One Tree, Many Lives

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One Tree, Many Lives

2010-04-09T00:06:45+00:00April 9th, 2010|Ecology, Flora, Issues, Uncategorized|10 Comments

California Buckeye Leaves

Every spring, the wood chipper shows up. One morning, Fargo-like, it just appears . . . always while I’m in my bathrobe, never after I’ve quaffed my caffeine . . . busting ear drums with the metal-on-metal industrial grind. I have to throw on my sweats and stumble on over to the tree-trimming crew with my phone number. “If you find a nest with babies, please call me. I work with wildlife.”

Once we’ve brewed up some Cole’s yirgacheffe, I make my annual call to the city’s tree-trimming division: “Yep, it’s me again. Still disappointed in the massive spring pruning operation. Would you reconsider?” And every year, a lovely person at the other end insists there’s no other way to conduct this business, what with overhead wires and liability and such. And, of course, she reminds me — trimmers look out for nests. She knows this usually appeases everyone . . . everyone but me.

It is against Fish and Game code to “knowingly” and “needlessly” destroy an active nest. You can read more about that in Wildcare’s primer: Don’t Trim Your Trees in Spring! The tree trimmers I’ve met, most of them nice guys, assure me they look for nests. The problem is, the likelihood of seeing a nest as small as a hummingbird’s is slim when you’re engaged in a wholesale chopping and shredding operation, as many of these city trimmers are. The best solution, as Wildcare suggests, is to avoid trimming trees in spring. That way, you’re not disrupting nesting parents or babies. Baby birds and squirrels are killed and orphaned due to this practice — one which can usually be accommodated at other times of the year.

One Tree: A Year in the Life

That’s my slightly-divergent but still-pertinent lead-in to a post about my beloved tree. It’s a California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) that sprouts, blooms, fruits, and, ultimately, wilts each yearly cycle, outside our bedroom window. It’s been our portal into the life sustained — the abundance afforded — by one single tree with its branches and blooms.

I actually thought of this post years ago, long before I had this blog. It was when our neighbor in Los Angeles cut down the one tree where our resident mockingbird sang. For several years, the Northern Mockingbird serenaded us every night from his solitary post on that tree. Once the tree crumbled to the lawn, our mockingbird never came around again. That was my personal version of the Silent Spring.

That tree cutting happened about the time Julia Butterfly Hill ascended the majestic Redwood she named Luna — ascended in protest of clear-cutting up in Humboldt County. From 180 feet up in the canopy, Julia relayed her experience and observations of life as seen from the perch in her Redwood. And she was tormented by the trees falling like toothpicks around her.

When you’re somebody that cares about the forest, and you see it destroyed at such an alarming rate without a thought about what they’re doing — actually they think about it, and to them, the bigger the tree, it’s like a buck with more points on the antlers. There’s no respect. The bigger the tree, when it crashes into the ground the louder their cheer is. The big ones? They totally enjoy it. You hear the incessant buzzing of the chain saws hour after hour until your ears are ringing with it, and then you hear the creaking and the groaning as it’s about to fall and then it sounds like thunder as it crashes through all the trees it has to hit on the way down and then it’s a loud bwaaam-boom! You can feel the earth trembling all the way up through Luna.

Knowing A Tree

It will sound strange to those who haven’t “known” a tree, but I get Julia’s sentiments. I can’t begin to rival the challenges she endured, living inside the branches of Luna. But in a different way, I’ve come to grasp the lunacy of our detachment from trees — from these vibrant bundles of habitat that are so quickly plowed over, cut, burned, decimated by us humans — “knowingly” and “recklessly,” to use Fish and Game terminology.

For the five years we’ve been in this place, we’ve lived at canopy height, in a [very] small but cheery flat, surrounded by foliage. The largest of the trees is the California Buckeye which has given us spectacular and often sentimental views into the miniature world that would be lost if this one tree were cut.

Honey Bee in Buckeye Tree

This is what we’ve experienced in our Buckeye tree:

