The Balance on the Fulcrum

Cold, only a thin crusty snow to walk on, I travel deep into the woods on this February day. As I hike up a steep hill my mind wanders in a different direction. I’m thinking about how fragile our planet is. Our natural world is a completely interdependent system where geology, plants, animals, water, and atmosphere create the perfect balance. This mild winter sends chills down my spine. Perhaps it has nothing to do with climate change. Perhaps it does. I don’t know for sure but I can’t help wondering. My mind is lost deeply in thought and I see that I have wandered into an area that is a depression between two bedrock features. The extruded bedrock provides the forest with a mega  feature that speaks to my sense of aesthetics. Trees grow on both bedrock outcrops and cast shadows on the forest floor below. Filtered sunlight finds its way through the overhead branches. There are a few, almost indistinguishable, shrubs that seem to blend into the forest background. It takes me a few moments to recognize these shrubs, devoid of leaves on this winter day. I smile when it occurs to me what these are. Shrubs can be difficult to recognize without their leaves. And this shrub, which defies typical identification characteristics for its genus, can be particularly tricky to name.

Beneath the overhead canopy of branches that hover over plants that grow out of the forests’ humus there are shrubs and saplings that fill a unique niche in the woodland ecosystem. Perhaps one of the more uncommon shrubs that enjoys filtered sunlight and cool shade is the pagoda dogwood. This member of the Cornus genus thrives in the darkened corners of our northern temperate hardwood forests. It is inconspicuous to the eye but serves as a very valuable member of the forest community. It plays a small yet essential part in the play that we refer to as an ecosystem.

It seems that the pagoda dogwood would like to go unnoticed. It leads a quiet life within the shadows of the great trees that tower overhead. It survives where others cannot. And yet the pagoda dogwood fills a gap in the forest. It compliments an ecosystem by anchoring the soil, providing valuable forage for birds and mammals, and important nesting sites for forest avian species.

The pagoda dogwood is also known as alternate leaf dogwood in some circles. Most dogwoods have opposite branching patterns. This Cornus species defies the norm and has an alternate branching pattern. The scientific name is therefore Cornus alternifolia; an apt name for  this botanical rebel.

Bunchberry

The Cornus genus is quite diverse ranging radically in both size and habitat requirements. The small bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is essentially a trailing woody stem vine that is found along the edges of wetlands and within wetlands, especially in our northern boreal forests. The red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea or Cornus stolinifera depending on which taxonomic reference one is using) is a large shrub with fiery red twigs that inhabit wet fields and open wetlands. This shrub grows in dense thickets and enjoys bright sun, wet soil, and provides abundant forage. Perhaps the best know Cornus is flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). This dogwood is a full size tree that loves to hang its spreading branches over cool rocky streams. When in full bloom it is a site to behold; a mass of whitish pink flowers that attracts attention from bees and humans alike. The Cornus species in general have leaves that are simple and without toothed margins. The leaves veins originate from a center line, are parallel, and curve as they approach the edge of the leaf. The flowers of dogwoods are comprised of four parts. The flowers can range from tight clusters to open clusters. The fruits are known as drupes, a fleshy covering over a pit or seeds, and these contain one or two seeds. The drupes in many of the Cornus species are highly edible and nutritious forage by a large contingent of birds and mammals.

The pagoda dogwood seems to be the covert cousin found within the Cornus genus. It has a brown bark that can be mottled, almost camouflaged with various shades of tans, grays, and browns. It’s wide spreading branches stacked in parallel patterns resemble the pagoda structures of the far east. This branching pattern is designed by nature to take advantage of the filtered sunlight that squeezes between overhead branches and leaves.  The filtered sunlight provides just enough energy from photosynthesis to help the tree  survive this shadowy environment.

One of the distinct features that these large shrubs provide for the forest is perching habitat for birds in forests dominated by tall trees. Low to mid height perching habitat is difficult to find in mature forests. This shrub, along with a few others that can tolerate low light conditions, provide escape habitat and perching habitat for small song birds within the dense leaf canopy overhead. The pagoda dogwood also provides some fruit forage, complimenting some of the understory ground species such as partridge berry and wintergreen.

I have always loved the notion of Gestalt, a term used to indicate that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. In the world of ecology this certainly can apply to ecosystems. All of the different components of an ecosystem, many of which are interdependent and often symbiotic, perform together for a purpose beyond our comprehension. Some would say that it is a system that has evolved in order to ensure survival.  It is more than that. These ecosystems have evolved, miraculously, to be part of and essential to our planet. Every single element, living and nonliving, is critical to our planets health. The intricate and complicated systems that have evolved contribute to a necessary balance. A fulcrum between our planet as a living entity or our planet as a nonliving rock orbiting around a medium sized star located within a small galaxy.

