Virginia Nature Journal for February

William Carlos WilliamsWe had exceptionally chill temperatures and heavy snow throughout February up and down the East Coast this year. Cold air that normally hangs over the north-west was pushed down to the Plains by the jet-stream, leaving Alaska feeling relatively balmy. As if that affront was not enough for one winter, we were also battered by a nor’easter in early February. Virginians with long memories tell us that not since 1980 can they remember a deeper winter in Williamsburg.

Snow disappears first under trees
Snow disappears first under trees

The melt always starts first on roofs and asphalt driveways because the dark colors absorb even the feeblest infra-red rays that penetrate the translucent snow cover. The next place for snow to go is on the compost pile, which shows that our microbial and fungal friends are not  slumbering but can still generate a little heat. Snow starts its ground retreat from under bushes and trees and reaches open ground last, where there is plenty of solar radiation. Perhaps the snow that settles on evergreen foliage and boughs rarely falls to the base of the tree but melts in situ, disappearing more quickly on darker colors.

This is a good time for gazing at the bare skeletons of sleeping trees. The verticality of their trunks is more obvious as they snub gravity; their crowns are so marvelously balanced and finished with a tracery of fuzzy twigs. Any gaps caused by wind damage will be filled in the growing season by disproportionate new growth. Under the boughs, there is a litter of small branches and twigs among the fall remains of acorns, walnuts, and maple wing-nuts. The wood looks wasted like unlucky victims of storm damage, but this kind of pruning is so necessary because branches multiplying each year by compound interest would soon become overloaded. Shedding weaker twigs is a picture of natural selection in motion.

oak tree
Pin oak

When Leonardo da Vinci mused about the shapes and dimensions of trees he recorded a curious fact. Irrespective of height above ground, the cross-sectional area of a branch equals the sum of the same dimensions in the branches it subtends. This rule applies at each transition from trunk to uttermost twig. The standard explanation is plumbing. We might expect to find this correspondence because the living cambium and conducting vessels continue from each branch to its daughters.

According to a recent paper in Physical Review Letters from a UCSD biophysicist there is another explanation. He formulated a mathematical model that closely fits Leonardo’s observations but suggests that this geometry gives the branches the best strain resistance to high winds. Perhaps we don’t have to choose one theory over another but can accept that both may be correct. Biology is neat and good at math.

The clearing patches of snow under trees are good places for wildlife that can’t migrate or hibernate. Small birds and rodents scratch for a living among the brown leaves between the green spears of daffodils while sapsuckers drill neat holes above for licking at the weeping sap. Bird feeders are the avian equivalent of soup kitchens: they can save lives in hard times. But they also offer easy pickings for predators like our pair of red-shouldered hawks unless the prey dashes into cover nearby. Despite the continuing grip of winter, lengthening days make spring brains. As soon as their breakfast is over, cardinals and Carolina wrens burst into song and a crow proudly carries a twig to an untidy matt in an old pine tree.

Next Post: The Bard of Beckenham

Another Remembrance Day

Boy-scoutVeterans Day came round again last week. It brought to mind a boy standing in the drizzle beside a war memorial near London on what is called Remembrance Day over there. I have a black and white picture in my head of the 1st Farnborough boy scout troop on parade.

We marched on November 11 (or the closest Sunday) from the George & Dragon pub car park to the cemetery at Saint Giles Church where we assembled in serried ranks beside girl scouts and opposite rows of veterans from two World Wars. The men stood stiffly to attention, some needing help with a cane. Almost all wore a dark gabardine mackintosh with a poppy in their buttonhole and bright medals dangling from ribbons. We were in scout uniform, which in those days meant short pants and a green beret pulled over an ear so the rain drained on our shoulder.  Cold, wet, and unnaturally subdued for boys, we had to show a stiff upper lip because our fathers were there.

St. Giles' Church
St. Giles’ Church and war memorial, Farnborough

We waited for a roll call of the fifty names engraved in the granite memorial, followed by the Ode to Remembrance.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning,

We will remember them.

The assembly repeated the last line before a two-minute silence. Then a bugler on the memorial steps called the Last Post (Taps in America).  We then filed into the church through the narthex to the back pews where we fidgeted on the hard wooden boards for the next hour. The rector stepped up to the pulpit in a black cassock and white surplice, probably still wondering in his bowed head how to preach about the unspeakable.

