David Adams, a Scottish Christian poet, speaks of the reflected glory of God in poems that celebrate the Celtic belief in the unity of the world and the divine presence within it. In his book Border Lands, he recalls St. Patrick’s words to the Princesses of Tara:
“Our God is the God of all men,
The God of heaven and earth,
The God of sea, of river, of sun and moon and stars,
of the lofty mountains and the lowly valleys.
The God above heaven,
The God under heaven,
The God in heaven.”
Adam’s own poems help me to pause, to see His presence in the world I seek to protect, and to believe that surely we can be better stewards of this majestic, yet easily wounded planet.
“Where the mist rises from the sea,
Where the waves creep upon the shore,
Where the wrack lifts upon the strand,
I have seen the Lord.
Where the sun awakens the day,
Where the road winds on its way,
Where the fields are sweet with hay,
I have seen the Lord.
Where the stars shine in the sky,
Where the streets so peaceful lie,
Where the darkness is so nigh,
I have seen the Lord.
The Lord is here,
The Lord is there,
The Lord is everywhere.
The Lord is high,
The Lord is low,
The Lord is on the path I go.”
I often begin my morning listing five things for which I’m grateful. Often they are small things—a cardinal outside the window, a call from a friend. I have much to be thankful for, and I make this practice part of my devotions. I think I’m going to start a thankfulness list, though, for the foods I am privileged to eat today, for many foods are treasures that are here today, but may be gone tomorrow.
My home in the Inland Empire sat 30 to 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Our street, like many in the burgeoning towns that eat into the California desert today, was commandeered from the lemon and orange orchards that once were ubiquitous in this part of California, and our developments were sculpted from them.
Rich earth had fed those trees, and we, the residents of the developments that caused their demise, inherited what remained of that good earth.
The oranges came to California in the early 1800s with the mission padres, who carried individual trees north from Baja into Upper California. The first sweet orange grove “was planted in the garden of the San Gabriel Mission by Father Francisco Miguel Sanchez in 1803,” according to a history compiled by the Inland Orange Conservancy, a non-profit group dedicated to protecting the few remaining groves in Southern California. They were largely confined to mission compounds until the 1850s—the time of the California gold rush. (For those interested, here’s the link to the Inland Orange Conservancy – Home | Facebook page.)
In the 1880s Eliza Tibbit, a famous horticulturist, agronomist, abolitionist (and more) used her connections to obtain a new seedless orange, which originated in Brazil. Her trees flourished and laid much of the foundation for the orange industry in California; by the 1940s, an impressive 75 million cases of navel oranges were being shipped from southern California orange groves throughout the United States, Europe, and the world!
These orange trees were later confiscated by developments like the one where I grew up, developments that were built to house half a million or so of the 16 million soldiers who, like my dad, my uncle Roy, and countless others, returned en masse from World War II.
My development had been surrounded by block-long groves to the west of my house, and more, further to the north and east. But I watched these groves progressively disappear throughout the march of my childhood.
The groves were doomed, cornered like stray orange pieces sewn here and there in a cement-colored quilt of growing feeder streets and suburban developments. As the groves disappeared, the rich earth they fed on went too, covered by stucco structures and asphalt pavement.
Most of the groves of my childhood experienced a demise. Today, though, whole foods that we depend upon are at risk of disappearing.
Oranges and lemons, from California, to Texas, to Florida, to the U.S. Virgin Islands, are at risk today from a plant disease known commonly as Citrus Greening (short for Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus—a name I’ll never remember). Apparently it is one of the most serious plant diseases in the world. The United States Department of Agriculture offers a list of things people can do to help avoid spreading the disease.
Coffee and bananas are both in trouble. Forbes just published a story on a report that “60% of wild coffee species are under threat of extinction. This includes the wild species of Arabica, the most popular cultivated coffee species accounting for 60% of global production.” Coffee’s potential demise is directly attributed to the changing climate in coffee growing regions.
