Out on a Limb

If you read and enjoyed Richard Powers’ 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Overstory, which I finally got around to and mentioned here in November, then you probably know by now that the Patricia Westerford character in the novel was inspired by British Columbia forest sciences expert Suzanne W. Simard.

Our understanding of soils, roots, and the communication and nutrient sharing of trees is based primarily on Simard’s lifelong work. She’s written papers, given TED talks, and worked as a leader with TerreWeb. Now, with her book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (May 2021), she brings her research to the public in a well documented and accessible book that will enhance our understanding of the forest society.

I really don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb when I saw that Finding the Mother Tree will win a Pulitzer Prize.

Considering he impact of forests on our lives, this is an essential book in the world’s library of resources in that it brings groundbreaking scientific studies to a world heretofore posited by mystices, philosophers, and the often-mocked tree huggers.

Excerpt from the Publisher’s Description

Suzanne Simard is a pioneer on the frontier of plant communication and intelligence; she’s been compared to Rachel Carson, hailed as a scientist who conveys complex, technical ideas in a way that is dazzling and profound. Her work has influenced filmmakers (the Tree of Souls of James Cameron’s Avatar) and her TED talks have been viewed by more than 10 million people worldwide.

Now, in her first book, Simard brings us into her world, the intimate world of the trees, in which she brilliantly illuminates the fascinating and vital truths–that trees are not simply the source of timber or pulp, but are a complicated, interdependent circle of life; that forests are social, cooperative creatures connected through underground networks by which trees communicate their vitality and vulnerabilities with communal lives not that different from our own.

Simard writes–in inspiring, illuminating, and accessible ways—how trees, living side by side for hundreds of years, have evolved, how they perceive one another, learn and adapt their behaviors, recognize neighbors, and remember the past; how they have agency about the future; elicit warnings and mount defenses, compete and cooperate with one another with sophistication, characteristics ascribed to human intelligence, traits that are the essence of civil societies–and at the center of it all, the Mother Trees: the mysterious, powerful forces that connect and sustain the others that surround them.

From the NYT Review

This book is a testament to Simard’s skill as a science communicator. Her research is clearly defined, the steps of her experiments articulated, her astonishing results explained and the implications laid bare: We ignore the complexity of forests at our peril. Simard began her career shy, as many who are called to study nature are. Those who seek solitude in mountains and under the shadows of pines often do not wish to command a room. She published her results and spoke at conferences, but did not often directly engage her detractors, the policy silverbacks who ridiculed this young woman and her ideas about trees cooperating rather than competing. – New York Times.

If you love forests, this book is a joy to read and, I would say, gospel.


Keeping up with Florida’s trees

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” – John Muir

If you live in Florida, you probably already know that–other than Hawai’i–the state has more species of native trees than any other. My easy-to-use tree guide was published in 1956, so I can only consider it as a starting point since some of the nomenclature has changed since then.

Chinkapin Oak – Wikipedia photo

For example, the Chinkapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii) used to be mixed up with the Pin Oak and the Chestnut Oak. Confusing matters more is the fact that one of the popular names for a Chinkapin still is “Chestnut Oak” even though the Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana) is another species. Both are in the white oak group. There are so many popular names for Florida’s trees, shrubs and flowers that it’s often difficult to be sure what another author is talking about, especially when names change from region to region. Many of those names figure into the state’s old stories.

I refer to trees a lot in my novels, so I’m constantly reading about them, looking them up, verifying habitats, and enjoying myths and legends about them. Florida has a lot of species because of its diverse habitats. That’s a lot to keep up with. Fortunately, there are plenty of sites available on line. When I first started writing, one had to call or send a letter to get the kind of information that can not be found with a few good Google search words.

There are 50 species of oak in the eastern U.S. and that means you’ll find a lot of them in Florida in addition to Tupelo, Cypress, Slash Pines, Longleaf Pines, and Palm trees if you know where to look. Longleaf pines are a sad story because the original forests covered so much of the southeastern U.S. (a 140,000-mile swath through nine states). Naturally, most were logged off and the land was converted to other uses or replanted with the faster-growing Slash Pines. Not the forest service and others are trying to re-educate landowners about the value of Longleaf Pines, especially their important wiregrass habitats that are sustained by fires that clear the unwanted and choking invasive shrubs and trees out of the forests. See the Longleaf Alliance’s page.

Florida Yew – Floridata Plant Encyclopedia photo

The Torreya (also called Gopher Wood) and the Florida Yew are endangered and may well disappear except in managed arboretums. That’s sad to see. Look for those still around on the Garden of Eden trail near Bristol in the Florida Panhandle.

According to exploresouthernhistory.com, Because the Torreya is one of America’s most endangered trees, a major effort is underway to save it. The Florida Park Service is working with the Atlanta Botanical Garden in a commendable effort to grow new Torreya trees. Using seed obtained from living trees, the agencies are growing seedlings that are being planted in the ravine habitat at Torreya State Park. Perhaps over time, the Torreya will once again thrive along the Apalachicola.”

Always nice to see people using native trees in their yards rather than stuff that really doesn’t belong there. (If you’re not sure and there’s no native nursery when you live, check this link and this link for names and pictures.)

In case you were going to ask: no, I don’t hug trees. Yet, I agree with Hermann Hesse, who wrote: “Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”


My upcoming e-book short story “En Route to the Diddy-Wah-Diddy Landfill While the Dogwoods Were in Bloom” obviously focuses on the dogwood (Cornus florida), not to be confused with the imported Jamaica Dogwood that’s often called the Florida Fishfiddletree or Florida Fishpoison Tree.


