Just A Tree

Drawing my attention to it each time I passed the window, I still couldn’t figure out what I was seeing.

Even when it wasn’t snowing, the scene blended into its gray and white background. On the foreground was an island — at a distance. On that island there seemed to be a large object. I likened it to a large (very) cylinder. Tree trunk made the most sense, a practical answer if ever there was. Only trouble: I wasn’t aware of a large tree on that tiny island.

Photographs eventually did show it to be a tree indeed with branches reaching up and, well, branching out as branches do want to do.

I recall my relief when I had the pictures in hand. Well, then, it was just a tree.

“Just a tree?” I corrected that thought quickly as I remembered the wonderful book I had recently read. Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl” is recommended as highly as I can tout any book. (And I am not normally drawn to non-fiction.)

A geobiologist (a term new to me), Miss Jahren has devoted her life to studying trees, flowers, seeds and soil. She treats all with a wonder that makes the read an exciting one. I hope to return to share her wisdom on other subjects but let’s stick to the trees just now.

“‘Trees don’t have a reason, they just do it, that’s all,’ Buck snapped. ‘In fact, they don’t do anything, they’re just trees, they just are. S**t, they’re not alive, not like you and me.’ … I left the shop and never went back.”

Let me share her magic writing here of a spruce she had grown up with: “From the teenagers’ perspective, the grown-up trees presented a future that was as stultifying as it was interminable. Nothing but fifty, eighty, maybe a hundred years of just trying not to fall down, unpunctuated by the piecemeal toil of replacing fallen needles every morning and shutting down enzymes every night. No more rush of nutrients to signal the conquering of new territory underground, just the droop of a reliable, worn taproot into last winter’s new cracks. The adults grew a bit thicker around the middle each year, with little else to show for the passing decades. In their branches they stingily dangled hard-won nutrients above the perpetually hungry younger generations. Good neighborhoods, rich with water, thick soil, and — most important — full sunlight, give rise to trees that reach their maximum potential. In contrast, trees in bad neighborhoods never achieve half of that height, never have much of a teenage growth spurt, but focus instead on just holding on, growing at less than half the rate of the more fortunate.”

As her understanding increased, her goals grew more specific: “That whole summer in Colorado taught me the most important thing I know about science: that experiments are not about getting the world to do what you want it to do. I would study plants in a new way — not from the outside, but from the inside. I would figure out why they did what they did and try to understand their logic, which must serve me better than simply defaulting to my own, I decided.

“Every species on Earth — past or present, from the single-celled microbe to the biggest dinosaur, daisies, trees, people — must accomplish the same five things in order to persist: grow, reproduce, rebuild, store resources and defend itself.”

Listen a bit more: “Every plant can be separated into three components: leaf, stem, and root. Every stem functions the same way: as a bundle of bound straws, bales of microscopic conduits that carry soilwater up out of the roots and sugarwater down out of the leaves. Trees are a unique type of plant because their stems can be more than one hundred yards long and are made of this amazing substance that we call wood.

“Wood is strong, light, flexible, nontoxic, and weather-resistant; thousands of years of human civilization have yet to produce a better multipurpose building material. Inch for inch, a wooden beam is as strong as one made from cast iron but is ten times more flexible and only one-tenth as heavy. Even in this age of high-tech man-made objects, our preferred construction material for housing remains lumber hewn from trees.”

“Here’s my personal request to you: If you own any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year. If you are renting a place with a yard, plant a tree in it and see if your landlord notices. If he does, insist to him that it was always there. Throw in a bit about how exceptional he is for caring enough about the environment to have put it there. If he takes the bait, go plant another one. Baffle some chicken wire at its base and string a cheesy birdhouse around its tiny trunk to make it look permanent, then move out and hope for the best.”

Science, she concludes, has taught me that “being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more.”

“Just a tree?” Never!

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Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” following in 2014. Both novels are now available at Lakewood’s Off the Beaten Path bookstore. Information on all the Musings, her books and the author may be found at Susancrossett.com.