Tag Archives: forests

We’re only amusing ourselves

is something Gil and I sometimes say when we imagine that an idea we’ve come up with is something probably too esoteric or just ridiculous to interest anyone else. And I have had quite a few of these over the years. Books usually start with this kind of glimmer, and you can expect some ideas to peter out of their own accord, gradually going extinct like the elephant bird.

Occasionally one sticks when thrown against the wall – for example, the notion of writing a biography of the little known I.N. Phelps Stokes, the white-shoe tenement-designer, philanthropist and all-around eccentric who put together the most extensive book about Manhattan ever written, along with his It-girl wife, back in the Gilded Age. A publisher gifted me with an advance to research that effort and it came out under the title Love, Fiercely

Comparably, at least in terms of ideosyncracy, I have undertaken narratives about she-merchants in New Amsterdam (The Women of the House), heroic American Housewives (Made From Scratch), and female jet jocks in the U.S. Navy (Tailspin).  Each book comprised both a commercial undertaking and a labor of love.

Then there was the fictional nineteenth-century girl raised by wolves turned New York City debutante (Savage Girl).

In each case I hoped for a readership but, yes, at bottom, I was essentially amusing myself. At least at the start. Henry James wrote about the beginning of his creative process:  “The ‘germ,’ wherever gathered, has ever been for me, ‘the germ of a story,’ and most of the stories strained to shape under my hand have sprung from a single small seed, a seed as remote and windblown as a casual hint.”

I am currently working on a proposal for a nonfiction book tentatively called Heartwood: The Epic Battle Over America’s Forests.

So far, I have done a lot of research, drunk a lot of coffee, and revamped the basic architecture of the idea several times. I plan to present the story of wilderness in the U.S., not so much biologically, though that will be a part of it, but culturally. From pre-European times through the quest for ship-mast pine through the timber barons of the 19th century, as well as the purist forest champions like wilderness champion John Muir.

Up through the wildfires that threaten the great trees of the Pacific Northwest and the million-tree planting movements we see today. As I see it, Heartwood will not be stuffy science or hackneyed history, but the drama of a struggle that helped define this country, one that absorbs American readers more than ever.

I do think that if I can pull it off it will be a lively book. A story that will amuse me, yes, but others as well.


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Fans of mighty trees

were happy when Susan Orlean’s recent New Yorker article focused on a sylvan topic — The Tallest Known Tree in New York Falls in the Forest. Yet it rose some hackles in arborist circles as well.

Yes, the January 2022 article actually singled out a white pine in that dated all the way back to 1675: good. Trees do not usually receive such focused treatment in The New Yorker (perhaps because there are so few forested areas in the City? But check out John McPhee’s wondrous Pine Barrens coverage, culminating in a classic 1968 book.)

The profiled pine grew to 160 feet tall, and fell only when a neighboring tree crashed down upon it. Again, good coverage of a tree story, and stuff happens, as is said.

But, said my dendrological friends, the article was so silly! It concerned itself with the invention of Mr. Potato Head and the Carole King/Gerry Goffin’s classic The LocoMotion to somehow chart human progress as the tree stretched up and out in its Adirondack environs. And it seemed to make fun of the practice of measuring champion trees, and even the biggest specimens themselves, jibing the living circumstances of some as cushy – “most live pampered lives, getting fat in the luxury of a suburban lawn or a wide-open pasture.”

I somehow don’t think our friends at the Official Registry of Champion Trees would agree that being a champion tree in any place, at any time, was an easy existence. Still, Orlean managed a popular tone that differs refreshingly from some of the tomes released by the environmentalists. But being a champion tree is no laughing matter.

The Official Registry of Champion Trees comes out every year, compiled by the venerable outfit American Forests. It features the very biggest of each tree’s species, as reported to the organization in the most current year. In 2021, 561 trees held the title, but that figure doesn’t quite reflect the ardor of nor miles trekked by citizens vying to get their tree on the list. American Forests has worked for over 140 years to protect and preserve forests. Over 900 Champion Trees have been found and measured to date by tree lovers from all backgrounds: backpackers, arborists, school classes and land owners. American Forests supples documentation of these majestic giants on its website should the public wish to check them out. 

The enterprise was first launched to engage the public in forestry activities. National Champion Trees can be discovered in rural and urban landscapes, scattered throughout forests and fields, along roadways and (yes, Ms. Orlean) in suburban backyards. Discover, measure and nominate the largest trees you can find. The public is welcomed to measure a contendor and compare it to the current National Champion. It’s a point system with no cheating.

Here is the  formula:

x = Tree Trunk Circumference (Inches)
y = Tree Height (Feet)
z = Tree’s Average Crown Spread (Feet)
x + y + (z/4) = Total Points

Think your nominee can match the dimensions of the soaring Cupressus nootkatensis, in Washington State, with a trunk circumference of 454 inches, a height of 124 feet, and a crown spread of fully 28 feet?

How about the Arizona Alder in New Mexico? Its trunk circumference is 199 inches and its height is 128 feet, while its crown spread is 58 feet. The Pumpkin Ash, in Missouri, offers a trunk circumference of 196 inches, a height of 104.5 feet, and a crown spread of  78 feet.