Bananas have been at risk for decades. In Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel reminded me that the bananas I ate as a child tasted better than the ones I find in my grocery store today (which may be why I loved them then but don’t like them now).
We grew up with a banana called the Gros Michel, which tragically became commercially extinct in the mid-1960s from Panama disease. Banana growers were forced to switch to the less tasty Cavendish, which stores sell now. But the Cavendish and many lesser known banana varieties are under threat by a new form of Panama disease that has traveled from Southeast Asia and is now ravishing Africa. Scientists are working overtime to find solutions to this new threat.
Our memories are short. But once a grove or species is lost, it is hard or impossible to replace it.
Recognizing that we were granted stewardship of this planet by God to protect it, and not to use it for selfish ends,
acknowledging the reality of climate change and getting on board with efforts to address it, and
beginning gratitude practices for the good fruits of the earth
may help us start to appreciate these treasures and stop taking the harvests of this amazing but fragile good earth for granted.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s Ents battled ferociously when Saruman and his orcs, acting like a vicious “planetary disease” sought to uproot and chop the ancient Fangorn Forest to extinction. Ripping free from their stupor the Ents fought heroically, heaving rocks and loosing floods, until they ended the destruction.
Ent giants, Middle Earth’s trees unchained. In Tolkein’s story, the Ents were the trees’ shepherds; they would fight deforestation to the end.
Our earth’s trees are sessile, tethered by roots. In our world, if trees are to have shepherds to fight their destruction, those shepherds will have to be us.
A few years ago, the giants in Indiana were heavily breeding. Our silver maple let loose thousands of spinning seedlings, and I regretfully became the tree’s adversary as I plucked hundreds of new born maples from their successful implantations in my lawn. Ash trees lining our street were dense with seeds clusters. Sycamores in the woods bulged with pods.
I asked a tree expert, a state employee whose job involved growing trees used to repopulate forests deforested by industry, if something was up.
He explained: Silver maples were seeding madly statewide. To protect their kind, when trees sense danger, some varieties bear offspring in far greater quantities than usual. That year, they were doing this throughout Indiana. They knew something. Two past summers, hot with drought, had killed trees throughout the state. A long cold winter gave warning.
Giants communicating with giants in voices unheard. Instinct urging. The trees listened, acted, wise with the centuries’ accumulated wisdom. Better go all out this year, they whispered. The future is precarious. They understood: even giants risk extinction.
The most majestic tree giants that I have seen are the huge redwoods of my native California. We visited them as a family when my sister and I were children, and I felt the awe such trees inspire. The California coast hosts the largest remaining virgin redwood forest in the world, with 2,500 year old trees. They are the tallest trees on earth. Massive at their base, redwoods are planted firmly on wide set legs, sufficient to hold each tree’s towering form.
We build buildings that emulate the shape of those tree trunks.
But even giant redwoods are disappearing. According to the 2018 State of the Redwoods Conservation Report, this region along the California coast once boasted 2.2 million acres of tall, old growth redwoods, a forest in existence since the age of the dinosaurs. Now, due to factors such as rapid logging since California’s gold rush in the 1840s, the old growth forest has shrunk to a meagre 113,000 acres.
Tragically, these “arboreal giants” are also being attacked by poachers. Much like the big animals of Africa—the elephant and rhinoceros—giant redwoods have been murdered for economic gain. Poachers with chain saws extract redwood burls—some nobs, burls with beautiful, swirling patterns—weigh hundreds of pounds. Even when the tree survives, the New York Times reports that “removing a burl cuts into a tree’s living cambium layer, which can weaken it and make it vulnerable to insects and disease.” [Follow this link to a storyboard showing the destruction.]
Tethered, the redwoods have no recourse but to stand proud and endure when they are attacked—no running for them. Brave and determined forest rangers (tree shepherds!) are closing roads and trying to stop the poachers—but too frequently, more trees are defaced.
