How do we as a society value trees?

Published 10:00 pm Wednesday, December 21, 2016

“Nearly everything I’ve needed to know about life, I’ve learned from trees.

~ Stoney Lamar

We all talk about how wonderful it is to be outside when the weather is warm and sunny, and then curl up inside our homes when it is cold and wet in the wintertime. Forty years ago, when Allen and I were thinking about moving here from eastern North Carolina, we asked a friend for a description of this area’s winter weather. His answer was perfect: “Thirty-four degrees and raining, or getting ready to rain.”

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One consequence of winter weather in the mountains is that we spend many more hours looking out the window at trees. And there is nothing more beautiful than trees covered with drops of water sparkling in the morning sunshine. Sometimes those magnificent sparkles of light mark the demise of that tree if they are the result of one of our winter ice storms. Could we humans leave this life with that wholesome splash of beauty?

As a society, how do we value trees? The forester will walk through the woods and tell us what trees to cut for timber, and what trees to eliminate altogether because they will never be worth a dime for lumber, and they crowd out the valuable trees.

He tells us to cut the red oaks on the south side of the mountain before reaching maturity because they will be the first ones to fall if there is a drought – south facing red oaks tend to have more shallow root systems than those facing north. Red oaks facing south are blessed with more sunshine and warmth in the early growth years; north facing ones must struggle more and therefore produce a deeper root system, which also makes those trees more drought and wind resistant.

Then the forester tells us to cut out the maples and the crooked sourwoods, giving the financially desirable white pines, loblolly pines, white oaks, ash and poplars more space to grow. Many years ago most of the pitch pines were eliminated to make room for faster growing white pines. Too bad those white pines replaced all the pitch pines that thrived around our natural bogs and wetlands. White pines grow faster because they consume much more water. Now 95 percent of our bogs in western North Carolina have dried up, and many precious bog plants are now endangered.

What do we see when we walk through a forest? I look at the tall, straight poplars; one cannot help but admire their ability to sprout up tall and straight in a newly abandoned field. And the locusts, gnarly and strong. Or the hickories and oaks that drop their nuts all over the forest floor for squirrels and wood rats.

Have you ever dreamt of what sort of tree you’d like to be? Do you want to be the first one up, or the strongest, or the most prickly, or most long lasting? I guess this is all hypothetical because none of us can choose to be born a certain way; we can only choose to become the best oak, or pine, or chestnut tree that we can be.

Some of us will live a long time because of our hearty genes and the wise choices we’ve made, some of us will be thinned out to make room for more valuable species, and some of us will be lucky enough to just hang in there, in the middle. In the meantime, we all try to do the best we can with the life we have been given, just like the trees outside our window.

This morning, as I was heading out the driveway, I looked at the many, many hemlocks dying along Camp Creek. Those trees thrived and gave shelter to many animals for years, with no help from us. Because they are in a deep ravine near the creek, foresters left them alone. But their lives were cut short by the woody adelgid bug that sucked the life out of the hemlock’s cambium layer, leaving those trees dying of thirst while the creek flows beneath their bare branches. In spite of those hemlocks being the best hemlocks they could possibly be, their lives were cut short by a force beyond their control.

There, but for the grace of God, go you and I.