Vermont, its university, and many other organizations have been celebrating last week’s Earth Day with daily programs. I’m narrowing my field to Vermont Arbor Day – Friday, May 2 – seeing it as a substantial part of Earth Day activities.
When I came to Vermont back in the 1940’s, my husband took me on an autumn drive to show me Vermont’s foliage explosion. We went over Orange Heights, between Barre and Bradford, where the trees’ irrepressible outbursts made us catch our breath. We stood under one magnificent sugar maple, looking up through sun-jeweled scarlet leaves to the blue sky beyond, and had an unforgettable moment of pure rapture.
While planting new young trees, I feel deep gratitude for the gorgeous old trees, whose huge benefits deserve daily appreciation. Every ancient tree is a complete habitat for scores of life-forms, from the invisible up through insects, birds, squirrels and other woodland creatures. Over time, ancient giants support stunning epiphytes. Epiphytes are air-plants that cling to branches for support, but take no nourishment from the trees. In fact, they share with the trees. Their cups retain water in which small creatures, even including tiny frogs, can live out their lives without ever touching ground. The wastes from such creatures feed the epiphytes. A very old tree can send out long, reaching root-growths along its branches to the epiphytes, and absorb some of those nutrients. Indeed, the largest trees depend on it. It’s one way four- and five-hundred-year-old forest giants get enough nourishment to keep them vigorous.
Biologists say there isn’t enough wealth of nitrogen and other nutrients in most forest soils to keep immense trees vigorous. They believe forests that are repeatedly cut and replanted are ultimately doomed: soil alone will not be able to sustain them for the magnificence of a green old age. Not only epiphytes help. Some of the fungi on ancient trees produce compounds that kill tree-eating insects. Some ants push overboard bugs that damage trees. If we want to preserve our varied old forests, it’s vital not to saw down the three- and four-hundred year old giants; they’re the only ones that have lived long enough to create their own complex ecological systems.
Trees of course sustain much of the varied life on earth. They also renew the human spirit. Air in a forest smells fresh and sweet, forest sounds of birds and brooks, forest colors -from the silvery stones by a waterfall to the array of wildflowers, all promote our connection to the vast, mysterious, universe.
This is Ruth Page, reminding us that trees, especially the very old, are essential to much of earthly life.