Friday, October 28, 2011

Since You Asked...Nancy Hugo About "Seeing Trees"

I've loved a lot of trees in my lifetime. Truth be told, I've even hugged a few...and not just metaphorically. But it took nature writer and lecturer Nancy Hugo and photographer Robert Llewellyn, to teach me how to really see the trees that are such an important part of the scenery of our lives.

Courtesy Nancy Hugo/Robert Llewellyn
With their book, Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees [Timber Press, 2011], Nancy and Bob have given the world something very special, indeed.

Rather than dealing with the gorgeous, perfect specimens shown in most books about trees, the 245 pages of this volume are devoted to the ordinary. Once you've soaked up the contents of Seeing Trees (I found it to be a real page-turning), you can walk right out into your own backyard and see your perhaps-imperfect trees with a depth of appreciation that you might not have thought possible.

And the photos...I am not exaggerating when I say they will take your breath away. (You can find out how Bob Llewellyn produced these amazing pictures by viewing the video on the book's Amazon site. Believe me, it's well worth a couple of minutes of your time.)

So I'm delighted to have an opportunity to chat with Nancy Hugo about Seeing Trees.

Photo by Robert Llewellyn
Q. Nancy, when did your fascination with trees begin?

A. As a child, I helped my mother plant trees. My favorite was a Deodar cedar, and I swore I was going to name my first child Deodora. (I didn't; my daughter's name is Kate!) I remember walking through pine forests (grown for lumber, I now know) and being struck by their symmetry, and reading Longfellow and loving references to things like "the murmuring pines and the hemlocks." I won $10 in a Keep Virginia Clean contest when I was 10 (for a forest picture I did in pastels), and that, no doubt, launched my tree watching career!

All gardeners (and I am an avid gardener) come around to loving trees best eventually, because they are the biggest and best plants. I see them as symbols of perseverance—strength in adversity—slow, inexorable growth. I love comparing my small, puny, short-lived self to their large, strong, long-lived selves. And of course, trees have been around about 397 million years longer than people, so there is enormous wisdom in their biological adaptations.

Courtesy Robert Llewellyn
Q. Clearly, Seeing Trees was a challenging book to write and photograph. How long did it take you and Bob to put it together?

A. We worked about two years on Seeing Trees, but some of what we learned doing Remarkable Trees of Virginia [University of Virginia Press, 2009] also seeped into this book. The interesting thing is that, as Bob observes, he and I experienced no fewer "wow" moments in our two years of viewing our backyard trees up close (and traveling nowhere) than we did from viewing Virginia's most remarkable trees (and traveling almost 20,000 miles over four years)!

Q. This book is a terrific teaching tool. But it must have been a tremendous learning process for you, as well. What surprised you during the research?

A. Too much to tell! I guess my two favorite moments were when I saw the pollination droplets on the ginkgo ovules (in my windowsill), and when I heard American beech bud scales falling in my woodland. The sound of the latter is almost imperceptible, but it's real and will now, forever, be something I listen for in spring.

I enjoy doing research, and have lots of experts I call with questions. But I also enjoyed, over and over, hearing even experts say (about some of the things Bob and I were observing): "Well, you know, I've never seen that myself!" And these weren't unusual things, they were things that happen every year, like the "birth" of a red cedar cone. There is just so much that goes on outside our awareness.

Courtesy Robert Llewellyn
Q. You have magnificently revealed the extraordinary in ordinary trees. (I love the way you refer to a tree "behind the Burger King.") How has this book changed the way you see trees?

A. For one thing (and this is more a result of Remarkable Trees than Seeing Trees), I am forever looking for places where a 600-year-old tree can grow. Or a 200-year-old tree for that matter. There are just such few places you can trust to remain undisturbed for centuries. Cemeteries and some college campuses are good.

Also, once you see the kinds of things Bob and I discovered in Seeing Trees, you'll never not see them again (I love that double negative!). Once you've seen, say, the spear-like resting buds of the beech or the spur shoots of the ginkgo, you don't forget them. They are now part of your natural universe and just another way of connecting with nature.

[NOTE: Here is another brief video of Nancy Hugo, with more information on her website.]

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Blowing In The Wind

This past week or so, wind has been tough on trees. First, a mile-and-a-half-high sandstorm turned day to night in West Texas. Then high winds hammered the Upper Midwest at the same time a tornado plowed through Florida.

Whatever form of extreme-wind event you experience, the trees in your landscape are at risk, as many of you have no doubt discovered. Wind speeds of around 40mph can snap off twigs. Tack on another 10mph, and weak limbs can come down. Once winds reach 60mph—such as Chicago experienced this week—entire trees can be uprooted.

National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration/
Department of Commerce

And those velocities don't hold a candle to tornadic winds that, at their worst, can rip a full-grown tree out of the ground and carry it away. Less powerful tornadoes often strip limbs, leaving particularly ragged torque injuries.