Bunchberry with fruit.

I hold the branch of the pagoda dogwood in my hand. It speaks of life and is a critical part of this forest. As I grasp this branch and consider its wonders my mind wanders again. I think of a character actor in a play. The part may go unnoticed but is essential to the ambiance, composition, and message that was written by the playwright. I think of the backup singers so often found in soul music. Their harmony provides the backdrop for a great performance. Without them the song is incomplete.  I think of people like myself, ordinary and having no outstanding characteristics, that live, work, and participate in our democracy. Without each one of us democratic government cannot exist. And I think of those who go unnoticed in human culture. Those who may have less, those who may be challenged mentally or physically, and those who may be alone without family or friend. They may be forgotten but are still an important part of the fabric we call community.

This pagoda dogwood. It plays a small yet vital part within our forest ecosystem. A community of sorts for sure. Could the forest go on without it? Most certainly. But there would be a void, at least for a while. And the balance of the forest resting vicariously on a narrow fulcrum would tilt, just a little bit, away from a living planet and towards a cold, quiet rock circling  a star, located in a small galaxy, found in the corner of a vast and nearly boundless universe.

I shudder at the thought.

Written for www.wildramblings.com in February of 2012.

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

    I have seen this, but didn’t know what it was. Thank you!  I will be leaving New England soon, so will depend on your blog to keep me up on the changes in the New England woods. If all goes well, in another year, I may be posting from New Mexico. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Wow, Sandy, that’s a big change.  New Mexico!  I lived there for about 6 months about 40 years ago.  It is a beautiful state.  Dry.  Lots of great weather.  And on days when my arthritis is kicking in (like today) it sounds good.

  • http://shoreacres.wordpress.com/ shoreacres

    One of my favorite thinkers is Martin Luther. Even if you set aside the religious content, he has a dynamic way of thinking about things that deeply appeals to me.   I’m very much a “both/and” sort of person, and so was he. One of his favorite pairings was faith and works. His point was that faith without works is dead, and work without faith and the hope it brings is simply drudgery.

    Strange to say, I found myself thinking about that as I read the last paragraphs of your piece. Having faith that our wonderful natural world will keep spinning on its axis has to be accompanied by human effort to help it along. On the other hand, even the most ardent environmentalists and such have to pause now and then, and ponder the mystery that renews itself again and again without any human effort at all. Luther would have called the dogwood a sign of grace. Lao-Tzu expressed it slightly differently when he said, “In the springtime, the grass grows by itself.”

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Beautifully stated, and I could not agree more.  You certainly do get the notion of natural selection, renewal, and the power of human “intent”.

  • http://www.beyondplumcreek.com/ Hudsonhowl

    Hello and shtufffs Bill. I guess it is safe to say, considering this is new writing, that you are on the mends. You may have mentioned so in previous posts; this being the most recent and I haven’t been to Ramblings in a while -am starting here and working my way back.

    Am partial to dogwoods of any kind; haven’t known one or a cluster of them I didn’t take notice of and liked. You seldom see a dogwood that does not have a neat little offering from the cottontails who seem to like its’ presence beit summer or winter. Though the Pagoda is a little more rare in this neck of the woods than I remember when I was a kid running a muck and playing the games kids played back then in the large cool hardwood stands in and near my childhood home. Not sure of the reason for its rarity of late, though I suspect it has to do with a decision by our ministry of natural resources twenty years ago, to allow farmers and landowners to go in and thin out the hardwood and maple lots as it would make them healthier. Which in fact what they were saying was, okay, go in an log her out boys (hardwood at the time was at premium prices) but just leave enough so no one notices. Well people noticed just not soon enough in some cases. It is however more abundant in the larger more inaccessible tracts of Carolinian Forests slightly to my south an just northward of Lake Erie. Actually it flourishes there, not only is it a ‘shady character’ but a bit of a recluse in that it likes to be left alone and undisturbed.

    Again Bill I commend you on your ability to demonstrates, acknowledge and  bring to bare how the natural world is so closely connected to our life  -’a fulcrum’, quite eloquently and intelligently sums it up.  Maybe I have missed it, and you all ready have done so, but have you considered doing video webinars or presentations here on wildramblings.  This post for example would be a perfect line to follow. Please don’t shoot me for saying or suggesting so, it was just me thinking out loud (‘shoot me’ is a figure of speech, right -Bill, Bill put the gun down Bill).

  • http://www.wanderingthought.com/ Wandering Thought

    We have a very mild winter here in Michigan this year too. Although I enjoy the fact that I don’t have to shovel, and salted my sidewalk, I do think about the effect it will have on us in the summer.

