An Inventory of Trees

first appeared in the Washington Island Observer

  1. Often when we pull out of our driveway and turn onto Swenson Road, my son will say, “I see a tree, mom.” Swenson is a tree-lined street — there are trees everywhere. Is he working on perfecting the art of understatement or has one tree caught his eye? “What does it look like?” I ask. He replies “Green” or “Two trees.” My son’s clunky attempts at describing trees encourages me to see trees as individuals. 
  2. There was a pine that had been growing in our garden for some time. More accurately, our garden grew up around the tree. It is hard for a gardener to cut down a healthy tree — something so vital —  but it was blocking light on three beds and it was time for it to go. With a saw and axe, we chiseled at its trunk until it slowly leaned and leaned, then snap! It was down. The trunk will become infrastructure for our farm’s compost system, but the top six feet of tree we brought inside, put it in a five gallon bucket of water and called it our Christmas tree. I also picked up a chip of heartwood, wet and smooth, painted it gold and called it an ornament. Decorated with jewelry, ribbon, a string of lights, the christmas tree continues to produce new green pine cones in our living room — it wills to be survived by new growth. 
  3. The wind and the lake work together to move trees, carry away branches and roots, pull docks from their mooring, sending them on unknown adventures. They return along Carlin’s Point or Sand Dunes or private beaches around the Island, smooth and fragmented portraits of their once larger selves. 
  4. Sculptures appear on Indian Point Road. The artistic hand of Bob Young finds an eagle from a swirl of driftwood, cut just so, yellow eye. An owl appears a few weeks later in a curl of hollow tree, two knowing eyes, wire talons: the gift of hundred year old growth, scavenged from the shore or the swamp and re-envisioned by an astute eye and capable hand. What bird will next be unearthed from the edge between water and wood?
  5. An average tree captures 31 pounds of carbon dioxide in a year. The average American adds 32,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in a year, or what 1,025 trees will absorb in the same period. 
  6. If I need to be convinced of magic in this world, I look to photosynthesis of trees. As trees live and grow, they pull carbon dioxide from the air and spin it into sugar and use this sugar to knit themselves roots, branches, trunks. All the while releasing oxygen. Trees offer us a perfect symbiotic, benevolent relationship or what some scientists call “ecosystem services,” their life sustains an ecosystem that grants life to other living things. In return for the breath in our lungs, we slash and burn, we cut and mill, reduce swaths of forests around the globe into wisps along field edges or road ways, or mountainous areas where we find it too difficult to cut them down. John Muir wrote: “Trees cannot run away; and if they could, they’d be hunted as long as their bark hides, branching horns produce a dollar.” 
  7. In her memoir, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Janisse Ray traces her family history in the long-leaf pine region of Georgia. Her ancestors have been in the region since it was first settled by whites — “crackers” or “borderlanders” — from the English/Scottish border. Of her relations she writes: “More than anything else what happened to the long-leaf country speaks for us. These are my people; our legacy is ruination.” A unique type of evergreen especially developed to thrive the lightning storms of the region, the long-leaf pine was all but completely destroyed by her hungry forefathers and their cohort, fueled by the industrial revolution and reconstruction period’s insatiable appetite for wood. 
  8. The same day I read this passage, I caught a segment on WPR about a college in England, whose builders had the forethought to plant oaks in the fourteenth century when the college hall had been constructed using oak beams. When the beams needed to be replaced some 500 years later, the oaks they needed to do so had grown to size. 
  9. The first tree I remembered loving was an old and gnarled tree, known as a leptospermum laevigatum or coast tea tree. Its thick twisting branches bent down and kissed the ground before rising up again. It grew outside my fifth grade classroom and I would walk to school early so I could have a few quiet moments with the tree before all the other kids started arriving. Morning fog hung in the air lacing its soft green leaves as I tried to sketch the most beautiful tree I had ever seen in my tiny sketchbook. 
  10. I haven’t thought of this tree in years, decades even, and the memory startles me: was I really ever that innocent? The purity of the young heart. The heart before the advent of social media and doom-scrolling; the heart before the knowledge of urgent and overwhelming climate crisis; the heart before being sliced into pieces by statistics, slow disasters, trivial upsets and somehow glued back together. The memory of my first-loved tree inspires me to put down my phone and pick up a book. 
  11. The tree I love right now is the elm on Townline Road next to the historic Island Dairy. While most (but not all) of its compatriots on the Island have died to Dutch Elm Disease, the elm on Town Line spreads its magnificent crown to the sky — even in winter, with no leaves, its arch and unapologetic wingspan serves as an intermediary between earth and sky. 
  12. The white cedar on the bluffs pierce seams of limestone with their slow, methodical thirst. With scant soil, winter gales, summer heat, these white cedars are slow growing. Researchers have found annual growth rings of some cedars to be just one-cell thick. Cedars are not only patient, but inventive: if they fall over from the weight of snow, they will continue to send roots down, even at 90 degree angles; low-growing branches weighted down with moss and forest debris touch the soil and send out new roots. Here, branches turn into trunks and a “fairy ring” of cedars may grow up around the center cedar. 
  13. Today an icy fog kissed each pine needle, each branch and then froze in its embrace — the woods transformed into lace, an intricate cloud that can not leave the earth. The water molecules outline the tiniest of details of each tree and teach me something about intimacy. 


