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Teaching the Trees

Teaching the Trees

Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    Teaching the Trees
    Book Description:

    In this collection of natural-history essays, biologist Joan Maloof embarks on a series of lively, fact-filled expeditions into forests of the eastern United States. Through Maloof's engaging, conversational style, each essay offers a lesson in stewardship as it explores the interwoven connections between a tree species and the animals and insects whose lives depend on it--and who, in turn, work to ensure the tree's survival. Never really at home in a laboratory, Maloof took to the woods early in her career. Her enthusiasm for firsthand observation in the wild spills over into her writing, whether the subject is the composition of forest air, the eagle's preference for nesting in loblolly pines, the growth rings of the bald cypress, or the gray squirrel's fondness for weevil-infested acorns. With a storyteller's instinct for intriguing particulars, Maloof expands our notions about what a tree "is" through her many asides--about the six species of leafhoppers who eat only sycamore leaves or the midges who live inside holly berries and somehow prevent them from turning red. As a scientist, Maloof accepts that trees have a spiritual dimension that cannot be quantified. As an unrepentant tree hugger, she finds support in the scientific case for biodiversity. As an activist, she can't help but wonder how much time is left for our forests.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3598-8
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Botany & Plant Sciences, Environmental Science
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations (pp. xi-xii)
  4. PREFACE (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATIONS (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Old-Growth Air (pp. 1-6)

    For years I have been explaining to the students in my classes that Maryland’s Eastern Shore has no old-growth forests left, whatsoever; that this land the early explorers called Arcadia because of its numerous stately trees has been completely altered, and not a single original forest remains. Depending on my mood the day we discuss it, I relate this fact either with anger or with sadness. Last semester, however, I heard rumors that a twenty-acre remnant of old-growth forest remained. Twenty acres can barely be called a forest, but still I was anxious to see this unique scrap. So one...

  7. Tulip Poplar (pp. 7-12)

    My first experience with tulip poplar trees (Liriodendron tulipifera) made a lasting impression on me, but I had no idea then that it was the beginning of a long relationship. Back in the days when fourth-graders could hang out without parental supervision, my best buddy and I were practicing to be circus performers, specifically tightrope walkers. Our tightrope was a metal cable hung between wooden posts. The cable was not there to foster juvenile circus fantasies; it had been installed by the highway department to keep cars from spilling down the steep, wooded hillside. While awaiting my turn on the...

  8. Tree Hugger (pp. 13-17)

    My students are not used to hearing someone speak with such tenderness, with such fiercely protective words, about the nonhuman things of this world. It makes them a bit uncomfortable; they wiggle in their seats. I know that each of them really longs to find something to care about deeply. But they are still wondering, waiting for the thing that will claim them, like this living world has so obviously claimed me, their teacher. I cannot teach them their place, define their passion. I can only assure them that they do have one.

    In some aboriginal cultures the entire community...

  9. Sycamore (pp. 18-24)

    I have been intimate with sycamore trees: my nose an inch from the bark, my arms wrapped around the trunk, my skinny schoolgirl legs stretching for the next branch. I am a climber of sycamore trees (Platanus occidentalis). The trees and I grew up together in the same suburban neighborhood. Standing atop a chain-link fence surrounding one of the half-acre lots was a good way to reach the first branch. After that it was all flexibility and daring until I dared to go no further and found a spot to rest . . . and look down.

    As I get...

  10. Beech (pp. 25-37)

    I have fallen in love with beech trees (Fagus grandifolia). I was always fond of them, but over the years my affection has ripened into something deeper—something I’m not afraid to use the “L word” to describe.

    The light inside a beech forest changes with each season, but always there is a radiance that makes your heart beat faster. The leaves are more translucent than the leaves of other types of trees, so more light passes through them; and the light takes on the hue of the leaves: pale green in the spring, lime green in the summer, and...

  11. Pine (pp. 38-47)

    The long-needled loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) is responsible for the texture of the landscape around me. I live on a forested peninsula, and it is forested because loblolly pine trees sell for good money. So we grow pines here—but not for too long. We don’t let them grow long enough to mature and slow in their growth; before that happens we cut them down and start over again, with new pines. Tree species other than pines are cut down to make room to plant more pines. That is a gross generalization, of course; but this is most likely what...

  12. Grandfather Trees (pp. 48-53)

    Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in cutting and using trees for wood. I am writing this on a wooden desk in a woodframe house. I think wood is a wonderful renewable resource that we should utilize. My complaint is that our culture sees every tree as a source of wood. I think some trees should just be trees. I think some trees should be allowed to do whatever they want and should be able to die of old age right where they are standing. Whatever the fates hold in store is what we should allow for those trees...

  13. Oak (pp. 54-61)

    Have you ever made a pact with another person to look after and protect that person as long as you are alive and able? If you are married you certainly have. How about with a pet? Have you ever vowed, silently or not, that as long as you are alive and able you will make sure that animal is treated properly? Well, I have made such a pact with a plant—a tree. An oak tree, to be exact, that lives in my backyard. Perhaps eliciting human affection is a survival mechanism for oaks. The oak must be a tree...

