‘The Man Who Planted Trees,’ and More
‘The Man Who Planted Trees,’ and More
Several years ago, I visited a friend at her home in the South of France, which was surrounded by an olive grove. She had just come through a grueling battle with breast cancer, and the peaceful countryside was a consolation. As we set out for a walk, she encouraged me to wrap my arms around a gnarled olive trunk: “Go ahead, I do it all the time.” I hadn’t sized up this elegant woman as a tree hugger, and even though I’m one by profession I’d never actually done it. Well, not that anyone could see. . . . I sidled up awkwardly. “Do you feel it?” my friend asked. “Do you feel that . . . energy?” I did.
We don’t have the reverence for trees that we once had. In “The Golden Bough,” Sir James Frazer describes “the ferocious penalty” in ancient German law that was exacted from anyone who dared even to remove a strip of bark: “The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and round the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk.” A tad extreme, perhaps, to modern ears. Still, something is profoundly amiss in these days of wanton clear-cutting. Luckily, there are those who feel compelled to remind us of the tree’s noble status, inspiring a wealth of homages to these great beings — and I use the word “beings” advisedly.
So does Jim Robbins, who argues that “trees and forests are the highest functioning members of ecological society.” His absorbing, eloquent and loving book, THE MAN WHO PLANTED TREES: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet (Spiegel & Grau, $25), chronicles the adventures of a veritable Noah of the tree world, David Milarch, a Michigan nurseryman who, following a near-death experience, began a quest to locate and save genetic material from some of the oldest and healthiest specimens. Thus the Champion Tree Project was born, with a goal of cloning the champion of each of 826 species of trees in the United States. Not since 1997, when Julia Butterfly Hill climbed a 1,500-year-old redwood and lived in it for two years to spare it from loggers, has one person done more to save trees.
Robbins, a Montana journalist who first described the project in The New York Times, writes of his own awakening — when he realized “that North America’s cordillera, the mountains that extend from Alaska to northern New Mexico, and that include my patch of forest, were ground zero for the largest die-off of forests in recorded history.” While Robbins’s tone is urgent, it doesn’t compromise his crystal-clear science. His descriptions highlight the interdependence of trees not only with their immediate surroundings — the rhizosphere, “the vast complex root system and the soil and the microorganisms affecting, and affected by, the roots” — but also with the planet as a whole, explaining the vital work performed by trees in cleaning pollutants from the air and absorbing some of the extra carbon that’s throwing off our climate’s balance, causing global warming. And he describes how trees serve as guardians of our fresh water systems. Even the smallest details here are fascinating: learning, for instance, that the salicylic acid (a compound in aspirin) from black willows helps fish fight infection.
Robbins’s approach is a solid counterweight to Milarch’s unique, and equally crystal clear, spiritual vision. “Call them light beings, plant devas, earth spirits, or angels,” he insists, speaking of his conviction that trees have their own guardian angels. “Americans are about the only ones who don’t believe in such things. . . . We treat the earth like it’s dead, which allows us to do what we want, but it’s not dead.” Such talk naturally increases Robbins’s skepticism. But regardless of what drives Milarch, he has cloned — or coaxed seedlings from — some of the world’s oldest trees, including the 4,800-year-old bristlecone pine called Methuselah, as well as an Oriental plane tree known as the Hippocrates Tree, beneath which the father of medicine is said to have taught his students. Milarch’s faith is steadfastly maintained, despite financial and political challenges. Somehow his guardian angels — and ours — keep this worthy project alive.
Designers often talk about the bones of a good garden, and winter is an excellent time to appreciate the skeletal structure of our landscape, the strongest part of which isn’t stone walls — it’s trees. So why not spend your winter in the company of these true masters of the universe?
THE POWER OF TREES (Trinity University, $12.95), by Gretchen C. Daily, with photographs by Charles J. Katz Jr., is a deceptively slim volume that will inspire frequent rereading. The authors’ intention is expressed in their epigraph from the Tibetan master Sogyal Rinpoche: when you meditate on a tree, “you will find that it dissolves into an extremely subtle net of relationships that stretches across the universe.”