  • Red-tinged House Finches and Goldfinches chattering away the afternoon, taking breaks just to snack at the neighbor’s feeder.
  • Pairs of Mourning Doves roosting and bonding before they build their nest.
  • Fox Squirrels sprawled across branches, dozing after a morning’s foraging.
  • Young Fox Squirrels just set free from their nest, leaping from tree to telephone pole to roof in abject joy.
  • Scrub Jays spying on squirrels burying their haul . . . then stealing the squirrel’s buried treasure.
  • Crows watching Scrub Jays steal squirrel’s nuts . . . then stealing Scrub Jay’s stolen goods.
  • Anna’s Hummingbirds resting and preening in the safety of leafy branches.
  • Winter migrating birds — warblers, Waxwings, Golden-crowned Sparrows and White-crowned, thrushes, wrens — sunning in the in the maze of the Buckeye’s branches which, even in winter, provides some cover from hawks.
  • Fledgling birds like Grosbeaks getting in their flying hours from the branches of the Buckeye.
  • Huge migration of butterflies descending at once onto the open blossoms of our spring tree: Painted Ladies, Admirals, Brown Skippers, Cabbage White and other butterflies either stopping or checking out the blooms.
  • Native Honey Bees — ostensibly immune to the toxic bee punch of the Buckeye — collecting their bee stuff with their wings covered in fine dust of Buckeye pollen. (Some non-native bees are susceptible to toxic effects from the California Buckeye. Local bees can adapt.)
  • Fragrance almost as sweet as Jasmine and Plumeria, wafting in through our window screens on spring nights.
  • Opossums sleeping the night away, wrapped around one of the tree’s thicker branches.
  • The burgeoning of California Buckeye fruits the size of pears — appearing in summer, then unraveling in the fall until just the core — the huge brown seeds — are strewn about in the autumn leaves. (The fruit/seed is toxic although squirrels can supposedly eat them without harm. They are large and difficult to crack, though, so I don’t see many squirrels digging into these pods.)

Butterfly in Buckeye Tree

Counting on the California Buckeye

Our migrating birds count on this tree each year when they return. Our honey bees pollinate, our traveling butterflies get sustenance for their annual marathons, songbirds get cover and roosting space, squirrels use the tree as a passageway in their world above and parallel to ours. And this is just a fragment of life pulsing in the branches of one, single tree. Living by the cycles of our Buckeye, it’s become inconceivable how trees en masse are clear-cut. I used to break down when we’d visit our old haunts in the Northwest, and see hilltops newly flattened by clear-cutting. Now, it doesn’t even take that magnitude of destruction for me to shed a tear over the lost life and potential in the leaves.

When the Berkeley Tree Sitters illegally occupied UC’s Oak Grove, they were subjected to a decent amount of public ridicule — and some anger over the resources expended over the tree-sitting issue. Whatever the pragmatic arguments on the opposing side, there’s an emotional component in the tree-sitters’ quest that’s impossible to quantify in days and dollars. That’s the version I understand more intimately than ever.

Sure, UC “owned” the trees, just as any of us has the ownership rights to cut trees on our own property. But the idea of ownership over what amounts to a rich and shared habitat — a wildlife commons on one level — is a cosmic injustice when you think of the ecological repercussions. Those ends deserve deeper scrutiny than they’re often given, whether it comes to altering a garden Ficus or an entire Redwood forest.

When I watched the trees in the Oak Grove come crashing down, it felt, as Julia described, like an earthly ripple — from the grove to our Buckeye tree. I tried to imagine how it would feel if, one day, our tree wasn’t there. I tried to envision life without the birds, butterflies and mammals who’ve made the tree their home, their sanctuary or their food source. And I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t wake up each morning in this bedroom I love, with the California sun pulsing through my blinds . . . and ever feel reconciled to my life without that tree.

In the same way that working with wild animals has altered my view of wildlife — helping me see their individuality, their personality, their sensitivity — living in the tree, metaphorically speaking, has forever altered my relationship to trees in general. I will never hear a wood chipper or a chainsaw without feeling sorrow. I will know that although our California Buckeye thrives just outside the window, somewhere else, an entire habitat (and home) is being lost.


I put together a gallery of images I’ve shot throughout the seasons, marking the transformations in this California Buckeye and her residents. My earliest shots of the tree were taken with film, then with a point-and-shoot. I risked my foothold to reach way into the branches for macros. The Buckeye then saw me through my super-zoom phase, and then my new dSLR. Life events more significant than camera choice have transpired in her view, through our windows, and yet her transitions remain steady and predictable. Just as my cat is our constant on the pillow — the California Buckeye is our constant outside the slatted blinds.


  1. Tovar Cerulli April 9, 2010 at 10:16 am - Reply

    Lovely post, Ingrid.

    An ardent conservationist, I’ve also worked as a forester-logger. Given our past exchanges, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that I explored that line of work to deepen my understanding, to learn about “best practices” in logging, and to come to terms with the firewood I burn and the other wood products I use–seeing trees as both majestic living beings and necessary material.

  2. john wooldridge April 9, 2010 at 10:59 am - Reply

    Hello Ingrid,
    Just tapped into your site via Tovar’s after reading one of your comments that you’d left. Really glad that i did, if you don’t mind i’ll follow along for a while.

