I visited the National Botanical Garden in Washington D.C. yesterday, a magical hour spent wandering through forests under glass. Along a path lined with desert succulents I saw an old friend, Cyphostemma currori, a giant of the grape family with poisonous seeds that grows in southwest Africa. Here it was in miniature, not the leafless giant of the Namib escarpment, its waxy yellow bark cracked in the relentless sun, but a young plant with shoots of green and standing no taller than my shins. In time and in the right conditions, it could grow 15 feet and an impressive girth. There is a big one on the top of the Grootberg in ≠Khoadi //Hôas Conservancy where Bernadus "Bob" Guibeb and I once rested after scaling the mountain one hot African morning.
Our relationship with trees is as ancient as our very species. Stone, bone, and fire hardened wood were our earliest weapons. Many cultures have their Yggdrasil myths, their trees of life. The traditional Herero people of Namibia have the Okuruo, the ancestral fire that must never go out, sustained by four sacred woods. Tolkien's Ents and the Greenman are humanoid manifestations of the spirit of the wood, the integral relationship between people and our environment.
Some trees, like the sugar maple, are emblematic of this region today but were far less prevalent in the first growth forests of New England and may yet withdraw to Canada altogether before the close of the present century as most climate change models predict. Our older neighborhoods are often in deep shade, although trees planted in urban settings live shorter, stressful lives than they would otherwise. The average street tree lasts only a few decades, and I often curse the neglect of the urban forest when walking past root-bound, salt burned trees in the city.
Large perennial woody plants come in all forms and sizes. I love the pachydermal beech, the stark white of paper birches bowing under snow. I love the mighty baobabs of Africa, their massive forms so wide that twenty arms cannot join around them yet collapsing into fibrous mounds at the end of their long span of years. I love the shiny bronze of yellow birch above all: the tree we planted for our stillborn first child.
The elms of our region, and their devastating decline since the 1930s and the introduced pathogen Dutch Elm Disease, resonate so profoundly that people in the Berkshire and Litchfield hills are willing to sponsor the injection of elms in the public viewshed with fungicide to protect them. In the late 1990s, I co-founded a group called Elm Watch that, in addition to finding sponsors for many of our remaining, specimen elm trees in this region, promotes awareness of the community forest through advocacy, education and direct action.
Litchfield County is 75% forested, yet we take our trees for granted. I love to split wood, and the satisfaction of sore arms and a well laid woodpile, but understand that forest conservation and forestry reform are critically needs. There's a bumper sticker I've seen in these parts that reads; "Hug a Logger; You'll Never go back to Trees." Fair enough. We all need a little love and understanding. But the trees that sustain us, that provide food, shelter and spiritual sustenance, deserve our notice and appreciation as well.