage of fewer other blossoms to distract pollinators. For understory trees and plants, like Redbuds, Forsythia, and Witch Hazel, that blossom solely from stored nutrients, flowering early avoids competition with vegetative growth for limited resources. Early flowering also allows for greater time for fruit growth and seed maturation as well as dispersal. Fruits and seed dispersed by birds need to mature to coincide with bird migration.
The sequencing of trees' and plants' flowering and leafing is diverse and driven by physical, biotic, and environmental conditions. One wonders how the same impact human reproduction.
Inconspicuously situated at Central Park West and 77th Street stands a statue of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), largely forgotten in the English-speaking world. As we approach Earth Day it is timely to consider the impact of this extraordinary polymath who invented the concept of nature's inter-connected forces and unity. At a time when Enlightenment philosophers were still grounded in Aristotle's view that "nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man" Humboldt saw the natural world as an interconnected, fragile web of life.
Humboldt's textual works, Personal Narrative, Views of Nature, and Cosmos, as well as political essays about the colonies, and his maps and graphical depiction of climate zones, inspired scientists, leaders, poets, and thinkers including Johann von Goethe, Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Jules Verne, William Wordsworth, early environmentalist George Perkins Marsh, Erst Haeckel who term Humboldt's discipline "ecology", Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir. Entire philosophical and literary movements--German Idealism, Romanticism, and Transcendentalism--can trace their lineage to Humboldt and he revolutionized fields as wide ranging as agriculture, meteorology, zoology, geology, hydrology, and botany. Over 300 plant and 100 animal species are named after him, as are minerals, mountains, geologic formation, glaciers, waterfalls, bays, state and national parks, moon craters, and an asteroid--more than are named after anyone else.
At the source of Humboldt's influence was his relentless energy and curiosity, which in the early 1800s led him to travel widely to places where few Europeans had traveled before to conduct hands-on scientific experiments, map geologic characteristics, and collect and record botanical samples. With collections of the latest instruments, ranging from telescopes and microscopes, to barometers and pendulum clocks and compasses, he traveled 1700 miles of Venezuela's Orinoco River to the Amazon River basin, across Cuba, Mexico and Peru, (where he climbed Mount Chimborazo, an inactive volcano of nearly 21,000 feet) and across the mountains of Kazakhstan.
From evidence accumulated during his travels, he pieced together systemic patterns, similarities, and connections across contents, inventing the classification of plants by climate zones rather than taxonomy. Observing the coastal matching of Africa and South America, he sensed an ancient connection between the continents that presaged our understanding of plate tectonics. Humboldt also identified the devastating ecological consequences of deforestation, ruthless irrigation, and cash crop agriculture, decrying the impact on habitats of man's "insatiable avarice”. Moreover, Humboldt sensed and observed nature not only empirically but viscerally and emotionally. "Nature", he wrote to Goethe, "must be experience through feeling."
In her thrilling and meticulously researched biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, (2015), Andrea Wulf reminds us of the contributions of this influencer of influencers and restores his rightful place among the pantheon of scientists. With the arrival of Earth Day, consider the impact of Humboldt; there are few better ways to do so than through Wulf's magnificent biography.
Heightened attention to early flower blooms, described in my previous blog, has awakened my visual awareness and made me more attuned to forms and structures everywhere. Lately I've been particularly attuned to surfaces.
By "surfaces" I mean the outermost layer, perceived by sight and touch--boundaries and edges that define, separate, and connect. Consider the many ways to describe surfaces, the characteristics that define them, to name a few: smooth, rough, patterned, textured, hard, soft, straight, curved, color, symmetrical, matte, shiny, reflective. And often, surfaces become all the more intricate the closer one looks. What appears as smooth may in fact be comprised of grooves and particles, with infinite complexity.
City life offers an opportunity to notice the surfaces of our built environment, the geometric, smooth facades of buildings, sidewalks, stairways, and interior spaces--walls, floors, ceilings, furniture. What a contrast these views are to the undulating, uneven and surprising surfaces of the natural environment, of trees, flowers and shrubs growing along streets and in parks, of rocks and water.