  14. Maple (pp. 62-66)

    Helicopters, keys, whirly-gigs; whatever you call them, the seeds that rain down from maple trees are magical. As children my siblings and I would divide the two-parted seeds down the middle, then split them open and remove the tender bright green morsel within. The remaining sticky surface made a glue perfect for adhering the seed cover to our noses, turning us into miniature Pinocchios. It seems to be a lost art among today’s children, who also don’t know how to test for butter appreciation with a buttercup flower.

    You don’t have to stick the maple seeds on your nose to...

  15. Black Locust (pp. 67-76)

    I am drunk . . . drunk with the smell of locust blossoms. The long, dull winter is finally over, the grass is finally green, and the irises and black locust trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) are blooming. I want to do nothing but feast my eyes on the colorful irises and breathe in the sweet smell of the locust flowers all day long. The bumblebees gathering nectar from the blossoms cannot stay away either. Of course, their efforts ensure food for the young bees that are developing in underground nests, while my lack of effort ensures that my “to-do” list will...

  16. Redcedar (pp. 77-84)

    Summer solstice: longest day of the year, first day of summer. We were going over to visit our friends on the other side of the river where there would be live music and lots of beer. That day was the quintessential beautiful day, with blue skies, puffy white clouds, and a warm breeze (I call a day like this a Colorado day, in complete unfairness to the few times that Maryland gets it right). It was a stark contrast to the day before, when the “bottom dropped out” and the sky deluged us with water. The rain meant that our...

  17. Holly (pp. 85-95)

    You should know by now that I am obsessed with owning some property with big, old trees on it. It seems like that should be an easy enough thing to accomplish, but there are some obstacles in my way. For one thing I’m very impatient with realtors. They always have the wrong shoes on, and I haven’t met one yet who is anxious to tromp through the woods with me. Then there’s the fact that most of the wooded land here has been cut and cut again—and big trees are becoming increasingly difficult to find.

    Last month, on the...

  18. Bald Cypress (pp. 96-104)

    It was a hot, muggy July day and I was standing in the black muck of a swamp looking up at the top of a bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum) four times my height. I saw green, round cones in the top of the tree—the seeds of future generations. I looked down and saw wooden bumps poking up from the muck—the characteristic knees of the bald cypress. I was thrilled—I planted this tree fourteen years ago! Standing in that hot swamp I was happier than I could ever be in the cool, luxurious stateroom of a cruise...

  19. Sweet Gum (pp. 105-111)

    As I took a solo walk through the forest, I practiced identifying the trees around me without looking up. I came upon one section of the trail that was covered with spiny “monkey balls”; that’s what we called them when I was a young girl running around in bare feet trying to avoid the prickly things. If you live in the Southeast, you know what I’m talking about: the round, inch-and-a-half-wide, spiny, brown seed balls of the sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua). I know people who have cut down the sweet gum trees in their yard because they didn’t want...

  20. September 11th Memorial Forest (pp. 112-120)

    I live in a big white farmhouse beside a river that runs into the Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I have been living here for twenty years. As Edward Abbey says in the opening lines of Desert Solitaire, “This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places.”¹

    I once met a river guide who lived at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He told me how beautiful it was where he lived, and I told him how beautiful it was where I lived. “The way I see it,” he said, “is you find a beautiful...

  21. Baby Trees (pp. 121-126)

    I am one of those biology teachers who show the infamous childbirth video. You may have seen it in biology class, too. It starts by discussing conception; then there is a long, boring section about the growth of the fetus; and then, finally, it cuts to a live shot of a woman in labor and the next thing you know you’re looking at a human head bulging out from between a woman’s legs. There is a lot of fluid and a little blood . . . and always a few of the young men in the class turn white and...

  22. Eagles and Pines (pp. 127-131)

    Mostly to avoid watching the war news on television, I decided to hike out and visit the loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) that stands near the spillway connecting the pond with the river. I was hoping to see an eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus). I have often startled eagles from that tree as I approached—distracted and forgetting to look for them there. But today I was alone and undistracted and I had my binoculars. I checked the tree from a long distance away as I approached the pond, but I didn’t see any eagles in it. For years I have fantasized about...

  23. Things of This World (pp. 132-142)

    You should try my game sometime, of identifying the trees in a forest by looking down instead of up. You may be surprised to find that it’s easy to identify trees that way; all the evidence you need is within reach. The forest floor is a through-the-looking-glass reflection of the trees above. Live above, dead below. The dead matter consists of old leaves, needles, flowers, seedpods, and branches shed by the trees. This debris may seem like useless waste until you comprehend the circle of life and realize that without this decaying waste there would be no living forest. The...

  24. APPENDIX (pp. 143-146)
  25. NOTES (pp. 147-154)
  26. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. 155-156)