When I first moved to Ithaca, I wanted to learn how to ground myself in a new place, how to put down roots and become part of a community.
So I found a yoga studio, registered to vote, got my library card, started to explore.
When fall came I remembered the beautiful colors from my childhood in PA
In winter I watched the strange shapes of the bare trees against the grey winter sky
In spring I was amazed at the profusion of flowers
and summer as the sky disappeared again replaced by a canopy of green.
As I walked the dog over our same path each day, past the same trees I noticed:
how the trees struggled that year of the drought.
After a hard winter, I noticed all the bare branches that never leafed out in the spring.
When roadwork season finally came to my block, I noticed how the heavy machines scooped up all the good black soil teaming with life, and replaced it with brown fill that nothing can grow in.
I watched with sadness as 4 trees on my block were cut down and replaced with spindly new trees that I watch to see if they are settling in okay.
I noticed how last summer when there was so much rain how the moss glowed a special kind of luminous green.
I watch the squirrels and the birds come and go.
Now, 10 years later, I feel very rooted, maybe too rooted because when I was all signed up for the Minister seminar last month, I was really dreading it.
When would I do yoga?
What if they didn’t have the right kind of oatmeal at breakfast?
What if I got homesick in a strange place with all those strangers?
When I complained to my friends that I had to go to a golf resort in Florida, they told me to suck it up.
As soon as I arrived at the airport, I noticed:
the trees- tall spindly things with mostly brown needles and leaves in their crown. I wondered if this was a particularly dry season, or if this was what they normally looked like in the winter.
I noticed the strange grey moss drooping everywhere,
I wondered if it helped the trees like the moss in my neighborhood,
or if it hurt the trees.
I arrived at the hotel very early, so as soon as I unpacked I set off on a walk.
At first I walked quickly, trying to walk of all those hours traveling.
I noticed that the trees were highly manicured,
and saw the fresh wounds where large limbs had been cut off.
I heard the whir of heavy gardening machinery.
I began to slow down
I noticed a tree that bent way over, arching over the path.
Finally I came to a stop in front of an older tree,
I guessed at least a hundred years old if it was like the tress I know.
The bark was thickly textured, many of the branches had died and broken off.
It had leaned way over to one side, and a row of younger branches were growing straight up, getting ready for that inevitable day, maybe decades hence, when the tree would finally give in to gravity.
It was draped in moss, and the strange fern vine had snuggled into its nooks in a joyful green.
I just stood for a moment and breathed deeply. I began to find my roots in this strange new place.
A New Year for Trees
On Wednesday the Jewish Tradition marks the “new year for trees” or Tu bishvat. So I thought it would be fun to imagine together a year in the life of a tree. Of course what’s happening in the life of a tree is right at this moment is different all around the world, so I thought we’d stick close to home. Here in the twin tiers, trees have slowed way down for their winter rest. Did you know trees need rest? If trees don’t get some time off, they get weak and die [p. 142].
As we wait eagerly for spring, the trees are waiting too, waiting and, amazing as it seems, counting! They need a certain number of days of cold, and a certain number of warm days before they will wake up. Have you ever noticed in the early spring how some trees are in full blossom and putting on leaves while other trees are still fast asleep? That’s because each tree has its own magic number.
Some trees are counting not days but hours- For example, beech trees don’t start growing until it is light for at least 13 hours a day. That means they have to be able to “see” light, and then remember how long it was light that day- wow. Because they have to sense this before their leaves come out, the hard scales covering the buds are transparent, allowing in just enough light so that the leaves can tell when it is time to start growing. [p. 149]
Just before the leaves open up in the spring, the water pressure in the trees is at its highest. “At this time of year, water shoots up the trunk with such force that if you place a stethoscope against the tree, you can actually hear it.” They are so pumped full of water their trunks sometimes increase in diameter. – That’s why this is the time of year our friends who make maple syrup tap sugar maples.
I love watching the trees in my neighborhood as their first little buds swell, wondering which will leaf first, and who likes to sleep in. I love that special shade of green that leaves have in spring.
I love watching the progression of spring flowers. It’s not an accident that trees don’t all bloom at once; they take turns to make sure there is always food for the pollinators, and each tree has their moment for pollination. Once the flowers are pollinated, seeds begin to form- cherries, peaches, apples, almonds, walnuts, or the whirligigs that flutter off the maple-- all summer long they grow, ready to take their turn.