    You’re amazing with words, and your knowledge about nature keeping me coming back to read more..Thanks Bill..(I now have you on my blog roll, so I’ll know when you have new post! :-)

  • http://primarilypets.blogspot.com/ Barbara

    Hmmmmm, you are in a thoughtful mood and mode Wild Bill. I love this piece, well I love all your writing, but this is more – deeper, more profound I think. I’d saved it for when I had time to read and savour and glad that I did, I’ll return to read it again. 

    Interesting that the pagoda dogwood inspired this line of thinking…Thank you dogwood, and thank you Bill. There is a wealth of botanical, ecological and environmental information to be gleaned from this post, but more perhaps is the prod, the poke, the invitation to think beyond the norm and our (or at least my) usual responses to “climate change,” any kind of weather changes and their significance. To think about what it would be like if/when we lose one more bird, plant, animal, fish species, how much can the planet stands before the fulcrum tips beyond recovery? One has to wonder at times. I seldom allow my mind to go there, not in my lifetime I figure…but you have Bill, and perhaps we all should. Would everyone shudder?

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Thank you for the wonderful compliments Barbara.  It is clear to me that you really understand what I try to put out there.  It is the subtle, the unnoticed, the things in the shadows that tip the scales, one way or the other, and yes, they deserve much consideration.  As does this entire wonderful place we call Earth.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Ontario is on the very northern range of the pagoda dogwood’s range.  Just north of the great lakes, where the soil is deep and fertile, your province holds large tracks of hardwoods.  So I’m not surprised, but I am delighted to hear, that the pagoda dogwood has graced you landscape as it does here in New England.  Life on our planet is a balancing act.  Fragile, unstable, and on the precipice of disaster any major changes in our environment would indeed wreak havoc with what we know.  Yes, its true that life on our planet has gone through many major changes it the past, but I kind of like it the way it is.

    I have considered doing video’s on Wildramblings.  It would take a lot of work and would be a whole new experience for me.  I should do a few short video’s and see how they work. 

    And yes, I do own several guns, but have not yet shot anyone for making a good suggestion. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     I’ve been thinking a lot about the impacts of this mild winter on the near future.  Certainly the water table in the soil will be lower given the lack of melt off from the fact there is little snow pack.  Most larger wildlife had an easy winter, but small rodents took a beating as they did not have the snow cover to build tunnels and stay covered from predators.  I love that you think I’m amazing with words.  That is such a wonderful compliment.  Thank you so much.  You made my day!

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

    Another post chalk-full of wisdom and beautiful metaphors. I’m so glad you share your insights with the world (and me!).

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thanks Emily!  There’s a lot of information wrapped up in this old noggin.  I’ll keep wandering around and see what part of the gray matter gets stimulated.  You never know what will turn up.

  • http://www.alsphotographyblog.blogspot.com/ Al

    You’ve touched my pessimistic streak here, as I don’t believe that mankind will become wise in time to avoid an ecological catastrophe.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     There’s still time Al, but we need to start getting real smart real fast.  In any case, the earth will go on with or without us.  So that’s good news for those who truly love the planet.

  • Anonymous

    Bill, I like the interrelations you compose.  I’ve also admired the Gestalt notion, bringing a whole that is greater than the sum of parts.  The pagoda dogwood is like many of us — small, yet a part of a large system.  I hope and work for our planet to maintain small parts like the dogwood.  It is a reflective piece you have written.  That the dogwood gets limited sunlight with its adaptations of branch patterns is amazing!

  • http://crazymountainman.blogspot.com/ Out On The Prairie

    A very unique composition, very enjoyable to read.

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

    As usual when I read your posts Bill, I am struck by the complexity and interrelationships of the living things on earth and I instinctively know that the balance between them is critical. I wonder why so many of our species seems to ignore this balance. Why, when we have advanced so dramatically in the other sciences, have we ignored ecology! It equates to an unconscious death wish, I think. A required study of our planet’s ecology at least at the high school level would go a long way toward preserving a future for our species. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Thanks Jack, we live in an amazing world, don’t we?  There is so much different yet so much the same.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Thank you.  I keep trying to find ways of presenting interesting and important information!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    The simple answer is greed.  Perhaps this trait was useful in our early competition efforts to survive but now it strongly interferes with what should be an innate instinct to survive. Of course the real problem is human population, the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, and as long as we live in a world where expansion economy, instead of sustainable economic objectives, rules the roost improvements will be negligible. 

    Right now these issues need real exposure, but those who feel the need for insane profits, extreme riches, control our flow of information and increasingly our political structure.

    Again, I shudder at the start.

