Patience Taught by Nature – Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1845)
“O dreary life,” we cry, “O dreary life!”
And still the generations of the birds
Sing through our sighing, and the flocks and herds
Serenely live while we are keeping strife
With Heaven’s true purpose in us, as a knife
Against which we may struggle! Ocean girds
Unslackened the dry land: savannah-swards
Unweary sweep: hills watch unworn; and rife
Meek leaves drop yearly from the forest-trees,
To show, above, the unwasted stars that pass
In their old glory: O thou God of old!
Grant me some smaller grace than comes to these;—
But so much patience as a blade of grass
Grows by, contented through the heat and cold.
High on this hilltop, just below a ceiling of white cottony clouds and far from recent human influence, these small trees are huddled together in the shade provided by the overstory of the surrounding mature forest. The bright green bark of this woody plant, punctuated with vertical white and black stripes that look like river and stream patterns on a topographic map, is scarred near the base of the narrow trunk by the gnaws of rabbits that refused to perish over this past winter. A little higher up on the striped trunk the antler rubs of white tail deer have torn the bark completely away, revealing the tan colored cambium, and marring the surface that gives us a little information about the natural history of this area. This tree is ubiquitous on north facing slopes. It is seemingly in a state of suspended animation that waits for the sky to open up and the sunlight to fall to the earth unimpeded when this tree will flourish for a short time until the forest around it grows to previous heights and, once again, excludes it from strong sunlight and bright blue skies.
The striped maple has a limited range on this planet. It is found only in the northeastern United States, along the Appalachian spine at higher altitudes in southern states, and from southern Ontario to Nova Scotia in Canada. It is assumed that all of our present striped maples are descendants of remnant populations that were south of the glaciated north. These surviving plants slowly migrated north over the last twenty thousand years after the demise of the last glaciers. The striped maple is also called moosewood because moose browse it heavily where available and goose foot maple for the large three lobed leaf that resembles the print of a gander.
This small tree is one of the most glorious and beautiful species of the deciduous forest and yet often goes unnoticed because it is dwarfed by the strength and overwhelming stature of the surrounding hardwood forest. The green bark with white stripes contrasts beautifully with the red twigs and buds found at the end of each branch. In spring, May or June in most areas, branch tips wear a long trailing necklace of pallid yellow and lurid green flowers. As a sapling the young tree often grows in a collective with other striped maples. It is as if it were sequestered by nature for a purpose. It grows slowly, and some years almost not at all, just waiting for the right moment when sunny showers of sunlight might grace its leaves and branches. When the opportunity comes it will be ready whether it is four or forty years from now.
Perhaps an ice storm will tear off the tops of nearby mature hardwoods. Or perhaps the fierce winds of March will topple a tree. Perhaps a sudden summer thunderstorm will send down a bolt of lightning that cracks a towering tree in half. It matters not what the reason. This master of patience will be there; just waiting to take the stage. Like an understudy who knows the lines and the part, this plant will emerge, for a while, as the main character of a play that has endured the ages.
These woods have lessons for us humans. Learning experiences that we should study and appreciate for what they are. The forest has the ability to guide us through parts of our own behavior if we are willing to open our eyes. As I stand here looking at this stand of striped maples that have taken over this section of forest that fell prey to a major ice storm more than two years ago I see more than the many green and white lined stems that have grown in response to the sudden change in environment. I see a process steeped in geologic and biologic history. It reveals thousands of years of plant community evolution, interdependence, and cooperation. I see a fabric comprised of threads of time, trial and error, and determination all resulting in a plant community that has evolved to something close to perfection.
I was up on this ridge with a forester about twenty-five years ago. A man trained in the science of forestry at a western University. I was impressed with his knowledge of dendrology. As we discussed forest management I occasionally felt uncomfortable. He spoke in a language that focused on the forest as a tool or resource for human use. He emphasized the productive forest versus the unproductive forest. And although I was interested in a selective harvest of some of the trees I still wanted to work within the realm of natural processes. He noticed the thin boles of striped maple in the stand and said they should be thinned out. He believed if we harvested any trees in the area the striped maple would take over and slow the overall board foot production of the forest. He professed that moosewood had little or no commercial value. He reminded me that I was not going to live forever and if I ever intended on getting any monetary value out of this forest that we had to act aggressively.
I remember thinking about the striped maple. Here it sat, perhaps for the last fifty years, just waiting for its turn to do the job that evolution intended to do. Removing a mature tree would give it space and encouragement to fill the void. Although I couldn’t be certain of the striped maple’s exact job I did know that this plant would flourish. The dense surficial rooting of this plant would keep the soil stable. The large leaves and dense pattern of branching would shade the forest floor and keep the mycorrhizal fungi in the underlying soil cool, moist, and active. These fungi are critical to nutrient use in forests. I also felt confident that the small trees would provide future nourishment for the soil upon their own demise when the taller hardwoods once again took over in this small area of clearing. And while the striped maple was doing its job I knew that it would provide a different type of forest habitat; one that would encourage the browsing of snowshoe hare, white tailed deer, ruffed grouse, and moose. It occurred to me at the time that sometimes you just need to trust natural processes. Thousands and thousands of years of evolution had developed a forest system that worked pretty well before human management. Perhaps the forest’s own system of operation was not optimal for human profit. I understood that. I wondered if the forester understood that silviculture practice might not be optimal for ecological success. And the part about me not living forever, I knew that. I just wanted to live in some sort of reasonable harmony during my limited visit to this wonderful planet.
Striped maples are opportunistic. Some might say they are extraordinarily patient. They may sit in stasis for dozens of years as if waiting for eternity. With luck a small clearing develops in the overhead canopy. In most cases it never does and the striped maples stay in a sapling size form. In areas where openings to the sky become available the striped maples flourish. They reproduce both sexually (by seed) and asexually (by root) and fill the forest void. Their response to sunlight is like no other woody stemmed plant in the hardwood forest. These brief periods of multiplication may be their key to success. Their populations expand quickly, and in the long term this plant species develops enough descendants to greatly increase the chances that they will live long into the future. A striped maple can live a hundred years and grow to forty five feet tall under near perfect conditions. More typically, however, the majority of this species are found in the understory reaching heights of only fifteen feet and life spans of only a five or six decades.
It is said patience is a virtue. And in this day of instant breakfast, sound bites, and immediate electronic access to all sorts of information, accurate and otherwise, it may be a virtue almost extinct.
Yet another lesson we can learn from the forest.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in March of 2011.