The Mother Tree
As I look out onto a winter landscape, excited for the coming of spring and the bursting forth of life in a few months, I come back to something I wrote this past fall.
I believe in the concept of Mother trees, those matriarch trees which communicate with and support younger trees in their midst. Sound scientific investigations have shown the presence of these sentinel trees in forests around the world, but I believe they can also be seen in our midst if we take the time to notice. This is the story of one such tree. She is a grand old tree. How old, I don’t know, but she has certainly been standing for a very long time. She is the shape of a heart, with two canopies that meet to create the beautiful double arch of a heart. She has overlooked a young orchard that we started in the spring of 2015. Our orchard was created from the grafting of individual cuttings onto new rootstock, so to say they started off very young is an understatement.
We understand now that trees are much more than just the roots that are so familiar to us. They exist in a network of microbial communities and work together many times for the common good. In particular, fungal communities, connected to roots can extend the reach of those trees over great distances. What this means is that trees may live in large interconnected communities. What can disrupt these communities are the actions of humans, particularly the disruption of soil and the application of chemicals. Our orchard has not seen a plow or chemical pesticide for over 7 years. In addition, the trees were each inoculated with these special fungal spores to help build this underground microbial network. I believe the network extends throughout our farm due to the management practices we follow. This means that the grand old lady is likely connected to the young trees in the orchard and has watched them grow through many trials.
To say the young trees suffered, particularly in their early years is an understatement. In their second year of life, they endured the most severe drought on record for decades. With water supplies and crops failing all around, we barely kept them alive with the watering we able to do. There was little to no growth that year. The next year saw them inundated with flood waters which kept some underwater until mid July. By the end of that year, we had lost a number of young trees. The fourth year of their life they endured a less severe flooded spring, which then turned to another drought part way through the summer. These events combined with severe cases of rust meant many years of little to no growth. Still, many of the young trees held on, and all through this the grand old lady watched them.
Everything changed a year go, with more growth and strengthening of the trees. This past year, the young trees have absolutely thrived. Sure, we have experience more Cedar Apple Rust than we would have liked and the deer dined on their leaves through the night, but the trees were so strong and vigorous this year, that they pushed right past these stresses, putting out healthy new growth to overcome the damage. Some trees even reached two feet of growth in just one season! But there is another change…the grand old lady is dying. She has shown the signs of old age for some time. She is hollow in her trunk. She lost a large limb several years ago, but all the while she held on. Not this past year. One side of her crown turned yellow and behind those leaves were branches that no longer hold leaves. There is no evidence of disease, just a life long-lived. It is sad to see this happen to this icon of our farm…but as I look up to see her, words come into my mind and are very clear. She has finished her job and the young trees are thriving. Until this past year I would have said that it was our hard work that brought the existing young trees to this point, but I now I realized we are part of something much bigger at play. It was her I believe, reaching out through this network and touching the young trees when they were starving for water and nutrients. It was her when they were underwater and it was her through the years when we were tied up with babies and missed the odd chore in the orchard…and now she is done. The trees are strong and vigorous and I believe she had an ever present hand in that…gently, day and night while we were going about our lives.
I don’t know how long she has, maybe a few years, or a few months, but she will live on at the farm. This spring we will take cuttings and graft them onto new rootstocks in the orchard that will hold her tight for the future. Such is the profound beauty of the cycle of an orchard if we slow down and see what is before us. She will become a new young tree, just as those did that she nurtured for so many years. They will become the nurturers for her and the cycling will start anew. I like to think they will remember her as she grows in their midst. Trees have a lot to teach us.
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Geof & Amanda Hall
Owners and operators of Harvest Mill Farm.