By early summer all the leaves have unfurled, gearing up for the big growing season. All summer long the leaves photosynthesize, using the sun’s light to turn water and carbon dioxide into food. To do this trees must breathe in Carbon Dioxide and breathe out air. How does a tree breath? Its leaves or needles act like lungs. They have narrow slits on their undersides that look a bit like tiny mouths. [p. 224] In a square mile of forest, trees breathe out about 298 tons of oxygen into the air. That’s the daily requirement for about 10,000 people. “So on summer days, every walk in the forest is like taking a shower in oxygen.”
As early as July, trees start slowing down their activity, because trees need moisture to eat, and before winter they need to reduce the moisture in their wood, because otherwise they might freeze and burst “like a frozen water pipe”.
Trees slow down their growth and start fattening up for the winter, just like bears or squirrels. They fill up the tissues under their bark and in their roots with food. Whenever they are full, they start “shutting up shop” for the year. For little trees, like wild cherries, this happens earlier, because they have less storage space. For bigger trees, they go on storing up food until the first frosts.
Another way trees get ready for winter is by dropping their leaves. Most trees take some time with this- they need to bring energy reserves back from their leaves into their trunk and roots. The chlorophyll, the substance that gives leaves their green color and allows plants to photosynthesize, is a precious resource, so they break it down into its component parts to store for a quick start in the spring. When the chlorophyll is pumped out of the leaves “the yellow and brown colors that were there all along” come out.
Some trees, like Ash and Elders, are so confident they will be able to find what they need in the spring, their leaves are still green when they drop them in the fall. Frugal trees like Oak trees suck every last bit out of the leaves until they are totally brown. Once all the reserves have been reabsorbed, the tree grows a layer of cells that “closes off the connection between the leaves and the branches.” And any breeze sends the leaves to the forest floor. All winter long, the fungi and bacteria are breaking down the leaves into the raw materials the trees will need in the spring.
Of course you know some trees stay green in the winter, those are called “conifers.” Instead of dropping their needles, they fill them with a kind of antifreeze, and coat the outside of the needles with wax. The breathing holes in their leaves are buried extra deep, so they don’t lose water in the winter when the ground may be too frozen to drink. Conifers shed only their oldest needles, and depending on the species, may keep their needles for as long as 10 years.
Then winter comes. The same storms that shut down our schools and make our roads dangerous make life dangerous for trees too. Have you ever been out on a sailboat on a windy day? The best thing to do if you are caught out in a wind storm is to take the sail down. When deciduous trees drop their leaves it’s like letting down their sails to reduce wind resistance, so the winds won’t pull them over. This is also a good way to prepare for snow; without its leaves, the tree doesn’t have to carry a heavy burden of snow. (p. 141) The conifers, who keep their needles are much more vulnerable to the pressures of ice and snow, and branches can crack, weakening the trees. Ice is even more dangerous. It’s so beautiful when the trees are coated with sparkly ice, but it’s dangerously heavy. The best protection trees have against storms is each other. When the wind goes through a forest, the “community stands together to help each individual tree”.
In a particularly cold and icy winter like this one I wonder about my trees, hoping they will be healthy and whole when spring comes. Like the trees, I am once again waiting and resting and counting until spring.
The Life of a Tree
“The main reason we misunderstand trees… is that they are so incredibly slow. Their childhood and youth last ten times as long as ours. Their complete life-span is at least 5 times as long as ours. Active moments such as unfurling leaves or growing new shoots take weeks or even months. And so it seems to us that trees are static begins, only slightly more active than rocks.” [p. 230] So says Peter Wohlleben in his wonderful book “The Hidden Life of Trees” which is the source of most of today’s service. [All page numbers refer to this book]
If you grew up in the suburbs, like I did, you have probably seen a shopping mall or housing development appear where trees used to be. A few little baby trees are planted, and you watch and you wait, and 10 years later, they are still not big enough to make enough shade for you to stand in. And you think “wow, trees grow slow!” Actually, those suburban trees are on the fast track. When a tree grows from a seed in the forest, a tree 8 inches tall might be 80 years old! In a forest, trees sprout in the shade of their parents, where there is not enough light for fast growth. [p. 32] But if they get in trouble, there they are at their mother’s feet connected through their roots, where the mother tree can pass on sugar and other nutrients if needed [p. 24]
Under natural conditions, trees 80-120 years old are “no thicker than a pencil and no taller than a person. Thanks to slow growth, their inner woody cells are tiny and contain almost no air. That makes the trees flexible and resistant to breaking in storms” [p. 33] preparing them for a long life.
