Posted by: gdevi | September 26, 2010

A Thousand Forests

Commentary, Lock Haven Express, Oct. 7, 2010

The great poet Walt Whitman saw a live oak growing solitary in Louisiana “without a friend or a lover,” “uttering joyous leaves of dark green,” which reminded him empathetically  of “manly love” –this was early nineteenth century when love between men remained for the most part, a solitary pleasure, a solitary pain.  But the twenty or so old oak trees in our property at this time of the year, when for the most part most other plant species have finished fruiting are being openly generous with their seeds; for the last two weeks, we could not go out for fear of getting pelted with acorns. All the oak trees are raining acorns. There are acorns everywhere, thousands of them, on the roof, in the gutters, on the deck, in the driveway ground to a fine brown paste, crunching under shoes, momentarily unbalancing you as you walk, like tiny marbles.  Their dried cupules, the small  cup-like structure in which the nuts sit, lie scattered all over like tiny empty crowns. Like hail, they hit you on the head, in your face. We hear the solid thwack of the acorns against the wooden deck and the glass windows all times of day and night. I stopped sweeping the deck; what’s the use, inside an hour there’s hundreds more for me to sweep. What’s left is for you to look up at the trees and tell them, okay, go ahead, I give up. When our dogs go out, I see them trying to eat the acorn nuts. Acorn is of course edible; in many ancient cultures people scraped off the hard brown skin of the acorn nut–tannin–ground or powdered the flesh into mash or paste and ate them. But this September, these thousands of acorns are the trees’ gift to the animals that live in their grove; food for winter. Even in years when the acorn season was not as spectacular and plenteous as this year’s, I used to find huge piles of acorns (and pinecones) hidden in empty pots, and tucked away against fence and deck posts. Chipmunks and squirrels hide them and eat them in winter when food is scarce. And what they don’t eat grows into oak saplings.  It must be from an earlier season, but tiny oak saplings burst out of the ground all around our property. This is not Whitman’s solitary tree in the wide wide space, but the thousand forests that Emerson saw in that one acorn.

This year’s acorn harvest is unusually rich even for the Northeast where along with Hemlock and Pine, oak trees form a significant part of our secondary-growth forests. I searched the web for what the experts are saying about this avalanche of acorns this September. According to a professor of forestry at Penn State cited at the accuweather website, the acorn abundance of this season, known as a “mast year” is ultimately a “mystery,” which cannot be satisfactorily explained either by weather patterns or chemical cues from the trees. Scientists at Hastings, a Biological Field Station of the University of California which studies California’s oak woodlands have observed that a hot sunny spring augments oak pollination by wind whereas a wet rainy spring inhibits the dissemination of oak pollen across vast areas. While one oak tree will produce both male and female flowers, oaks do not self-pollinate. An exceptionally dry spring augers a masting in Fall, we could say. Mast years appear two in a row, so it is likely that next year we will be complaining about the dearth of acorns; apparently it rained acorns in Maryland, New Hampshire, and Connecticut last year as well. Two tandem events happen during mast years; one, such heavy abundance of fruits and nuts overwhelm the seed predators and ensure the successful propagation of the trees; in other words, by blanketing the soil with thousands of acorns the trees are ensuring that enough seeds will survive the predators and frost and reproduce into a new set of saplings.  Two, masting also increases the population of the seed predators. So for instance, not only jays, woodpeckers, deer, bear, squirrel and chipmunks who eat the plentiful seeds will reproduce more but also less desirable denizens of our backyard forests such as rats, mice, gophers, weasels, and many species of insects. Masting of the giant bamboo in the Indian subcontinent once every forty nine or fifty years, for instance, results in what is locally known as “rat flood.” Rats who feed on this bamboo flower multiply exponentially during mast years and they attack all food sources, systematically eating their way through paddy and vegetable crops.

It must be the August drought and the September rain, but some oaks in our neighborhood have started to turn fall color already. Mid-October is the projected season to see Mother Nature’s fall foliage this year and the oaks will play their spectacular part as always. I have always admired Whitman’s nominalization of the oak tree as a man though it makes perfect sense mythologically to do so. The oak tree is a masculine tree. The folk figure of the Green Man in English mythology is associated with open oak woodlands; the greenery sprouting from the mouth of the Green Man is distinctly that of the oak.  Remember the numinous grove that beckons Albert Finney in that spooky movie The Green Man? The English motif of the Green Man himself is believed to be independently related to the Sumerian fertility god Tammuz whose death and rebirth in July-August constitute one of the most ancient fertility rites. The Sufi mystics of Islam call Moses’s mentor Al-Khidr, or the Green Man, one who has received direct illumination from God without human intervention. The archetypal tree–oak is one such tree–shelter, protect and nurture. The archetypal tree is deep-rooted, dense. colorful, with a wide crown and tall canopy. Trees stand for stability, centeredness, deep-rootedness, giving–traditional values, we might say. What would Whitman have made of that popular song where the prisoner returning home asks his beloved to tie a yellow ribbon on the old oak tree if she still loved him? What would Whitman have made of the hundred yellow ribbons on the old oak tree? This profusion of acorns seems nature’s article of faith. One yellow ribbon for the solitary prisoner; one acorn for a thousand forests.


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