Retired software engineer. "What is that?", you may ask. It's someone who has time to blog about the weather...
By: Bogon , 8:14 PM GMT on November 14, 2010
Spiffing up the Landscape
This week my wife and I were pleased to acquire three new trees to adorn our heretofore largely vacant front yard. The process began last weekend when we drove down to a local nursery.
Three years ago we bought a pine for the back yard. We wanted an evergreen to provide afternoon shade and year-round privacy. I narrowed the choice to loblolly and longleaf pines. The longleaf pine, the signature tree at Pinehurst, does grow beautifully here, though my yard sits near the northern edge of its habitat. The loblolly ranges wider, extending as far north as New Jersey and as far west as Bastrop, Texas. I know about the "Lost Pines" of Bastrop, because I used to visit a park there when I lived in Austin. Now the tree reminds me of old friends and bygone times. It was the personal connection that ultimately tipped the balance.
Our loblolly has grown fast and well. We feel that the folks who planted it did a good job, so we were predisposed to approach them again. This time we did not carry a specific shopping list. We wandered around the grounds and looked at what was in stock. Everything was marked down to half price! With winter coming on, it was time to move the inventory. Besides, this is a good time of year to plant trees. Many trees go dormant during the winter, so their demand for water is less critical. The ground remains cool and moist while they acclimate and begin to put out roots. Next spring, as things warm up and growth resumes, they will have had a few months to get ready. Hopefully by the time hot dry summer rolls around they won't be so sensitive and vulnerable.
We had two general requirements. We wanted one or more flowering trees for visual (and possibly olfactory) appeal. Since we were obliged to cut down a pair of cedars that someone planted too close to the house, we needed a new tree to screen the bathroom window. The privacy function calls for an evergreen. The geometry of sight lines demands something big and fast growing.
We picked a redbud for its flower. As a matter of fact, it was blooming right there on the lot. It is still blooming half-heartedly now, even as Jack Frost begins to nip at it each morning. If the tree had a brain, I would have to think that blooming this time of year would be a clear sign of stupidity or desperation. Probably desperation — after all, the poor plant has been uprooted and generally accorded high-handed and unsettling treatment. It could be trying to sow the seeds of a new generation as its final act of optimism and/or defiance. Now suddenly its roots are back in terra firma, it has a new home, and perhaps it won't have to die. Perhaps in a few years it can look back on this traumatic episode and laugh at its own folly.
We considered the southern magnolia. The magnolia fulfills both requirements: it has wonderfully scented long-lasting blossoms, and it is an evergreen. Sadly, all of the available magnolias were too small. With respect to the screening function we were looking for instant gratification.
One of the largest trees, judging by the size of its root ball, was an evergreen. Like the redbud it looked somewhat downcast and forlorn, but otherwise it was an attractive specimen. Neither of us could say what kind it was. We had to ask the attendant. She told us, "Cryptomeria". Never heard of it. Crypto what? She spoke the name again. That didn't help much.
Later we noticed another nice looking conifer. It had bright green needles and red bark. A tag wrapped around one branch labeled it "dawn redwood". There was something odd about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on.
More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Two Trees
Friday morning a team from the nursery arrived to plant our trees. I showed them where I wanted the holes dug and where to find water and mulch. I watched as they used a handy little multifunction lawn tractor thingie to position the trees and rapidly auger big holes in the ground. Then, while they finished up, I repaired to my office to undertake belated research.
First I googled for the Crypto-whatsit. It turns out that Cryptomeria japonica is the national tree of Japan. Over there they call it sugi. The tree can reach heights in excess of fifty meters, three to five meters in diameter. Average trees, which may live for centuries, are called kosugi. Individuals that survive over a thousand years get promoted to yakusugi.
The dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides, has a different claim to fame. For a while everyone thought it was extinct. It was discovered among Pliocene fossils. Three years later an unclassified conifer was reported from southwestern China. World War II and then Chairman Mao's revolution impeded research in that part of the world, but eventually seeds and specimens were shipped around the globe, and a California paleontologist figured out that this was the same species previously identified from fossils by a Japanese paleobotanist.
The funny thing is, the tree almost was extinct. In the mid '40s there were only a few thousand of them left in the wild. They were growing in an area where human population pressure exerts heavy stress on the environment. The species is listed as critically endangered within its home range. Fortunately in this case we are in a position to define "home range" more broadly. Some of those fossils originated here in North America. At least one Tarheel proposes to reestablish the tree on this side of the Pacific.
Fossilized dawn redwood is found mixed with baldcypress and sequoia. It took a while for someone to notice the difference. The needles of other similar conifers, such as baldcypress, alternate along the length of a twig like the strands in a braid. The needles of dawn redwood grow opposite each other in pairs like the barbs of a feather. That is the oddity that caught my eye when I first spotted the tree.
Like sugi, dawn redwood has the potential to reach great age and size. There is a clue in the name Metasequoia. The tree is related to the tremendous sequoia trees of California. So now I learn that I could grow two massive fifty meter trees in my yard. All I have to do is wait a few hundred years.
Waiting is the hard part. I live on a suburban street lined by other people's houses. My spouse and I don't expect to live here forever. We'll likely retire in a few years, and we'll seek a location based on personal preference rather than on employment opportunities or family obligations. Beyond that, we fully expect to croak within a few decades. Our new trees, if they manage to outlive us, will just be getting started.
What kind of life expectancy can they have in this environment, in this culture? I'm glad I'm not an actuary charged with figuring that out. I would not give good odds. This is a real estate development. Local developers like to begin by sending in the bulldozers. I guess it's easier to build on a tabula rasa.
My typical neighbor is a good old southern boy, the sort who is fond of his pickup truck and power tools. He is quick to whip out a chain saw when confronted with foliage. A number of my acquaintances express anxiety about large trees in the vicinity of their houses. What if they fall or catch fire? Better to whack 'em and rest easy.
The result of these trends and perceptions is that most people never see mature trees. Without that experience, how can they know what they are missing? I would argue that there is a qualitative difference in a forest of ancient trees. Walking through such a forest is not the same as walking through a forest that is regularly exploited for timber. Ask a builder or woodcarver. Lumber from old growth trees is still very much in demand. It's just that the supply is dwindling without replacement.
In western North Carolina there is a grove of trees that somehow escaped natural disasters and loggers for 800 years. Eight hundred years is roughly the age of the great cathedrals of Europe. I get the same feeling of awe and reverence walking under the limbs of those great tulip poplars as I do beneath the vaulted ceilings of Westminster or Notre Dame.
I have visited the majestic west coast redwoods. When I look at those trees, I see much more than a huge stack of lumber. Some of those trees are older than our nation, older than Christianity, older than most of what we are pleased to call western civilization. In that sense they are irreplaceable. We cannot wait to replace them. We cannot plan ahead on those time scales.
It's not that it's impossible, it's just that we don't. Our thinking, our customs and institutions are limited in that way. In other times and places people did plan and act on very long time scales indeed. That is a crucial element that is missing from our shortsighted culture.
The chain saw is a utilitarian symbol of man's technological mastery. With it one can bring down in minutes a tree that took centuries to grow. That hardly seems fair. Cutting a tree is not an act of valor or machismo. The tree cannot fight back; it cannot hide; it cannot run away. The tree's investment of time never appears on the balance sheet along with the developer's or lumberjack's investment of money. Why is that? There is obviously a problem with our methods of accounting. You cannot order a new tree planted a thousand years ago. If you want to create a thousand year old tree, you have to plant the tree now, then exercise care and forbearance for a thousand years. How much is that worth?
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