When I stand under
one of these giants
I sink into the dark
does not succumb
a poisoned sky
this tree might
live out a natural life…
800 years is eight to
ten times longer
than this piercing pain
of mine –
So why is
is that Hemlock
lives in community
with others that care –
the kindness of kin
both young and old
Roots entwine, support…
Comfort seeds the air.
Hemlocks can tolerate
the darkest forest
gloom, the sparse
spongy needle strewn
a multitude of seeds…
for hundreds of years…
Witch hobble thrives
400 million years
buried a few
If nature’s patterns
wed to genes
story a future
is ready to birth,
might rise again
with All That Is…
Tree of Life?
Every culture has a creation myth about the “tree of life” except the western one unless we include the Christmas tree which today is often made of plastic. As we approach the holiday season I am sickened by the thought of more live trees being cut down, only to be thrown out the door as soon as the presents are opened. I see the tree as a kind of backdrop for the human drama. The Christmas tree seems to be a symbol for excessive consumption.
Contrast this with the Indigenous Skywoman’s story in which the tree of life holds every aspect of the living natural world in her arms including the mosses that live in the tree’s knotholes!
Nature no longer structures our collective reality in any meaningful way, and trees if they are noticed at all viewed as a kind of indoor or outdoor wallpaper.
Trees were once considered to be protectors. In Greek mythology they saved women from rape. Witches once danced around trees under the full moon, held rituals underneath them. These customs have been revived today by some but are still considered suspicious, ‘cultish’ or dangerous by the dominant culture. Even the word ‘ritual’ has negative connotations.
Indigenous peoples continue to honor trees as wisdom – keepers and elders. These people still know how to listen to trees and to follow their instructions.
Scientists like Suzanne Simard teach us about the importance of trees and forests for human survival, but few are listening. Like Rachel Carson who wrote Silent Spring 60 years ago forecasting the loss of non – human species due to pesticides – Simard (Finding the Mother Tree) and others like her -especially women scientists – are simply dismissed.
It might be argued that women and trees belong together. Both are seen as decorative wallpaper, raped routinely, and easily replaced.
Because trees are fundamental to my well being I am always in relationship with forests as a whole, and cyclically move through periods where a particular tree becomes my tree of life. This year the tree that emerged out of the forest is the hemlock. How this happens is always a bit of a mystery but what captured me this year was noticing that hemlocks seem to embody a powerful charge that I could feel in their presence. The more time I spent with them the more I questioned their role in the forests they lived in because in healthy hemlock areas there is tremendous diversity not seen elsewhere. It wasn’t until I did some research that I learned some amazing facts. I want to include some here because so often a tree is pictured as symbol or background; rarely do we actually bring a tree to life.
In addition to being the most shade tolerant tree, eastern hemlocks are also the most patient of trees. When a space in the canopy opens even a tree that is already 75 – 100 years old will shoot up to the sky, branching its ladders to reach the sun. A pencil thin hemlock can be 100 years old! Tiny flat forest green needles create and layer their own canopy in a patterned way that allows every stream of light to be maximized by the tree – an incredible strategy to make the most of low light.
Animals thrive in hemlock territory; the red eft (salamander) is one that appears regularly after a rain. Deer browse and seek cover under hemlock boughs. Red squirrels and mice feast on hemlock seeds. Bears den under snowy boughs. Hares like the foliage. Many insects inhabit the rich humus under hemlocks and in the branches of these trees songbirds flourish. Blue throated green warblers, blackburnian warblers, Acadian flycatchers, hermit thrushes, winter wrens, nuthatches are just a few examples. The blackburnian warbler nests nowhere else. Most of the warblers that I heard this summer were hiding in hemlocks! Ruffed grouse, barred and saw whet owls roost in hemlocks branches. Hawks like them too. Brook trout need hemlocks to keep the water pure and cool.
Hemlocks can also photosynthesize at very low temperatures – just above freezing. In the spring before leaf out the hemlocks absorb high light creating optimal conditions for growth. Besides pine, beech and oak, in untrammeled forested areas hemlocks are also peppered with mountain laurel, hobblebush, and witch hazel, understory plants that can also tolerate lower light.
Hemlocks make remarkable parents – their ability to seed themselves so close to adults – within a hundred feet – allows the seedlings to be nourished through roots from the mother trees (both male and female reproductive structures are found in each tree). Hemlock roots are attached to a complex underground mycorrhizal (symbiotic) mycelial network that stretches across the forest floor.
When adult trees die their nutrients seep into the ground because this tree decays very slowly nourishing the rest of the trees and plants of the forest around them. Many mushrooms, fruiting bodies of fungi that belong the complex underground highway appear at their feet. Recall that mycorrhizal fungi exchange information, nutrients, carbon, water, with other trees and plants in their area. In the west a list of over 100 mycorrhizal fungi were associated with hemlocks. Mycorrhizal mushrooms can extend a plant’s root system up to a 1000 times, playing a critical role in forest ecosystems.
A hemlock forest moderates extremes. Temperatures drop about 10 degrees in the canopy and 5 to 10 degrees below on the forest floor. Feathery branches intercept rain or snow reducing the moisture that actually reaches the ground that helps control flooding. These trees also purify the waters beneath them allowing brook trout to thrive. If left alone hemlocks can live 800 years making them the longest – lived tree in the east.
Eastern Hemlocks returned after the last glacial period arriving in New England about 10,000 years ago from the south. They ‘migrated’ north about 900 miles in in 5000 years keeping up with changing climate conditions. Their range extends from Nova Scotia to Michigan. Today, of course, with climatic change upon us, these trees are under stresses they haven’t been before.
About 5000 years ago hemlocks almost disappeared and then resurrected themselves to become a “Foundational Tree” (Harvard Forest hemlock research) helping to structure the rest of our eastern forests. Although fewer trees and plants thrive directly under hemlocks the duff creates a very rich layer of humus (sometimes many feet deep) that stays moist even in drought and is capable of storing seeds hundreds, even thousands of years old making them a veritable seed bank.
Unfortunately change is the only constant and warming temperatures and the introduction of the Asian woolly adelgid is sucking the life out of these magnificent eastern trees.
Harvard’s ecologists who have been studying these trees since 1907 inform us that once infected a tree will succumb in four to twelve years. Harvard’s hemlock forests are dying and to honor this passage they have created the Hemlock Hospice project, bringing in international artists to highlight what is happening to these foundational trees by creating sculptures in the hemlock forest.
I think it is so hopeful that an institution like Harvard is honoring the death of hemlocks as REAL trees whose loss is to be mourned.
If, and this is a big if, we can cease industrial logging that uproots not only the trunks of trees (where new life begins immediately in the decaying trunk) and the soil beneath them, there is hope.
Because under those dead hemlocks, seeds that are hundreds or thousands of years old may one day rise to repopulate the planet with these magnificent trees.
BIO: Sara Wright is a naturalist, ethologist (a person who studies animals in their natural habitats) (former) Jungian Pattern Analyst, and a writer. She publishes her work regularly in a number of different venues and is presently living in Maine.