Trees

I really enjoy meeting new trees. I can recall time after time when I’ve been approaching a climb or running along a trail, and I stopped to look closely at a tree and find out a little more about it and its neighborhood – what’s the texture of its bark, what sort of needles or leaves does it have, how many are growing around here? For a long time, I harbored fantasies that I one day I would befriend Treebeard and command an army of ents. But I’ve (mostly) turned from anthropomorphism to appreciation. This is a partial cast of trees I’ve met in the past six months:

Paper Birch: There’s something very comforting about the symmetry of birch forests. I love trail running through the woods around Talkeetna. Every so often on my runs, a spruce grouse would explode out of the understory, and inevitably I’d think OH SHIT GRIZZLY BEAR!

Douglas Fir: I have a bad habit of calling everything tall and green a ‘pine tree.’ But it’s the fir tree that rules the rainforests in the North Cascades. I walked beneath some firs that shaded beds of moss eight inches thick, great for quick trailside naps.

Ponderosa Pine: The Ponderosas of Yosemite Valley don’t seem to be doing very well. When I visited three years ago, the occasional brown tree dotted the valley floor. This year, while high on El Cap, I was struck by the checkerboard of brown and green across the valley floor. They’re being ravaged by bark beetles.

The Trees in Hyalite: I have no idea what kind of evergreens these are. Probably pine trees. Whatever they are, their dark-green boughs are covered with blue-green moss. After snow falls, it’s harder to find a prettier setting to climb in than Hyalite Canyon.

Lenga: My absolute favorite of all trees, ever, bar none. The lenga forests of Patagonia are incredible for the shelter they create – whereas winds sweep the pampas bare, forcing shrubs to hold on for dear life, the lenga forests host grasses and wildflowers galore. While Chris and I were in Patagonia, we learned to use the forests. If we camped on the moraine we’d stay up all night, trying not to think about the wind and thinking of nothing but the wind. In the forest we’d sleep comfortably as the lenga danced the night away.

The trees abroad are wonderful. But, by virtue of the time I’ve spent here, my strongest vegetable associations are with the trees of New England. I’ve played in and around stands of birch, beech, spruce, fir, hemlock, pine, oak, and maple. Growing up I thought the trees around here must be very old.

In fact, most are quite young. In the mid-1800s most land in the area was farmed – about 30% of the region was forested. Forests have come back in a big way since then. Only a few stands of really old trees exist. A year and a half ago, I asked Tom Earle, who’s probably the closest approximation to Treebeard I’ll ever find, if he’d like to go see one of those stands with me.

One afternoon in the fall of 2015 we drove to the hamlet of Wonalancet on the south side of the White Mountains. We hiked a few miles into a natural area called ‘the Bowl,’ and ‘shwacked our way into the old-growth. Most of the maples I’ve seen in New Hampshire are big enough for me to wrap one arm around. Some of them are big enough for me to wrap both arms around and still clasp my hands together. It’s fair to say, after most of a lifetime in the woods of New Hampshire, that Tom’s seen a few trees in his day. But the trees we saw there, some 400 years old, were behemoth.

He ran over to the first big maple we saw and declared, “Look how big this one is!” Reaching our hands around the trunk, we tried to touch our fingertips together. Not a chance. We spent a few minutes looking up into the canopy looking at how the light filtered through the foliage. Then we waded through a carpet of crispy golden maple leaves to the next tree, and repeated our efforts.

That day I got to see what a New England forest was like before people came and chopped down the biggest trees around. In the 1800s people living rurally probably had very good reasons for chopping down big trees. Life was objectively hard work and trees meant lumber, warmth, and open land for agriculture. But the New England clear-cut and the exploitation of forests was unsustainable in the long term, so the forests have come back. 

When I drive across the northern reaches of rural New England, I see a lot of dilapidated homes and shuttered businesses. This is a hard land for opportunity. In the last election, our now-President promised opportunity for the dispossessed. With that glimmer of hope available, I imagine very few people in these communities voted with the environment in mind.

As I think of all the news coming out of Washington today, what alarms me most is the suggestion, parroted by the Trump administration, that hacksawing environmental regulation will improve the quality of life of the average American, really, of any American. Now, no one’s talking about cutting down old-growth forests in New Hampshire. However, if the following developments were people, they would most certainly be ‘bad hombres’ – the disapproval of the stream protection rule, the support of transfer of ownership of public lands to states, and the notion of pulling out of the Paris climate agreement. That last one is the baddest of them all.

A far more sensible approach would take the form of the following executive action: for every tree cut down, two more should be planted.

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