California’s recent fires have also put redwoods at risk, fires made more likely by human-induced climate change. California’s redwood forest has been designated a world heritage site. But like sites situated in war zones or stressed by uncontrolled human encroachment, even these giants risk extinction.
Across the globe trade wars, which can lead big consumers to burn more woodlands to cultivate additional crops, further imperil the Fangorn forests of this world.
Nature has a well-honed instinct for survival. I’ve seen trees at the brink of a riverside cliff, clinging by root threads to rocks and sand, living, growing, persistent. I’ve seen ancient trees like the ponderosa pine, because of its relative inaccessibility and, of improbable benefit, unattractiveness, doggedly surviving.
Living creatures are tenacious. Seeds proliferate, survive, and sprout. Trees hold on, gripping, digging their roots deeper, wider. Life clings, hopes.
But nature is vulnerable, as well. Fragile.
In our world, where humankind has so often imitated Saruman and his orcs, acting like “planetary diseases,” our ancient forests are under attack.
We cannot count on trees unchained. We are the trees’ shepherds.
It is up to us to fight for the survival of the giants of this world. We must rise from our own stupor and do battle, for even giants risk extinction.
[Part two: “How to Battle Like the Ents” will be published soon. For more on Man: A Planetary Disease, go the Ian L. McHarg’s 1971 B. Y. Morrison Memorial Lecture.]
Rough branches brushed our car. Birds cawed nearby. The jungle was impenetrable—we could see only a short distance in any direction. Had we been utterly naive? We were, after all, driving by ourselves deep into an unfamiliar jungle searching for a prison. Following the advice of locals, who had assured John and I that the prison was the only location on the big Island of Hawaii selling items carved of Kou wood, we had set off that morning, along a long road leading deep into the jungle.
Trees have inspired me all my life. As a small child, I found escape from family troubles in a simple, roofless tree house—a stumpy box, really–constructed by my father in the hefty fruitless mulberry canopying our back yard. Trees provide places for little girls to escape.
In cold climates, when tree leaves unfurl in spring, they transform our grey-brown world. In fall, when they reveal their true colors, they remind us of hidden truths unveiled.
Trees offer windbreaks, fruit, nesting sites, and covering for plants and animals. They give flat vistas verticality, produce oxygen, and even clean the soil. And inside their protective coverings, their rings and burls affirm the remarkable beauty hidden throughout creation.
“Just follow the road inland,” the locals had said. “Keep driving. It’s a ways, but if you keep going, you’ll get there.” So they’d said.
We had been “going” for nearly two hours, and it looked like we were getting nowhere. Edgy, we considered turning back. And then, we saw it–a high, cut-edge barbed wire fence came into view where the jungle parted. Now we just had to climb out of the safety of our car, call someone on the phone attached to the prison gate, and ask to be let in.
Before long, we found ourselves inside the prison in a room displaying an array of products carved by inmates out of native woods. We bought a Kou fish tray as a gift for my mother (which I have today), and then drove two hours back the way we came.
John and my appreciation of native Hawaiian woods began when we first traveled to Kauai on our honeymoon. For Californians, the islands were a common destination. Of course, like other visitors, we loved everything—snorkeling, sunsets, grilled ahi from our favorite restaurant, the Dolphin. Greenery. Green valleys, green trees, green jungle vegetation. And products local artisans made from native Hawaiian trees.
On our first trip, we stopped at a small woodworking shop and were greeted by a graying woodcarver of Hawaiian ancestry who showed us a few unfinished vases from a Kou tree. The old woodcarver told us the Kou was going extinct; the carvings were from one found downed naturally. And so we bought a vase.
It was years later that we set out on our quest to find this second Kou product in the jungle at the big island’s prison.
In those years, we did not understand the impact humans were having on native trees in Hawaii and elsewhere. We did see the beauty hidden in the trees’ bowels.
Fortunately, the Kou is still living in parts of the Islands. But other trees in our world are disappearing. According to a 2017 Newsweek article, “9,600 types of trees” across the planet are “threatened by extinction.” Such extinctions are particularly devastating in rich and fragile natural environments, like Hawaii.
