Putting Down Roots

FOR A WHILE NOW, I’VE been thinking about planting a tree—a real tree. It’s not that I haven’t planted trees before, but all of these have been minor ones, lightweights really, the kind of trees you can justify in the short term: white pines to screen the road, dwarf fruit trees, a crab apple or two, a tree hydrangea and a pair of Salix babylonica, the Tree of Immediate Gratification, otherwise known as the weeping willow. This, for a long time, was my idea of a tree: something I could pick up for $29.99 at the nursery, stuff in the rear of the hatchback, jam into any old hole, and then just about watch the thing grow. In less than three years my hatchback-sized willows had blown themselves up to the size of hot-air balloons.

Not to take anything away from my willows, but they do lack a certain . . . gravitas. And there was little else on this one-time farm in Cornwall, Conn., to supply that element. Probably when you imagine a farm in New England you picture a few venerable oaks or maples right by the house. Well, this was never that kind of farm, even though it has been probably under cultivation since colonial times. Beginning in the 1920′s, and up until a few years ago, it was a dairy farm operated by a family that probably never extracted more than a tenuous, hand-to-mouth living from this land. A couple of sugar maples by the house would have told of a certain achievement of comfort in the farmer’s relationship to the land that I doubt he ever felt. It would also have told of an expectation of continuity here. But the children evidently had no interest in farming this pinched, craggy wedge of hillside, because when the farmer died the land was broken up and sold.

Nobody in town has a good word to say about the old farmer; “so mean, he hated his self” is how one neighbor described him to me. Everybody will give him this, though: he made some of the best hard cider around. And in fact the only real tree planting he undertook was of a half-dozen apple trees, which today are the most beautiful trees on the property. Now more than a half century old, their crabbed and weathered forms suggest the character and long witness of architectural ruins. Some days they look like monuments to their planter’s own legendary crabbiness. But no esthetic consideration had gone into their planting; the idea, apparently, was strictly utilitarian: to secure a free and reliable source of booze.

The absence of any shade trees underscores the harshness of the land, as well as the solitude of my little Sears, Roebuck house plunked down on it. It was in part to soften this effect that I wanted to plant trees. I say “in part” because I’m beginning to realize that planting a tree is a complicated act, born of many intertwined causes not easily teased out. But one of my motives was esthetic.

A single great tree can make a kind of garden, an entirely new place on the land, and in my mind I was already visiting the place my maple made, resting in its shade. I’d decided on a maple because I’ve always liked the kind of light and air an old one seems to sponsor around itself. Maples suggest haven. They always look comfortable next to houses, in summer gathering the cool air under their low-hanging boughs and ushering it toward open windows.

Now I knew this wouldn’t happen overnight, probably not even in my lifetime, but wasn’t that precisely the point? To embark on a project that would outlast me, to plant a tree whose crown would shade not me, but my children or, more likely, the children of strangers? Tree planting is always a utopian enterprise, it seems to me, a wager on a future the planter doesn’t necessarily expect to witness.

Just thinking about it in these terms was starting to make me feel rather virtuous, I have to admit. And as I drove to the nursery early one morning, I began to form large conclusions about Our Age based on the fact that no one planted great trees any more. Who can imagine a summer afternoon in the middle of the next century, sitting in the shade of a maple planted in 1990? Not many, to judge by what we plant these days. Gardeners in this country once planted trees with the kind of enthusiasm they bring to the planting of perennials today. True, we have less space to work in, and we move every five years or so, but I can’t help thinking some cultural pathology is also at work here, some failure of imagination about the future.

“To plant trees,” Russell Page, the English garden designer, once wrote, “is to give body and life to one’s dreams of a better world.”

In the company of large and uplifting thoughts like these, I went shopping for my tree. I told John, the nursery manager, that I was in the market for a shade tree, probably a sugar maple. John frowned and slowly shook his head, giving me one of those looks a car mechanic trots out after he’s peered under your hood and found an afternoon’s work. Apparently the sugar maples around here have been having a hard time of it lately. It seems that the pear thrip, a microscopic insect, has infested sugar maples all over New England. Thrips have always been around, John said, but the maples have become more susceptible lately, probably because of the stress put on them by acid rain.

