Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Are trees worth more than board feet? #phenology

Tomorrow is Aldo Leopold's birthday. That may help explain my thoughts this morning as, looking out the window at the falling snow, I recognized a couple of maple trees that I think are red maple. They're still too small to tap and I'm not sure there's enough maples on the property to make it worthwhile to try for home made syrup. Between the maples I could see a few cedar trees, red not white, I think. Behind the maples and cedars, between the house and the road, are a number of oak trees, bur, white, and ?, plus some pines and other trees. It's clearly a mixed hardwood / softwood forest. I would undoubtedly know more about the trees if there were a reason to, such as providing medicine or firewood or building lumber or .... Looking out the window I asked myself "what good are these trees to me?"

oaks holding leaves through Winter
oaks holding leaves through Winter
Photo by J. Harrington

An obvious but partial answer came when I realized that I like to breathe and trees help produce the oxygen I need. I enjoy watching the squirrels and birds at the feeders. Without trees to provide perches, shelter and a modicum of safety to squirrels and birds, Winter could become birdless and squirrel-less and very dreary. Mosses grow on the fallen trees, offering patches of green before Spring and leaf-out arrive. Tree leaves and trunks help feed fungi (mushrooms) of which a variety grow on the property and offer challenging identification puzzles.

The oaks, on a good year, drop acorns as forage for the deer and turkey that wander through. If they weren't around, I'd miss them mightily. Tree roots help hold our Anoka Sandplain soils in place and the forest duff and the soils help clean the rain and snow melt as it feeds groundwater that ends up in our well or flows to one of the local rivers we enjoy watching and walking along. Without potable water, we wouldn't be able to live where we do, and without rivers we probably wouldn't want to live here anyhow.

Winter sunrise through the trees
Winter sunrise through the trees
Photo by J. Harrington

It's not always Winter and snowing in Minnesota, although it's beginning to feel that way. In the Summer, trees provide shade to help cool the house. Trunks and shade offer opportunities to just sit and watch, a practice I should follow more. Now, if I needed lumber to make a shelter, or firewood to keep warm, it might be worthwhile chopping down one of the "useless" trees. If I did so, it would be a good idea to acknowledge that I'm trading lumber or firewood for shade and clean water and all those other services provide for free by "useless" trees. That might be a worthwhile trade for one or two trees, but not if they were all cut down. Deserts don't have many trees growing in them. (Have you ever read Frank Herbert's Dune?)

I'm not comfortable putting a dollar value on ecosystem services because I'm not convinced they are all fungible, nor am I convinced dollar values can be put on the pleasure of watching birds, listening to owls at night, watching moonrise through the branches and a variety of other services trees and water and other natural functions give us for the asking and a little attention. On the other hand, I was clearly way off base with my initial perspective that, since they didn't offer an immediate material or economic value, my trees were useless.

Learning the Trees


By Howard Nemerov


Before you can learn the trees, you have to learn
The language of the trees. That’s done indoors,
Out of a book, which now you think of it
Is one of the transformations of a tree.

The words themselves are a delight to learn,
You might be in a foreign land of terms
Like samara, capsule, drupe, legume and pome,
Where bark is papery, plated, warty or smooth.

But best of all are the words that shape the leaves—
Orbicular, cordate, cleft and reniform—
And their venation—palmate and parallel—
And tips—acute, truncate, auriculate.

Sufficiently provided, you may now
Go forth to the forests and the shady streets
To see how the chaos of experience
Answers to catalogue and category.

Confusedly. The leaves of a single tree
May differ among themselves more than they do
From other species, so you have to find,
All blandly says the book, “an average leaf.”

Example, the catalpa in the book
Sprays out its leaves in whorls of three
Around the stem; the one in front of you
But rarely does, or somewhat, or almost;

Maybe it’s not catalpa? Dreadful doubt.
It may be weeks before you see an elm
Fanlike in form, a spruce that pyramids,
A sweetgum spiring up in steeple shape.

Still, pedetemtim as Lucretius says,
Little by little, you do start to learn;
And learn as well, maybe, what language does
And how it does it, cutting across the world

Not always at the joints, competing with
Experience while cooperating with
Experience, and keeping an obstinate
Intransigence, uncanny, of its own.

Think finally about the secret will
Pretending obedience to Nature, but
Invidiously distinguishing everywhere,
Dividing up the world to conquer it,

And think also how funny knowledge is:
You may succeed in learning many trees
And calling off their names as you go by,
But their comprehensive silence stays the same.



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