Sunday, October 19, 2014

Stag Heads

Weather: Four mornings this week the thermometer on my front porch showed temperatures below 32 degrees; it was warmer in the village near the river; some rain yesterday.

What’s blooming in the area: Silver lace vine, sweet pea, chrysanthemums. Leaves on catalpas, grapes, and Maximilian sunflower turning yellow.

Beyond the walls and fences: Goat’s head, chamisa, broom senecio, áñil del muerto, golden hairy and purple asters.

In my yard: Winecup mallow, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, chocolate flower, blanket flower. Leaves on sand cherry and leadwort turning burgundy; rose of Sharon, ladybell, peony and coneflowers leaves going yellow.

Animal sightings: Goldfinches mining the Maximilian sunflower heads, cabbage butterflies, large and small black ants.

Weekly update: Trees of life appear in the Quran and in Revelations, on Indian textiles and Egyptian papyrus. The symbolic representations may have been diffused through trade and other exchanges, but the underlying recognition of trees as a life form different from that of humans was passed from generation to generation by people dependent on plants.

Oliver Rackham thinks that first-hand knowledge began to fade when the enlightenment redefined trees as having life spans like people. Scientists assumed a single set of laws governed creation. They generalized from what was understood. Men began to think of young trees, mature ones, ones with dead limbs that were old and needed to be felled before they died and did damage.

To Rackham, a tree is an self-perpetuating organism composed of roots and leaves connected by the cambium that transfers nutrients between the two through the xylem and the phloem.

In its early years a sapling produces branches to support a canopy at whatever speed the climate and soil allow. Unlike children of poverty, the worse the conditions, the longer a tree’s youth.

When it reaches its optimal height, a tree becomes mature. Every year it abandons the previous year’s wood and begins a new ring. As the girths of the trunk and branches increase, they create greater and greater demands on the chlorophyll factories in the leaf cells. The circumference of cells around the dead wood increase, but the range of the canopy and roots do not.

Eventually, the demands become unsupportable. Roots abandon branches. Bark and sapwood decay, fungi move in. Animals nest in hollows. The tree retrenches. From the roots it creates a new canopy of a size that meets it needs without undue stress. It continues until conditions arise again that make retrenchment necessary.

Trees don’t die. They reinvent themselves every year.

He notes the persistence of bare stag heads above canopies is not universal. Even in England their existence varies by region, not ownership or land use. They rarely are found in old woods. Instead, they live in parks and hedges where they are kept for their beauty or shade.

He also admitted they don’t occur every year, which would be the case if his perpetual motion vision were valid. He thought many stag heads he saw in England were survivors of the droughts of 1911 and 1921. He also thought there were more after the hot, dry summers of the 1990s.

It may not be height that’s the limiting factor, but roots. They can only go so deep before the soil conditions change. Once they reach that layer, they can no longer support the canopy’s natural inclination to expand. Height is the visual signifier for depth.

Tops are damaged by frost, ice, wind, and insects. When that happens, roots send messages and resources to repair the canopy. New leaves and twigs appear from dormant buds.

Roots have problems with drought. When less water comes up, fewer leaves can survive. When leaves can’t be restored, trees wall off unproductive branches.

The retrenchment pattern is the same in all woody plants, but some species perpetuate themselves better than others. Rackham believes the best in England are oaks, sweet chestnuts, ashes, and limes. But, maybe that is not a species imperative, but man’s. Trees categorized as junk are more likely to be cleared.

In this part of New Mexico, stag heads appear in cottonwoods and tamarix, Russian olives and Siberian elms. They don’t endure. Men raised to be good farmers clear dead wood. Good shepherds of the land believe they are helping when they remove exotic species.

People still burn wood to keep warm. Wherever wood is used for fuel, dead branches are harvested. They’re already dry and combustible. Rackham’s parks were the preserves of wealthy men who didn’t worry about trifles like heat.

When coal replaced wood, trees no longer were seen as a resource. Stag heads could survive because there was no incentive for removing them. It was only when congested areas developed where trees had grown that people feared the consequences of storms that broke branches and ripped trees from the ground. An urge to what Rackham calls tidiness took command.

Behind the survival of stag heads, Rackham noted a certain aesthetic preference for the "beauty and mystery of ancient trees," which he dated to the Shakespearean age. It may lie still deeper in the remnants of beliefs held by the Celts with their Druids, by the Norse conquerors with Yggdrasil, the world tree, or even by the followers of the German Georges.

Against those with an awareness of different modes of existence, there always has been the contempt of the simplifiers. Romans destroyed oak forests to suppress rebellion. Bureaucrats, be they insurance agents or utility company maintenance crews chiefs, have no patience with differences that demand understanding. They set rules for how may feet must be cleared, and don’t worry about species.

Trees are cultural constructs, even in the wild. But, within the boundaries of human perception, they live a life apart, a life recorded in the ancient symbols of immortality.

Rackham, Oliver. The History of the Countryside (1986).

_____. Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape (1976, 1990 revised edition).

_____. Woodlands (2006).

1. Stag heads growing in row of volunteers along a ditch in the village. The ditch, which goes along the edge of city-owned land, is the local equivalent to an English hedgerow. Siberian elms grow between the cottonwoods at lower heights; trees of heaven have been sprouting below.

2. Egyptian tree of life, water color on papyrus, produced for tourist trade in the 1980s. The birds represent the stages of life. From the bottom right corner, going counterclockwise, they are infancy, childhood, and youth. The bird with the spreading wings is an adult. The one facing the other direction is old age. Death is always to the west.

3. Tamarix on edge of flood plain near village arroyo, 14 September 2014. Yellow flowers are áñil del muerto.

4. Pennsylvania Dutch tree of life, water color on paper. My mother did this around 1953. I don’t know if she used a stencil or copied a magazine picture. The Germans also used tulips as symbols of immortality. The reds may be stylized tulips above green hearts.

5. Russian olive near river north of town, 16 October 2014. Yellow leaves are cottonwoods near the Río Grande.

6. Wood pile on main road, 16 October 2014. A small tree or large limb has been hewn, and wood of many diameters cut to length. It might have been a stag head, a small tree that died, or one that sprouted in the wrong place.

7. Neighbor’s woodpile, 16 October 2014. Large pieces of wood have been split into uniform thicknesses and cut to similar lengths.

8. Siberian elm near tamarix above by village arroyo, 14 September 2014.

9. Realistic tree, oil on canvas, by Ruth Penzotti Henderson, late 1950s. Her grandparents were German and Italian immigrants, the last through south America.

1 comment:

Vicki said...

That is an informative and lovely post for my morning read. With the help of the lovely wood, keep warm this winter.