Republic of trees

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(HOST) For the last few weeks, commentator Bill Shutkin has been looking for the forest amidst the trees. Here’s what he discovered.

(SHUTKIN) Trees are nature’s superlatives. The oldest living thing on the planet is a bristle cone pine, 5000 years old and still living in the American southwest. California’s coast redwood is the tallest, rising a vertiginous 380 feet above the forest floor. Among the largest living things – a stand of aspen, acres of roots comprising a single living system.

In Vermont, springtime reminds me of our own super trees. Though much of Vermont’s woodlands have yet to leaf out, there’s something about them in early spring that stops me in my muddy tracks.

Unlike the monumental trees of the west, our trees are notable less as individual star species than as a remarkable supporting cast. Take the paper birch with its chalky bark waving in the wind, like a white flag of truce after the long, harsh winter. Or the sugar maples festooned with sap buckets at the skirt, giving of their sweet life-blood to the new season. There’s the occasional basswood, the stout edge-dweller of old farmfields with its broad crown and brittle limbs. And don’t forget the ubiquitous white pine, the consummate pioneer ever on the prowl for the warm spring sun.

The list goes on. The apple and ash, beech and butternut, spruce and shadbush. What we lack in star-power we make up for with variety and sheer quantity. But in the early spring, you have to work hard to distinguish one tree from the next. From a distance, especially in the mountains, Vermont’s woodlands appear colorless, a stark contrast to autumn. Without leaves, they are naked and wan.

Many have been diminished by winter’s fierce winds and temp- eratures. Were it not for the fringe of spruce and fir at elevation or the backdrop of a blue sky, I wonder if people would even notice the forest this time of year. It’s a shadow presence.

But it’s precisely this unassuming quality that makes Vermont’s trees so compelling in April. They are a paradox, at once inconspicuous and totally dominating. Without snow or the green grass of summer, April’s trees are all we’ve got. They literally hold the landscape together, what with the run-off from the snow melt and rain which, without them, would cause Vermont simply to ooze away.

As I walk the trails behind our house, I realize that in this naked season I feel most connected to the forest. There’s nothing to distract me, my feet penetrating the damp soil and touching the tangled roots, as if connecting me to the very heartwood of every tree in the forest. It’s now, in April, when I realize that Vermont is as much a republic of trees as it is of people; that it’s the collective, not the individual, that matters, the connection of one thing to another holding it all together.

This is Bill Shutkin of Peru.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT. He spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.

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