Trees are People

Throughout my course of study, I’ve been looking for a class on forestry: something that offers me knowledge about the business of wood, the practices that bring it from “forest to table,” so to speak, and how these practices affect the culture of the people around them. Of course, now that I don’t need to take any more courses and I just need to be focusing on my thesis, one is being offered. The professor, Ulrich Dangel, is graciously allowing me to sit in, and it is fascinating.

We’ve begun by learning about the Carbon cycle and the different ways it is impacted by the use of wood versus other building materials (steel and concrete, for example). In an article titled “Carbon 101: Understanding the Carbon Cycle and the Forest Carbon Debate” the author, Dr. Jim Bower of Dovetail Partners, offers an analogy between the life cycle of a tree and that of a person:

Like humans, trees are delicate when young and typically grow vigorously when given proper nutrition and a suitable environment. As juveniles, they form tissues that differ from those formed in mature trees. They respire, and they require a balanced intake of minerals to maintain health. They metabolize food…If wounded, they react quickly to effect healing. As age progresses, vigor is maintained for a lengthy period but then begins to wane. The top may begin to thin. Life processes eventually slow to the point that the tree has difficulty healing wounds and warding off disease. Finally the tree dies.

While it is easy to see the way in which natural materials–wood, stone, brick, clay–connect us to nature and the flow of time in that they show their age and wear, it is also easy to miss the way in which wood stands out from these materials as offering an even more “human” experience. While we recognize nature in all of these materials, we may recognize ourselves in wood even more so in that it is the only one of them that was truly alive in the same sense that we understand that we are alive. While we may not be overtly conscious of this fact, we inevitably know, somewhere in our memory or subconscious, that the material upon which we sit, or upon which our dinner dishes reside, was once a dynamic, living organism, a complex system that transported nutrients and grew from a seedling into a large, robust body.

And this kinship must be real in that we also experience discomfort as we bear witness to wood in its death. The tree stump refuses to recede. It stands as a dismembered body, lobbed off at the ankles. We need to “hire someone to grind the stump” because we can’t bear to continually experience the evidence of the life that was. It is too tragic, too poignant to witness every day. But, even when it is ground flat, we still cannot escape its then-lifeless plateau, covering ground like a freshly-filled grave. Eventually, it decomposes, slowly, in the earth as we do.

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One thought on “Trees are People

  1. Your recent interest in the frailty of life could take you in any of several directions, from the poetics of Proust, to the sentimental angst of Rilke, to the hard-boiled realizations of Camus. The film Wings of Desire was on TCM last week. The first 2/3, or so, movingly captures these aspects of frailty and of longing for something that people throughout history have shared. When my shop cat passed away recently, I noticed that he was not in the least bit afraid. Either he had no fear of death, or he had no concept of it. Is mortality – the ultimate frailty – a strictly human conceit? Other animals want to live and not to die, certainly, but they are not burdened with the idea of their own demise, either.

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