  3. ingrid April 9, 2010 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Tovar. And John, nice to make your acquaintance .

    Tovar, you bring your diverse background to this issue and probably straddle better than I, that line between an organism’s inherent value versus its value to us. The biggest obstacle I encounter in terms of embracing the “other” side of the logging issue, is the glacial move toward sustainable sources of materials — processes that wouldn’t require the cutting of trees.

    For instance, I’ve used paper made from hemp and kenaf, both renewable resources (even if all “resources” come with their pros and cons). So many paper products could be manufactured from alternative plants, and yet the movement away from wood pulp and toward renewable materials is rarely subsidized or undertaken voluntarily except by the most progressive companies. Hemp remains a charged political issue in the States — still. And so these alternative paper sources remain a bit marginalized and more expensive.

    If we could honestly say that we only cut trees when absolutely necessary — when there is no substitute — it would be a more palatable idea. I do, however, recognize the biology and also the sustainabilty ethos behind “best practices” in logging.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. Tovar Cerulli April 10, 2010 at 5:44 am - Reply

    John, glad to see you here on Ingrid’s blog. As you know, she’s been making great comments on my blog. And she posts very interesting stuff here. If you get the chance, check out her photo albums…beautiful images!

    Ingrid, I think we can see plants (like animals) as having (A) inherent, and even spiritual, value as individual entities. We can see them as having (B) ecological value as populations. And we can see them as having (C) pragmatic value as physical materials (food, fiber, etc). And I think we tend to bifurcate our thinking here. A and C are separated as irreconcilable; B is lumped in with one or other, depending on one’s point of view. My aim is to integrate all three. (“Sustainability” as a concept operates mainly in the B/C realm. And, yes, we do need to move in that direction far more quickly.)

    Is it just ecology that makes us want to turn to other fibers, like kenaf and hemp, and avoid cutting trees?

    If so, then we ought to be comfortable with sustainably harvested wood, like the firewood I get from within a few miles (and sometimes a few yards) of our house, and like the lumber that my step-father saws on his mill after dragging logs out of nearby woods. These are entirely renewable resources.

    If not, what makes people squeamish about wood? Is it that they haven’t found a way to reconcile A with C? Do they feel that trees have more inherent value than kenaf or hemp plants? Is it that mature trees are bigger and more charismatic?

    Things to muse on…thanks for providing the forum!

  5. ingrid April 10, 2010 at 2:24 pm - Reply

    Hi, Tovar —

    Always glad to see you here. I agree with you wholeheartedly on the interconnected relationships we have with other organisms in our environment. If you’re a Jain, the very act of plowing becomes problematic from the standpoint of its inherent destruction of soil organisms. But as I know we’ve discussed previously, every lifestyle entails some involvement in the greater, ecological web. “Sustainability,” as you suggest, is (thankfully) the buzzword of late . . . even if it should have been our environmental paradigm for decades now. I won’t get into my personal politics on that one.

    You present some interesting ideas about trees versus other sources of renewable fibers. Obviously, this post focuses on an emotional component, as I derived meaning from the tree. That’s my personal filter, since I tend to see emotion as the driving component behind our desire to conserve and protect. It is often the only motivating factor for individuals . . . even if it plays little part in large-scale policy mandates (except as public opinion rallies to a cause). You’ve undoubtedly heard the complaint that people won’t run to the defense of something like a wood-rot fungus, even if the loss of its ecological niche means greater disaster in the ecosystem. I’d like to believe that people could, in fact, be moved to care about a wood rot fungus if they genuinely understood it. I know. I’m living in an alternate reality.

    On a practical level, I think much can be said for the use of fibers like hemp over tree fiber, even if, as you say, there are no absolutes when we look at the idea of sustainability as a whole. One difference lies in the crop-yield versus land ratio and the economic viability of hemp in that respect. Then there’s the issue of the actual land benefits of planting these crops, with beneficial root systems, natural weed deterrents (hemp tends to repel weeds for various reasons), the ability to use hemp in effective crop rotation and soil fertilization. Depending on the use, hemp plants can be left intact after harvest, not necessarily uprooted — although I’m not entirely certain how this is done in large-scale industrial applications. I know that the fibrous parts of hemp die anyway at the end of the season, so they are harvested while they are still viable for fibers. I don’t believe — correct me if you think I’m wrong — that the harvesting of hemp results in the same type of habitat destruction involved in large-scale logging operations — the types that would produce similar amounts of wood fiber.

