Written by Eva Strelitz-Block.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.
Dendrochronology is a new word I’ve learned. It is the science of the transformation of trees. If you cut a tree down, the analysis of its rings provides insight into its seasonal experiences over time: its nutrient and climate highs and lows, its times of abundance and scarcity.
It has always made sense to me that a tree can be a main character in a person’s life and that a child can commune with it, and even have a relationship with it that spans decades. Before my family lived in our current home—before the people who lived here decades ago in our house’s earliest incarnation as a one-bedroom bungalow—this house, this small lot, belonged only to the giant Bur Oak tree that towers over our front yard. It is a magnificent tree, and it is formidable. In the spring, it produces pollen bountiful enough to give an elephant severe allergies. When a warm wind blows, a golden cloud of pollen dust rises like a harbor fog.
It makes a ruckus every fall when its acorns, the size of my palm, make their raucous debut. The nuts that litter its flanks are so big and ornate that squirrels struggle to abscond with their bounty. Neighbors walking by will pause to admire them. They’ll stop to pick up one of its massive nuts and marvel at its heft and the opulence of the dome crown that caps it. It feels more likely that these nuts hail from Narnia than central Austin. The clanging thud of the acorns onto the roof above my bedroom every autumn is a key component of the soundscape of my childhood.
Its trunk has always been too big for me to wrap my arms all the way around, and its branches have always been too high to climb. But its solidity has always reassured me. Looking over my first day of school pictures, the tree always in the background, it only feels a little weird to say that I thought it was encouraging me to get out there and do my best.
Recently, my mom told me that every time she read Shel Siliverstein’s The Giving Tree to me and my brother when we were kids, she was choking back tears. Apparently, this is not uncommon. Chrissy Teigen tweeted in 2016, “can’t read the giving tree without crying, despite having read it 100 times.” But, somehow, until I grew older, I missed the notes of melancholy and loss that are the beating heart of the story. I didn’t read the boy’s relationship with the tree as exploitative, though I can see that now. I didn’t recognize the sorrow of the passage of time that my mother must have felt. I did feel, keenly, the kinship between the boy and the tree. I perceived the tenor of ease in the tree’s early rapport with the boy. And later—the strain of its efforts to connect. I heard the tree. I felt the tree listening.
Ecologist Suzanne Simard’s work is helping to reveal the secret lives of trees. Tree communication is not just a trope of the fictional world and childhood imagininings, it’s science. It’s fantastical but also true that trees care for and communicate with each other both above ground and underground. “Mother” fir trees alter their root structure to make way for and to nourish their seedlings. They feed them carbon through vast underground fungi networks. Trees even collaborate across species—fir trees and spruce trees trade nutrients to help each other weather seasonal droughts. Simard calls this “forest wisdom.” Their wisdom seems to extend to people, too.
This summer, after long weeks of online classes in quarantine, my brain and my spirit felt foggy, achy, depleted. I felt the truth of Edward Abbey’s notion that, “wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.” I coaxed my family into driving west out of the oppressive Texas heat and into the Rockies. I hiked deep into tree-covered mountain sides with my dad. The air was thin, and I’d been too impatient for forests and vistas and quiet to acclimatize properly. The switchbacks were brutal, and I had to pause frequently to catch my breath. Each time I rested, I hugged the cool, smooth, yellowish-gray trunk of a nearby aspen tree, feeling my need for air acutely. The trees I embraced responded with infusions of oxygen delivered straight into my bloodstream. Individual aspen trees are actually stems of a larger single organism, and I hiked with the palpable sense of being lifted by the whole of them.
It’s a bittersweet irony that dendrochronology revelations—the knowledge that informs our understanding of the history of a tree’s life, what harmed it, and what helped it thrive—accrues only upon its felling. But maybe that’s how life works: our hard-won bits of wisdom don’t come with reset buttons and opportunities for do-overs. If I had access to a dendrochronology of my life, a slice of the whole that told my story, I know that my larger rings, the ones that suggest plenty rather than paucity, reflect my time among trees. The hours my friends and I would spend collecting our burr oak’s acorns, drawing faces on them, and making little acorn families. The steamy summers in South Carolina’s low country, among the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss and off-gassing the intoxicating hypoxic stink of marshlands. The citrus-honey smell of the elegant magnolia tree I pass daily on my morning runs.
It’s probably a pandemic thing—I’ve had more time with trees than people lately. But, I’ve noticed as I move into early adulthood (and I say this with a small measure of embarrassment) that my relationships with the trees in my life have deepened. I think I am beginning to see them more fully—in the context of not just my life, but their lives. The notion that we are part of a whole, an interconnected, multi-species, singular organism, and the sense that the actions of any one of us, affect the whole of us—well it’s obviously not just a tree thing.