August 01, 2003

Trees and Home

Image copyright Fred First
I have lived a long life among tall trees and remember trees, as much as I recall the Appalachian hills and coves that have given them root, when I think of places I have lived and known. It is individual backyard trees that I first remember as significant markers of place. I recall them as favorite barriers to hide behind in hide-and-seek; branches to climb in and fall out of; horizontal limbs to swing from, letting go the rope and falling into muddy creeks; and of course, for their blessed shade from the blazing Alabama sun. Later on, I have clear memories of the sweet clean smell of pines at summer camp; of arching Live Oaks festooned in a tinsel of Spanish Moss on our deeper-south vacations; and the scrub oak of second growth forest where I often explored with my BB gun-- these forests of broad summertime leaves have become inseparable parts of my personal ecosystem of place.

Few who live here would know or care that we inhabit what forest science calls the Temperate Broad leaved Deciduous Forest-- a living realm or biome that consists of a collection of habitats similar to just a few other forests in the world (see the map). Where I have lived-- in the unglaciated southern Appalachian part of this biome-- is found the greatest diversity of broad leaved trees in the world. These tree species characteristically burst into flaming color in the fall of the year, then drop their leaves and live dormant and bare for six months. This alternate dressing and gaudy undressing of the forest creates the Jekyll and Hyde vegetative calender and paints the backdrop in which southern mountain lives are lived out. In this, there must be myriad ways that trees create in us a sense of who and where were are, where on Earth we belong, effecting our rhythms and cycles in ways that would be unknown to one living in treeless places, or in evergreen forests that change little through the seasons.

While the treescape that surrounds me here in western Virginia most certainly has an impact on my way of thinking and of fitting into place, the forest -- and this is true of any vegetative script no matter where you live-- is itself the consequence of just so much moisture, a particular range of temperature through the growing year, a certain period of daylight and dark, of soil pH and depth and chemistry, and the effects of succession or change over short and vast stretches of time. And so if we are 'at home' in a world of particular tree species, it is also the climate and geology and history of that forest or prairie or desert that we are connected to by our familiarity with the plant life in those unique places. We live anywhere we chose; plants are tenants who must live where they can get along with the elements over the ages. There is a stability in this that I find grounding and comfortable.

Even though the southern forest was right out my back door while I was growing up, I confess I was an animal bigot for all of my precollege years. I thought plant study was for sissies until I had an eleventh hour botanical conversion midway along the path to a Masters in Zoology. Since that enlightenment in my mid-twenties, trees and flowering plants and lichens and ferns have consumed much more of my attention than snakes and mammals. I have taught field botany to college students, led innumerable field trips, and enthusiastically shown slides of Appalachian native plants to groups young and old. My family will testify that I can barely keep my eyes on the road or the trail for attending the trees and flowers and ferns that go by.

Today from my window, I look out on a vast green forest of rhododendrons and tulip poplars, mountain ash and basswood, spicebush and white pine. I watch the wild flowers bud and bloom from creek bank to ridge top. I can name them, and they are like old friends. The trees from our wooded valley here built this house, where the walls, floors, and ceilings are made of old, slow growing heart pine and the siding crafted from poplar trees that took first root on this piece of land more than 200 years ago. Our forest is inseparable from our weather and our bedrock's history, its trees are built up around me and shelter me, and it is among the whispering shadows of these wonderfully adapted fellow creatures that I feel truly at home.

This essay is written as part of the regular biweekly topic post at the Ecotone, where this week the focus is "Trees and Place".

Posted by fred1st at August 1, 2003 06:32 AM | TrackBack

Thanks for the map. I love the way you describe the changing of seasons as "Jekyll and Hyde." I have grown attached to watching the changes happen among the trees and have never been able to choose between the seasons.

Posted by: Wendy at August 1, 2003 07:32 AM

Yet once again, Fred, you have made me cry in missing my glorious Virginia, especially the mountains. While I grew up near Fredericksburg, my father's family was from WVA and my grandpa had a cabin near Criglersville. It's in my blood, apparently, and part of the reason that I chose to go to VPI&SU. I never felt (or feel) quite at home anywhere else.

Posted by: Jane at August 1, 2003 11:43 AM

I love your phrase about the "dressing and undressing" that happens each year - this is so much a backdrop of all life here in the northern forests, and therefore continually in our consciousness. I too underwent one of those botanical conversions,and have never regretted it! Nice piece, Fred.

Posted by: beth at August 2, 2003 10:39 AM

Temperate Broad-leafed Deciduous! That's it! I drove back into Minnesota after all that time out west and I FELT I was "back east." It just looks East to me. And I look at your map and see the lines and realize that, without knowing it, THAT's why.

Of course, we get fooled, too, because you see that much of Europe has the same biome, so we aren't so struck, there, by the difference in just the way the earth looks. But boy I knew it, like a whap upside the head, when I saw those forests in Minnesota.

Thanks for giving me that insight, Fred!

Posted by: trish at August 3, 2003 03:10 PM

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