When trees are old enough they begin making their own seeds, Maple trees start making seeds when they are 30 for beech trees that might not happen until they are 150 years old! [p. 29]
The young trees wait patiently until the mother tree reaches the end of her life or becomes ill. Maybe in her weakened state she topples in a storm, leaving a new gap in the canopy, and all the seedlings start photosynthesizing as fast as they can, growing sturdier leaves and needles that can enjoy that bright light [p. 34]. This lasts just 1-3 years, as all those youngsters who have waited patiently now race straight as an arrow toward the sky. Whichever of these teenage trees are the tallest and straightest will become the middle story of the forest.[p. 38]
All the generations in the forest are connected. “Tree roots extend a long way, more than twice the spread of the crown, so neighboring trees roots intersect and grow into one another’s” and in between these roots there is a whole network of fungi that “operate like fiber optic internet cables.” These connections help trees exchange news about insects, drought and other dangers. [p. 10] Some trees will even share food with other members of their species [p. 15] “Whoever has an abundance of sugar hands some over; whoever is running short gets help” [p. 16] so they grow quite close together, looking pretty cramped to human eyes.
Until recently, humans had no idea that trees share and cooperate. Foresters would cut down trees in a group to space them out more evenly, imagining that this would help the trees who remain. But now the neighbors who were literally supporting them are gone, and the neighboring trees often fall over in the next storm or insect attack. Because trees are slow beings, it takes them 3-10 years to strengthen their own support systems in the absence of the neighbor they had been depending on. [p. 46]
Like humans, trees learn from the hardships they experience- yes learn and remember. For example, a tree that has never experienced drought will pump all the water it can out of the ground. But a tree that survives a drought learns how to ration the ground water, slowing down its growth to a more restrained rate, and then for the rest of its life remembers and repeats that thrifty behavior. [p. 45]
As trees get older their skin starts to wrinkle because as a tree grows in diameter, that outer protection must expand. Young trees have smooth bark, but as they age it wrinkles and deepens, starting from the bottom up. The outer layers crack way down into the youngest layer of bark that fits the girth of the tree. [p. 63] Moss loves to live in those wrinkles where they can suck up the moisture from recent rains. [p. 65]
As a tree grows older, after 100-300 years depending on the species, there is less new growth every year. It’s harder and harder to push water up the trunk, so instead of growing tall, they just get wider. If a tree can’t feed its topmost twigs, those die off, and the next storms sweeps the dead twigs out of the crown. Each year the process repeats until only the thicker lower branches remain. Eventually those die too. “Then one day, it’s all over. The trunk snaps and the trees’ life is at an end… In the years to come the young trees in waiting will quickly push their way up past the crumbling remains.”
But even after death the tree plays an important role it the ecosystem for hundreds of years; [p. 67] the dead trunk is as indispensable to the cycle of life in the forest as the live tree. For centuries, the tree pulled nutrients from the ground and stored them in its wood and bark. As soon as the snapped trunk hits the ground, thousands of species of fungi and insects join in the decomposition process and reclaim those nutrients. [p. 133] A fifth of all animal and plant species (about 60000 species we know about) depend on dead wood!
In our suburban and city lives, we rarely see a tree that has grown to a ripe old age. Most trees grown for lumber are cut down by foresters in as few as 100 years. We love stories about heroes like Johnny Appleseed or Wangari Mathai who plant trees for the future, but I believe it is just as important to avoid cutting down trees in the first place, especially trees growing wild with others of their own species. It’s not as glamorous as planting a new tree, but to allow a tree to live to be 500 years old, we need 16 generations of humans to just leave the tree and its supportive neighbors alone so it can pass to the next generation.
As you go out into the world this week, I encourage you to notice the trees all around you. Pick a tree you see each day out your window, or on your commute. See if you can notice it growing and changing. This will take patience, because trees are so very slow. But the New Year for trees marks an exciting time as buds begin to swell, and eventually leaves and flowers burst forth. Notice, and wonder and maybe offer a blessing as we begin this new year together.