Armchair Birding: Witness Tree: Seasons of Change With A Century-Old Oak, by Lynda Mapes

Armchair Birding: Witness Tree: Seasons of Change With A Century-Old Oak, by Lynda Mapes

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Imagine slowing yourself down to tree pace. Plant yourself deeply in one place and then stretch higher than you can reach upward to the sun, flinging your fingers to the sky while feeling the action of nutrients coursing through your veins. Then go one step further and open your cells to light: photosynthesize sugars and exhale life-supporting oxygen. All right, a stretch too far. Instead, join Lynda Mapes as she delves into the life of a chosen tree and studies the meaning of its life from every conceivable angle, inside and out. Through her deep, thoughtful questing you can almost feel the roots pushing down into the earth and the great branches skimming the night-and-day sky above. A century is a moment gathered in leaf burst and leaf fall.

Lynda grew up loving trees and living intimately with them as companions, but now takes her affinity with them to a new place of understanding and awe. With the help of many tree biologists and other adepts, she commits herself to learning all she can of the life of one tree and, by extension, all trees and the forests they live in. She travels to the Harvard Forest, 3000 acres near Petersham, Massachusetts set aside for research and managed by the University. After a search, Lynda chooses a red oak as her “witness” to seasonal change, the continuous life of a century, and a glimpse into the future. The tree becomes her teacher as she explores all that has happened since it emerged from seed into life and what it faces now as the world it has known changes in unexpected ways and perhaps outpaces its ability to adapt. We, too, become intellectually and emotionally involved in the life of this oak as it meets the challenges we have unwittingly set upon it. The impact of climate change becomes very particular, indeed. And our hearts are engaged; this has become “our tree,” too.

As Lynda discovers the many special ways we can learn about tree life—from boring into their cores, to studying the mysteries of soil, to climbing into their canopies—she describes for us the work of many professionals who invent and practice these techniques that reveal arboreal life. And as with all sciences, as layer upon layer is explored, new questions have emerged and new ways of seeing are ventured. Now we have drones to measure tree life from new vantage points, cameras to record moment by moment, and computer programs to tabulate more data than can be comprehended. But I was most taken with learning that old fashioned daily and seasonal observation with pencil and notebook is still a foundational approach. Phenology, as its root suggests, is the study or science of phenomena, or “that which can be perceived by the senses.” As I don’t have a drone, my eyes, ears and touch are hereby validated as means of observation and discernment. Years of this close attention have yielded knowledge of a kind not superseded by technology, and rich in imagery and connection. To know a tree, a forest, year in and out is a treasure beyond reckoning.

So, find a tree, a big shaggy old one that’s seen a thing or two hundred and just spend some time with it. Sit in its shade; notice where the sun reaches in golden patches and where it does not. Shelter under it in the rain and experience how water finds its way through the branches. Watch for birds, tiny spiders, for insects that munch, bore and find refuge. Mammals may leave tracks, frogs might sing from on high, ferns and fungi sport from opportune niches in the bark. Plunge your mind into the ground and picture a mirror world of roots and mycelium connections more complex than a human city. Feel the stretch and ache of time. As Lynda allowed, let the tree speak to you, narrate its own way of life, tell its own story if we would but stay rooted long enough to hear . . . and heed.

I’ve been enthralled by several books on the natural history of trees this summer; this one was my favorite. Also very worthy of reading are David George Haskell’s The Songs of Trees and  by Peter Wohlleben. Reading these works opened an entirely new vision of the complexity and intricacy of tree life for me and, strangely, gave me real hope that we as a species may be stumbling forward to a bigger and better grasp of the meaning of all life. (by Anne Kilgannon)