Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Life in and Around a Tree

We sometimes think of trees as solitary objects - lone specimens standing in a field of green.  Or we think of them in clusters of a forest, one indistinguishable from another.  But trees, like everything else, are interconnected and linked with all life around them.  I thought about this when looking at the tree in my backyard yesterday.  What life does this tree support along its vertical axis?  And what relationships do these life forms have with each other?  What can we learn from these connections?
The pride of my backyard - our Norway Maple

Our Norway Maple was planted well over 50 years ago, and is large and established, much like most of the trees in my downtown neighborhood.  This type of tree, however, is considered to be an invasive species because it sends off thousands of little "helicopter" seeds, sometimes a couple times in a season, that create tiny little trees everywhere you look.  Its leaves are also so complete as to shade everything below it and its roots are so dense and shallow such that very little else can grow among them. For these reasons, and the fact that it was planted underneath an elevated power line, I'm not sure it was the best selection that the former land owners could have made, but I love it just the same.  

I love that my house was designed on axis with the tree so that as soon as you walk in my front door, you see the tree centered in the back.  I love that it shades the back part of my yard so completely that you can lie in the grass in 90 degree weather and feel cool.  I love that my daughter's playhouse never sees the sun and is always cool for her to play in.  And I love all the critters it attracts to my garden - even the chipmunks which eat every last strawberry I plant.  Well, maybe not the chipmunks.  What other life does my maple support? 

Let's look a little closer.

Sketching the life found around a tree
The soil connects the organisms below ground to those on the ground.This seems painfully obvious, but think about it: soil is the ultimate multi-tasker.  It provides structure so that plants can root themselves and reach up into the air for the energy and nutrients it needs.  It provides nutrients, through plant decomposition thanks to soil microflora and worms, that aren't available in the air.  It holds water so that plants have reserves during times of drought.  It creates air gaps that allow roots to breathe.  It shelters micorrhizal fungi networks to share nutrients.  Over time, the roots of the hostas, ferns, and ground covers I planted have interlinked with the roots of our maple tree: they are now connected and dependent on each other and the structure of the soil allows the tree to reach up into the air.

The air connects the organisms on the ground to those above.  Among the plants, live wasps, bees, gnats, flies, and spiders that fly thought the air looking for their own nutrients.  The wasps and bees are looking for pollen from the flowers.  I wish I knew what drew the gnats, flies, and mosquitos to my yard, but I'm grateful for the spiders that try to catch and eat them.  If only something would eat the Japanese beetles that punch holes in the leaves of some plants.  If only.  The birds live in the trees and eat the flying insects.  Birds also drop their waste on the ground, which feeds nutrients back into the soil, starting the cycle anew.

A tree bridges all three realms: soil, ground, and sky.  The tree is special in this tiny microcosm of an ecosystem - it bridges all three realms.  The tree's roots gain structure and nutrients from the soil, its trunk reaches high above the other plants, and its branches and leaves capture sun and nutrients high above everything else.  Its branches provide shelter for birds and tree squirrels.  Its bark provide structure for tiny lichen to live and get nutrients from the air and water from the bark's surface.  Its seeds provide nutrients for squirrels, birds and chipmunks.  It's leaves return nutrients back to the soil and its inhabitants every fall.  Even the verticillium wilt that will one day kill my beloved tree will only return its nutrients back to the soil to start anew.  This fact is sad for me, but it is also beautiful in the larger scheme of things.  The symmetry is beautiful and balanced.  There is no waste.  And...

Everything is connected. I love thinking about and studying the interconnections of life in hopes that I may one day understand them enough to emulate them into our built systems - be they economic systems, societal systems, or building systems.  

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