Falling Trees: Part of the ‘joy’ of owning a home

Our house was built in 2001 on a heavily wooded old farm near Jefferson, Georgia some 60 miles north of Atlanta. We liked the fact that the developers had kept the old trees. However, we were also aware that they had graded too close to many of them, ensuring that they would die off in less than ten years. Add to that the drought conditions we’ve experienced during many of the years we’ve lived here, and you’ve got a recipe falling trees.

The day after we got back home from the Thanksgiving holidays, one of the trees in the tree island in the front hard toppled over and damaged the roof over the garage. Fortunately, our insurance covered the repairs and allowed a little something for having the tree removed before the home owners association sent us a note saying, “Do you know you have a fallen tree in your yard?” Since this was the third tree to fall in 2011, we didn’t want another snippy note.

On new year’s day, two more trees fell. Fortunately, these missed the house. Unfortunately, the dead one knocked over a live one on the way down. While the tree people were here cleaning up the mess, they cut down four other trees that seemed to be aimed at the house. We hope we don’t have to call them again any time soon.

When I see advertisements for houses on wooded lots, I often think: “Yeah right, the lot is wooded now, but how long will it stay that way?” Growing up in a subdivision in Florida where care was taken with the grading, I got a bit spoiled. We had 40 trees on the lot when we moved in and none of them fell down in the 33 years the family owned the house. Maybe we were lucky: they were all slash pines and several hurricanes came through town. We always had plenty of pine straw!

As a tree city, our town keeps track of its percentage of tree canopy. Looks like the next survey (using aerial photographs) is going to show a few gaps in our neighborhood.


Dreams, Inspirations and Trees

Welcome to the Malcolm’s Round Table edition for the Sleigh Bells and Inkwells Blog Hop


Muir Woods - NPS photo

“When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place, and the awful gloom of this doomed cavern then strike you with the presence of a deity?” –   Seneca

I love forests, especially coniferous forests.

Two of my earliest memories of forests are polar opposites. I saw the towering redwoods of Muir Woods and rode through an Oregon forest fire before I was in the first grade. Forest imprinting, I think: those early moments when I first experienced the beauty and wisdom of trees as well as the pain of their destruction.

The blue-grey aura of a tree is larger than the tree.

When one walks through a forest, s/he cannot help but touch the overlapping souls of the redwoods, firs or cedars gathered there. When I stop by the woods on a snowy evening or come to myself in a dark wood, I think of John Muir saying that “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

In a forest, I am within the spirits of the trees and within myself. At Yule, the ancient traditions bring the deity into the house with the greenery, creating a sanctuary of scents and spirits around the decorated tree, the boughs lying along the mantel, the wreaths greeting and guarding at doorways and the holly in the center of the table. As a child sneaking through the darkened living room on Christmas Eve, I strongly felt the watchful presence of the blue spruce waiting for the happy morning. I still do.

limber pine

As I wondered what I should write for a Sleigh Bells and Inkwells post, trees came to mind as the perfect subject. I wasn’t surprised. Trees have always found a way to live in my writing.

The cast of characters in my novels isn’t limited to the two-legged creatures—Gem, Robert, David, Siobhan—who walk between the pages. My favorite trees have made sure they also had roles to play. The Sun Singer features spruce, whitebark pine and a grandfather oak. Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey contains multiple worlds of cottonwood, boxelder, lodgepole pine, cypress and rowan. Sarabande includes cottonwood and a limber pine next to the River of Sky. My love of trees fills my stories, even in the action sequences such as this one in “Sarabande:”

Sarabande wedged herself between two branches of a floating cottonwood deadfall as the Mni Sose [the Missouri River] approached a bridge at the western edge of a reservoir. The relative calm she had experienced while passing the high canyons and breaks topped by Ponderosa Pine slipped away as the water eddied into twisted shapes beneath the cloud draped moon. She felt watched. The tree caught briefly on the bridge pier closest to the center of the river. Then she saw the silhouette of Danny Jenks’s truck. The velvet drapery of spider webs between the piers transformed into a trot line. When she screamed, one of the hooks caught inside her mouth and was jerked tight, piercing her cheek. She was pulled away from her river and raised up through a tender breeze that carried in its heart the cries of owls and nighthawks.

For 43 years, one book has always remained accessible on the bookshelves in all the towns I’ve lived in since it was published: Tallahassee, Syracuse, San Francisco, Waukegan, Zion (IL), Indianapolis, Rome (GA), Smyrna (GA), Marietta (GA), Norcross (GA), Jefferson (GA), and it is simply called Trees. Andreas Feinniger’s cover photograph reminds me that even though the aura of a “dead” tree is mostly gone, the tree remains wise, and bids those who come and go to sit and lean against its old trunk and listen.

When I find myself in the presence of redwoods on a foggy morning, subalpine fir around a lake on a sunny high country afternoon, or a snowy woods that are, as Robert Frost wrote, “lovely, dark and deep,” I am always called to stay even though I, too, still have promises to keep on my writer’s journey.

Thank you for stopping by my figurative forest today. Now, to continue your festive blog hop journey, click here to visit author T. K. Thorne.

Your trip also includes posts by:

Smoky Zeidel

Patricia Damery

Debra Brenegan

Anne K. Albert

Elizabeth Clark-Stern

Collin Kelley

Sharon Heath

Melinda Clayton

Ramey Channell

Leah Shelleda