Written April 17, 2012     

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© 2016 Bob Lonsberry


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I've become obsessed with trees.

At 52, I'm seeing them differently and my feelings about them have become more complex.

I used to love them. I still do. But I used to love them unquestioningly and completely. I saw them as beautiful, serene entities, blanketing the hills in the valley where I grew up. Individual icons, like the locust my late uncle planted in the front yard, and universal themes, like the swathes of quaking aspens and the groves of sugar maples. I found peace amidst them and drew inspiration from them.

Now it's not that clear cut.

I recognize that I could be nuts. I recognize nobody thinks about it this much.

But when I drive down the road, my thoughts are crowded with observations on the passing trees. I notice their species and numbers and general health and nature. And this past deer season, as I spent weekends on a metal ladder strapped to a big maple, I paid more attention to the trees around me than I did to the deer beneath me.

Mostly I noticed the fighting. The woods are not a peaceful place. Those great green trees, seen individually, are not in harmony. They are each engaged in a no-holds-barred fight for survival. The other trees are not neighbors, they are enemies, rivals for sun and water and more sun. If you unravel and understand the tangle of branches in the canopy, you really see a series of punches and counter punches. Phototropism is innately combative. Each tree stretches for the sun, and the struggle shapes or misshapes it and the woods around it.

Many trees are scarred by the fight. They recoil from the branches of a rival, their growth retarded and symmetry lost. They sometimes lean horizontally, or send branches extending out underneath the branches of others, crowding the edges of the woods to get just one more leaf just one more minute of sun exposure. It is a great, green puff from a distance, but it is a gnarled and twisted network of striving branches up close. The life of a tree is not an easy life to live.

When you or I walk through the woods, we see a moment in time, a status quo that is neither static nor old. At least that is how it is where I live, in rural upstate New York. Where I live, there are virtually no native woods left, most of the state has been logged off two or three times. What passes for forest was pasture or brush lot when my mother was young. The Depression and the advent of the automobile -- eliminating the need for horse pasture and forage -- took unimaginable stretches of farmland and left it fallow, where a quick succession of goldenrod and hawthorn and ash brought it in 70 years to what it is now, a mixed hardwood forest grown up around the abandoned foundations of pioneer homesteads. Intermingled are blocks and splotches of over-crowded evergreens, planted in perfect geometric rows, ecological dead zones except for the occasional red squirrel midden.

These woods are not truly nature, at least not primordial nature. The New York woods of today are presumably nothing whatsoever like the woods through which the pre-Columbian Senecas expertly moved. These are woods of opportunistic regrowth, favoring species useful to man or whose reproduction was not disrupted by the unavoidable destruction of ecosystem that clear cutting brings. Who knows what species were simply not here anymore to reintroduce themselves in the regrowing forest.

In recent weeks, I have been deconstructing a piece of woods. On a small parcel I own in the country, while planting trees in some parts, I have been cutting trees in another part. Specifically, I have been cutting them in reverse chronological order, moving back through time to see what stood where when.

In the cluster of trees in the woods, all a mix, grown in together, there is the temptation to see them as a whole. They are actually completely individual, growing by species and circumstance at different rates and at different times. Some will, by nature, be taller or more robust, and others, by nature or access to sun, will be smaller and stunted.

My deconstructed woods stood when I bought them as a clutter of ash and apple, thick and hard to walk through, a high canopy of narrow ash and a handful of gnarled, reaching apple trees grubbing by in the shadows. Over the weeks, the chainsaw and I have taken most of the trees down, one by one, starting with the youngest. As each lay over on the ground, killed to satisfy my curiosity and to escape the theoretical threat of the emerald ash borer, I counted rings and worked backward in time, understanding which trees were standing when.

Finally, it was essentially three old apple trees, the patriarchs of a pasture some 40 years ago, who were engulfed in the rising crowd of neglect and regrowth, till they were swallowed by their newer, taller neighbors.

This year they will have the sun to themselves again, and in my children’s old age the field will be woods once more.

I’ve become obsessed with trees.

And I’ve got them about halfway figured out. When I get the whole thing straight in my head, I will understand trees.

And maybe people.

- by Bob Lonsberry © 2012

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