As if Waiting for Eternity

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 in March of 2011.

  • Teresaevangeline

    “I just wanted to live in some sort of reasonable harmony during my limited visit to this wonderful planet.” Words truly to Live by. I like your discussion of developing patience as demonstrated in nature. Your final paragraph is a beautiful summing up of this process. I have long held to the notion that we should just stay away from nature, except to walk in its beauty, and let it do what comes, well, naturally. A Very nice post. Thank you.

  • Emily

    I love Browning, and the poem you opened with is perfect. I also love your photos. Actually, Bill, one of the things I’m looking forward to the most this spring is getting out into the woods and doing my best to identify, identify, identify. Your posts will undoubtedly help me along in this. I’m not sure if we have striped maples in Minnesota (though I’m assuming we do), but regardless, they are indeed beautiful. I’m imagining your photos (and words) in patient, watercolor strokes.

  • Anonymous

    If you have striped maple you are on the far western edge. It is generally mapped in Michigan (UP) and east.

    As I learn more about EB Browning I am surprised to find how much I like her outlook on the natural world. It was pretty progressive for the time. Good luck with your identification in the woods. Peterson’s Field Guide by Petrides is good because of the written detail and good drawings.

    Patient watercolors. I like that.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Teresa. I agree that we should walk in the beauty of nature. Human nature seems to want to meddle with natural processes without having advanced knowledge of the impacts. Nuclear power comes to mind these days. I appreciate your comments and thoughts.

  • Writebreck

    It’s lovely to learn a lesson from trees – especially patient ones. I especially like this line, Bill: “I just wanted to live in some sort of reasonable harmony during my limited visit to this wonderful planet.” Me, too!

  • Anonymous

    I know its pretty basic but it seems to be a reasonable request, right?

  • Montucky

    Bill, you have laid out interesting facts about that forest and included some poignant observations and I thank you for that. The knowledge is there and it’s very clear, the lessons are available, but where are all those who will understand? I shudder to think of what will have to take place to crack the shell of arrogance and finally get their undivided attention!

  • Zoologirl

    Cool! I don’t think I’ve every come across a striped maple. Maybe if I am patient enough, I will :)

  • Anonymous

    If we can crack the shell of arrogance from the inside, rather than it being cracked from the outside it is not too late for humans. The earth will, eventually, continue without us. The choice is ours as to whether we want to continue the journey or spend our last days steeping in greed.

  • Anonymous

    East of you, beginning in Michigan, you will find striped maple. It has a small range but is strikingly beautiful.

  • Wendy

    Bill, You take me to Wendell Berry and his Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front:

    “Ask the questions that have no answers.
    Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
    Say that your main crop is the forest
    that you did not plant,
    that you will not live to harvest.”

    Thank you for tending yours so patiently and wisely. I believe the Earth thanks you.

  • Bill Lattre;;

    Although we do forest management on our land it is mostly with wildlife in mind. It’s basically a break-even proposition when not focused on board foot harvesting. Wendell Berry is so in touch with the wild side of the planet!

  • Lbiederstadt

    “I see a fabric comprised of threads of time…” Oh my. Thank you for for my semi-daily zen walk. I always come away more peaceful than when I began it.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks for reading and commenting Lynn. I am glad you went along on this short journey. It’s always nice to have you along.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thank you. It is always nice to have you along on these short written journeys. Your comments are always greatly appreciated!

  • Sage to Meadow

    I am not a religious man in the conventional sense, but there is a verse somewhere in the OT? “Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not, neither do they spin.” It reminded me of the “Birds sing through our sighing.” I’m with you, I don’t see the forest as a harvesting opportunity. I don’t see a lot of applications industrialism associates with nature as my mission in life to use. I’ll never be rich, but I don’t care. I’m busy making some of neighbors mad because I am not cultivating sandy-loam in my far pasture to alfalfa. Quite the opposite, I am replanting native grasses. The grasses are cover to field mice and turkey and that’s good enough for me. Sorta like the striped maple as food and rub for wildlife. Not to mention sparks of writing from your anvil, Bill.

  • sandy

    Bill, do you have THE FOREST TREES of MAINE?

    My father-in-law bought me a copy a few years ago. I am looking at it now and I see that moosewood trees are abundant here in Maine. The leaves and bark sure look familiar to me. Now, I can’t wait to get into the woods.

    I also believe that the earth thanks you for tending it so carefully, and for inspiring others.

  • Mike B.

    Sounds a lot like some animals and insects and lay dormant in the ground until conditions are just right for them to emerge and mature. Nature has used trial and error over a long period of time to find its balance. Even still, all we every get to see is a snapshot in our brief existence here. What I would give to see a time lapse video of an area over eons!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Sandy. Moosewood is pretty common in Maine. I saw a lot of it last summer in the Rangeley area and north. I have also seen it along the southern fringes of the Allagash. Have fun looking for it. I’ll bet you find some right there in southern Maine.

  • Wild_Bill

    We do some management for cord wood and saw logs. But it is done sensibly and sustainably. Wildlife is the main objective, not profit. I liked, a lot, your anvil comment. Thank you.

  • Wild_Bill

    And that would be a video that I would like to see also, especially if we could see all the little things, the behind the scene activities, that direct evolution.

  • Annie

    Ah yes, patience. Something I am getting better and better at. It’s really hard to understand why it takes some of us so long to see what a wonderful virtue it can be.

