An elder: Rocky Mountain bristlecone pine (Pinus aristata)

Elevation 12000 feet, on what the current human occupants call Mount Goliath. The oldest known tree in Colorado germinated in the 4th century BCE. Youngsters in many stands are from the 1600s AD.

Do these trees live “a long time”? Perhaps this is the wrong thought. They live not such much a long time, but in a different time. Every creature has its rhythm. For life, time is not one thing, its passage is context-dependent. For the bristlecone pine, a needle ticks its clock on a scale of fifteen cycles of summer sun and water. A sapling builds its woody core through one hundred springs. The trees call us out of our own time scale, drawing the imagination into a tempo incommensurate with our own.

A dusky flycatcher sings from the tree top, the details of the cadences of its song ungraspable by my nerves. But the bird’s nerves live in a different geometry and velocity than mine. Another time. For a bird, and more so for a microbial cell, we are the bristlecones, ancient reminders of a mostly forgotten history.  At any one place in the world: thousands, perhaps millions, of times coexist.

Under the pine roots: Precambrian rocks. Ten billion new moons, a billion winters, a quadrillion cellular divisons.

The pines:

 

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(last photo: rings from fallen tree sliced open in visitor center)

 

2018 John Burroughs Medal: The Songs of Trees

The Songs of Trees has been awarded the 2018 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing. I’m honored that the book has been recognized in this way and feel very humbled to have the book listed among the list of awardees.

The book was also selected as Best Science Books of 2017 by NPR Science Friday and Favorite Science Books of 2017 by Brain Pickings.

I’m so grateful for the support of my readers. It is an honor and delight to be able to share these stories of the interconnections among trees and people.

Thank you.

And now, back to the woods where the first bloodroots are pushing into the rain-drenched litter.

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Autumn at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum

En route to giving a lecture, I stopped by the bonsai collection at the National Arboretum in Washington DC. The trees are in their full autumnal splendor:

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Are these trees pitiful captives? In The Songs of Trees I argue, no, the trees — some hundreds of years old — have exchanged the community of a forest for the community of human care. A merger of lives.

Eyes on hemlock

I was in Vermont this weekend for the Northern Woodlands conference (for those not familiar with the group, I highly recommend their wonderful magazine and impressive programs). Along the way I saw wonders: Healthy eastern hemlocks!

After seeing mountainsides of hemlock reduced to browned standing dead trees in the Southern Appalachians, these trees were a balm for my eyes and mind. The cause of tree mass die-offs is the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect introduced from Japan. The adelgids pierce hemlock leaves with their needle-like mouthparts, drawing down the trees’ energy reserves and causing dehydration. In the space of a decade, hemlock went from being one of the more common trees in many eastern forests to being an ecological ghost.

Native birds and tree-dwelling insects depend on the hemlock. Less obvious are the dependencies of aquatic creatures. Hemlock shades mountainside streams, cooling the water. Cool streams hold more oxygen than warmer ones, so hemlock death can cause streams to become less welcoming to insects, salamanders, and fish. Hemlocks also soak up rainfall and evaporate moisture back to the air. Their loss has changed the rhythms and amplitudes of water flowing from the mountains.

Much of Vermont is too cold for the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid, so hemlocks continue to thrive. Warmer winters and an endless supply of new insects from the south will present a challenge in coming years. For now, the northern woods are the hemlocks sanctuary, and thereby a refuge for the many other species that depend on hemlocks.

US Forest Service range map of hemlock woolly adelgid (2016). The insect continues to move west but cold temperatures keep the invasive species out of northern forests.

9/11 Tribute in Light: bird monitoring.

You can see them from sixty miles away: twin beams of light reaching from lower Manhattan into the highest visible reaches of the sky. The beams burn through the night on September 11th, a memory, a tribute in light made from 88 7000W xenon bulbs.

Also in the New York skies in mid-September: hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. From afar, the beams look to the birds like…we don’t know…perhaps moonlight, or a gleam of sun out of place, or a streak of magnetic weirdness across the birds’ inner eye. The birds are drawn to the beams, then snared by the light. Look up from the ground and you see hundreds of circling birds. Through binoculars, the higher parts of the beams are so full of birds that the clouds of illuminated bodies look like the Milky Way in motion. Thousands of warblers, orioles, woodpeckers, and thrushes, each turned to a silvery mote.

I joined NYC Audubon to monitor and count birds at the tribute. We watched from the Battery Rooftop Garden, a terrace filled with fruit trees and vegetable beds 34 stories above the street, right next to the beams.

When the bird count got too high, the operators of the 9/11 memorial extinguished the beams for a few minutes, allowing the birds to escape from their photonic prison. Winged creatures in motion, animating the memorial beams, then released.

Looking directly up from a few blocks east of ground zero: The Tribute in Light lancing the sky. The bright spot along each beam is a thin cloud layer.

Closer to the lights, the birds are visible in each beam.

Twin beams. They’re parallel, but seem to converge high in the sky.

From the rooftop gardens on a building near One World Trade.

Counting birds in the beams. We’re 34 stories above the street.

A 1/6 second exposure: the flight path of each bird is revealed.

 

Red (white and blue) carpet for migrant birds

They’re forest beacons, glowing come-hithers to migrant birds. These gene catapults, each carrying a plant’s hope for another generation, are ripening this week in Sewanee and across the eastern US. Not coincidentally, thrushes and other south-bound birds are also on the move (see BirdCast for the feathered forecast near you).

Some fruits from the woods near Sewanee: