Wild Beyond Imagination

On this early spring day a gentle breeze blows barren branches to and fro. Each limb sways to the rhythm of the wind and from this vantage point they appear to be sweeping the sky. The movement of these branches is somehow dream-like, and puts me in a pensive mood. I am surrounded by forest and feel as if I am shrouded by wonder.

These trees. So many. So select. They hover over the moist humus forest floor casting thin shadows on ground that still is thawing. Within my eye shot these woods are diverse. To the north, down a slope, there is a wolf tree. It is an old sugar maple. Its branches start low on the trunk and spread horizontally. The outline of the tree has a dome-like form as sugar maples often do. The long lower branches indicate it once grew in an open pasture; free from competition and able to send branches out rather than up. There was no need to compete for light in this, long since gone, open field. This maple enjoyed open sunlight throughout the entire growing season for decades.

But things change. With the agricultural decline at the end of the 19th century humans stopped using this hillside for pasture. Sheep and cows were moved to greener areas or not raised at all. This land waited not for more human incursions. The fields changed from grasses to goldenrods, asters, and blackberries. This old field plant community then evolved to shrubs and saplings. Shade from the new overhanging branches weeded out many of the forbs and herbs. A forest began to grow. The trees were close together. They grew straight and tall during the short growing season competing for solar energy. Now most of these woods hold large trees; oak, sugar maple, yellow birch, white ash, red maple, and black birch. It is a diverse mix of trees that reflects the old forest found not too far away where steep rocky slopes were never logged because they were too difficult to navigate.

There is some sort of irony here. We humans tend to think of trees as being stationary. We think of them as growing in one spot, photosynthesizing, soaking up carbon, and providing habitat for the mobile vertebrates that inhabit these woods. A different form of life we think; these trees, these plants that are immobile and seek no adventure beyond their own shadows. And yet this very location, devoid of all topsoil, all plants, and all animals due to ice scouring after the last glacial period period is now lush with forest life! The trees and plants found here had to travel, on their own accord or perhaps with a little help, hundreds and hundreds of miles from landscapes that were not impacted by the thick sheets of ice that retreated to the north nearly twenty thousand years ago. The trees accomplished this movement by reproduction and casting seeds into the future; a seemingly reckless and random method of traveling.

We vertebrates can move great distances as individuals but live relatively short periods. Trees move by generations and live long lives. Wind blows pollen from one tree to the flowers on another tree, or bees and other insects carry the pollen and leave it behind on a flower in waiting. Each tree produces a different type of fruit or seed carrying vessel. Members of the maple family drop winged seeds that rotate unevenly as they fall toward the ground. The uneven rotation tends to make the seeds travel further and wind will make long distance travel much more likely. Oaks drop acorns. These nuts are utilized by dozens of vertebrates for food, but one in particular, the blue jay, carries the acorns long distances to hide it from competitors. Not all of these acorns are recovered by the jay. Some sprout and grow into seedlings far away from the parent tree. And other trees like the black cherry produce a true fruit that is consumed by turkeys, bear, deer, fox, and coyote. The seeds survive the vertebrate digestive track due to their hard covering and are moved about in droppings good distances from where they were consumed.

The new seeds must sprout, root into the soil and grow into a new tree. The odds are slim that an individual seed will survive but thousands are planted about in hopes that some will make it through predation, severe weather, and other disturbances. Even as seedlings there is a good chance that they will be trampled, stricken by drought, or consumed by an herbivore such as a white tailed deer. Only a few seedlings grow to saplings and only a few of those grow into trees. The tree must grow to maturity before it can produce its own seeds and start the forward movement once again; such a slow and precarious method of moving about. For some tree species it can take generations to move a mile. For others tens of miles can be accomplished in the same amount of time. By vertebrate standards this method of getting around makes molasses in January look like the space shuttle Endeavor.

To put this method of travel in perspective, it took the black spruce something like 18,000 years to travel from the northern Smoky Mountains (which was suitable for this species but remained free from glaciation) to the northern Canada where this conifer dominates the landscape today. This is a distance of about 2500 miles. Certainly this was a very, very slow pace that took place over hundreds of tree generations. Slow and steady wins the race?

Still, in geologic time, this is a rapid and recent development. The earth is something like four and a half billion years old. If the history of the earth were mapped on a 24 hour clock, the time it took the black spruce to travel from nonglaciated areas to their present location would take place in about a quarter of a second. The relativity of time is astounding to the casual observer. It is cause for long and careful thought.

The natural world we live in is intricately woven into fine cloth that has discernible patterns if we take the time to sort them out. At first glance the patterns appear to be wild beyond imagination, but with a sharp eye we soon can see that these patterns are a map of where we came from and where we may be going. Perhaps it is time to study these natural patterns to determine our best course for the future. Now is not the time to be lost.

  • http://fourwindshaiga.wordpress.com/ sandy

    More food for thought, and I love it. It is truly amazing how plants and animals get from one place to another. Every migration carries a little of what it left behind, I know that. But, I wonder how many seeds have floated across seas totally on their to root?

    We have a neighbor with a bobcat. Every now and then, he decides to clear off a piece of land, once, even a whole field. As much as I hate it, I am interested to watch what comes back first on the scraped ground and what new comes. Every time, I am surprised with the change. Of course, I have been known to toss wildflowers seeds a few times.

    I just clicked your photos. How did you get them to do a slide show?

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    It is truly amazing how plants and animals get from one place to another. What’s even more amazing is how they seem to help each other out!

    Watching plant succession is an incredible activity. I have observed some areas for 30 years or more that have succeeded without human intervention and I can tell you that there were many twists and turns that weren’t expected. It’s an interesting hobby. If your interested in this topic go to Articles on the top of the page, click on it, scroll back to February 2009, and scroll down to “Succession”. I think you’ll enjoy this Sandy because its on the same topic.

    To view photos in slide show go to photos, click on it, then click of piclens and follow the slide show arrows.

    Thanks for reading, I really appreciate your comments.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com Emily

    Excellent post, Bill. “These trees. So many. So select.” I could see you standing there taking stock of each one.

    I went on a walk the other day in a new part of our closest woods, and I couldn’t stop looking up, marveling at HOW TALL these trees were. I love wondering about what the land was like when they were seedlings, how many storms they’ve experienced, how much our town has changed in their lifetimes. Thanks for this. Abundant insights.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com Emily

    Excellent post, Bill. “These trees. So many. So select.” I could see you standing there taking stock of each one.

    I went on a walk the other day in a new part of our closest woods, and I couldn’t stop looking up, marveling at HOW TALL these trees were. I love wondering about what the land was like when they were seedlings, how many storms they’ve experienced, how much our town has changed in their lifetimes. Thanks for this. Abundant insights.

  • http://dailyonegoodthing.blogspot.com Barb

    Hi Bill, Nature’s slow march to reproduce is fascinating. You always generate thought in your articles. I’m reading a book you might enjoy: Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Conners about fire watch in the Gila National Wilderness. I am just at the beginning but so far am enjoying his writing.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    How much has your town changed in your life time? It might make a wonderful post on your blog “Landing on Cloudy Water”. Forests are marvelous. They have so much to teach. I have so much to learn.

    For those of you who want to read a great Minnesota writing blog check out Emily @ http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com/ . You won’t regret it.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Sounds fascinating. I’ll have to look it up.

    Thanks for reading Barb, I always enjoy hearing from you out there in Colorado. I have to nieces that live in CO. They love the Rocky Mountains!

  • http://alsphotographyblog.blogspot.com/ Gator

    I wonder if we’ll ever learn, as we continue to destroy the natural world around us and procreate until the planet can’t support us any more. Slow and steady will win the race in the end.

