Only Natural

Nature, science, language, values, feral beliefs...

Perhaps the best advice is really to spend some quality time among the trees, enjoying the presence of an old forest nearby. No, old forests aren't so common anymore, but even a remnant stand of old forest, or an individual tree, observed closely, can be both calming and revealing. But, what roles do trees, young and old, play in our crowded, frantic civilizations? Responses to questions like this tend to be utilitarian. That is, thoughts turn to tangible benefits "provided" to us - humans. So we plant some trees, they grow, and then they can "give" us shade, oxygen, pleasant landscaping visuals, lower ground temperatures, and so on. That's one way to think about it. How did we learn to think this way?

Trees are quite beautiful. Perhaps because there are so many of them it is harder for us to appreciate this. There have to be many, many trees in order for there to be climatic and other conditions necessary for forests to exist. Not only are there zillions of trees, but many of them seem "untidy", "misshapen" or "stunted"...maybe even "decadent". Might we wonder about where and how we learned our standards of beauty?

Now that industrialised humanity is the main factor modifying nature, it seems responsible to think more carefully about how we conceptualise nature.

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Photo of a giant sequoia
                                          planted in the 1960s in
                                          Centennial Square in Victoria
Why did they plant this here?

 July 15, 2024

  The Bigger They Are

In Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia, there is a Centennial Square, and in the square there is currently a giant sequoia tree, approximately six decades old, shown in the photo above. It is not quite a street tree - set back from a very busy street by 20 metres or so - but apparently it was planted in fill that was dumped on top of the still-buried asphalt of a former street that was replaced by the square. According to multiple reports in local media, planning has been in the works for five or more years to redesign the Centennial Square, and make it more attractive to crowds of people in various ways. This giant sequoia sapling will have to go.
Considering the location and underground obstacles, it seems remarkable that this isolated tree has survived as well as it has, but it is not surprising that it is no longer seen as...fashionable? While this giant sequoia might have seemed an impressive addition to that public space in the 1960s, it is now seen as an aesthetic and functional liability. The latest plans do include the planting of multiple trees of "appropriate scale" in the redesigned square to help mitigate the heat island effect. Media reports about the removal of the giant sequoia also note that the new design for the square will attempt to provide more "whimsy". Actually, it is hard to imagine something more whimsical than planting a giant sequoia that would naturally live for several thousand years in the middle of a city, but maybe that sort of whimsy would take too long to become apparent to passersby.

City trees get cut down all the time, of course, when they "get in the way". Sometimes, as in the context of Centennial Square, it seems reasonable to remove them despite arguable aesthetic judgments. (Many trees are also cut down to widen highways, which is necessary to make room for more lanes to fill up with traffic.) Trees, like many other things, and many other aspects of nature, can outlive their perceived attractiveness as human technologies develop and proliferate, and then lead to new expectations. One tree more or less might not seem very important in this conflicted world, but the case of the awkward giant sequoia in Centennial Square offers some hints regarding humans' relationships with nature.

Photo of a city street at
                                          night with cars going both
Where are they all now?

 July 8, 2024


We've just passed a couple of national holidays in North America - celebrations of rather superficial social self-appreciation that have become ritualistic in their repetitive, tentative self-confidence. It's not much of a time for serious self-reflection. Fireworks are far more attractive - mesmerising, actually - than any glance at why the educational system does a poor job of preparing students to understand and appreciate nature, for one example. This is an (obvious) observation, not a complaint. Any remediation would require far more comprehensive analysis than could be contained in any complaint. Of course, those who think they benefit from poorly informed populations are content with such limited systems - at least until the fireworks set off a major destructive conflagration in hot and windy conditions.

The commodification of nature seems to have had a long and traumatic history. To a large extent what we generally call nature has been subjected to the same sorts of commodification that, for example, housing and labour have undergone more recently. No surprise there, nor should there be any at the result. When a population goes from thinking of the place one lives as their home to thinking of it as just an investment that they will temporarily occupy, there are consequences - some of which are quite negative. When a society views the physical results (water, trees, etc.) of natural processes as just so much depreciating financial opportunity that could temporarily be converted into "profit", some of the consequences are far more pervasively negative. We could just blame it all on "the dollar", but I don't remember any analysis of the unintended effects of commodification in the secondary school curriculum. (Instead, people are told that they should aspire to be "Number One!".)

Throughout human history, entire forests have been cut, thousands of watersheds have been altered, and many species decimated, while the cumulative effects of all the interventions have been consistently underestimated when they weren't unrecognised. This mindset has delivered us into the reality of our devastating climate crisis. It's not possible to respect natural processes that you don't know exist. It's also not possible when you don't understand what you do know exists.

