TREEPTYCH: a Guide to Truly Perceive Trees – Willemijn Heideman

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Trees: where I live in northwestern Europe, we all encounter at least a few of them each day. We walk past them or we walk underneath them without giving them too much notion. Trees are just there, dependable in their spot every day, relegated to the background by our lack of recognition or interaction. We pay far less attention to non-moving objects; they pose no threat so our brains are not wired to constantly keep an eye on them. And that’s a pity really because trees are not only great to look at; they provide something to marvel about. Just looking at trees is now understood as very healthy and good for our wellbeing.

As an experiment, in order to prompt you to actually perceive trees when you go home tonight, to really see them, I have made a list of my own favourite types of trees, a Treeptych. The list is actually longer than three tree types but I like the alliteration…

   1.      The ‘I-Love-To-Live’ Tree

In The Netherlands the pollard willow, or knotted willow, often is planted alongside canals. Pollarding (from the word “poll,” which originally meant “top of head”) has been used since the Middle Ages — in fact, there are still stands of continuously pollarded trees that date to that time. This is an ancient agricultural practice for producing poles and firewood, while keeping the branches above the grazing level of livestock. Every 3 years or so the branches of this tree are ‘knotted’ or lopped, giving the tree it’s distinct shape of a big trunk with proportionally small branches on it.

 While it may seem rough treatment for such a willing and helpful tree ally, the periodic pollarding actually extends the life of the willows far beyond their wilder relatives, by continuously rejuvenating the branches. Diseases rarely have time to take hold of the young growth and weather elements do not affect trees of short stature. Ancient appearing pollards can actually be very old indeed. In the UK, the King of Limbs is a pollarded oak thought to be about 1,000 years old.

If that doesn’t give you cause to pause, perhaps you’ll notice a visual inconsistency as you amble, ramble or bicycle by. It is not uncommon to see a knotted willow with two kinds of leaves, and it takes a closer look to discover the reason: In the rotting core of this willow you can find elder trees starting a new life, so in summer it is as if the knotted willow carries elderberries. Even in its decay, the knotted willow is continuing to provide opportunities to shelter biodiversity. Now ask yourself: how did that elder get there in the first place? Who planted it? The answer is that at some point, a bird feasted on elderberries and then spent time in the willow doing what birds do: nesting, resting, and evidently passing on the seeds in a lovely little pre-fertilized packet.

We’ll leave the elder for another story on another day, but it may pique you to know that here in the Netherlands, as all across Europe, the Elder was held in even higher esteem: as a curative. But also as a magical ally. In Ireland for instance, folk tradition still holds that you must ask the Elder’s permission before cutting it, or you risk the wrath of the fairies.

The willow is not nearly the only species of tree that is sturdy and resilient. There are a lot of trees that after heavy damages still stubbornly keep on growing. Some species of pine trees actually need forest fires to keep growing: the Canarian pine for instance re-sprouts directly from its thick bark after a fire, unusual for a pine in not only being able to re-sprout but also withstanding the flames. Other pines have cones that only open under intense heat, dropping seeds onto newly cleared soil fertilised by fresh ashes. But the mother tree burns to a crisp.

I am in awe of the strength and endurance of those trees. Imagine: to be rotten to the core and with your branches brutally cut off as the willow in the picture… And yet, making new leaves as if nothing has happened to you. Burned and badly bruised, but going strong!

2        The ‘I-Am-A-City-Dweller’ Tree

So there you stand, cramped on a sidewalk, bearing the ultimate insults of not just dogs that pee on your trunk, but pigeons on your branches as if you were a common statue! Kids and drunks carve their initials into your skin, bikes get parked against you (well in Amsterdam that is). On the other hand, although stationary, a tree has time on its side, and can be known to turn the tables, sometimes swallowing kerbstones, abandoned bicycles and park benches.

The life of a city tree isn’t easy. Because besides all the physical abuse there is the problem of air pollution and water shortages that in general are more serious in cities. Trees in cities are also more prone to diseases, because often the trees in a street are all of the same species. If one is affected, than the rest will follow. Think of it from the pest’s point of view. Free lunch as far as you and your progeny can go!