Our parents and grandparents in front of us were remembering comrades, friends, and neighbors whose faces and voices still rang in the halls of their memory. Our family had lost some members, but that was long ago. How could a boy share the same emotions as his elders? How could he remember someone he had never known? The best he could do was to stay awake during the sermon, try to imagine the horrors of war, and resist his attention from drifting to the girl scouts nearby.

I guess it is easier today for American youngsters to have a fuller heart than we had for our veterans of the World Wars because they are likely to know someone who has served in war zones. A personal connection puts flesh on the statistics of conflict, as I appreciated when I saw a brawny young man in a wheelchair with his legs sawn off above the knee. I was tempted to ask, “Was it an I.E.D.?” I should have simply said, “Thank you,” but for me he put a human face on the sacrifice of war which helps me remember when stars and stripes are fluttering again in churchyards and beside mailboxes at this time of year.

While I was musing that personal connections help to make remembrance more heart-felt I wondered about all the other people I have never even paused to think about and all the things that I take for granted in daily life. It doesn’t seem such a big sacrifice to unclutter the mind for just two minutes of meditation once a year for them, although there is the excuse of an endless thank you list that would tax the brain. But I am getting started, and although my choice seems odd I hope the reasons are clear by the end of this post. I am thinking of TREES!

Loblolly pines

No memorial day is set aside for them, although there is a National Arbor Day when planting and caring for trees is encouraged. If there is ever a day for remembering the bountiful forests and our continuing dependence on them Joyce Kilmer’s Trees will probably be its anthem:

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree…

Some trees are so magnificent that they can even stir the heart of a lumberjack who makes his living by clear-cutting forests to the horizontal, like machine-gunners who admired the enemy’s courage even as they slaughtered at the Somme, Passchendaele, and Marne. We say we love trees, yet our actions speak otherwise. A storm of yellow and red leaves out of a maple tree in the fall is mesmerizing, but then we complain about clearing them from our yard. Trees do not just embellish the landscape but are emblematic of all that is grand and worth preserving in nature.

Forests were where most people lived before they were cleared for lumber and to make way for farms, concrete and asphalt. Saint Giles himself was a 7th Century forest-dweller. For untold centuries they provided nutritious food and wood for heating, cooking, tool-making, and furniture, and they harbored an astonishing biodiversity. They still do. Our ancestors felt much more connected with trees than modern man as they dreamt of (and sometimes worshipped) tree spirits—dryads in Greece, kodema in Japan, Ah’ret in Cambodia, and green men in England. The spirits were defenders of the forests and could sway human destiny. It was vital to preserve the sylvan environment for posterity. But when people moved to towns and cities the caretaking spirit was forgotten and timber just a way of making a living and another table.

“The wrongs done to trees, wrongs of every sort, are done in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief…” (John Muir).

Perhaps we are coming round at last to thinking about the great forests in a fresh way, if only because we are alarmed at the prospect of a world without them. We know that they are the lungs of the atmosphere and buffer the rising levels of carbon dioxide, but this realization came late and action to care for forests around the world, and particularly in the tropics, is still ponderous, patchy and often short-sighted. Like the parable of the blind man in Bethsaida who only saw people “looking like trees walking” until he was fully healed, when we look at trees we only see dollar bills and people with wants and needs.

Sequoia grove in California
“Any fool can destroy trees…” John Muir

To meditate on trees it helps to take a trip to see the giants. It is as impossible to avoid looking up in awe at a grove of sequoia in California as to turn aside from looking down in amazement from the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. You never forget. On the other side of the country children have fun holding hands in a ring to measure the circumference of the biggest yellow poplar. The stories they take home are lasting.

yellow poplar
Measuring a giant yellow poplar.
Courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, NC State Universities Libraries

This last tract of virgin hardwoods containing giant poplar trees in the mountains of North Carolina has been protected by the US Department of Forestry since 1936 when it was named after the poet, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.  Outside the preserve every large tree was taken down because they all had a price on their boles. The titanic American chestnut trees that once dominated the forest canopy even over the poplars had a different fate since they fell everywhere to a malignant blight, and few people are alive today who can remember them. But to stand among the surviving giants can feel like being among veterans sharing a solemn remembrance of the fallen, including Joyce Kilmer himself who lay down among the trees that died the same day on the Marne battlefield not long after writing his poem.

Paul Nash
We are Making a New World. Paul Nash 1918.

Next post: In a nutshell

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