  • Juliet Wilson

    What an interesting post, I love the idea of the pagoda dogwood as a botanical rebel and the concept of Gestalt applied to ecology. You’re so right, everything has its role in ecology and we are far from understanding all the intricacies

    Juliet
    http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Thank you Juliet.  Although Gestalt was originally a principal or theory of psychology it works perfectly in the ecological world, doesn’t it?  There is no coincidence here!  Pagoda dogwood is perhaps the quiet rebel that we all admire and wish was part of our own character. 

  • Teresaevangeline

    Well, talk about beautiful writing. I love how you dovetail science with a sense of the metaphysical, that blending that urges us to see life as a whole, interdependent, and that being a “character actor” is more essential than ever. This really is beautiful, and are those your images, other than the one that’s noted?  They are a  very nice compliment to your words.

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    I love your analogy of some things plants, people whatever as character actors unremarkable when you look at the grand scheme of things but important nonetheless.  Also I know I often look around and wonder where things are heading, and some part of me ( normally the old cranky part ) really does not want to know. I try to make the best of things throught reading, a bit of writing and taking some photos but I know to some extent things might be passing me by but my interest in running to catch up is waning. Well time to dust off my rocker thanks for a great post.

    Guy

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Thank you Teresa I really appreciate your comments.  The reason I blend science, the metaphysical, metaphor, and a story is because this is exactly how I think.  I find value in thinking this way.  It is both entertaining and weaves a picture in my mind that seems more true than scientific fact alone.  The first, third and fourth photos are mine.  I have a skillion to choose from. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     You’re still on top of things Guy.  I must admit I yearn for days when I lived with no electricity much less electronics.  On the other hand I have met so many wonderful people like you in cyber world.  Perhaps a reasonable blend between the two worlds is the best answer. 

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

    Trees and shrubs are the most difficult for me to identify. I’ve been trying to learn, so I guess it’s only a matter of time and experience before I figure it out. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Start with trees Ratty, there are fewer and easier to identify.  Then move to shrubs.  Once you get on a roll it will be all down hill from there.

  • http://liveandlearngrammy.blogspot.com/ Barb

    I enjoy seeing the shrubs and ferns of a northern hardwood forest – my own high altitude forests of lodgepole pine and spruce have less shrubs growing between them. In summer, tall grasses and wildflowers fill the spaces between the trees. Along streams, willow bushes and berry bushes predominate. In clearings, Queen Anne’s Lace and Cow Parsley grow shoulder high. However, our forests will have snow far into the spring – though this year less than last. I think you’ll be spotting spring wildflowers long before I will!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     We probably will be spotting wildflowers before you Barb, although we received about 15 inches of snow today.  On average we see clear ground without snow in late April to the first week in May, but this year has been a mild winter so I’m hoping it will be earlier.  Nice to hear from you!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XGVT6JHGD7DHIROFFYLV5PNQTM Joanne

    What a wonderful article and insightful comments.  Montucky and Wild_Bill, I feel like I’ve met two kindred spirits.  I share your thoughts entirely.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_XGVT6JHGD7DHIROFFYLV5PNQTM Joanne

    What a wonderful article and insightful comments.  Montucky and Wild_Bill, I feel like I’ve met two kindred spirits.  I share your thoughts entirely.

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks for stopping by Joanne.  And thank you for your wonderful compliment.  Although Montucky and I have never met we share a certain appreciation and philosophy about the natural world.  I think he has some of the best nature photos on the internet, so be sure to check out his website.  Hoping to hear from you again!

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks for stopping by Joanne.  And thank you for your wonderful compliment.  Although Montucky and I have never met we share a certain appreciation and philosophy about the natural world.  I think he has some of the best nature photos on the internet, so be sure to check out his website.  Hoping to hear from you again!

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks for stopping by Joanne.  And thank you for your wonderful compliment.  Although Montucky and I have never met we share a certain appreciation and philosophy about the natural world.  I think he has some of the best nature photos on the internet, so be sure to check out his website.  Hoping to hear from you again!

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks for stopping by Joanne.  And thank you for your wonderful compliment.  Although Montucky and I have never met we share a certain appreciation and philosophy about the natural world.  I think he has some of the best nature photos on the internet, so be sure to check out his website.  Hoping to hear from you again!

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks for stopping by Joanne.  And thank you for your wonderful compliment.  Although Montucky and I have never met we share a certain appreciation and philosophy about the natural world.  I think he has some of the best nature photos on the internet, so be sure to check out his website.  Hoping to hear from you again!

  • Wild_Bill

     Thanks for stopping by Joanne.  And thank you for your wonderful compliment.  Although Montucky and I have never met we share a certain appreciation and philosophy about the natural world.  I think he has some of the best nature photos on the internet, so be sure to check out his website.  Hoping to hear from you again!

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