Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mind games with trees

Since we have moved to this house, we've been proud of ourselves for keeping up a regular pattern of tree plantings. We've planted at least three oaks, an ash, a maple, three red buds, a couple of spruces (one died, though), a tulip poplar, and two sycamores. Also, Brian has germinated some burr oaks, none of which are big enough to call trees yet, but they're thriving young saplings in the mulch next to our swing set. We're on track for roughly two trees per year in the suburbs, and we certainly plan to keep it up.

Lately, though, I've started wondering if our tree planting - and the idea of tree planting, for Earth Day or carbon credits or self-congratulation - isn't a bit of a self-delusion. We buy the trees from the garden center or nursery, but meanwhile, we keep mowing the lawn, we keep weeding the garden, and each action prevents a number of willing young volunteer trees from reaching their full potential. We have ash trees volunteering beneath our pines; I have oaks volunteering in my snap peas; each will be trimmed, or pulled, or otherwise cut short in their efforts to repopulate Pennsylvania's forest primeval.

I'm treating these trees as weeds. And while that seems eminently justifiable for Ailanthus, or Norway maples, it seems strange for natives like ash (threatened by emerald ash borer - could one of our seedlings be resistant to the pest?) or the hard-wooded oak, shade tree extraordinaire.

Back in our little woodland, volunteer trees get a better welcome. We celebrate that a volunteer oak has finally stretched its buds above deer browsing height, the improving architecture of a wild-sown crabapple, and we watch with interest to see whether any young sassafras will take hold among the jewelweed, pokeweed, goldenrod, and dock within the understory. I've been tolerating Virginia creeper and training some wild grapevines onto our dying ash trees, as we're afraid to cut them down outright, and risk the black cherry or mature sassafras trees in their midst.

Taking credit for planting trees is further complicated by the question of provenance. If we buy a 5' sapling from a nursery, do we get to take credit for tree growth, or does the nursery? If we plant one tree, while weed-whacking down dozens of volunteer seedlings, have we done a net harm, or a net good? Does pruning branches occupy a separate moral sphere from cutting a tree at its base, and if so does size matter for each? Does it matter whether the wood goes in our brushpile to rot slowly, or whether it goes in our copper-pot grill to help set the mood for a backyard campout?

The whole situation reminds me of the difference between midwifery and obstetrics. My cousin Brigid, a midwife, refers to her task as "catching babies", while obstetricians usually refer to "delivering babies". The midwife's catch is a more passive action, a response to a projection performed by another person's muscles, while the obstetrician's delivery (falsely, in my opinion) implies that the transport from the womb is instigated by the medical professional (whose contractions were those again?). Similarly, I have a beekeeper friend who also encourages wild, native bees to live on her property, a process she calls "hosting" rather than "beekeeping". The language is carefully chosen, reflecting her welcoming passivity in the process of providing habitat for the wild fliers.

In our suburban treetending, we're both midwives and parents, keepers and hosts. We welcome some wild-sown trees, relocate a few, and pull others. We purchase, we foster, we germinate, we trim. We pat ourselves on the back. In any case, a little more humility is unquestionably in order for us. The trees, after all, are doing the largest share of the work. We're just the ones with shovels and saws in hand, ready to take whatever credit we can.


peri said...

I agree, volunteer trees can bring special joys such as the single ripe peach we just noticed on the little volunteer peach tree in our front yard (likely the product of a casually tossed peach pit by one of us...)

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