Monday, October 20, 2008

It's a magical morning

You get one of these magical mornings every couple of years. Last night we had the first heavy frost of fall, and this morning the air is perfectly still. Before dawn a lot of leaves were in perfect balance, ready to fall. And, as the sun rises and warms the leaves at the top of the trees they're falling, for no obvious reason, setting off chain reactions, cascades, of falling leaves from lower down.

It's no wonder that people believe in faeries and leprechauns.

Meanwhile, in the real world, I brought the baobab tree and the other tender plants into the house over the weekend. I bit the bullet and pruned the baobab to about two feet tall. It's hard for me to bring myself to prune a tree. Part of me tends to strongly want to let them grow as they want to grow. The baobab is starting to get a bulbous trunk. I should prune it even further to make its top more round as it would be in the wild, but it's very hard to countenance doing that.

Last fall Alex and I cut a big branch from the silver maple just in front of the house to stop is from interfering with the sweetgum. After we were done I heard Alex explain some of my comments to Christina. "He personalizes trees," Alex said. I've been thinking about that off and on ever since and I've decided that it's correct. I do personalize trees, and correctly so. The silver maple was purposely trying to shade out the sweetgum. In whatever passes for its brain it was grabbing for and defending space, much as a person will defend his or her territory in this world.

You doubt? Back about twenty years ago Pop had us dig him a garden in the old barn foundation where the soil was as rich and perfect as any soil you will ever find. But as the garden grew it became apparent that many of the tomato plants were either dying or growing poorly for no obvious reason - no obvious reason, that is, until I happened to read somewhere that you should never mulch your garden with walnut or oak leaves. And then it was clear. Looking at Pop's garden with aware eyes it became obvious what was happening. The tomato plants were stunted along the lines of roots radiating from the big black walnut growing up on the berm above the barn foundation more than thirty feet from the garden.

That black walnut was ruthlessly engaging in chemical warfare to defend its access to the nutrients in the barn foundation. Not content to depend on its falling leaves to do the dirty work in the fall it was conducting a preemptive strike by emitting poison deadly to tomatoes and some other plants from its roots. Pop took that very personally when I explained it to him; and for a time he considered ordering a preemptive strike of his own, considered sending me out with the chain saw to deal with the evil tree. But reason prevailed, and instead we moved the garden the next year. Pop is long gone now; but I remember him every time I look at that tree, almost two feet in diameter now, still spreading its poison, still defending its little piece of the world.

Another place I read that it is not only individual trees that have their wiles and tricks. Oak trees go a step further than walnuts. They talk to one another, and they talk to one another over vast distances, passing on chemical messages. All over our property, and all over the eastern US for that matter, across hundreds of miles, the oak trees coordinate their heavy acorn bearing years to overwhelm the squirrels with so many acorns that it's impossible for the squirrels to collect and eat them all. On a personal level the oaks compete, and at the race and species level they compete, but on the genus level it's a case of oak trees coordinating their actions against the rest of the wide world.

On our property we have pin oaks and post oaks, and white and red and scarlet and black oaks. We also have swamp and bur and overcup and chinkapin oaks. We used to have a couple of English oaks, pretty good sized ones with trunks more than a foot in diameter; but they both died at about the same time a decade or so ago - introduced prissy Europeans that proved unable to stand the rigors of this New World - or perhaps the red, white and blue American oaks ganged up on them . All this is very unnatural, by the way. Mr. C, who bought the property in 1944, was a botany professor or something like that, so there are all manner trees planted here that would never coexist in such close proximity in the wild forest.

The tough, introduced from China, Dawn Redwoods caused me no end of puzzlement twenty five years ago because my then tree reference book didn't include introduced species. So I went along for a couple of years thinking they were either Sequoia Sempervirens, Coastal Redwoods, or Sequoiadendron Giganteum, Giant Sequoias, which shouldn't be able to grow around here at all and which certainly shouldn't shed their foliage in winter. At about that time I pointed out the biggest of the Sequoias down in the swamp below the pond to a new neighbor one day when we were out walking. I told him that in a thousand years when those trees would be three hundred feet tall his great-great grandchildren wouldn't recognize this neighborhood from today's pictures. Which caused him to look at me a little funny. Sometimes I don't sufficiently telegraph irony when I'm engaging in it.

During that walk I had also identified to him another very large tree, which has since died, as a Cottonwood and I had, to his point of view, persisted in that claim despite his assertion that Cottonwoods only live out west. It was a Cottonwood, and it was most assuredly here, and healthy and a couple of feet in diameter by that day, planted by Mr. C in the 1940's no doubt, although in this climate it never produced enough "cotton" to litter the ground with white fluff. I sometimes wonder if there is another cottonwood in Montgomery County. I've never seen another one.

But the Sequoias turned out not to be of either of the kinds I thought they were. My mental balance re that matter was only restored when I noticed a little thirty or so foot tall one on a fairly small front lawn down in Fort Washington on the way to work. When I stopped to inspect it more closely one day while the homeowner was mowing his lawn he explained that he had bought it at a nursery and planted it. Metasequoia Glyptostroboides, Dawn Redwood, that's what it was, and that's what ours are. The fellow clearly thought me half nuts, and doubted me when I told him that he had better be prepared for problems in the future because our biggest one was even then almost two feet in diameter at the base and about eighty feet tall. One day I have to go by there again and see how his is doing if he hasn't cut it down. Our biggest Metasequoia is now well over a hundred feet tall and its trunk is more than four feet in diameter. It's slowly shading out its near neighbor Metasequoia. Even among like kind trees will not just leben und leben lich, live and let live, if they are too much in one another's face, just like people.

Cicadas coordinate their actions also; but the talk we hear from them is just the mundane talk of "I'm here, where are you, you sexy thing?" - mating talk. Their more clever coordination is done deep down in their genes which dictate that there are three year and five year and seven year and eleven year and seventeen year cicadas. Cicadas smart enough, despite their tiny little brains, to reproduce on a prime number year schedule so as to overwhelm predators by their hatching numbers - to make it harder for predators to maintain their own numbers by preying on them in the rich picking years.

Darn right I personalize trees; but since Alex's comment to Christina I'm a bit more careful about making sure I only talk to them when nobody else is around.


Anonymous said...

There's nothing I like better than going for a good trudge in the snow in order to photograph trees.

I have found that a tree's true personality comes through when its branches are bare. Leaves are the window dressing that makes most trees look nice; but it's the tree that can look great without its leaves that ends up on film.

Sully said...

I love the winter also. I can bundle up to handle almost any level of cold.

I once went through a tree photographing period out in California but now I mostly just walk and sit and watch.

Anonymous said...

My first experience with severely cold weather was at my friends' house in Vermont. It was also to be my first time skiing. Unfortunately, there was a record cold snap (-40 degrees, and that was at the base of the mountain), so we were stuck inside.

Fortunately, my friends were able to lend me sufficient clothing to keep warm, so I was able to go out for short walks. I was amazed at the effectiveness of their cold weather gear and made a point of getting similar clothing when I returned home. Do you remember "moon boots" :)?

Ever since then, I always shop the seasonal clearance racks and Cabela's website for quality winter jackets, hats, gloves and boots.

I am now the Imelda Marcos of Sorrel boots, some of which can withstand temps of -60 below; because when I am standing in place in the snow for as much as and sometimes even more than a half-hour at a time to set up and shoot a subject, I really need to keep my feet warm.

My business card has my signature shot which features a magnificent pin oak in the snow.