This is the sort of news to suck the wind right out of utopian sails.

John told me I’d be better off with a Norway maple, a European variety that thrives in cities and seems relatively unperturbed by the stresses of civilization. He showed me his stock, a dozen 15-footers that sold for $129 each. Even at that size, these trees were frankly not all that impressive — spindly poles, really, topped by a few forked twigs. Squaring my utopian picture with these glorified dowels wasn’t going to be easy. Probably sensing my disappointment, John rested his hand on one of the trees at shoulder height and said, “But these Norways are some quick growers. Ten years, you could have a respectable little tree. Twenty, maybe even see a bit of shade.”

A “bit” of shade by 2010?! I was suddenly beginning to feel discouraged about the whole enterprise. Maybe I’d be better off with an apple tree, or another willow”¦ I mean, how long were we going to live in this house anyway? But then I recalled my large thoughts—my high-minded desire to make a positive statement about the future. I swallowed hard and told John to deliver it tomorrow.

ONLY AFTER GREAT EFFORT, I SETTLED ON a spot in the middle of an open meadow about halfway between the house and the barn where I keep my office. It’s a sobering responsibility, picking the site for a big tree; get it wrong, plant it too close to the house or a power line, and you will someday force a terrible decision on someone. I spent half a day walking around the property, straining mentally to add something the size of a brownstone to the empty scene before me. I traced one 50-foot circle after another in the grass, trying to picture the eventual footprint of shade. Shadows you can see are elusive enough; to plan for shadows decades hence is to deal in the shadows of shadows.

The books I consulted advised a hole twice the diameter of the tree’s root ball and at least as deep, which in this case meant a hole six-feet wide and three-feet deep. The drawings in the books showed cross sections in which neat pyramids of soil stood next to equally neat inverted pyramids cut into the ground. They didn’t show boulders the size of office safes. More rocks came out of my hole than soil, some so big I had to roll them out, pyramid-builder style, along inclined wood planks.

Digging in that ground left me a bit more sympathetic toward anybody who had to depend on this soil for a living. Wendell Berry, the Kentucky farmer and writer, says that the present trees on a farm signify the farmer’s “long-term good intentions toward the place.” Probably so, and I’ll bet that my farmer’s intentions toward this land, so grudging of everything but rocks, verged on the spiteful.

Excavating the hole took the better part of a day, but, taking frequent rests as I did, I had plenty of time to lean on my shovel and muse. Looking around at the small society of trees my maple was about to join, I realized that they held a record of the natural history of this place. One of the apples bears a nasty scar where a large bough was ripped from it during a freak blizzard in October 1987. On July 10 of last year, the ash at the edge of the property had a 40-foot-long section of its bark unzippered by a bolt of lightning. That storm also toppled a small cherry; from the rings in the logs we cut from it, even a child could pick out the “greenhouse” summer of 1988, a summer so hot and dry that trees added their most slender growth ring in decades.

Like the ancient hell-bent apple trees that memorialize the farmer’s tenure, my maple will also mark a turning point in the property’s social history: the arrival of a more cosmopolitan era on this farm, a time when its owner had the means and the leisure to plant an ornamental tree. But what if I’m wrong? What if planting a maple will mean something entirely different in 50 years, and my successor here will interpret the planting of this tree as. . . . I don’t know, as being quaintly arrogant, say, or “speciesist,” because people by then had decided that trees have certain inalienable rights, one being the right not to be planted within 50 feet of any human habitation? Or maybe the oil will have run out by then, and the beauty of a stack of cordwood will far surpass that of a mature maple. About now you’re probably thinking I should have put the musings on hold and returned to my digging, but I’m afraid I didn’t do that. My spade-side historicizing had made me wonder if perhaps I’d been unfair to the farmer. As the owner of a marginal New England farm, his feelings about trees probably shouldn’t be judged according to my standard (or Wendell Berry’s), but by the standard of early American farmers for whom a tree was at best a resource to be exploited and, at worst, an impediment to agriculture, a big weed. For most of the time that this land has been in white hands, chopping down trees has seemed as civilized a thing to do—as socially responsible and morally unambiguous—as planting them does today.