Photo of a city street
                                          tree with ragged leaves eaten
                                          by insect larvae
Street trees provide much more than shade for humans.

 July 1, 2024

  Ragged Edges in Nature

People generally pay little attention to street trees unless it is a hot sunny day and they are walking under them, or the trees are in bloom - or maybe during a big wind storm. Sometimes some people complain that street trees are "untidy", particularly when the leaves are falling in the autumn. There is a person I know of who goes out several times a day for weeks in the fall and sweeps and rakes up every leaf littering the sidewalk and boulevard in front of their house. Trying to keep trees tidy sure takes a lot of time. Some people want to try to keep entire forests tidy. Maybe they did that in the UK, where they don't have forests now.

Street trees can be even more untidy than people realise. The leaves can be left full of holes and ragged by foraging insect larvae. How unsightly, if you happen to look up. Natural processes just don't seem to respect human standards of tidiness - they haven't been trained to value hyper-simplification. The birds and other creatures that forage on the insect larvae are also necessarily oblivious to tidiness. And then, most people are oblivious to the natural processes - involving everything from birds to bacteria - taking place in the trees along their streets. Naturally.

Wherever people go, near or far, they inevitably encounter elements of what is broadly called "nature". Weeds poking up through cracks in pavement might be considered somehow "natural", despite the extremely unnatural setting. Beyond the urbanised areas, the proportion of "naturalness" in the surroundings increases, but often goes largely unnoticed. It's reduced to a kind of a background of amorphous greenery, punctuated occasionally by a "wildlife" sighting. Maybe a squirrel, or a rabbit, or a deer. I don't think it is quite the case that people take all the greenery "for granted", but rather that it doesn't really mean much to them. It's just "there". Most people never get to learn enough about natural processes to recognise and appreciate them.

Photo of shade on city
                                          streets provided by street
Someone had a good idea a long time ago.

 June 24, 2024

  The Nature of the Urban Mind

We have big trees and small ones, short ones and tall ones...what more could we want?  For extremists, we have giant sequoias and tiny dwarf willows (Salix herbacea). We also have a few blue whales and tons of Tardigrades for any animal lovers impressed by size. Everyone is impressed by something. 

Urban street trees can't be really big or really small if they are to be useful. Mature broad leaved street trees make a huge difference to the livability of a city. It doesn't work very well to try to plant them on the spur of the moment when you notice you need some shade - it takes decades worth of foresight to ensure the trees are in position when they are needed. Maintaining the continuous beneficial effects of that leafy cover also takes considerable planning and adjustment to address the ever-changing conflicting goals of urban renovation and expansion. Urbanised areas are constantly changing and, like the rest of the world, are not what they once were. For many city dwellers, street trees can be the closest they normally come to "nature", but changes to buildings and infrastructure take precedence over trees.

Street trees provide an obvious moderation of daytime high temperatures as well as aesthetic values for anyone who takes the time to notice. (If the trees have blossoms in the spring, that can be even more pleasing.) The cooling effect of urban street trees is instructive. Similarly, a natural forest floor can be significantly cooler and moister than adjacent non-treed areas. The aerosols emitted from mature forest canopies can influence the amount of precipitation that is available for a wide area beyond. The biodiversity and general health of many natural ecosystems depends on the effects of extensive mature forests that may actually be far away.

Pursuing trophy trees - tall or tiny - is actually missing the point, or a lot of points. The geographic extent and mix of species matters; size alone is irrelevant. A city with a well-chosen and well-maintained mix of street tree species will benefit greatly from their presence, even as they can only hint at the importance of natural forests in undisturbed nature. (There might be an unintended metaphor lurking in there somewhere, but if you spot one, just ignore it. Metaphors are untrustworthy.)

Photo of bonsai Ginkgo
Not getting out in these woods...

 June 17, 2024

  Is the Forest Still Everywhere?

The photo above shows a bonsai plantation of Ginkgo trees (Ginkgo biloba). We don't have to worry about "not seeing the forest" for these trees...or do we? Ginkgo species have lived for hundreds of millions of years, and were widespread in what is now North America until a few million years ago, when they disappeared. During the last few centuries, populations of surviving Ginkgos were planted throughout southeast Asia, and seeds and seedlings eventually exported to the rest of the world. The trees can live thousands of years, are extremely resilient, and can grow to more than 40m in height - and apparently can be pruned and kept to less than 40cm, judging by the photo.