Home to over 10,000 endemic species (native species, found nowhere else on earth), Hawaii’s forests helped conserve water, allowing this stunning assemblage to thrive. These forests are now among the world’s most endangered, though, due largely to the invasion of humans, pigs, cows, goats, rats, insects, and non-native plants introduced in the past few centuries.
Over the years I’ve learned to ask questions about the wood products I purchase, to ensure that I am not purchasing products from endangered species.
My environmental awareness is under development, and I trust I am growing wiser with the years.
Trees like the Kou and others native to Hawaii are worth all of our endeavors to save them. For the trees themselves; for our interconnected ecosystem; for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children not yet born—working to save whole forests and individual tree species from extinction is imperative. Trees—appreciating and saving them–are part of the reason I began this blog. And they are a reason I’ll keep trying to find my way to make a difference.
Leaning forward, a fox peered over the edge of a massive rectangular hole cut deep into the earth. The dark gash would soon become the basement of a house about to be constructed a few hundred yards from my property. Just the previous day, foxes had wandered here freely, shielded by 60 foot sycamore, ash, maple, locust, and walnut trees in this small bit of wood they called home.
The fox looked puzzled, wondering. Its territory had been dwindling for some time—now, one more piece was obliterated.
For the seven years I lived alongside this forest remnant, I watched as it shrank piece by piece. Like taking bites out of a sandwich, the owner/developer sold chunks of this small forest land, making room for new homes. It was fast disappearing.
The wood behind my house was part of a tiny bit of forest land near Turkey Pen Creek, which flows west into Honey Creek in their journey to the White River (a wide, shallow waterway cutting straight through the city of Indianapolis).
Hugging the meandering paths made by these creeks, tiny remnants of old woods, bits and parcels really, like ours, persist among the roads and housing developments. Fox, deer, raccoons, rabbits, bobcats, beavers, badgers, coyote, mink, muskrat, skunk, turkey, and woodrats all once lived in these woods; they still dwell in Indiana’s larger forested areas. Just a few skirt from parcel to parcel now, though. Tiny copses, territory for a diminishing variety of animal life.
Seen from my back doorstep, the trees of “my” tiny wood formed a dense screen in the summer that seemed impenetrable. But this was only an illusion. The wood was thin, fragile, its life uncertain.
Still, I took great pleasure in this tiny remnant of Indiana woodland.
Of course, before we moved in, developers had removed other wildlings to make way for what would become my home. Indiana’s forest lands have long been disappearing.
According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), “Indiana was more than 85% forest land (20 million acres)” before swelling human populations from the east overflowed into the territory in the early 1800s. The entering settlers chopped down the forest land’s most valuable “trees first–black walnut, yellow-poplar, black cherry, and white oak.” When these were gone, they removed the rest, and converted the cleared acreage into farms.
By 1903, only “7 percent of the original amount of forest land” (IDNR) remained.
In the last 100 years, groups have begun to remedy this. Both to protect biodiversity and to enable the harvesting of wood products, Indiana’s forested lands have made a comeback. Today, the IDNR says that nearly 21% of Indiana’s land is forested. Programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has increased privately owned forest lands, have borne good results.
But overall Indiana’s forests—like others in surrounding states—face grave problems.
The remaining forests suffer from reduced diversity. Of the existing forest lands in Indiana today, “Timberland accounts for 96.7%,” according to the IDNR. Planted for harvesting, timber forests are less varied than old growth or reserved forests. Only 3.3% of the 21% is “reserved” forest land–in state and national parks, or federal wilderness areas.
And of both the timberland and reserved forest land, “41% is in unconnected fragments”(IDNR)
Tiny, scattered bits are generally all that is left of the great, diverse forests that once covered 85% of this state. This makes the few large swaths, like the forests in Brown County that I spoke about in my last post, invaluable, for fragmentation puts the entire ecosystem at risk.