So who is right? Which among the different stories we can tell ourselves about trees is true? It is easy and gratifying to think that we are more enlightened on the subject of trees than the farmer or than the Brazilians cutting down their rain forests today. But I’m beginning to think the truth about trees may be more complicated than that.

As it happens, the etymology of the word “true” takes us back to the old English word for tree: a truth to the Anglo-Saxons was nothing more than a deeply rooted idea. Just so, my version of a planted tree—envoy to the future, repository of history, index of our respect for the land, spring of esthetic pleasure, etc.—is “true”; it has deep roots in the culture and seems to serve us well. Yet, as the old farmer might have warned me, even the most deeply rooted ideas can fall.

THE FARMER’S IDEA OF A tree and mine aren’t the only two ever to have shaded this place. I can count perhaps a half-dozen different versions of the tree that have found favor in this corner of New England alone, starting with that of the Indians. The history of these metaphors is worth recounting, if only because it suggests how our own truths about the land might someday give way to new and possibly more helpful ones. Though no Indians lived in Cornwall, they regularly hunted and traversed the forests here, and most of our roads follow their trails. The Indian’s tree was thought to possess a venerable soul that one took pains not to offend. Because many trees had feelings, eyes and ears, you did not cut one down unless absolutely necessary. And then you would beg the tree’s forgiveness. The American Indians were not the first people to consider trees divine. Many, if not most, pre-Christian peoples practiced some form of tree worship. For most of history, in fact, the woods have been thickly populated with spirits and sprites, demons, elves and fairies, and the trees themselves have been regarded as habitations of gods.

Christianity, however, has worked very hard to clear this forest, and no Christians dedicated themselves to this mission with more fervor than the Puritans. In their eyes the New World forest was “a hideous wilderness,” “wild and uncouth,” a “dismal thicket” where a person was liable to be lost or killed or, worse still, to fall away from Christ—to go native. The forest, shadowy haunt of Satan and uncertainty, deeply offended the Puritan notions of order and light, indeed of civilization itself. To chop down a tree was a righteous act, one that advanced God’s work and set back the howling wilderness.

Though they acted on a more secular authority, the later colonists carried on the Puritan war against trees. De-divinized by now, the Colonial Tree is either a commodity or a weed. When a colonist looked at a pine he saw a ship’s mast; in an oak he saw barrel staves. Everything else was in the way. To the colonists, deforestation was a synonym for progress. When the land that is now Cornwall was first auctioned off in 1738, the colony stipulated that each new owner had to clear at least six acres of his land or forfeit title to it. According to town records, all but a fraction of the town’s land had been cleared of trees by 1820. When the farmer bought this hillside in 1919, it would have been virtually bald. But even by then, Cornwall’s farms had begun to fail, and the town’s remaining fringe of trees was dilating, spreading down from the untillable hill crests toward the Housatonic valley, challenging each clearing in their path. The farmer, as one of the last local heirs of the Colonial Tree metaphor would sooner have worshiped an ax than a tree. No doubt he would have approved of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Broad Axe,” in which the ax is depicted as a sort of wellspring of the American nation:

The axe leaps!

The solid forest gives fluid utterances,

They tumble forth, they rise and form,

Hut, tent, landing, survey,

Flail, plough, pick, crowbar, spade,

Shingle, rail, prop, wainscot, jamb, lath, panel, gable,

Citadel, ceiling, saloon, academy, organ, exhibition-house, library. . . .

Capitols of States, and capitol of the nation of States, . . .

The shapes arise!

AT THE SAME TIME Americans were at work deforesting their continent, the English had embarked on what was probably the first large-scale planting of trees in history. The English were acting under the sign of a new tree metaphor that emerged in the 17th century, soon after they awoke to the fact that they had hardly any trees left. According to Keith Thomas’s history, “Man and the Natural World,” aristocrats in the 17th and 18th century began planting trees by the millions, usually in lines, to declare the extent of their property and the permanence of their claim to it. The Political Tree had been born.

English aristocrats of the time developed an obsession with trees, which they not only planted, but painted and wrote about and discussed at tiresome length. Landowners came to identify with their trees, to see in their nobility and rootedness a symbol of their own social standing. Edmund Burke declared that aristocrats were “the great oaks that shade a country.”

