The Testimony of Trees, and other Notes from the Field

Walking across the grounds of the Arnold Arboretum, equipped with nametag and field equipment, I was approached by an older woman one morning. She asked me, “How are the trees feeling today?” I wanted to correct her – that I was not a groundskeeper, but a researcher. But as I clipped, pruned, measured, weighed, read temperatures, I realized I did feel as if I were taking the earth’s pulse. It laid strewn out before me and said it did not feel well. But it looked fresher at 4.5 billion years than I did at 20, and the constant tugging at my sleeves and pant legs, the outrunning me, the answering of every reason with another Why? reminded me of the half-immortality of childhood. Still, it felt a bit feverish.

In the spring, everything with wings was dead or hidden. The mid-March snow shocked everything that had begun to bud. Several samples were lost, along with several hours of feeling in my improperly insulated toes. Smaller trees that had just begun to make their existence known, to house birds and insects and wonders of passersby, went gray as if choked. Larger trees that had seen generations of walkers, been relieved upon by centuries of dogs, housed springs upon springs of quivering chirruping throats, were cracked, parched and frozen, as if some soul had escaped them. My mentor removed the marking tape from the casualties, diligently and with a tinge of sorrow. In a few months, the remaining woods would heave themselves up again, exuberant and defiant.

The summer of 2015 was, in one sensation, an extended prickle of the skin – sunlight crawling underneath layers of clothing, intimate brushes with ivy, encounters with many more legs than I could count. Ecology is a very itchy undertaking. It is impossible to study trees without becoming well-acquainted with their friends, enemies, and various housemates.

Checking the temperature gauge one afternoon, I was met with the exquisitely grotesque coils of several millipedes that had made a home in the makeshift PVC pipe gauge-cover. I, rather unmercifully, tossed the gauge across the forest floor as they began to drip from the pipe. What had been the temperature data atop that hill these past few months? I would have to wait, being quite unnerved by the tenants. The woods did not seem to care for me examining them much at all. One morning a horsefly followed me, attempting to make a meal of my neck, for about two miles. Every time I stopped at a gauge, he reminded me of my un-belonging with a sharp nip at the base of the hairline. The screws that held the case of the sensor together were so small they were difficult enough to maneuver even with full attention – being thrown across the forest floor at the request of my pursuer, they required nothing less than divine patience.

Since the first two assailants were unsuccessful at preventing my return, one evening I was sent a plague of blood locusts – common name: mosquitoes. Reaching several feet above my head into Carya glabra (stage name: pignut hickory) with a set of pole pruners, I began to feel something comparable to the thousand-fold prickle of sweat and worry combined. Anxiously pecking at my face, hands, neck, they demanded I leave at once. Up close, they were but frustrated specks of dust with wings. Stepping back, I saw I was actually in a peppery cloud. With branch, clipboard, pruners, and cooler somehow piled onto my person I made for the golf cart at the bottom of the hill. At the cart, I looked up and saw the cloud spinning itself like a thin veil about Carya. She seemed unfazed.

Did I love my woods and all of its wailing, whirring ambassadors? I must have. I watched it live without me and beyond me like an aging child, day and month and year. But I also felt it hold me, larger than me, wiser than me like an ancient parent. And who was I, who never called after all these years? At the top of Bussey Hill, I stepped out of my golf cart, held my pruners like a staff. In the distance, the Boston skyline was but an anthill, small and gray and crawling with tiny life. Between us, vast tides of green. And centuries. And silence.

“the testimony of trees” is a phrase John Muir uses in My First Summer in the Sierra (1911).
This article appeared in the print edition of Ecdysis for the Spring 2017 issue.

3 months ago

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