My children have a library book right now that tells us trees appeared in the middle Devonian Period, over 350 million years ago. The drawings of these early specimens look strange to my eye, not as graceful as the trees out my window, but the proto-trees—Lepidosigillaria and Eospermatopteris—were doing important work. “Deeper roots and more plant matter meant that a significant amount of dirt—more correctly, soil—began to build up for the first time,” says the book.
No soil before this—and the Earth was already nine-tenths of the way through its 4.5-billion-year history! I praise trees firstly because, on a planet made of naked rock, where the vast majority of life was confined to the oceans, they made the soil. In life, their roots broke that rock down and mined its minerals; in death, their decomposing trunks provided organic matter to feed bacteria and fungi. They became the producers of the conditions on which so many other beings depend.
I praise the trees as I weed my garden, with the trees’ new idea—soil—finding its way under my nails. In the spring, the weeds I pull sometimes include tree seedlings. Once in a while we’ll discover a baby walnut tree still attached to a split-open underground walnut, a perfect illustration of tree reproduction, and a reminder of who really owns this land. If we didn’t keep up with our mowing and weeding, the trees would quickly reclaim it.
Actually, they already have. In our 13 years here, an area we used to call “the back field” has become a forest of slender young poplars, perpetually shady in the summer. They don’t flower yet; they’re concentrating their energy on gaining height, making leaves, making sugars. When they’re a bit taller, they’ll turn their attention to producing the orange and yellow cuplike flowers that give them their other name—tulip tree. These poplars are still kids, not yet arrived at adolescence or the necessities of reproduction.
In the front of the house, too, brash young white pines have swiftly grown to block what was once our view. They’re on the neighbor’s land, so we can’t do anything about it; anyway, the smell of their needles when struck by the sun makes up for the vista we lost.
Still, I praise especially the tree elders that dot our land, survivors of the time when our property was logged several decades ago. Big stumps here and there tell me that some sizable specimens must have been cut. But we still have tall, mature poplars; statuesque walnuts; an enchanted grove of Osage orange where the trunks form rainbow arcs my kids love to climb. We have oaks of medium age and young Norway maple. We have redbud, black locust, and a small tree we’d never heard of until a neighbor identified it: hackberry. I praise the hackberry’s warty bark, which I now spot in lots of places, and the little green berries it makes in the summer.
I praise all this variety and this fecundity. Even on scarred land, the trees are growing with a ferocity that gives me hope. Their crowns know how to spread and spread until they find each other, then stop. Their roots hold the soil in place. Their leaves produce oxygen and the haze that makes the Blue Ridge blue. They continue to clean the air, quietly resisting a tide of pollution.
I praise my favorite scent on earth: the pungent black walnuts we sometimes break open with rocks on our lawn, picking out the meat of the nuts with dark-stained fingers. I praise the leaves, more tender than lettuce, that we pluck from sassafras seedlings and munch on while we walk in the woods. I praise their curvaceousness: some having one lobe, some two (like a mitten), some three. I praise the way they turn red and yellow so early in the fall, or even late summer, a teaser for all the bombastic beauty to come.
I could, and do, praise the trees for providing a place for animals to live—screech owls, raccoons, squirrels, tentworms, tree frogs, hornets, ants, wood thrush, and woodpecker. But when I sit in my house, or sit on my deck, shaded by trees, it’s clear that I live in the trees, too. I sleep in a wooden bed; I eat at a wooden table. Wooden frames surround the images I’ve chosen to adorn my wooden walls.
I praise the paper, made from wood pulp, on which this library book is printed. It tells me that most of the time there’s been an Earth, the trees were not yet here. And yet compared with the trees, people are an extremely recent experiment. I praise them for sharing this place with us. I hope we will be worthy of their company.