Late summer has officially morphed into autumn, and for the past few weeks I’ve been feeling a bit disoriented with my independent nature studies. I’ve spent the spring and summer of 2013 with a specific focus: identifying and observing the wild berries of coastal BC. Now that most of the berries have been devoured by birds and people, or hang morbidly on their shrubs after they’ve peaked and rotted, I need to choose a new aspect of the forest to watch.
In late August (when the panic of an upcoming berry-less existence set in), I started searching for a new learning direction that would fit with the fall. I attended a bird walk at Stanley Park, where I learned that the male mallard ducks would be growing in their colourful feathers in October and starting to mate with the females in the winter. I signed out a mushroom field guide from the library, as I knew that the forest fungi would be thriving in fall. I savoured a wonderful cross-disciplinary book about moss and memory (Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which I’d like to tell you about in more detail sometime), and began taking close-up photos of shaggy rocks and logs. Though I find all of these things (ducks, fungi, and moss) interesting, the information overload made be feel paralyzed. I was grasping at the intricate details of feathers, single cells, and tender fruiting bodies, when perhaps I needed to ground my learning in something more solid and simple.
After a head-clearing walk through Stanley Park last Sunday, I officially settled on a point of focus. And it’s the most obvious thing: I’m going to learn more about trees.
It’s funny – I’ve never paid much attention to trees. I mean, I like them as a concept, and I enjoy the canopy and oxygen that they provide. I would notice and be upset if they suddenly disappeared from a local street or park. However, if pressed to describe the features of a specific tree, to identify a species of tree on a walk through the forest, or to figure out which tree a cone had dropped from, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Time to change that!
In addition to exploring the physical and scientific aspects of trees, I’m also curious about their connection to the human and the sacred realms. How were trees used and honoured by people in the past? What kind of legends have people told about trees? What are their interior lives like? How do they govern each other and the plants around them? What magic, and what medicine, do they provide to those beings who know them intimately?
My first glance at tree literature, which was intended to be for basic identification purposes, yielded insight into the anatomy of trees that was deeper than I expected. A small guidebook from the library called Native Trees of British Columbia (by Reese Halter and Nancy J. Turner) introduced me to vocabulary terms such as “cambium” – a layer of living tissue-producing cells located between the bark and the wood of a tree. Sandwiched between the cambium and the rough visible outer bark of the tree is a living inner bark that transmits energy from leaf to root. There is a human softness in the solidity of the tree, a flowing circulatory and regenerative system that rests between the hardness of its skin and bones.
I also had a read through The Global Forest, a book of short essays written by botanist and bio-chemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger. In the book, Beresford discusses some of the medicinal properties of trees, the connection of trees to the growth of fungi and wildflowers, the need to protect the future of tree fruits and nuts in a global food landscape of genetically modified crops, and the effects of forest clearcutting. Two of the most interesting essays in the book were about the communication of trees. In one essay, Beresford notes that trees interact with each other in the forest – when one tree isn’t doing well, it sends out molecular signals that help to attract beneficial insects. The other trees in the area also receive these signals and send carbon to the ailing tree in order to help it out. In another essay, Beresford describes “infrasound” – a long-waved sound that travels long distances. Infrasound is produced by various things on earth, including trees, and is audible to some species but not humans (except, for the highly sensitive, in the form of an emotional response). There is some evidence that suggests that trees may be able to communicate with each other sonically, and to send out unique, mournful waves when a tree in the local community is being cut down. Step into a forest, close your eyes, and enjoy a barely perceptible massage of interactions pulsing above, below, and through you. If the trees are sending messages to each other, are they trying to tell you something as well?
A few paragraphs above, I describe trees as “solid and simple”. In a sense, this is true. They are a basic unit of the forest, an easily recognizable object, a frequent feature in a small child’s drawing. Trees are structurally and conceptually strong beings. I wonder, though, if they are so easy to grasp not only because they are tall, visible, and ubiquitous, but also because they are the most human of the beings in the forest, a subject of unconscious recognition. Something to ruminate on as I observe the trees in Stanley Park this autumn…