While forest bits are better than no forests at all, forest fragments are less safe for flora and fauna and less healthy than big forest swaths. Fewer large trees survive in these tiny remnants. Animals are cut off from mates, breeding grounds, and food sources. Dissecting roads kill countless inhabitants. According to the World Economic Forum, forest fragmentation is the “primary driver of the global extinction crisis.”
Forest fragments are also prone to further parcelization, as the wood behind my house illustrated. Fragmentation can lead to permanent land use changes, requiring more political activism to preserve what remains.
When I lived there, the wood behind my former home seemed tired, frail. One winter a great sycamore split down the center, two-thirds of the way to the ground, where it cracked off, tottered backward, and lay splayed. This was one of four large sycamore trees visible from our yard, and I grieved to see it go. Was its loss a freak of nature, or a sign of hidden decay? Would the others go soon as well?
Indiana’s trees face threats on multiple fronts. (The next post will describe other equally serious threats.)
Preserving forests for their own sake, for the animals’ sake; preserving them for our sake, for our children and for their children’s sake; preserving them for all they contribute to the nation and the world, behooves us.
For the sake of the wild woods… biodiversity… future foxes… we need to see ourselves as part of nature, for we’ll win for us all if we can work together to cherish the whole.
A woman I knew long ago told me that her favorite memory of her home state of Indiana was when the dogwood bloomed in spring among the rolling hills of a region an hour south of Indianapolis called Brown County. When I moved here, I was eager to see these blooming trees for myself. I found more than I anticipated; the dogwood trees of Brown County are part of a fascinating landscape that is as engaging below ground as it is above.
I admit, my first impression of the state of Indiana, after moving here, was that it lacked “impressive” topography. In fact, driving down I 65 from Chicago through miles of flat farmland can be somewhat off-putting. But dig deeper; look further.
Over the years, I’ve been awed by Indiana’s riches beneath the earth’s crust, and inspired by the sublime that lies on top.
The cool term for the study of landforms and what lies beneath is called “Surficial geology.” The Midwest was once under a great lake, and the demise of that lake left skeletons of its inhabitants—fossils—compressed in sedimentary rock, like limestone and dolomite.
Long after the lake dried, multiple periods of glacial advance and retreat moved other rocks down from Canada, squashed and sliced the northern part of the state flat, and deeply buried the most interesting sedimentary and glacial materials.
This wide, flat plain now provides you with your corn and soybean crops!
In contrast, retreating ice left “tills” and “moraines,” creating ridges and ravines in the middle and southern portions of the state. Brown County lies among them. Here, a massive segment of limestone was uplifted intact and formed into an outcrop called the Salem Limestone. In their book, Stone Country: Then and Now, by Scott Russel Sanders and Jeffrey A. Wolin, Sanders describes this as “a rare, thick-bedded, tight-grained stone that can be quarried in large blocks, cut to any shape, and carved in fine detail.” It is “the largest accessible deposit of premium building stone in the United States,” and was used to build the Empire State Building, Chicago’s Tribune Tower, and San Francisco’s City Hall, for starters. Pretty impressive.
Encompassing a portion of these incredible limestone features are the Brown County Hills—the site of my friend’s beloved dogwoods. These hills include the highest elevations in the state, like Weed Patch Hill, which is 1,058 feet above sea level and part of a geologic feature called the Knobstone Escarpment that moseys south all the way to the Ohio River.
While their elevation may not sound imposing, hill after hill of tree-covered ridges tucked together for more than 300 square miles are exquisitely beautiful. These forested hillsides are also invaluable—according to the Nature Conservancy they are “the largest and most heavily forested land remaining in Indiana.” The whole nation will benefit from their preservation. (Watch for a later post to learn why.)