I started thinking and writing about the giant sequoias in Victoria, B.C. more than a year ago because their presence in that urban setting seemed to suggest some interesting questions about human relationships with nature. There are also Ginkgo trees in Victoria - planted as street trees and in parks, providing welcome shade and bright yellow fall foliage. They are very interesting trees, and aesthetically pleasing to look at - for those who haven't already decided that they are "bad" because their fruit can sometimes be foul smelling. The trees' resilience apparently allows them to survive the stressful environment provided by extensive surrounding pavement, but they are far from unique in their ability to survive the stresses of bonsai confinement. A large number of tree species that naturally grow to great heights have been displayed as miniature bonsai specimens in many gardens - maybe in one there is even the oldest smallest giant sequoia in the world.

There seems to be an almost endless number of ways for humans to "use" aspects of nature, but far fewer ways to appreciate its complexity. Appreciating the welcome shade of street-planted Ginkgo trees on a hot, sunny day and knowing something about their complex origins might be a mix of both. The bonsai Ginkgos would obviously not be useful for shade, but might precipitate additional contemplation.

Photo of Old growth
                                          Redcedar trees
The forest is there somewhere
  June 10, 2024

  Sometimes It's Hard to See

"We can't see the forest for the trees" is a well-known metaphor, most often applied to non-forested locations and circumstances. As I have noted, we also have trouble seeing the trees for their size and age - and of course their market value. And if we get past that, we have to consider that most of the non-metaphorical tree is invisible to us. We can't really "see" a tree, let alone a forest, because so much of it is underground or microscopic. Of course, with the aid of all the studies that have been done, we are better able to "visualise" a tree. We can imagine some of the parts we cannot see directly. To a much lesser extent, we might be able to do some of that with forests too. To what extent can we "see" nature?

Okay, perhaps the word "see" is a bit fuzzy in this context: often it implies some degree of understanding whichever object it is focused on. Everyone assumes they know what a tree is when they look at one, even if they only "understand" it a little - or don't even know what species it is. What they may be "seeing" are leaves, branches, trunk, bark, and maybe height and girth. That might be enough for a painting or a photograph - a static image - but it is not actually a tree. I'm not suggesting that you need to know everything possible about trees in order to see them, but that the more you have learned, the more you will be able to "see".

Of course, those who want to see less can easily do so, aided by a surfeit of distractions and social incentives. But I think increased knowledge and understanding of natural processes can lead to a sense of perspective that results in unique pleasures, partly because it counteracts the on-going stresses of human preoccupations. Nature isn't hiding. It's out in the open. We just have to learn how to see it.

Photo of a ground
                                          squirrel in the Rocky
                                          Mountains eating an almond
  June 3, 2024

  Trickle-Down Energy Transfer

Above is a photo of a ground squirrel, just below timberline in the Canadian Rockies, eating an almond someone has thoughtfully provided. It is a long way from the nearest almond tree grove, but the squirrel seems to know how to handle the nut. In fact, since it is along a popular, scenic, hiking route, this squirrel has probably handled plenty of nuts and other high-energy snack food commonly carried by hikers. The fact that this squirrel sat right by the side of the trail completely un-bothered by passing hikers as it munched on the nut, suggests that it was very familiar with humans and their odd handouts. While this might be wilderness in winter, during the height of summer tourist season it becomes something else.

I could say that the setting was natural, if not wilderness, but that the squirrel feeding was unnatural, and just leave it at that. But it seems remarkable that some individuals of various species have developed novel feeding behaviours that depend on the transient activities of human visitors. In addition to the squirrels, some ravens patrol parking lots in search of insects recently squashed on automobile front bumpers. Canada Jays hang out at picnic areas and campgrounds looking for discarded leftovers or handouts. And bears...well bears are actively discouraged from sharing our snacks, but often know where and how to look for them.

The vast majority of each of these types of creatures in the Rocky Mountains still never (or very rarely) encounter humans and their foods, so they pursue their traditional foraging methods in traditional ways. It seems that whenever humans introduce a potential energy source (a food) to a location, there are likely soon to be some other organisms attracted to it. You can fence a garden or orchard to keep deer, and rabbits and raccoons out, but not birds and voles, and certainly not insects. None of those creatures know what a garden is, just as a squirrel could not know where almonds come from - such things are unnatural. And yet it seems quite natural for creatures to adapt to such unnatural, transient feeding opportunities. Or is there another way to think about it?

While other creatures can sometimes seem surprisingly adaptable, there are also serious limitations to those abilities. It is important to remember that impressive small scale accommodation to some changes can easily be overwhelmed by more disruptive, major change.

Please leave any thoughts you would like to share in the comments below. Comments that do not add to the discussion will not appear.

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