How Forest Store Carbon.

Trees Improve Our Air Quality:

Saving Nature Restores Habitat:

Our Living Ancestors by John Bates (with a hat tip to Steve Waldron) 


An Indescribable Sound: Lessons from a Raven

An Everyday Nature Article, first published in The Washington Island Observer

The silhouette of a dark bird flew over, the white winter sky bright behind it. I could hear the thrum of its wings and its call. A sound I had never heard before. It sounded circular. Like bubbles rising. No matter how hard I tried to imitate it when I got home I could not. Though the bird’s shape appeared corvid, I assumed it must have been a different kind of bird. For I have heard raven’s caw and crackle. This was so different from those bellicose laughs; it was ethereal. 

Then, I forgot about this bird and its mysterious sounds until a month later when I was walking again on the section of the same street. This time I could see the bird perched at the top of the trees. Opening his mouth, the familiar gurgly caws of a raven or crow. (For the life of me, I can never remember the defining features of crows vs ravens in the moment of actually seeing one.)

But, then, in an instant the call changed to the magical weightless noises I had heard before. As we approached the bird interchanged the caw for a ringing bell in his throat. Then it flew away. 

This time when I got home, I started googling. Sounds of Ravens. Sounds of crows. Of all the sounds on the Cornell birds page only one approached the magic I had heard in the tree that day. I emailed my birds gurus—Kristen and Eric—to help me understand what I am hearing—since Google was not forthcoming enough. 

They were generous with their time and answer. With access to a member’s only bird resource through Cornell called “Birds of the World,” we learned “the total vocal repertoire may be virtually limitless.” Kristen went on…“What’s interesting is that there’s a lot still unknown about raven calls, esp. since they can vary locally (birds can have dialects too, which is fascinating) and even among individuals. Ravens can also mimic non-bird sounds.” 

Ravens make a variety of croaking calls, but researchers have also noted “knocking, bell-like, hiccup, dripping, woo-woo, and toot calls of unknown function” as well as “growls” “whines” “screams” and “honks.”  None of these descriptions are fitting for the gossamer sound I heard, but now I know it’s because their vocabulary is more expansive than ours. (Note: I will bake cookies for any birder who records this magical raven noise so we can study it together and try to find the words to describe it. Both times I encountered this bird, I was walking on the north end of Main Road.)

So, ravens have dialects, are accomplished imitation artists, communicate with family members and neighbors in sounds indecipherable to humans, with messages not meant for us. As I learned more about ravens, I was humbled by all that I didn’t know. And worse yet— all that I had assumed. I believed the little I knew about ravens was all that they had to offer. How often do I make these kinds of assumptions?