If you have seen a dogwood, you’ll know that its flowers lie horizontal, like hands outstretched. During spring in Brown County, clouds of pink and white dogwood flowers float in the understory of tall tree cousins: old oaks and sugar maples; pawpaw, sycamore, black walnut, and ash. Standing at an outlook, they all seem to be competing to crowd the acclivities and declivities of Brown County, hogging the glory.
Beneath their canopy, lilac colored redbud contest with dogwood for attention, along with the occasional bloom of a rare yellowwood tree.
During the spring in Indiana, dogwood and other trees bloom profusely all across the state, in woods and forests, in parks and gardens.
It is my favorite season.
In summer, the trees take on an even green. They provide verticality. They rest in their majesty.
But in the fall, to me the trees become an icon, representing the world within the world not yet seen. The chlorophyll levels drop, and the trees’ true colors appear:
I watch, as nature sheds the even green of summer. Like the curtain rent, Autumn drops its veil of green, freeing star spun colors. Green slides down the stems of nature like heaven’s impenetrable curtain parted, revealing colors hardly dreamt, if not remembered: The sunburst yellows, purples, pinks, and ambers that storm forth each year in autumn.
Indiana boasts a subtle but brilliant beauty, expressed in its hardwood trees and forests. They embellish the land in every season, but in spring and autumn they inspire awe.
Having grown up on the desert edge of LA, when even the cultivated orange orchards were dug up to make way for expanding developments, I have a special love for the hardwood trees of Indiana, its woodlands, and its scattered islands of old growth forests.
Still, destructive forces are impacting our state today, decimating trees that have graced this landscape for millennia.
If we are to preserve the trees in Indiana, and those in other states with trees and forests like it, we need to care for our forested lands and act to reduce these destructive forces.
Some ways to do so will be the focus of my next two posts.
When hiking in the California High Sierras, my husband John and I always took along our fly fishing rods. We usually planned to include a few brown, golden, or rainbow trout in our menu.
Apologies to vegans, but truthfully, after five or ten days carrying heavy packs, hiking through difficult territory, and subsisting on gorp (raisins, M & Ms, and peanuts), freeze dried food, and boiled water, a dinner of fresh caught trout tasted like a bit of heaven.
I loved fly fishing in the Sierras. Doing so was tricky—flys with hooks easily snag trees, and trees lined the streams along our trails. We couldn’t let the line out as far as we might on a wide river. We usually had to swish the line from side to side over the stream rather than back and forth over our heads. But angling just right to make the fly land gently was part of what made fishing in the High Sierras an engrossing challenge.
The fish we hunted often hid beneath fallen logs. They lay concealed, watching for a fly or mosquito to land and float up close. The partially submerged trees gave the fish the chance to surprise a bug and snag its dinner.
Knowing their hiding places, those logs gave us an opportunity to catch our dinner, as well. We knew the trout were there, lying in wait beneath the sunken trunks.
In the Sierras, fallen trees provide hiding places fish need for survival. But trees play more than a single role in the survival of fish species. Trees also help make fish fat.
In 2014, the BBC reported on a study showing that deforestation is reducing freshwater fish populations. According to Andrew Tanentzap from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, “Where you have more dissolved forest matter you have more bacteria, more bacteria equals more zooplankton. Areas with the most zooplankton had the largest, fattest fish.” And higher quantities.
Simply put, when we remove forest cover, the fish that depend upon it go hungry. Fewer young fish survive to adulthood. Those that do survive are too skinny to make a good dinner.
As the article noted, this problem effects more than the fish. “Freshwater fishes make up more than 6% of the world’s annual animal protein supplies for humans” and, alarmingly, “they are the major and often only source of animal protein for low income families across Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines.” These are places where millions of poor families—men, women, and children—are already hungry.
What we often forget, when people urge action on climate change; or call us to reforest rather than deforest; or say that we ought to retain policies that protect the air, land, and water; or that the Environmental Protection Agency needs to be substantially funded if it is to conduct research and enact regulations to save the environment, even if these actions are sometimes inconvenient; is that saving our environment not only helps the air, land, water, or species we are protecting, but our own species, as well.
