Monday, April 2, 2012

Post #4. An example of rethinking our place on the planet

Here in the east, we have forests.  When the forests were carved up to accommodate human settlement trees were left along road, next to houses, at property boundaries, in cemeteries and in school yards.  Now, years later, we walk amongst these huge trees and connect with our place's past.  I am convinced that our connection with huge trees is not confined to just the naturalist or the botanist- most people have a healthy respect for big, old trees.  We submit to feelings of reverence when in the presence of these giants.  Perhaps we empathize with their long struggle for survival or maybe we remember our grandparents and think it best to merely respect our elders.   How do we think about these amazing organisms after they die?

Standing dead tree, or 'snag'

Here in Pound Ridge, NY very large trees- usually maple, oak, sycamore and sometimes even American elm- sit like centerpieces in many lawns and properties.  On one of my running routes I admire a huge black oak tree that was badly damaged by the Halloween 2011 storm.  The heavy wet snow tore the tree's large crown to bits and left it hanging upside down from the top of the trunk.  The trunk was severed and gashed open.  I always look forward to running past this tree because it stands out from its manicured surroundings.  It looks wild in a sea of tamed.  It reminds me of a hobbled war veteran- proud, but obviously succumbing to his wounds.  There is something about the tree's injured state that is intriguing.  For some reason, the huge gashes in the trunk make it look bigger and even more impressive.  I have more respect for the tree because I can physically see its vulnerability and I know what it has been through.  

The storm that threatened the tree's life also claimed three human lives and left an entire region without power for days.  It is the kind of storm we will tell our children about and will change Halloween in the east forever.  The kind of disaster that brings people together.  

On this morning's run I was slowly making my way up the hill to where the old oak stands.  As I rounded the bend to see the oak I quickly noticed that the tree had been felled over the weekend.  The disassembled tree was sitting quietly in a metal container on the street.  A cleanly shaven stump marked its former place in the lawn.  The property now blended in with the rest of the manicured neighborhood.  The one distinctive organic feature on the street had been removed.  The old war veteran was taken out of his misery.  Instead of withering on a pedestal in front of the neighbors he was quickly removed, destined for the mulch path or the fireplace.  No one wants to look at a broken down old tree.  Or do we?

I challenge the paradigm that says old dead trees should be removed from your property, and for two reasons.  The first reason, rooted in ecology, says that standing dead trees, or 'snags', provide ecological value to the area.  Snags are a useful resource to wildlife.  Woodpeckers, owls, flying squirrels, bats, hundreds of insect species and songbirds all use snags as places to eat, hunt from, sleep in, or nest it.  Also, as a snag decays it sheds carbon to the ground and soil which is gobbled up by invertebrates, which in turn feed birds and small mammals.  Interestingly, its not just animals that can use a snag for habitat.  Plants and fungus can make their home in or on decaying wood, some of which are nitrogen fixers, which enrich the local soil with usable nitrogen.  Simply stated, snags are a form of natural capital- valuable nutrients, carbon, housing and food for our local ecosystem- that we casually just throw out.  Two websites for more snag ecology info.        

The second reason I challenge the practice of removing snags from your property has to do with our human culture.  These behemoths stand out against the surrounding young forest and remind us of the stature and glory that is attainable by our local forests.  Every huge tree that is removed from our landscape is a severed tie to our past.  If we take away too many huge trees our children miss out- they won't witness the big trees from the past.        
Of course, most of my readers will recall that dead trees can fall on their house or other property. This is absolutely true, and if you have a tree that is threatening your property or your life, you are justified in removing it.  But consider this, a dead or dying tree can have its threatening parts removed while leaving non-threatening parts behind to act as wildlife habitat.  Outstretched limbs can be taken off, and the trunk can be shortened to the point of being benign.

A non-threatening snag.  Only 20 feet high and still valuable to wildlife.  

The title of this post is 'An example of rethinking our place on the planet', but why?  During my run this morning, after I saw that the big oak was removed, I contemplated the ways we think about our ecosystems.  Many people would consider a dead tree unsightly, unnecessary landscape features, a liability, something 'unnatural' amongst a well manicured green landscape.  This perspective neglects to consider other plants and animals, the soil, the area's history, the ecosystem's future and the complete lifecycle* of a mature tree.  Me, on the other hand, think that snags are neat and sexy (see the picture at top of this post).  Someone might say 'a person can remove a dead tree from their yard if they think it is ugly- people can decide for themselves if something is ugly or not'.  Sure, you- as the landowner- can judge for yourself what is ugly or not and you have the freedom to remove ugly features from your property.  My point here is that the criteria many people use to judge if something in nature is pretty or ugly (good or bad, too much or too little) is based on limited perspectives and seriously limited information.  Specifically, the biological and ecological perspectives are completely overlooked.  Why?  The perspectives that relate to us as living organisms in a shared ecological environment are systematically overlooked.  Why?  Its kind of like judging a Vincent Van Gogh  painting while forgetting the artist's setting, philosophy, tools, history and personality.  One can render a judgement but the judgement is not likely to be sophisticated, intelligent, defensible, or even accurate.  
 *As a side note, the word lifecycle is totally misleading because the life of a tree does not end with its death.  Instead, it stands for decades and continues to react with the rest of the ecosystem*

This is an example of rethinking our place on the planet because I have taken a common domestic 'problem' (felling a 'nuisance' tree) and expanded what we know about it.  In the course of doing so I have promoted a perspective that considers humans as connected to the rest of nature.  Humans don't live in isolation.  The rest of nature doesn't live in isolation.  We all live together.  

1 comment:

gcarlson said...

As a wise man once said, "a dead tree has much more life than a living tree" A dead tree is home to dozens of thriving species.