I’ll Never Look at Trees Same Way Again

Today’s post is 1200 words, 11 photos, a 5 minute read. Enjoy!

Hi everyone,

I just finished reading the book “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. This novel, published in 2018 and winner of the 2019 Pulitzer for Fiction, details the lives of nine characters obsessed with trees and forests. After reading this book, I vow not to overlook the value, the strength, and importance of trees in our lives. They clean the air, store carbon, filter water, cool the environment, provide habitat for birds and other creatures, and perform many duties that we as humans don’t see and take for granted. Most trees, if left on their own, will vastly outlive humans. Did you know that the oldest living thing is a tree? A bristlecone pine, estimated to be over 5000 years old. These trees live in some of the harshest conditions known to man. And we take them for granted and hardly notice them as they quietly (mostly except on wind days) do their jobs for us.

If we do see trees it’s as a commodity, something to be used, something in the way of progress, a thing to be exploited. Sure trees provide us with shelter, heat, food, comfort, and recreation, for that we are thankful. But they do so much more. Do we think of trees as living, breathing things to be nurtured, loved, and understood? No so much, I’m afraid.

I grew up on the Northern Great Plains in western North Dakota where the short grass prairies dominate. Trees were and are scarce. The trees that do grow naturally are nestled into coulees and draws protected from the hot winds of summer and cold and snow of winter. Or they are located along rivers, streams, and waterways. The early homesteaders would plant saplings in their farmyards for shade. They nurtured those small trees by carrying water and protecting the trees from the wind, heat, and snow. If luck was on their side, those trees took root, eventually thrived on their own, and provided some semblance of shade in 20-30 years. Now, that’s optimism!

After the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, President Roosevelt signed into law, The Soil Conservation Act of 1935, that established the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) with the mission of reducing wind and water soil erosion on farmland. One of the many programs SCS implemented in the Great Plains was the planting of trees to reduce wind erosion and conserve moisture. When my dad took over the farm in the late 1940s, he began planting trees with help from SCS. First, around the farmstead to give shelter to the livestock from the winter winds that seemed to blow constantly out of the northwest. Then he planted a line of trees between a few fields to slow down the wind and bank snow for moisture for the growing season. Below is an example of one of the tree strips on the farm. Sure it took a couple of acres out of production but the remaining acres made up for this loss by producing more. trees-8012

A few years ago, I wrote about a tree that grew about a quarter mile down the road from the farmstead. That tree grew for years in the ditch along a gravel road. I photographed it a number of times. I don’t know how it got there, likely through a seed dropped by a bird long ago. That seed laid dormant until the right conditions came along, germinated and grew. It persevered over the years until it was tall and stately but out of place for modern society. This tree was removed several years ago as a safety hazard. To me it left a gapping hole in the landscape. I wish I would have been present when it was cut down so I could count the rings and know more it’s history. I don’t know what kind of tree it was, likely an American Elm, they were common in our area. The top photo was taken facing north and the bottom facing south.trees-7775


Here’s another photo of that tree taken in the winter on a blustery day with snow drifting across the road. I think I found this tree more interesting and appealing against the snow and starkness of the winter landscape.trees-7981

This photo was taken in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. Here a lone tree, a Rocky Mountain Juniper (I believe), grows on the north side of butte. Its root system works hard to hold the soil together and limit water erosion. It also provide food and shelter for birds and insects. This tree doesn’t ask for anything in return. trees-1724

This tree looks like it’s dead. It might be but it is still working by providing shelter at it’s base for another tree or shrub to get its start. It’s still holds the soil together and when it falls, its decays will harbor beneficial insects and small animals. Eventually, it will eventually return to the soil, from whence it came, adding to the organic matter. trees-2833

When we look at trees up close, we can see some of the intimate details of trees that attract our attention. When you see the bark on a birch curl in the first photo, know this allows the exposure of the inner bark for photo synthesis. In other words, it does this to keep alive. Pretty amazing if you ask me. The indigenous people, carefully harvested the birch bark to use in many aspects of their daily lives. Birch bark is strong and water resistant. and it’s said to have some medicinal properties as well. Thank you, birch!trees-3920

Does anyone else see the face of a person or animal in this photo? Doesn’t nature give us some interesting things to ponder and photograph? If only we look for them!trees-3223

Look at the designs nature gives us in this tree that is slowly decaying. The swirls, twists, and turns of the fibers are exposed when the protective bark is gone. This gives us an internal look into the life of a tree. Notice the moss and lichens clinging to what is left of this tree that keeps on giving even in death.trees-3486

I’ll end with these two photos. They were both taken at Cave Point County Park in Door County on separate occasions. The top photo of the exposed roots of this tree shows it clinging to the edge of the rock cliffs overlooking Lake Michigan. It’s hanging on for dear life as the wind and waves crash into the shore line. To me, it’s a miracle that it grew and continues to hang on.trees-4465

This photo was taken in the winter from the same location, only looking in a more northerly direction. Note the roots in the foreground, this is the same root system featured in the photo above. Here it has to deal with ice and cold, thawing and freezing. Yet another challenge it mets head on. The tree in the background is doing the same thing less than 50 feet away.

I recommend “The Overstory.” I guarantee you won’t look at trees the same way again. I’d like hear from you after reading the book, let me know if you agree or disagree with the statement above. To learn more, click here for a link to Richard Powers website.

Until next week, happy travels!


6 thoughts on “I’ll Never Look at Trees Same Way Again

  1. Hi Tom,
    I thoroughly enjoyed your post on trees. On the Iowa County farm where I grew up, we were blessed with trees around the farm buildings and in the hilly pastures. I would have a hard time living on flat land with no trees! I’ve put “The Overstory” on my reading list–will let you know what I think.
    My best to you and Donna for a wonderful Christmas season.

    1. The only trees we had on the farm were the ones planted by SCS. Oh there were a few volunteers “planted” by birds or other critters but not many. There was a boxelder that grew near the chicken coop, us kids and the chickens played in that tree. Our best to you and your family. TM

  2. The Overstory is required reading for my students ! Thanks for the beautifully written travelogue!

  3. Nice post and pictures. I’ve met a lot of pretty spectacular trees in our travels too. I’m putting the book on my Amazon wishlist – thanks for the recommendation!

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