Caring for the environment saves lives. It is fundamentally pro-life.
Abusing the environment takes lives. It kills.
There is no way around these facts.
Caring for this earth isn’t a simple obligation. It will take all the energy and creativity we have. I, for one, am struggling to find my way forward to make a difference.
The air, land, and water are worth preserving for themselves. And so are other species. But we ought to also realize that human lives are at stake if we don’t act, persistently, assertively, and proactively, to care for this still lovely fragile blue planet.
We share this ecosystem with millions of other people whose lives depend upon the world’s continuing resources.
Trees have been my teachers. I may have learned the most from an avocado tree I planted as a small girl.
We called it my tree, because I was the one who had dug the hole and carefully planted the slippery globe into the hard, dry earth. I remember myself as a dirty little girl in pigtails, my body bent like an elbow, as my three-foot frame inspected the miniature, one-foot sapling. My seed was growing!
My home in the Inland Empire was 30 to 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Our street, like many of the burgeoning towns that eat into California east of LA today, was commandeered from the lemon and orange orchards that once were ubiquitous in this part of California, and our developments were sculpted from them. Rich earth had fed those trees, and we, the residents of the developments that caused their demise, inherited that good earth. This former orchard soil was well prepared to nurture my avocado seed into its own bright existence.
I knew nothing of our soil’s composition, though. I planted the slippery globe from the yellow heart of this fruit into the dry soil of my backyard because I believed in seeds.
And then, I waited.
I don’t remember the day it emerged, but I do recall my crouched child-frame, inspecting its tender, one-foot beginnings.
We were oblivious, the tree and I, to the vicissitudes of life, and to my avocado tree’s limited chance to survive, much less thrive. Yet this stalwart tree lived longer than the two larger ones that my parents planted in our backyard when they purchased our home in 1950.
My avocado tree grew beside the “turtle yard” on the west end of our back lot. After my father died in 1986, the last of our family’s tortoises were given away to a tortoise preserve, and the honey suckle covered chicken wire fence that enclosed their yard was ripped down, but my avocado tree survived both the shovel and the sheers.
My tree grew through a thick ivy skirt edging the base of the six-foot high brick fence my father had constructed to enclose our lot. The ivy’s tendrils climbed high into the tree, but my tree arched its branches further still, finding breathing room and surviving. It endured for the remainder of the 56 years my mother lived in that house, and I hope it does still.
Through the 19 years I lived there it never bore fruit. A few years after I went away, though, it managed to become pollinated without human grafting. Bird droppings, with specks of avocado in them, may have found their way into a tree wound and “inseminated” it.
My mother called one day with wonder and excitement in her voice. “Gail, your avocado tree has fruit! It’s growing real avocados!” she exclaimed, excitedly.
Two small nodules were all she saw, but they were indeed fruit. They grew, I received one in the mail and ate it, and it was glorious. My avocado tree bore fruit every succeeding year, presenting my mother with large luscious avocados season after season.
Truthfully, this tree had no need to justify its existence. It provided shade to birds and attractive greenery to all who saw it. It had blessed me by its emergence, its growth, and its health. Its very life was a gift. That it survived was enough.
Perhaps we too have no need to justify our existence; perhaps our mere seed-spawned lives, lived out humbly and humanely, are our own planter’s pleasure.
Trees, like other living creatures in this ecosystem, seek to survive; when they can, amidst countless difficulties, they also find ways to thrive. My tree thrived on its own, really, with little to assist it. I take pleasure in that. And comfort.
I have thought often about survival and the art of thriving. My husband John died unexpectedly when we were both 47, and I became a widow as well as the single parent of a 13 and a 9-year-old overnight. During the next few years, I often felt like Tolkien’s Frodo, worn, wounded, and weary. I yearned for my own garden escape—a Rivendell or Lothlorien where I could retreat and be refreshed.