In other words, if you’re of a mind to cut down a tree to see more of the horizon, consider that the tree itself offers a limitless view. Daily, a conservation biologist, and her friend Katz visited the Skagit River region in Washington State, where Daily found consolation during the slow death of her father. The lyrical little book she has written in the aftermath is a window into the world of “the longest-lived organisms on Earth,” a way of transcending pain through an appreciation of what’s right in front of you. We can, she reminds us, read the past in a tree’s rings, as we would read the pages of a book.
Daily introduces us to the Great Banyan Tree, “a single individual in Calcutta with about 3,000 trunks . . . spanning an area of 1.5 acres.” Thanks to her, we learn about a colony of aspens in Utah called Pando: 47,000 trees, genetically identical, connected by a massive root system. “Pando is thought to be the heaviest organism on Earth,” Daily writes, “weighing an estimated 7,275 tons and spanning about 100 acres. The whole colony appears to be at least 80,000 years old.” The small black and white photographs in “The Power of Trees” have a timeless quality. At first, I was annoyed that Daily and Katz provide no captions, but gradually it dawned on me that such distinctions can be a way to distance ourselves from the tribe of trees, whose power is indeed awesome.
Trees don’t always need authors to describe them (and we won’t even go near the subject of why trees must die for mediocre books). Given half a chance, trees can tell their own stories, not only in their rings but in the way they pose for the camera. The photographer Larry Lederman has teased out the shyer sorts, celebrated the big shots and altogether captured their charm, sass and elegance in MAGNIFICENT TREES OF THE NEW YORK BOTANICAL GARDEN (Monacelli/New York Botanical Garden, $50). As Gregory Long, president of this National Historic Landmark, writes in his foreword, “some of these specimens are actually landmarks themselves” — like the double allée of tulip trees planted 110 years ago.
Lederman has returned to some of the 250-acre garden’s 30,000 trees in every season, capturing his favorites in the light of dawn and dusk. This book is beautiful, but it will also be useful to any gardener puzzled about what to add to her landscape. Currently on my wish list because of Lederman’s photographs are the sawtooth oak, the American fringetree and the little-leaf linden, a stalwart on city streets because it stands up so well to urban pollution — but whose beauty really emerges when it has room to spread. I was very taken with the handsomely burled Siberian elm, but my heart belongs to a senior white oak, photographed in winter, its graceful canopy arching over a rocky outcropping. If Lederman’s book doesn’t send you straight to the nursery, it should at least give you a good reason to visit the New York Botanical Garden, a national treasure nestled in the heart of the Bronx.
Normally, I don’t much like monographs that deal with a single garden. They’re often produced by people with more money than taste, and haven’t we seen enough of that for a lifetime? But LA FORMENTERA: The Woodland Refuge of Juan Montoya (Monacelli, $65) proves the splendid exception to my rule. Our able guide is Karen Lehrman Bloch, who recollects her first impression of this landscape: “I am on sacred ground.” Thanks to Eric Piasecki’s photographs, there are ideas in this estate garden in Garrison, N.Y., that can be adapted to any scale: the stony path cut low into the ground, the elegant chute of water draining into a simple basin, the bamboo banisters, the ferns in giant pots.
We have much to learn from the patrons of the decorative and gardening arts. Montoya has allowed the woodland to speak for itself; he has expanded its canvas, clearing out bramble to let tall trunks lead the eye into the distance, placing simple log benches in the woods to invite the visitor to rest. The winter pictures are especially inspiring. This is gardening with confidence — with the belief that the best way to let nature shine is to edit rather than embellish. And the glimpses we get of a house filled with art and books — a perfect complement to the woodland refuge — make one want to settle in for a spell. Which is exactly what anyone’s house and garden, no matter how small, ought to do.
A theme that runs through much of the current writing on trees is how much more scientists need to learn about them. A figure as venerable as E. O. Wilson writes, in his foreword to LONGLEAF, FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE: A New Vision of North America’s Richest Forest (University of North Carolina Press, $35), “I realized how little I really knew — . . . and how much more remained for science to discover — about the American South’s signature tree.” And he’s from Alabama, in the heart of longleaf pine country. I didn’t know much about the longleaf either, but that’s what books are for, isn’t it? A fascinating and exquisite new world of astonishing biodiversity is opened up for the reader in “Longleaf,” in which Bill Finch, Beth Maynor Young, Rhett Johnson and John C. Hall describe a savanna that originally covered 92 million acres of the southeastern United States. As Wilson points out, it has “played critical roles in American history, economy and culture. But it is almost gone.”
