At Home in Nature

  (Agate, Colorado)
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A conversation with a Tree

I was walking today and met a new tree.  I think this tree was struck by lightning, but I was not there to see it.  It had been charred on one side, and exploded; the fire from the electrical burst must have been put out quickly.  This former cottonwood is now excellent mulch for young plants, shelter for animals and kindling par-excellence. 

In springtime I like to wander about and catch up with the nature news – admittedly, winter is a slow time of year on the nature beat.  When exploring a new area, I like to first take in the general atmosphere of the place.  I’m usually struck by the newcomers and louder members of the land first, but I try to spend some time as soon as I can with the long-time residents to learn how it came to be this way.  Trees – and the creatures that love and live with them – are the best bet to understanding the place.

Looking at a dead or dying tree puts your finger pulse on the land.  Reading the rings, you know the trials the land has faced these last many years, the times of plenty and the times of drought and famine by seeing the thickness and thinness of the rings.  You know the cycle of disease and fire by looking at the age of the trees, the periods of rot, the kinds of damage to the ancient bark.  You hear stories about old friends that have passed on (sometimes a tree grows up with a friend who shades it on one side), and love stories (sometimes two trees grow together).  Sometimes they will even tell you about your people, the humans who have come and gone under its shady branches long ago, leaving evidences of scars, or sometimes even arrowheads.

I chatter with the residents of the land and find out how they are doing.  Fat and happy?  Thin and hopeful?  Fearful?  Curious?  Today I saw fat bold birds and lusty rodentia (ground and aborial), and even a few early insects and spiders anxious to get the summer going.  All was well in the forest, and the old trees and dead trees were fueling not fires today, but the daily lives of countless critters.

Dead trees are essential to ecosystems, and are necessary habitat for so many creatures.  Most creatures do not like to live in living trees.  The wood is too hard, the tree puts out toxins to ward off the invader.  Doctor Woodpecker, who makes his living healing the sick trees of his forest, is no exception, but takes up residence in the trees he has failed so he might better serve those that are suffering.  I saw no woodpeckers today, but it is early in the year.

Throughout Elbert County, there are places where the trees have been removed through deforestation.  Long ago, the black forest stretched beyond the Palmer Divide into the Bijou valley.  Requiring lumber, the folks who settled Denver (my worthy ancestors among them) called for wood.  Wood was needed, they were building a Town!  Homes, businesses, churches, pencils, desks, flagpoles… everything was made of wood.  And, when the railroads brought the Black Forest about Agate into Denver, the stumps that were left behind were made into barrels for storing the numerous agricultural goods that were made on the fertile lands: stripped of trees, the lands were clothed in crops, and fruits, vegetables and grains fed the hungry miners, ranchers and cattle. 

Through one disaster and another, Denver one day burned and the hard-won lumber, even all the barrels, were taken by the fearsome fire.  When the miners suffered from the collapse of the metal markets, all of Colorado mourned the passing of the silver serpent and, with less mouths and poorer mouths to feed, the lands clothed in plenty passed to the ranchers, who in turn passed the land to the banks, who in turn passed the land to housing developers or left the land barren and sad.  The current denizens of the land, either ignorant of the history, or stubborn in their ways, keep the land from naturally reforesting.

In the Mountains of Colorado, the forests had nearly entirely been exhausted in the last two centuries, but reforestation efforts have brought new, green life to the hills.  And now there are reforestation efforts out on the plains too!  Colorado, named for the blood red rivers burning with the hemorrhages of erosion, is again an increasingly green State, but it may be hundreds of years before the ancient glory of the hills and mountains and plains are restored as trees are seeded, grow old, die and help the animals return, who in turn help the trees seed, and clothe the earth again in woods too thick to drive a wagon through.

Our people will come and go, and the trees will remember not only our mistakes but our hard-earned wisdom.  Trees are a forgiving people.
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