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:

 

The Songs of Trees: airwaves

PRI and the BBC have recently run a couple of short interviews combined with my field recordings of trees. I hope you’ll enjoy these acoustic experiences. They’re best listened to with earbuds or speakers, but the vibe comes through even on a phone.

BBC World Service’s Outlook. I was in a studio in Nashville talking via satellite with Joel Cox in the UK. Joel then layered sounds into clips of the interview. I love the changing sonic texture, drawn from many of the trees that I write about in the book.

PRI’s The World. I recorded this interview in Boston, in studio and at the Arnold Arboretum. Carolyn Beeler and I talked about the book and about the process of listening. She then wove some of my field recordings into our conversation, along with pictures for the webpage. She does a fabulous job of using multiple avenues into the story of people-tree connections.

It’s a great honor to be featured on these shows. I hope you’ll enjoy the great work of the presenters and editors.

Update on upcoming events:

Asheville, NC: Malaprop’s Bookstore. May 31st, 2017.

New York, NY: Metropolitan Society of Natural Historians. June 3rd, 2017. Register here. [Other NYC events TBA. I’m in the city for much of the summer and open to venue suggestions.]

Easton, MD: Adkins Arboretum. June 8th, 2017. 4pm – 6pm at the Academy Art Museum 106 South Street.

Millbrook, NY: Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. June 9th.

Sewanee, TN: School of Letters. 4:30pm June 28th, 2017.

Clermont, KY: SONICBernheim. July 9th, 2017.

Sewanee, TN: Young Writers’ Conference. July 10th, 2017.