The photograph of mixed-age Georgia longleaf with a wiregrass understory shimmers with light, its vertical lines penciling into a distant haze. I lost several hours paging through the evocative pictures in this book, and the text is equally absorbing. Longleaf stumps holding up houses for a century “are still solid as a rock,” while the oak frames have collapsed. “But when you try to imagine the trees those stumps once supported . . . it’s like trying to imagine the ocean while eating fish sticks.”
We don’t know what we’re missing, but we can at least appreciate what remains. The longleaf has a near-mythic ability to survive intense fires. If only for the sake of its denizens — the jaunty nocturnal spadefoot toad, the elegant bluebird, the demure mole salamander, the vibrant white-topped pitcher plants — we must hope that the longleaf remains with us for centuries longer. One provocative but sensibly workable key to its survival is presented by Bob Farrar, who, with the Longleaf Alliance, suggests the possibility of a conservation partnership with landowners who have “an incentive to grow and market longleaf timber.” In other words, if you keep planting trees, even to cut some of them down, that will ensure the survival of the species. Farrar makes an eloquent case for the superiority of the longleaf, a tree so remarkable, he insists, that “we don’t deserve” it. No tree could have a better advocate.
What of those of us who don’t have much land, or any land at all? Are we to be denied our trees? Not if the Japanese “green designer” Kenji Kobayashi has anything to say about it. In KESHIKI BONSAI: The Easy, Modern Way to Create Miniature Landscapes (Timber Press, paper, $19.95), he claims to have invented a new sort of bonsai for a new generation of city dwellers who have neither the time, the resources nor the patience for the “stale, excessively intricate diversion” of classical bonsai. I think he judges his forebears too harshly, but youth may be its own excuse. And I must admit that after reading his book I’m ready to try my hand at one of the garden arts I had considered beyond my ability.
Keshiki is a form of landscape bonsai in which miniature forests are planted in small vessels, some the size of a teacup. Of course, classical bonsai artists also create illusions of landscape; that’s a mark of true mastery. But I’m not one to quibble about such distinctions; bonsai by any name is a lovely, gracious, soul-enriching enterprise. The charm of Kobayashi’s work is its quick payoff: his plantings don’t take generations to mature, and they’re relatively easy to create. In a series of step-by-step projects, he provides readers with clear, straightforward instructions, nicely illustrated. As an added bonus, he introduces us to some of his friends, artisans who work in iron, clay, papier-mâché and fabric. Kobayashi also writes of the pleasures of good conversation, home cooking, simple living. One gets a nice feel for his enchanting personal landscape, a sort of bonsai gestalt that may inspire many more trees to be grown in Brooklyn.
I’ve avoided botanical Latin throughout this essay, and that will set many a gardener’s teeth on edge. For those who want a better understanding of plant taxonomy, LATIN FOR GARDENERS: Over 3,000 Plant Names Explained and Explored (University of Chicago, $25), by Lorraine Harrison, is a treasure.
Phlox divaricata, she writes, will have “a spreading and straggling habit”; abortivus means “incomplete, with parts missing”; something that is ramiflorus will have “flowers on the older branches” (a good thing to know when pruning); and, not surprisingly, anything aromaticus will be fragrant, so plant it near a window. Sprinkled throughout are short biographies of notable plantsmen, along with stories about interesting plants. The mighty oak, Quercus, about which there are so many legends and superstitions, was sacred to the ancient Druids. And when you see quercifolia on that plant tag, you’ll know the hydrangea you’re coveting has leaves like an oak. Digitalis, so toxic it’s known as “dead man’s bells,” is one of my favorites. Remember the tale about the gloves a fox dons to keep his prints off the henhouse door, and the one about the fairies who wore these blossoms on their hands? “The Latin name comes from digitus, meaning finger,” Harrison writes. So the folklore isn’t far off the mark — as usual.
Whether in Latin or English, this season our thanks should go to the writers and photographers who speak for the trees. But we must also heed the warnings of the scientists and recognize the peril faced by these majestic beings. Plant more trees. And go ahead, hug them too. Gretchen Daily deserves the last word: “Trees define our lives and the future of humanity.”