By Kimberly Mayer
San Juan Island
Trees are leading characters in every book my friend Diana and I are reading. One book runs into another; no, it grows into another and gets passed back and forth. We are on a tear, Diana and I.
You have to remember: one-third of the earth’s land was once forested.
Many of us have a tree we remember from childhood, when trees were main characters in our lives. It was an apple tree for me in Connecticut. Branches as familiar as the fingers on my hands. Being up in the tree was nothing less than Swiss Family Robinson until I was called down for dinner.
Two trees, in particular, captured Diana’s imagination growing up in Pittsburgh. One was a neighbor’s mulberry tree with branches reaching into her yard. She and her friends constructed tents, “sort of girl clubhouses,” by hanging sheets from the branches. “Late in the summertime, there would be blue-black mulberries all over both yards, and we’d always have stained feet and shoes from running around back there.”
“The other personal tree was a tall fir in front of my grandparents’ summer cottage in Slippery Rock. As a young girl, I used to climb high into that tree, and just perch up there. It smelled like Christmas, and I loved being up in that tree. Nobody knew where I was, nobody could see me up there … my own private getaway.”
Decades later, Diana has a tree in her life, known as “Grandfather Tree.” “What can I say about him?” she asks. “Well, it starts with thinking about how long he’s been here, keeping watch over everything … It’s weathered storms and heat, it once held a treehouse where kids played, it survived the awful chainsaw ‘trimming’ of limbs, it’s a favorite perch for bald eagles when they are in the neighborhood, it’s got families of ants running up and down its trunk all day, and it just feels sacred to me.”
In white hands, most of our trees were cut down east to west and on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border. With a few old-growth exceptions on island, most of our woods are second-growth. Today we respect our forests as we do our gardens, but the early 20th-century woods witnessed unbridled logging much like whaling.
Native Americans knew how to look at trees, how to live with trees, and love them. “The Indian landscape was animated by all manner of spirits, and trees were thought to possess venerable souls one was careful not to offend. In the shade of certain trees, one found insight. Trees had feeling, eyes and ears… and you did not cut one down unless absolutely necessary,” writes Michael Pollan in “Second Nature.”
Second-growth forests are earth’s second chance, so to speak. And an opportunity for us to recapture, as my friend has, what we knew when we were young.