To most of us, mere survival is insufficient to give life meaning. As Thoreau said, “most men live lives of quiet desperation,” and most, I think, are not resigned to doing so. We seek to thrive as well as survive.
Trees that do not thrive frequently do not survive, either. Wilted, they succumb to disease, or hemmed in by more successful siblings, they lose the competitive advantage for water or nutrients, and they slowly die.
Trees look tough, but they are vulnerable. Today, trees face new challenges in their quest to survive and thrive. Countless entire species of trees are endangered.
They are threatened to near extinction by human actions such as deforestation, over-logging, urbanization, pollution, non-native invasive insects, climate change, and much more. But the mere fact that they are here as part of this interconnected ecosystem is certainly enough to justify all of our united efforts to protect them.
And the trees that we save can be our teachers.
As the avocado tree that I planted as a small child might well point out, a seed, small, unyielding, embedded in hard, dry soil, broke forth roots, emerged trembling into the world and, despite minimal tending, through some unexpected encounter, bore fruit, remaking the possibilities of life. Clapping with laughter and joy.
Pine trees dot the California landscape like freckles. They cluster in patches, and survive in the oddest places.
Some years ago, I fingered one of the oldest pines in the world during an adventure in California’s White Mountains with my husband John, who died at the very young age of 47.
John had taught me to backpack, and we loved the California Sierra Nevada Mountain Range—the longest and highest continuous mountain range in the continental United States.
We began each expedition from the east side, spending one night at mid-range to acclimate before hiking over a pass on day two into pristine territory. As we climbed, we traversed terrain suited to a variety of pines—the Jeffrey, Sugar, Lodgepole, and Western White Pine—pine upon pine—until we were above timberline, in a world where 16 inch golden trout made ready meals and stars could be caressed from the warmth of our sleeping bags.
On this particular adventure, we had been trekking through Death Valley and Saline Valley, two basins east of the Sierras and south and east of the White Mountains. We were traveling in my father’s wildly outfitted Land Rover. The Rover looked like an ancient space vehicle—painted grey with patches of bright red, a pop-up tent carved out of the roof, and removable shelves that flung out like wings from its windows and doors.
The first night, we were chased out of Death Valley by a sudden, vicious sand storm. Nestled in the tent above the Rover, we smelled the dust as it heralded the tempest to come. We dropped the pop up and drew the wings in quickly, like a frightened turtle, and escaped as fast as we could—sand and dust swirled past our faces through cracked door linings leaving a fine coating inside. Then in Saline Valley, we were hit with a snowstorm–cows trembled in the desert, their heads and backsides doused in white.
Despite the less than stellar weather, we were in the vicinity and so we decided to ascend the White Mountains to view the Bristlecone pines—among the oldest living organisms on earth. One, measured in 2012 by a dendrochronologist from the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, was found to be 5,062 years old. They grow at an elevation between 5,000 and 12,000 feet—a bit inconvenient to reach (which may help account for their longevity).
At first, I was less than awed by the scrubby things. They’re short, stubby, and bent with age—nothing like their towering cousins in the Sierras. But as my husband talked about the trees’ longevity—some were alive near the beginning of recorded human history and endure still—my awe, and my sense of how privileged I was to be there and see them, grew.
I have a long way to go to do all I can to care for this earth. In some ways, I fail miserably as an environmentalist. But I care about this world with which we have been entrusted.
I’ve been privileged to see a great survivor, the Bristlecone Pine. But this earth is at a critical juncture. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the world is facing a mass extinction of species today—the sixth in earth’s history—but “Unlike the mass extinction events of geological history, the current extinction challenge is one for which a single species – ours – appears to be almost wholly responsible.” The causes are multiple—habitat destruction, wildlife trade, and climate change—but once a species is lost, it is gone forever.
What can I do?
I’m not sure yet, but I know I cannot just stand by and let greed or apathy relentlessly annihilate the plants and animals of this amazing earth. I want to be a better steward. So despite my inadequacies, I’m on a quest to find ways to help save some of the species that remain.