This sort of political symbolism is rarely lost on less privileged members of the social forest: During the English Revolution, rebels in the countryside frequently chopped down trees on royalist estates. After the restoration, tree planting was regarded as a show of support for the monarchy, and several million hardwoods were planted between 1660 and 1800. In our time, the Political Tree has thrived particularly well in the soil of the Middle East, where Israelis plant trees to assert their claim to the land, and Palestinians—who can’t plant trees on public land in the West Bank without a permit—sometimes burn them down.

IN ENGLAND AND AMERICA, the Political Tree gave way in the 19th century to the Romantic Tree, whose significance is more spiritual than social. This is the tree of Wordsworth, Emerson, Thoreau and Muir—and of our own time, by and large. “In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” Emerson said, pointing Americans toward a tree from which they could draw spiritual sustenance. In the contemplation of the Romantic Tree—self-reliant, aloof from history, reaching ever heavenward—we could find an antidote to our mean commercial culture. Trees “ministered” to men, Thoreau said; they provided for our spiritual well-being: “Show me two villages, one embowered in trees”¦ the other a merely trivial and treeless waste, or with only a single tree or two for suicides, and I shall be sure than in the latter will be found the most starved and bigoted religionists and the most desperate drinkers.”

In America, the Romantic Tree and the Colonial coexisted tensely during the second half of the 19th century. At about the same time Whitman was celebrating the broadax, Thoreau was composing a tender obituary for a pine tree felled by a lumberman: “A plant which it has taken two centuries to perfect, rising by slow stages into the heavens, had this afternoon ceased to exist. . . . Why does not the village bell sound a knell?” Thoreau’s tree eventually prevailed over Whitman’s ax, at least in the popular mind, and today most of us see the tree, and the forest, through Thoreau’s eyes. He would readily recognize the tree depicted by our nature writers, a tree that stands outside Culture, bearing a kind of moral and spiritual witness.

Obviously the metaphor a people holds about trees will matter greatly to the trees of that time. Puritan trees tend to get chopped down sanctimoniously. Colonial trees get chopped down unceremoniously. In stable times political trees get planted, but in revolutionary times they get chopped down, albeit ceremoniously. And the Romantic Tree? This is a tree that gets preserved, rather than planted, since its spiritual authority derives from its independence of man, its pristine Otherness. And in fact it is to the Romantic idea of trees, and of nature generally, that we owe the invention of the Wilderness Area, one of America’s great contributions to world culture. Where did I come down among these metaphors? Somewhere between the Political and the Romantic Tree, I guess. In undertaking to plant, I’m acting in line with the political metaphor: I want to leave my mark here, address the future. But frankly, I would have been just as happy to inherit great trees, to skip right to romance. I pined for great trees here so that I could entertain Emersonian thoughts in their shade. Most of my unexamined feelings about trees are inherited from the Romantics. My first conclusions about the old farmer were exactly the ones Thoreau would have drawn: from this “treeless waste” he’d have deduced that its owner was a heathen in the temple of nature. But, as I say, I no longer feel comfortable with so smug a characterization. The farmer lived by the lights of a different metaphor, one that was true in its time and necessary to get a certain historical job done: to settle and build America. From the vantage of the next one, our own tree metaphors will appear as historical and contingent as the farmer’s metaphor—and probably just as benighted. If the history I’ve been recounting has anything to teach us, it’s that the Romantic notion of a tree standing outside Culture—indeed, the whole idea of Nature being “out there,” a kind of metaphysical absolute against which we can judge our messy, contingent culture—is itself a cultural construct, the invention of Emerson and Thoreau and the English Romantics. A great creation, to be sure—it gave us, besides the Wilderness Area, our superb literature of nature and a lot of terrific camping trips — but we shouldn’t mistake it for an eternal verity. Like the Colonial Tree and the Political Tree, the Romantic Tree is nothing more (or less) than a tool that’s been useful in accomplishing certain historical tasks.