  • Wild_Bill

    In my life I have become more patient with age. Although I’m no where near anything related to virtuous. Still, it has improved the quality of life for me and those around me. Still have a long way to go though!

  • Gator

    Very interesting post. Trees are certainly survivors, and patient to an extreme!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Al. There are many lessons to be learned from the forest, or from the oceans, desert, tundra, or jungle for that matter. The point is for all of us to listen.

  • Wiseacre

    guess what my walking stick is :)

  • Wild_Bill

    Let me take a wild guess! Moosewood! I’ll bet I’m in the right neighborhood.

  • Maggie Mallard

    Hello Bill
    Choosing to open your post with this particular writing of Elizabeth Barrett Browning was an excellent choice.
    You finding my site and leaving me a comment today brought me here to your wonderful site and I am really delighted to meet you.
    What a gift you have and sharing it with others is truly a blessing to all that are lucky enough to read your words. I especially liked your
    comment …….. 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. How true are these words. Thanks for leaving me a comment ….Maggie

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Maggie. I’m not sure what sort of evolution process turned humans into meddlers but we certainly excel at that. Innovation can still exist within the laws of nature. We have decided to take our innovation outside of that realm. The human race really needs to think about how to be innovative without being destructive.

  • Out on the prairie

    It makes me think of all I have tried to eliminate through burns and cutting. Ten years ago we had different feelings what wasn’t needed in our lands.When we study ills within nature many or most are manmade.

  • Wild_Bill

    Given that humans control/try to eliminate fires I think it is necessary to use controlled burns and cutting to maintain some field, and perhaps prairie, habitats. If nothing else this practice makes for an interesting debate! In my opinion you don’t have to feel bad about these practices. You probably know this, but sometimes it helps to hear from another source.

  • Ratty

    Nature seems to be a good combination of chaos and order that blends into a perfect harmony. The lives of these trees are an excellent example of that. They have over a long period learned to adapt to their environment. Maybe one day if human industry misses a spot long enough for them to have time to adapt, things like these trees will even adapt to that.

  • Emma Springfield

    I do love having you take us along as you explore your area. It is a beautiful ramble and I come away with a little knowledge too.

  • Marvin

    I believe the Ozarks are too far south for striped maple. I certainly don’t recall seeing any moosewood.

    I’ve found making land management decisions extremely difficult. The land around here has been managed and mismanaged for so long that a small plot of it can never be returned to what it once was. Because of my lack of sufficient knowledge, I’ve mostly just taken the easy way out and left our land alone to manage itself. However, in my heart, I know this isn’t really the right decision because I am giving free reign to numerous introduced, invasive and “trash” species.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Emma, its nice to have you come along on my little adventures. Please ask questions if you think of any!

  • Wild_Bill

    Sometimes leaving land alone isn’t such a bad idea, but in your case removing the invasive exotics would be an excellent idea. I have removed most of the garlic mustard and all of the Japanese barberry on our land. Usually one plant at a time. Figure out a strategy, thinking about how and from what direction it spreads, and develop a long range plan. Take your time. This could take years. The good part it generally is a sweat equity investment involving little or no $. Good luck!

  • Wild_Bill

    I’m not sure we really want all of our plants and animals adapted to human interruptions and environments. Yes, it helps with the survival of specific species but it could result in a limited gene pool. Best we make sure that there are wild areas that will include as many diverse species as possible.

  • Timkeen40

    Your love of nature is evident. I have enjoyed reading this very much. I live in the country and am surrounded by the woods. I never seem to spend enough time there.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks for reading Tim. Spend as much time as you can in the woods. They have a lot to say to those who listen.

  • Find an Outlet

    The texture of these trees are begging to be rendered with pencil or watercolor! I don’t recall seeing them back east. Bark has always held a special fascination for me, especially the parts with knots, or where your determined rabbits have found sustenance. These unassuming trees are stunningly beautiful. And like the ironwoods mentioned in a previous post, play an important role in nourishing the surrounding soil. There are no maples in my area of AZ, something I will never get used to. I’m hoping you’ll post photos of a striped maple that has been allowed to mature to its full dimensions—do you see them too? Does the bark retain its exotic texture or toughen into a more durable exterior? The queen-size version would be something to see!

    Even the term “forest management” sounds like a euphemism for destruction, doesn’t it. I hated hearing about “wildlife management” back east. I force myself to assume these “experts” know what’s best, or else I get too upset thinking about it. Management indeed, more like meddling. All I can think of is executives and boards of directors and officious decisions based on opinion or development. How many times did I worry about where the squirrels and raccoons and opossums and foxes would go when their forests were razed to make room for these loathsome conspicuous mansions…

    OK I’m getting off topic here, sorry. Thank you for another amazing tutorial of your home, as usual packed with knowledge and affection.

  • Wild_Bill

    When the striped maple is exposed to an opening in the canopy and matures the bark turns to a purplish brown color. If you look very closely you can see remnants of the stripes, but they really aren’t evident. The tree matures into a rather nondescript form and is, at best, a medium sized tree. Most striped maples never reach the completely mature state. It is that wait forever to do so that I find fascinating.

    Forest management is typically for human use. It can be done sensitively and even enhance wildlife habitat. Given that there is $ involved this seldom happens. Wildlife management is largely the result of human destruction. It would not be needed without the wake of neglect that we leave in our path towards greed. Given what the human species is wildlife management is sometimes necessary and a good thing (especially when it comes to rare and endangered species).

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