During the past 18 months, several heavy-duty tornadoes have torn through this area. And just last spring, we experienced 60 to 90 mph straight-line winds from a storm downburst. Under those conditions, there isn't much you can do to protect trees. In fact, there isn't anything you can do except pick up the pieces and make repairs in the aftermath.

But those repairs—or lack of them—can make the difference between life and death for a tree. So can getting the right repairs.

Several years ago, a major storm left one of the most beautiful oaks in our community severely damaged. While other property owners trimmed away broken limbs from their trees, often bringing in certified arborists to make sure the job was done properly, this poor tree stood draped in broken, dead branches, like a car-crash victim cast off to the side of the road.

Year after year went by, during which the tree received no post-disaster care at all. None. Zero. Its many wounds remained open, providing ready access for any pest or disease that came along. I ground my teeth every time I drove past.

In the meantime, trees that had been properly pruned following the storm were able to devote all their energies to callusing over their neatly trimmed wounds and recovering from the shock they had suffered. These specimens are now well on their way to regaining much of their past glory.

Then, in the middle of last summer's record-breaking heatwave and drought, a tree-trimmer struck.

I didn't see it happen, but I know the so-called "expert" in question was no certified arborist. Why? Because he topped the oak, sawing back all the major limbs, leaving them with blunt ends. As if that weren't bad enough, he even removed every last lateral branch, so the drought-stressed tree had to use all its depleted energy to produce leaf-bearing sprouts just to stay alive. And it had to do this not in spring, but in mid-summer.

Undoubtedly, in his own eyes, the inept tree trimmer was making the damaged oak tidy—and it is, if a dying  tree does it for you. The sprigs of growth that the tree managed to put out along its stumped-back limbs make me think of that  neglected car-crash victim, gasping his last breaths. Unfortunately, the once noble oak's injuries have now gone from survivable to mortal. I no longer grind my teeth when I drive past. How I feel about this "deadly pruning" goes well beyond that.

I'll be glad when the tree's struggles are finally over and it's been taken down. Because, really, that grand old oak that has stood there for generations is just too painful to look at now.

What I'm getting at is this: If you've had horrific weather—wind, ice, snow, whatever—and need help with your trees, call someone who won't leave you worse off than you started. To find a qualified arborist in your area, go toThe Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA).

Monday, October 24, 2011

With Respect to Rotten Trees

Millions of you have seen it in the movie, or read about it in Harper Lee's book: the big old tree in To Kill a Mockingbird, where reclusive "Boo" Radley left presents for Scout in a hole in the trunk.

While I'm a strong proponent of growing the healthiest trees possible, there can be magic in the imperfections of old trees. Besides providing hidey-holes for stashing treasures, hollow trees are prime nesting sites for woodpeckers and many other species of birds, as well as squirrels and other small mammals.

In my own backyard, a single hole in the trunk of an old post oak alternately housed squirrels in winter, and titmice and chickadees in summer. So tree hollows are definitely important habitat for wildlife, whether in urban or rural settings.

At least one rotten tree I knew went well beyond nesting-site status. It was merely a six-foot, one-sided snag of cambium layer and bark, with a single short, gnarly branch. For more than thirty years, this remnant of a once large specimen produced enormous blackjack oak leaves—proof that trees really do want to live, given half a chance. (Sadly, the snag was finally clipped by a truck and toppled.)

I admit, I do have a soft spot for needy plants. But there is a limit...and that limit comes up hard against safety. A hollow tree that might fall on a neighbor's property, or otherwise threaten property or lives, is a serious candidate for removal. And if a tree is downright ramshackle, with major dead and dying limbs that make an arborist shake his head, then it needs to come down. (I recently spotted one tree in my community with a hollow that went all the way through the trunk at the base—large enough for a small child to crawl through.)

[Note: for information on the legal liabilities involved with ramshackle trees, refer to the book, Weatherproofing Your Landscape: A Homeowner's Guide to Protecting and Rescuing Your Plants.]

Of course, a hollow tree that you've chosen to keep as long as possible needs extra care and attention. An annual inspection by a certified arborist will help assure that your tree isn't infested, diseased or unstable. While he's at it, the arborist can prune away weak limbs and keep the tree as sturdy as possible. Even so, I certainly wouldn't park my favorite birdbath—much less, my vehicle—beneath the limbs of a hollow tree, especially when bad weather threatens.

All that said, a hollow but still-stable tree is both a treasure and a delicate balancing act—in a way, a fitting symbol of our own life condition. In an age where perfection is the ideal, I rather fancy the idea of celebrating imperfection. And so, apparently, does Nature.

These days, I can stand at my door from spring through early summer and watch birds that are in a family way come and go from a hollow tree in my front yard. So far, the old oak tree remains robust—last spring, it withstood 60 to 90 mph winds without losing so much as a twig.

Of course, with their protective shield of bark compromised, such trees are always vulnerable to invasive organisms and other maladies that can bring them crashing down. But if the old post-oak snag was any indication, this tree could be around for a long, long time.