  • Barbara

    Patterns – yes Bill there certainly are beautiful patterns in the wild, actually everything seems to have a pattern of some sort. Loved this piece – romantic in its way. Since I love trees and have somewhere around 29 varieties on my tiny 2 acres, your descriptions of vast forests moving set my imagination free and wandering down historic pathways…where did the oldest of my trees come from? Were their ancestors from near your beautiful mountside woods? As your other fans have noted, your essays and musings always give lots to ponder and think about.

    Walking today with the dogs I saw a tree that was about 50 years old, a young maple, that had been girdled very young almost completely round, but had managed to cover over most of that scarring at its base. I marveled at the sight of flowers peaking through on one side of it. I can just picture your big old open grown wolf tree… how gorgeous it musbe throughout the seasons…

    Thanks for this lovely essay Bill, and for the previous couple where I came to them late… as always, they are a joy to read and do set my mind roaming.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I have come to the conclusion that all is not lost Al. If humans are careless and greedy we will ultimately destroy ourselves, much of the natural world will survive in one way or another. The answer to this age old question is up to us. Will we have the “where with all” to learn from the natural world an live within her bounds?

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Did you have an idea how the maple was girdled? Isn’t it fascinating how trees respond to injury!

    There is a life time of learning that can be acquired from two acres as I’m sure you are aware. You are lucky to have this natural area to study and ponder. Your curiosity is inspirational to us all.

  • http://everyday-adventurer.blogspot.com/ Ratty

    We humans think we are more free than life forms like trees because we can individually move about. But I sometimes wonder if we are more like the seemingly helpless little seed pod that is carried along the wind.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Yep, you have that right Ratty. Right on the button!

  • http://www.patriciaklichen.com Patricia Lichen

    Love the image of wandering trees! And they are forever sending their progeny marching off, eh?

    –Patricia Lichen, http://www.patriciaklichen.com

  • http://montucky.wordpress.com/ Montucky

    I have long been fascinated by the intricacy of our forests too. It’s so good to read your thoughts and to receive the knowledge that you have of that world! I have visited our western forests all of my life and for the past several years have been spending every possible minute in them. I am constantly reminded of how little I really know about them, how little most folks know, and yet I read every day in the media here about one politician or other who has, with great urgency, come up with another new way to “manage” our forests, and I cringe. We can be caretakers, yes, stewards, perhaps, but “managers”, I doubt it. When I see a politician espouse a new way to “manage” our western forests, I see a jester claiming to “manage” the kingdom in which he lives.

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com Emily

    A KIND SOUL, you are, Bill. Many thanks.

  • http://findanoutlet.wordpress.com/ Find an Outlet

    Yours is the only blog that makes me wonder if I can live the rest of my life in the desert, beautiful though it is. How I miss the swaying and creaking of the limbs, much more than the lakes or ocean. What is a wolf tree?

    Whether we evolve, die out, or blow ourselves up, the planet will likely return in its own time. I read that even the land around Chernobyl is returning to life. But do you ever think about sun dying out or asteroid hitting earth theories? Just curious.

    Your essays always make me reflect upon the power, the history, the patterns, and the future of our home, as we are but ephemeral specks. To think that on this small planet wars are being fought over something as absurd as ‘my god is mightier than your god’ just blows me away.

    Also wanted to give you a brief update on newly-acquired February deep freeze results—spring comes early here, and we’re now realizing that most of the eucalyptus and oleanders are dead. It’s so sad.

    I will dream tonight of tall trees and hopefully, squirrels.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    “I see a jester claiming to “manage” the kingdom in which he lives.’ How true! In the east, and possibly the west, we have forest managers who want to use our forests for biomass electric production. They claim clear cuts will not occur but I know how words change when $ is involved. Not to mention the inefficiency of these monstrosities which only operate at about 23%! And air pollution, especially in the deep valleys where atmospheric inversions hold the pollutants in place.

    Your love of western forests is shown clearly in your photo blog “Montana Outdoors”. Some of the best photography I’ve ever seen. Your photographic interpretation of the natural world is beyond words.

