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Tree Watching


The lanai in the ground-floor condominium we're renting opens to the east, towards golf course fairways. The daily sunrise comes a little later now that seasons have changed, and we expect our mornings to grow slightly darker daily. I usually work at the dining room table, facing the lanai, where Sue sometimes works if she rose earlier than I did, but with curtains open along that glass wall of our living area, the sun glares directly at me once it clears the stand of trees in the center of our view. I often move into the kitchen if no clouds dull the sun's intensity and I can't avoid its brilliance. Once the sun ascends high enough to be hidden from direct sight, I return to the dining area, distract myself by noticing the high arc of the golf course sprinklers—at least four rotating in the distance this morning, two of them dueling with one another—and then try to settle into some project in progress.


This morning, once the sprinklers turn off, the fairway is nearly devoid of motion of any kind. I see no birds, only an expanse of green grass interrupted by occasional gray patches of crushed seashells, the largest below five trees, four of them close together, the fifth a little way off. I don't know why the gravel needs to stretch so far to include the fifth tree or, for that matter, why the gravel is there at all when trees closer to the stream and to our condo complex have none. Six trees in another group aren't the same species as that group of five, but three widely spaced singles in line with that half dozen and a lone one like it are. Standing at the entrance to the lanai to check all this out I spot an isolated third quartet of trees, possibly a third species, clustered further into the course.


Gazing out of the lanai, I realize that each day I chiefly look for birds, as if nothing else would be visible in that landscape, but today I see all those trees. And, in my second autumn viewing them, I'm only now aware that, other than deciduous or coniferous, I don't know what kind of trees they are. Looking for any tree guides possibly stashed in a drawer or basket somewhere, I notice on the coffee table Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard, the book we finished reading aloud together last night. Perhaps it alerted me to the presence of the trees.


Simard chronicles her decades-long effort to understand relationships among forest trees, starting with studies of interchanges between Douglas firs and birches and the impact of clear-cutting and competitive logging practices on forest restoration, tree growth, and climate change. One of the richest elements of the book is her growing recognition of systems of communication in the natural communities that echo those in human communities, including personal dimensions of her own health. She makes us aware of the underground networks of interaction in neighboring root systems and brings readers to a deeper appreciation of the lives of trees. As she made clear in an earlier TED talk, available online, "Forests are not simply collections of trees, they're complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees and allow them to communicate, and they provide avenues for feedback and adaptation, and this makes the forest resilient [. . .]" She changes the way we comprehend the life of forests.


I'm not seeing a forest beyond my lanai, only intermittent small groups or starkly single trees. Virtually none have any plant growth around them where a golf ball might disappear, and that conifer cluster's brown ground cover likely is an accumulation of fallen needles. Only those few groups of trees are likely to be interlinked underground. Given the sand or seashells beneath them, the trees in bunkers may not be able to communicate with each other, let alone other species. All that relentless sprinkling, even in the midst of rain, is principally for the benefit of the grass on the fairways and greens; nurturing the trees is more of a necessary collateral effort—dead trees don't make an inviting golf course.


The course posts videos showing what fairways looked like stripped of grass, how uniformly green they'll be when the restoration is over. The abundance of powerful sprinklers suggests a vast network of pipes and hoses under the replaced grasses. I wonder what kind of soil subsurface there is for roots to reach.


After reading Simard I'm not just more attentive to the trees—I'm feeling a great deal of sympathy for them. At least when the golfers come back, the club will be sure to keep the isolated trees alive.


Notes: Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.


Simard, Suzanne. How trees talk to each other: TED Talk, YouTube, August 30, 2016


Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother Tree: Talks at Google, YouTube, May 7, 2021

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