Yet trees in cities are extremely important. They absorb odours and pollutant gases such as nitrogen oxides, ammonia, sulphur dioxide and ozone. Trees also filter solid particles out of the air by trapping them on their leaves and bark. In summer trees help cooling the city by up to 4-5 ⁰C, by shading our homes and streets. In this way trees break up urban “heat islands” and release water into the air through their leaves.

We literally depend on trees. Not only because trees give us fruits like apples, cherries or peaches and nuts, but because they give us oxygen too: An average tree exhales enough oxygen for 18 people annually. While they are doing that they are also busily scrubbing out tons of CO2 and putting it into long-term storage, both above and below ground.

 It gets personal too: people appreciate the greens in a city. Studies show that in a tree-lined street motorised traffic slows down; pedestrians are more relaxed and more likely to linger and thus socialise, thus strengthening community. Studies even show that anti-social behaviour and crime rates drop on tree-lined streets. In some studies the reduced crime was evident from the very same day the trees were planted, For more benefits, click here.

3        The ‘I-Am-Small-But-Strong’ Tree

The one thing I hate about gardening is having to take out all the brave saplings of yew (pictured), oak, hawthorn or birch trees that started their lives in my garden. They didn’t choose where to start their lives, their seeds just happened to have been dropped where they sprouted. They were taken there by the wind (birch seeds) or by birds. A bird probably dropped the acorn, the hawthorn fruit was digested first and then, well…

With all their power these little seeds started a life and I brutally take it. For if I don’t, my stamp sized garden is overgrown in no time.

I remember that as a kid I grew an apple pip in a pot. It took months before it was approximately 20 cm high. On a cloudy day I took it to the garden, because I had learned that direct sunlight might burn it. I dug a small hole for it and planted the ‘tree’. After that I gave it a red ribbon to distinguish it; planted with purpose. And there it stood; minding its own business and growing for quite a while, until my father, equally keen of removing saplings as I am now, just took it out.

After you have experienced how long it takes before a seed grows into something that starts to look like a miniature tree, it’s impossible not to feel guilty for ruthlessly destroying it. Or at least it is for me.

4        The ‘I-Have-An-Odd-Shape’ Tree

As I pointed out in the introduction, we often don’t take notice of trees. Speaking from a recent experience and even though I consider myself a tree-lover: I have passed the tree in this picture by bike many, many times. And yet, it was only this spring that I first noticed ‘the hole’. This hole is obstructed from view when the tree is carrying full leaves, but still. How could I have missed it? I was more or less subconsciously aware the tree was standing there, but I guess I never really looked at it closely.

A ‘hole’ like this develops over many years of time when two branches slowly grow together. This phenomenon is called inosculation and is, in fact, natural grafting.

One wonders how many years it has taken before these two branches were grown together so firmly that it requires a very close look to see the conjoining surface.

Discoveries like these, so close to home, always make me realise the splendour of nature. And such marvels fill me with delight and make me happy. It keeps me WALDENIZING…

5        The ‘I-Was-Here-First-So-Get-Out-Of-My-Way’ Tree

 Every time I drive along the A58- highway in the Netherlands I look forward to passing this remarkable monumental oak. She (I think of this tree as a she) is standing in the middle of the road, proud! Until the mid-sixties, the tree grew beside the driveway of a monumental villa. Then the garden was ripped from around it, leaving it marooned in the centre of the new highway.

To me it looks as if the tree bargained a deal and reached a poor compromise with the road workers. She could stay, but only in the middle of the road with traffic speeding by 24/7. Currently the tree has the status of a monumental tree (see link in Dutch), but her position is at stake. There are plans to broaden the highway, adding two lanes. I really do hope she keeps her feet in the ground! She was there first!

 Curious about Waldenzing? Join the group Waldenizing Project here on LinkedIn

I encourage you to take a closer look at the trees around you. Let me know what your favourite type of tree is, or what your favourite species is and why.

And Please, Do Protect and Enjoy Nature!

 This article was written with some dendrological help of me great friend Erik van Lennep

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© Willemijn Heideman, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Willemijn Heideman with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.