    That’s not taking into account a model where hemp would overtake our agricultural land the way corn and soy has — another flawed model of monocrop culture with untoward effects on the environment, habitat and wildlife. I’m not sure how that model would look if we converted more of our resources to those types of fiber production. Have you looked into that, by any chance?

    Then, of course, there’s the issue of other beneficial products coming from each part of the plant used in hemp production. And it’s probably the most patriotic fiber we could use, given its historical usage in our sacred, political documents. That must count for something. 🙂

  6. Tovar Cerulli April 10, 2010 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    Thanks for your thoughts, Ingrid.

    The emotional focus of your post is valuable and not something I want to detract from. I, too, have had strong feeling for particular trees and places. And, yes, emotion is a powerful and important motivating force for conservation.

    I was just thinking about my more general, visceral, emotional reaction to logging (and the sound of chainsaws), before I worked in the woods myself. And how working in the woods (with a chainsaw) helped me make some important, if discomforting, connections, just as gardening and hunting have. Felling my first tree wasn’t easy, despite the fact that I live in a house constructed almost entirely of wood.

    I don’t know the large-scale mathematics regarding alternative fibers. I wonder what the ecological impacts of that form of agriculture would be, on a large scale. I have nothing at all against them.

    I’m just thinking more locally. Here, we have a lot of trees. We can harvest wood for heating, lumber, and fiber—locally and sustainably. Here, I imagine that alternative fibers would need to be grown on existing farmland (Vermont doesn’t have a ton of that left), grown on newly cleared land, or grown somewhere else and imported.

    Of course, poor logging practices are ecologically brutal. We need to do better, for forests, waterways, wildlife, and ourselves.

  7. Saundra April 11, 2010 at 12:33 am - Reply

    I like the mix of ideas above and the point of view brought by a forester-logger. I think if tree harvests weren’t so riddled with a history of tragic practices, if forests weren’t being destroyed at such an alarming rate, and if cultivation of other fibers like hemp hadn’t been outlawed for the most silly of reasons, the sustainable logging of trees would have a more positive connotation. That doesn’t mean you can’t cut trees according to renewable methods. It’s just that the balance has been tipped so far toward actual pillaging of forests, that logging may not have the general perception of being sustainable until other products are truly embraced. What I mean by that is, if more papers and wood products were actually made from plants like hemp, bamboo and the like, the number of trees cut for ridiculous purposes (like paper towels) would be dramatically reduced. And just those things that couldn’t be covered more efficiently by other resources could be made from smart-forest logging and wood, things like the building materials mentioned above.

  8. Tovar Cerulli April 16, 2010 at 7:08 am - Reply

    Good points, Saundra and Ingrid. Before I worked in the woods, my views of logging were definitely founded, at least in part, on my perceptions of (and the realities of) such “pillaging.”

  9. ingrid April 18, 2010 at 12:34 am - Reply

    Tovar, if you happen to make it back here . . . I’d be interested in your evolution in thinking about logging, your personal experience with that. Who were you before, what did you do in the forest, how did it change your perspective?

    I spent a number of years in the Northwest, and I think, like many people, was horrified by the clear-cutting that leveled former forests into moonscapes. Although I recognize and am highly appreciative of changes in thinking where logging and sustainability are concerned, I think Saundra’s right about the associations people tend to have with large-scale logging.

  10. Tovar Cerulli April 22, 2010 at 5:10 am - Reply

    Hi Ingrid –

    Sorry it’s taken me a while to get back here. It’s a busy time!

    I’ve always had strong feelings about ecological balance and such. When I was an undergrad, the better part of 20 years ago, I did some research into the Pacific Northwest timber conflicts. I disliked the mass clearcutting that was going on. Yet I also knew a family who owned a small mill. Considering both sides, I got the sense that the ecology activists and the local, small-scale log and mill operations actually had quite a bit in common; both had a vested interest in long-term, local sustainability. Unfortunately, they were often deeply divided, and the driving forces in the battle seemed to be national and international timber corporations (who had no local allegiance, to local ecologies or economies) and big conservation organizations (who also weren’t all that invested locally, especially not in the social/economic survival of human communities).

    In any case, personally I remained uncomfortable with logging. But I burned firewood and worked as a carpenter, building with lumber.

    Working as a forester-logger was an important step in reconciling those things. I worked with a wonderful fellow: pragmatic, down-to-earth, and very much a conservationist. We managed small woodlots, cutting both firewood and sawlogs, with the aim of leaving most of the best trees to grow, using equipment and techniques that minimized harm to the soil, etc.

    Lots more to say on this subject, of course! It is, in fact, part of a chapter in the book project I’m working on…



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