    If any of you readers are not familiar with Montucky please check out http://montucky.wordpress.com/ . It’s wonderful.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Hi Debra. A wolf tree is a spreading tree that grew up in open fields and then became surrounded by forest. They look odd given all the other trees around them are straight and tall. The origin of name came from a time when humans perceived wolves as thiefs and pests. Foresters thought the wolf tree with its broad profile stole a potential harvest from the forest because it shaded so much ground. Isn’t that ridiculous?

    I love the term you used “ephemeral specks”. This is map be an apt description of our brief stay on planet earth if we don’t smarten up.

    You asked if I think about mega disasters like the sun burning out or asteroids. The answer is yes. The sun will burn out in another 4 or 5 billion years. It’s part of the universal cycle. That’s just the way it is. I have solace in thinking there are other planets near some other sun that will carry on with life. It’s true I’ve never seen them and I have no proof. But I believe that they are out there. At night I look at the stars all those millions of miles away and imagine beauty on some distant planet rife with life forms unknown to humanity. The human imagination is limitless if we let it go. Asteroids? The planet has survived them in the past, and hopefully will again.

    I was so sorry to hear about the devastating frost kill that you experienced last February. I was hopeful that some of the plants would survive. I hope you plant some new ones. The process will ease the pain.

  • Teresaevangeline

    I am fascinated by the patterns found in nature, all of life mirroring certain lines, shapes, all very intricate, symmetrical and mathematically aligned, once we look closely. What appears chaotic, is not. The world is a glorious thing. When I think of the damage done by financial interests and ignorance, it almost breaks my heart.

    Have you heard that entire forests have moved, measurably, usually down from the original treeline, to find more moisture and better conditions for longevity? I am so enthralled with the innate intelligence of all life.

    This is a very informative and moving piece. The last paragraph, with the last sentence, is so true and beautifully stated.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    You always say such nice things about http://www.wildramblings.com Teresa. I truly appreciate your comments and compliments.

    Yes, the natural world is intelligent. On this planet I believe we are one living organism. Humans are simply a small part of this organic equation. The “system”, the organism, is far more intelligent than are we. Loren Eiseley said something to the effect that humans do not really invent anything, we simply discover what already exists in nature. This is so true.

    I love the notion that forests are moving down slope to seek better conditions. If I were them I’d do the same thing!

    Thank you for reading, I really appreciate it!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Yes trees do wander, but it is intentional, don’t you think? They seek optimum habitat. Humans underestimate the intelligence of the natural world. Their progeny will carry on doing the same thing. Isn’t it wonderful?

  • http://montucky.wordpress.com/ Montucky

    Thank you for the kind words, Bill!

    We have the biomass issue here too. Our forests have been severely damaged by pine beetle infestations leaving thousands of acres of dead trees. Now many biomass projects have started up to use those dead trees, but without much thought about what it must take to harvest it, by way of building roads to it, etc. and apparently no thought at all about what they will use after the beetle-killed trees are used up. I am very gravely concerned about that situation!

  • http://nature-drunk.com Nature-Drunk

    “Each limb sways to the rhythm of the wind and from this vantage point they appear to be sweeping the sky.” I love, love, love this! I was lying under a tree the other day, thinking a similar thought. Your words have opened my heart tonight and put me in touch with your forest…a forest I have never seen with my eyes, but feel with my heart. Thank you, Bill.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    It is so wonderful to hear when a reader likes a particular sentence, paragraph, or thought. Isn’t interesting how we can all experience similar feelings so many miles apart!

    I love to share the forest with everyone. It is my fervent hope that it will inspire someone, somewhere to take notice of the natural beauty of their world. Our natural world deserves our reverence, good stewardship, and protection from those who do not care.

  • Barbara

    Hi Bill I suspect that a porcupine, rabbits or even moles and mice may have been the ones to girdle the maple. A small maple planted by the County roads people along one of my roads has also been girdled this year, but completely around unlike the one on the edge of the bush.

    And thank you for your kind words about my curiosity – I always figure I drive people a bit crazy with my desire to know and understand.