Some say that the "Euclidean geometry" of our built environment impairs our "visual fluency", that we innately crave the visual complexity offered by natural environments, visual fields that feed our brains' ability to absorb complexity. Yet, it is worth considering that the materials that create our built environment derive from natural materials: wood harvested, stones gathered and cut, and metals mined and smelted, transformed from their natural state to be put to our use. On a micro-level, their true natural forms become apparent: the cellular structure of wood, and crystalline structure of metals and rocks.
What began as an ordinary day transformed into sensory adventure as I tuned into the surfaces around me.
It is happening: bursts of colors emerging in planted areas of our city as the daylight hours lengthen and temperatures warm.
First came a hint of yellow, barely visible within tightly packed buds. And then one day, just a few days ago, they appeared: the saturated, taxi-cab yellow of forsythia flower, 4-lobed wonders appearing before the shrub’s leaves unfurl. And now a broader palette of wisps of color bloom: the deep red hue of maple flowers, rust-colored elm blossoms, yellow-gold cornelian cherry dogwood flowers, and reddish-pink of crabapple blossoms, daffodils, sky-blue of bluebells, and the yellow and lilac of crocus flowers encircled by blade-like leaves.
Vibrant and expressive, wonders of form and color, these early spring flowers will soon be followed by lilacs and viburnum, wisteria, trillium and magnolia, azalea, cherry and redbud, tulip and tulip tree, and dogwoods – flowers that bloom locally in April, sequencing into blooms of late spring and summer.
Over the past few weeks, much of my attention has turned to the needs of work and family, obligations for which I am grateful as they tether me to relationships and projects I care deeply about. But noticing spring’s first flowers awakens me to what is bigger than my immediate world. I am jolted into awareness of nature and its cycles, of which we--even in the course of day-to-day obligations--are a part. "My goodness," I am reminded. "There is a whole world out there!"
Welcome to spring.
Winter, when so much seems dormant, may seem like a strange time to observe robust plant life, but if you take a close look at nearby trees and shrubs you will notice buds lying in wait to bloom. With a few more weeks of winter, now is a great time to observe these perfect, complete containers of embryonic stems, leaves, and flowers and to explore their variations.
Many of us think that buds appear in the spring. After all, that's when leaves and flowers emerge, following winter's chill. But buds typically form during the summer and fall prior to the spring in which they bloom. Known in the winter as "resting buds", they appear in forms, sizes, and locations unique to each species. "Terminal buds" appear at the end of twigs; "lateral buds" appear along the sides of twigs. Some buds appear individually, others in clusters. And, as with leaves, buds can be situated opposite one another on a twig or alternating, an additional way to identify and differentiate tree species.
As described in Nancy Ross Hugo's enchanting book Trees Up Close, the terminal bud of the American beech is pale yellow-brown, sharply-pointed spear shaped, and sits individually. The terminal buds of the red oak, by contrast, are course and stout and appear in clusters. On some trees, leaf and flower buds are indistinguishable before they begin to bloom. With other trees, such as dogwoods, flower buds may be rounder than leaf buds.
Resting buds are a great way to learn to explore the variety of bud formation and identify tree species. They also are a reminder that even in the depth of winter and in the absence of leaves, trees are abundant with life, ready to blossom with the emergence of spring.
When the chill of winter arrives, you can either run the other way or embrace it. Having spent many years enjoying the outdoors in all seasons and weather, I aim for the latter and in this spirit spent the past week on a dog sledding and Nordic skiing camping trip in northern Minnesota.
With temperatures well below zero and in the single digits, but also in the balmy teens, needs focus in on the basics: food and sufficient firewood with which to boil water and cook, the right clothing for staying warm and dry, and shelter-- in this case a bivvy sack for sleeping under the stars.
The Boundary Waters are remote area that feels all the more remote in the winter. An area north of the "Laurentian Divide", raindrops and snow melt end up in the Arctic Ocean, rather than the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, or Pacific. Led by the fabulous outfitter Wintergreen, founded by Paul Schurke, a noted polar explorer whom we dubbed "Eighth Wonder of the Word" for his endurance, resilience, and intrepidness, the trip entailed traversing blissful miles of frozen lakes and boreal forests filled with black spruce and balsam furs, birch, and aspen.