Remember, this isn’t a beauty contest. Measurable size rules in the Champion world. Still, six photographs of each tree are required for for a nomination to be considered fully eligible. You’ve got to think physical beauty would matter to some extent in the judging, even the gnarled and rough-skinned beauty of the elderly.

The National Register of Champion Trees works with state-level Champion Tree Programs and volunteers from the National Cadre of Tree Measuring Experts to confirm the validity of nominations and the credible.

But here’s the thing. If you might be thinking of a road trip to visit these beautiful monsters – I know I was – American Forests remains closemouthed about the location of any tree either nominated or listed, in an effort “to protect the health and wellbeing of large trees.” And that is that. “Written and verbal inquiries requesting the location information of National Champion Trees will be declined.” There is to be no cloning, no seed propagation, and neither age nor historical value matter. Just size. Get the stats in before your favorite blows over in a stiff wind.

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The Palisades

sag under their coat of snow while a  god’s eye floats above.

I’ve been hunkered down, distracted by the weather, researching my book about forests. To the process of book building I raise a toast: “Let be be finale of seem,” as Wallace Stevens put it in his poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream.”

More interesting stuff tomorrow.

In the meantime, if you are reading this and don’t subscribe, please go to my main page at jeanzimmerman.com and enter your email address. Every two or three days I will come winging in to greet you.

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Forests just exist out there somewhere.

Don’t they? They just grow and will go on growing forever.

We all know that animals go extinct.

Think of the thylacine, whose species died out in New Zealand toward the middle of the twentieth century. This incredible dog-like marsupial with the jaw of a crocodile was hunted out of existence, and the last one spent its final days in a cage.

Or the passenger pigeon, in the nineteenth century. They flew in clouds so gigantic that they blocked out the light of the sun. But their numbers were ultimately decimated for food and sport.

Or the elephant bird, a flightless wonder 10 feet tall that disappeared from Madagascar, the island where it made its home, around 1,000 AD. Think mega-ostrich.

When fauna die off, we mourn their loss  — at least I do. And now people are taking steps to ensure the survival of some, like the mountain gorilla, and the leatherback turtle. Only two northern white rhinos remain on earth, and they are kept carefully fenced in a Kenyan nature preserve. A third rhino, a male, died a few years back and so these two females have no way of continuing the line of succession. It’s over. Actually, not if some crazy Italian scientists have their way — they developed 12 embryos of the northern white rhino and we’ll see what happens.

It might come as a surprise to learn that certain trees also stand in danger of extinction. To be precise, as science has been on this point, one in three of the world’s tree species are now at risk of becoming extinct. A consortium of experts called The Global Tree Assessment has done its homework and found that In fact there are twice as many threatened tree species as there are mammals,  birds, amphibeans and reptiles combined.

It is crushing to learn that more than 400 tree species have less than 50 individuals left in the wild. Some are familiar, say the members of the Global Tree Assessment – even magnolias, oaks and maples, surprisingly, are at risk.

 But a lot of these endangered species grow far away, in tropical forests, and it’s more or less out of sight, out of mind. These forested areas have been logged out, cleared for farming, or invaded by various pests and diseases. When the trees go, habitat for birds and animals goes too. It’s devastating.

Forests cover approximately 31%of the world’s land surface and their total economic value has been estimated at around $150 trillion.  They contain around 50% of the world’s terrestrial carbon and help provide 75% of its accessible freshwater. These benefits could be lost if tree species go extinct.

Here are a few examples of trees in trouble. Blink and they may disappear.

Mahogany might be the best known threatened tree. Swietenia macrophylla is one of the most valuable hardwoods, used for furniture and musical instruments, cherished for its beauty. One tree alone can be worth many thousands of dollars. Native to the tropics of the Americas, it was one of the first to be called out as endangered, due to illegal logging.

African Cherry’s bark contains a compound that has proven useful in treating medical disorders such as prostrate problems, malaria and kidney disease. The international trade in the bark of Prunus africana is fully $200 million. Overharvesting has led to its demise.

Highly fragrant Agarwood produces a resin that is used in perfume and incense. Aquilaria malaccensis has a global trade value of $32 billion. The production of the resin is stimulated when it suffers the attack of a dangerous fungus. Overharvesting, again, has led to as many as 20 species being threatened..

Dipterocarps can be found in Southeast Asia – 680 species grow there. Often the most abundant trees in the forest canopy, it produces high quality timber. From the island of Borneo alone come $3.5 billion worth of exports each year, and 182 species face extinction. The tallest known tropical tree, Shorea faguetiana, may ultimately disappear.

Closer to home is the Pacific yew, Taxus brevifolia, the source of the anti-cancer drug Paclitaxel. Logging threatens to wipe the tree out.

What can a person do? Well, don’t take forests for granted. Don’t take trees for granted. If we do that, some may go the way of the thylacine. Also, develop alternatives. Different medicines. Different flooring. A guitar made with a different type of wood. Or learn to play the banjo.

It’s a change of mindset. By the time we start feeling bad about it, it will be too late.

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