But I’m beginning to wonder how useful it remains. The Romantic metaphor offers us no role in nature except as an observer or worshiper; to act in Nature is to stain it with Culture. The Romantic idea might encourage me to revere and protect what trees I had, but it doesn’t give much incentive to plant new ones. In fact it was the image of the noble Romantic tree that made those skinny price-tagged saplings at the nursery look so pathetic. The political metaphor might offer more encouragement to plant, but isn’t there something a little presumptuous about those grandiose ideas of planting trees for future generations?

It seems to me we could use a few new tree metaphors about now.

BUT LET ME RETURN for a moment from this forest of rather speculative trees to my real one, patiently waiting to be planted.

Once the hole was dug, I prepared the soil. After loosening the earth at the bottom of the crater with a pitchfork, I added a 100-pound bag of peat moss, several bags of cow manure and a few shovelfuls of compost. I stirred these together and then ran a hose, filling the hole with water and letting it drain several times. This settles the earth and eliminates pockets of air, which can rot any roots exposed to it. Next I checked the depth of the hole, using a board and a plumb line. If the tree is planted too deeply, its roots can suffocate; too shallow and they’re apt to be exposed. The final grade should barely cover the root ball.

With the help of a few spare hands and plywood ramp, I managed to work the maple gently down into the hole. Then, while a friend held the trunk perpendicular, I backfilled. After every few spadesful, I watered and stomped on the fresh soil to squeeze out any air pockets and consolidate the earth’s hold.

Suddenly my maple had lost three feet of its height, making it look more inconsequential than ever. And now it would get shrimpier still, because John had instructed me to “top” it: to restore a favorable balance between the roots and the top of the tree, its crown should be thinned by a third. So I climbed a ladder and amputated several of my tree’s already meager limbs, an act of horticultural mercy I always find hard to perform.

The last step is to provide the tree with a measure of protection from the elements. To protect its bark from the winter sun and wind, I wrapped the entire trunk in paper; to thwart the nibbling of field mice, I swaddled the base of the trunk in a strip of window screen. Finally, I staked the tree, to keep the wind from disturbing its fragile roots as they make their initial forays into unfamiliar soil.

By the time I stood back to admire my tree, dusk had fallen. For all that work, it really didn’t look like much, a pricey twig-topped pole wearing socks and steadied by guy wires. And in the days to follow, I would be disappointed time and again by the failure of visitors to notice my maple without prompting.

But the longer I stood there gazing at my tree, the more of it I could see. Maybe it was the late, uncertain light, but after a while I had little trouble imagining its future taking shape. I looked at the thin, knuckled twigs and could picture them, as if in time-lapse, leafing out and branching, spring after spring, one branch into two into four into eight into 16, my tree compounding itself every summer in a geometrical progression that blossomed at last into a massive oval crown.

FROM MY DESK UP IN the barn loft, I have a good view of the new tree, and whenever my attention wanders from my work, it seems to settle there, amid its leafless branches. A frail thing to burden with so much reflection, I know, but this seems to be the fate of trees in a world of humans—our thoughts cling to them like iron filings to a magnet.

Trees have been in the news quite a bit lately. Scientists warn that they are in trouble, and that their health may be bound up with our own in ways never imagined before. Deforestation may be contributing to potentially catastrophic changes in the earth’s atmosphere. It’s not surprising that images of trees seem to be everywhere just now, in art galleries, in product logos and ads, in the speeches of politicians. My hunch is that we sense our old metaphors about trees, and nature, are wearing thin, and we’re casting around for new and more powerful ones. By the time my maple reaches maturity, it may mean something very different than it does today.

What might these new metaphors be? Some philosophers have recently advanced the notion that my tree possesses “rights.” They see Western history as a continuing struggle to widen the circle of rights-holders, from nobles to property owners to white men to men generally and, most recently, to women. They propose we now draw this circle still wider, to encompass nature. One legal scholar, Christopher D. Stone, has gone so far as to argue, in a book entitled “Should Trees Have Standing?” that forests, lakes and mountains should be granted the right to sue. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds: corporations are already “persons” in the eyes of the law, so why not trees?