Along the way was evidence of local creatures -- snow tracks left by wolves, deer, moose, and snowshoe hares -- and continual admiration for our sled dogs, true professionals, each full of personality and eager to pull, dragging sleds carrying our heavy loads of equipment (with skiers breaking trail in the deeper snow). Inuit dogs are the domesticated breed closest to wolf; their wolfish selves emerging in their occasional canine-bearing snarls directed at one another to assert dominance. At the same time they respond like puppies when interacting with humans, basking in attention and rolling onto their backs for a stomach rub.
In the remote frozen region, one's reliance on others becomes all the more apparent, an interesting irony in that one can feel most connected to other people in a wilderness environment. Arriving into the evening's campsite, we spread out to perform tasks assumed almost instinctually: gathering firewood, digging into the lake ice to create a water hole, setting up a fire pit on the ice, with a layer of logs underlying metal fire trays to separate the fire and ice. We cleared areas to set up our bivvy sacks, digging into the snow to shelter the bags from wind. And we tending to the sled dogs, transitioning them from the sled to hooking them up one by one on a line set up along the trees, removing their harnesses, and preparing their food.
While the Boundary Waters are a world away from New York City, there was much that was elemental on the trip that translated to my urban home. If neighboring wolves and our sled dogs are pack animals, so too we humans form packs, finding community and interdependencies among one another, and even asserting--or encountering others asserting--alpha dominance.
My return to New York City from the Great North Woods felt uncanny. The taxi that whisked me from the airport to home seemed confining and way to warm inside. To the driver's chagrin, I opened the window to feel the snap of cold and the breeze -- to breathe again -- and could almost imagine that I was being transported by dog sled across a frozen lake, rather than in a taxi on the crowded Grand Central Parkway.
On arriving home, I took pleasure in having a warm bed and modern conveniences: indoor plumbing and a stove that didn't require gathering abundant firewood. At the same time that I appreciated the significant labor saved by these inventions, they also made me feel disconnected from the elemental features they deliver: fire at the turn of a knob; water at the turn of a handle. No hours spent scouring an island for firewood, with coordinated efforts to chop and saw fallen trees, drag them many yards to our fire pit and sort the wood into fire-starter twigs and birch bark, thicker branches, and logs. No continual chinking into the 2-foot lake ice to reach water. It all seemed too easy, and I pondered for a while what is lost when we receive such abundant resources with ease -- recognizing too how much is gained by not having to focus every day on basic survival needs.
Having unpacked and run a load of laundry (more modern convenience magic!), I proceeded outside, ambling down Lexington Avenue, with each step sensing the breeze along the avenue as it touched the bare skin of my face and noting it felt as constant as the breeze encountered while traversing frozen lakes and forests on skis and dog sled.
By some premonition, I felt a presence that impelled me to look up. And there, aloft on 73rd and Lex, was a Peregrine falcon, drifting on a thermal, a touch of wild in the metropolis, and a reminder of the wildness that persists if we just know where to look.
Trees invite expression of love, especially beech trees. With their smooth gray bark, it's difficult to find an older beech tree that does not have a heart with initials carved into its trunk--at least in Central Park.
Much as hearts are among the more popular tattoos inked onto human skin, the tendency to etch hearts onto the elephant hide-like bark of beech trees suggests that memorializing love comes from a place deep within us. There is something that impels us to mark our feelings of love in ways that pierce below the surface, perhaps because love itself is so deeply felt.
Above are samples of hearts carved on beech trees in Central Park (alas, such etching harms the tree, inviting disease and if deep, disrupting the flow of nutrients).
Did the love last? Did the lovers grow old together like the tree that display their affection? We will never know. But the expression of love lives on, preserved for decades on the bark of trees.
About this Blog
Hi! I'm Nancy Kopans, founder of Urban Edge Forest Therapy. Join me on an adventure to discover creative ways to connect with nature in your daily life, ways that are inspired by urban surroundings that can reveal unexpected beauty, with the potential to ignite a sense of wonder.