    And yes, I am truly blessed to have such a wonderful little piece of nature over which I have stewardship. I try to keep it healthy, to not use pesticides, to welcome all animal avian and plant life… and to see what thrives and continues and what doesn’t… Life is such a gamble for so many “ephemeral bits” as one your readers identified the bits and pieces that make the whole. I too, as you’ve likely gathered, believe that we are all connected, that we are all bits of the whole, and our purpose is to live in harmony with all, and to live in joy as well.

    By the way – the comments and your responses – this ongoing dialogue you have with so many of us – is so much fun and fascinating as well… thanks!

  • Out on the prairie

    Serene thoughts of trees being part of outr exisitence.I can sit and listen to them as one might a radio.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    What a wonderful visual image “listening to trees as one might the radio” (if I may paraphrase)! Yes! They have so much to teach, we just have to learn to listen.

    Terrific comment and observation!

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ Jack Matthews

    You are able to connect so much, so deeply. The movement of the black spruce over 18,000 years in travel is astonishing and you place within a glaciation. You see the long history, the long-range developments. I’ve read of plants moving over generations, but never trees. I like your photographs, especially looking up the trunk. There’s a tree-in-itself or being-in-itself that I think most of us miss. I love to see historic byways and fields that have been untouched for years. It’s like looking back in time. I really wish we could take better care of this earth. I think your prose helps us do that. The intricate weave we have with nature is there, if only we would sit, stand or gaze at it, and put those electronic gadgets away.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thank you Jack. As you point out, we cannot see the big picture of the natural world without understanding the long picture. It is necessary to understand the planet in order to wrestle with who we are as humans. The reflection that we see in our history is not always pleasant. Better we know that wo we can correct it.

    For all of you readers who have heard about or are interested in the reat wild fires taking place in Texas please go to http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ where Jack has done a superb job of covering this ongoing tragedy. Over a million acres have burned thus far.

  • http://writingsfromwildsoul.wordpress.com/ Wendy

    Beautiful story, Bill, of the migration of our trees. After reading Oak, Frame of Civilization by Bill Logan, I was struck with how the Blue Jay and the Oak serve each other. But your image of the northward spread of forests after the last ice age enlarges that sense: the slow footsteps of trees, “The trees accomplished this movement by reproduction and casting seeds into the future; a seemingly reckless and random method of traveling.” Jays walk the Oak wood acorn by acorn beyond the old borders, spreading forest. I’m headed to Alaska in a couple of weeks to visit Glacier Bay with a group of naturalists and photographers. There where the glaciers are retreating so rapidly, the forests almost pouring in behind them. I can’t wait to see this. What a story that land has to tell.

  • http://swamericana.wordpress.com/ Jack Matthews

    Going to Alaska! Wow, I envy your trip. Bill does write a most beautiful story.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Forest, field, desert, jungles, oceans: all living lessons of natural intelligence that we can learn from. Somehows humans grew to be so egocentric that they failed to pay attention to their roots. That this forest recovery journey happened so fast from a geologic perspective is what amazes me.

    You are going to love Alaska. You’ll come back with stories to share with everyone. Enjoy every blessed moment of your journey!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Yes, a trip to Alaska! What could be better!

  • http://artswebshow.com Kseverny

    Interesting, i new that trees move slow but i didn’t think it would take this long, though when they become food i suppose it makes sense.
    Perhaps this is natural selection, after all, if every seed grew the forests would be so dense growth would be halted

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Yes, slow by human standards but fast in comparison to geologic time. Forests were preceded by forb/herb communities that laid down nutrients and built soil on which the forests could succeed. Amazing and interesting process indeed!

  • http://outwalkingthedog.wordpress.com/ Out Walking the Dog

    A marvelous post, Wild Bill. I am fascinated with the way plants use natural forces and animals to propagate. Thanks for putting it all in perpective with your 24-hour earth existence clock.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Isn’t it amazing how the “will” of nature always seems to find new avenues to move forward? I’m glad I could put something into perspective. Thanks for reading.

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