I can’t say I like the idea of my tree growing up to be litigious. Though the proponents of nature’s rights have her best interests at heart, I worry that a world in which trees have rights would probably be one in which human rights have been diluted. The rights of the individual, such a hard-won and tenuous achievement of Western history, would not fare well in a world of “natural rights,” if only because in nature individuals don’t count; species do. In seeking to expand liberalism to encompass nature, we could end up wrecking liberalism.

Can’t we come up with a metaphor less awkward than yet another one based on “rights” Science has recently proposed some new descriptions of trees that strike me as much more promising, and which, in retrospect, lend humankind’s old, strong feelings about trees an eerie prescience.

Think of the tree as the earth’s breathing apparatus, an organ than helps regulate the planet’s atmosphere by exhaling fresh oxygen and absorbing the carbon that animals, decay and civilization spew into it. The tree, under this new description, is an indispensable part of not only the forest ecosystem, but of a global system far more intricate and interdependent than we ever realized. The earth may be a kind of organism, and the trees its lungs.

USING INSTRUMENTS OF gas analysis set up on the slopes of a volcano in Hawaii, scientists can observe the earth’s “breathing,” which follows an annual rhythm: every summer, the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of the northern hemisphere declines as the forests inhale; every winter, after photosynthesis subsides and civilization steps up its combustion of fossil fuels, the level of carbon dioxide climbs, a little higher each year. (In our time the earth’s breathing may be growing labored, as the forest’s inhalation of carbon dioxide struggles to keep up with the hot, heavy breath of civilization.) Here, then, are the lineaments of a new tree metaphor, one of great force, beauty and, obviously, import.

Science has also begun to regard trees as barometers of our environmental health. Ecologists think the greenhouse effect will show up first in the forests, where cool-weather species, unable to migrate northward fast enough to keep pace with a warming climate, may soon begin to sicken and die. Already forests in New England show the effects of acid rain. Trees are like the canaries miners used to carry into the coal mines; since the birds succumbed to poisonous gases long before humans did, they warned miners of unseen dangers.

Given the choice, I would much rather see the Lung Tree or the Canary Tree catch on than the Litigious Tree. These first two metaphors have the virtue of forcing us to see the connections between our small, local actions and the planet’s health. They encourage us to preserve what trees we have and also to plant new ones.

But even more important, the lung metaphor puts us in a reciprocal relation with the trees once again. It undercuts Romantic notions of their Otherness, pointing us toward an existential plane we share. If we come to think of the earth as a kind of organism, it will no longer make sense to think of ourselves as being outside Nature, or even to think of trees as being outside Culture. That whole alienating inside-outside metaphor might wither away.

It’s obviously impossible to predict which, if any, of these new metaphors will catch on. A new Thoreau could come along at any moment and remake the tree entirely, along lines we can’t possibly foresee. I do know this, though: If I could have news of my Norway maple one hundred years from now, I would know a great deal about nature’s fate.

One day not long ago, I gave some thought to exactly what sort of news of my tree I would want. It was early in the morning after a night that had brought an unexpected spring snowfall. The sun was so low in the eastern sky and so bright, that the maple cast an uncommonly long and sharp-edged shadow on the fresh page of snow. It raced straight west across the meadow, angled up a small hill, and then shot off deep into the woods, where I lost track of it.

So what did I want from there, up ahead? Certainly a botanist’s report on my tree’s health would be useful. The Norway maple is a cool-weather species, and if it has sickened in the heat of 2090, I will know that the greenhouse effect was real and that we did not avert it. But perhaps even more revealing than the scientist’s account would be to have a letter from that time, one that happened to devote a few sentences of description to my tree, in everyday language. From such a letter I might learn how people in 2090 looked at a tree, and that would pretty much tell me how nature was faring then. If the letter described the tree in terms that were familiar to the old farmer — or to Thoreau, for that matter — there would be cause for worry, for that would mean we’d gotten mired in old metaphors about nature, and had probably failed to extract ourselves from our predicament. But maybe the letter would bring evidence of a new metaphor, something vivid and powerful and true.

At first it might seem strange, even incomprehensible. But eventually its sense would dawn on me. “So that’s what a tree is! How could we ever have thought otherwise?” There might then be reason to hope some new truth had put down roots, that perhaps we had put our relationship to nature on a sounder footing at last.