Nature of Home
The Dendroica Project’s first guest post from someone very special to me, with whom I share a way of seeing the natural world that surrounds us. I’ll be back for the Solstice in June. —Mark
Once I flagged an oddly shaped oak tree as a keeper, when the conservation forester had slated it for removal.
If I didn’t flag my favorite tree, I knew that the next week, Bob, a cheery man who had aspired to join his father’s logging business at an age when other children were playing with toy machinery, would climb into the armored cab of a feller-buncher where he was completely at home. His big hands would work the device’s mechanical arms and articulated blades.
Advancing on tracks, the feller-buncher can grasp a well-grown tree, shear it inches from the soil, and set it neatly in a stack. This expertly-worked machine, with Bob at the helm, would remove more than half of the tightly grown oaks. The dense grove would be thinned to the park-like savanna density that settler-surveyors had mapped in the early 1800s.
Why? To let a few lucky trees develop large and full in ample sunlight, to provide food and habitat for wildlife and birds that evolved in the now vanishingly rare oak savannas.
Oaks grown in the shadow of these conifers are spindly and wan -- evidence of a disrupted symbiosis, an ecosystem without its longstanding human participants. In the absence of this management, one can find the withered skeletons of oaks under closed canopies of Douglas-fir, or scrawny oaks grown as tightly as the hairs on a dog’s back.
Suffice it to say – the consulting forester had flagged the more robust trees to indicate that Bob and the feller-buncher should pass them by. But my favorite tree, that I called the Lunchtime Oak, was not among the keepers. This oak had a protuberant root that was a comfortable height for a seat. After my long shifts of applying chemicals to introduced blackberry bushes, the Lunchtime Oak beckoned me like an easy chair.
I discreetly applied flagging of the appropriate color. It was a keeper.
The project went forward and the trees without the marking were removed. The consulting forester had left some Douglas-firs which the climbers next had to remove. Equipped with spiked boots, ropes and chainsaws, they ascended to the canopies, and at home in these perilous heights, wielded whining saws to cut off the top of each conifer. Over time, the conifers would die, insects would move in, and birds would make the snag their home.
One day, I approached the Lunchtime Oak to see a smattering of neat shavings on the ground. I looked up into the startled red face of a sapsucker, peering from a newly carved-out hole. The bird gave a cry and flew out. Perhaps the nearby equipment shop was too noisy for the sapsucker. I didn’t see it again.
Other birds moved in, though. I’m not sure how the acorn woodpeckers knew but it seemed like only days before I heard their cackling calls. The newly spacious savanna offered unobstructed flight, and in time, potentially more of the sustaining acorns than the thicker grove of light-deprived trees.
Perhaps it was irresponsible of me to save the oak just because I enjoyed sitting on it. Overhanging a driveway, it may pose a risk to vehicles and equipment parked nearby. But, I got a sense of leaning back into it and releasing a deep breath. The tree was a respite in the never-ending work of trying to make overgrown forests into savannas and overgrazed fields into wildflower studded prairies.
When I was five, I told my mom I was in love with a tree. We were at a campsite with pale sandy soil and oddly shaped ponderosa pines – though my tree identification skills were nil at the time, the unmistakable vanilla fragrance permeates this memory and conjures it when I scent a ponderosa today.
The ponderosa leaned at an odd angle such that I could shimmy up the trunk and lie draped over it. I lay across the tree and felt a groundedness I had not realized I wanted. My family had been traveling for months. Though we had a neat craftsman style house in the hills of a small city in Eastern Oregon, home that summer was an RV. But in the craftsman or in the RV I had never felt groundedness quite like I felt lying against the ponderosa. Its scented bark and horizontal strength exerted a gentle magnetism that put me fully at rest from my child’s epicycles of movement, superimposed on the bigger orbit my family had undertaken. It was perhaps the first time I was aware of being still and completely focused.
When my mom said it was time to break camp, I told her I was in love with the tree. She said I could stay on the tree, which she could see from our campsite, until the moment we had to drive on. I’m grateful for a mother like this. Because of her, I could be drawn to the vanilla scent of an oddly angled ponderosa, its burnished puzzle piece bark leaving an indent in my cheek and catching my braid. Finally, and with love, Mom lifted me down and buckled me in for the day’s journey.
What does it mean to be at home in nature when everything is a data point or a system to be managed with intense interventions? It means that I need to stop periodically and tune in from behind a clipboard or mapping device and enjoy the flock of drunken robins feasting on fermenting hawthorn berries, zany in wobbling flight between the red-studded branches. It means I need to lean back against the Lunchtime Oak, like I leaned against that ponderosa when I was five, and know I belong here.