Tree cuttings 'planted' in mud

The Quadra Project: Dying Trees

We don’t know what death is, perhaps because we really don’t know what life is. The living have life, of course, as do trees. But the words “life” and “death” don’t explain anything. Some profound change happens when living things die, a mystery to which we give a great deal of thought when it pertains to ourselves, but we don’t give much thought to how trees die.

To state the obvious, humans and trees are different. We have vital organs upon which our lives depend—if any of them fail because of age or disease, we die. We don’t recover from losing our heads. Trees seem to lack such crucial body parts because they can lose their tops and will continue to grow. They don’t seem to have vital organs, can compensate for lost branches, and guard against future disasters by changing their grain and increasing their girth.

Somewhat like us, they can heal wounds. They use resins and pitch until the healing occurs, although some trees such as firs are better at this than alders. Hemlocks and cedars are not good healers.

Bones and heartwood are different. Our bones, the hard material that gives shape to our bodies, are hollow and alive, the insides making platelets and adding calcium to the bone mass. The inside of trees that give them form are dead, the residue of the outer cambium layer, which is the living material of the tree’s trunk—it’s apparently possible, with a stethoscope, to actually hear the fluids moving up the tubules under the bark. When the cambium dies, the tree dies. But this doesn’t explain death.

Some species of conifers apparently anticipate their death by producing a heavy crop of cones in their last years, seemingly in an effort to perpetuate their kind with the last of their energy. If this is so, we might ask how the trees know to do this, and what does it suggest about their awareness.

The mystery of tree death is complicated by the fact that we can cut a living branch from a fruit tree in the winter, graft it to a living branch or root stock in the spring, and the cutting will grow into a fruiting branch or tree. Something is alive in the branch that was activated by the spring sap in the recipient tree. How does sustainable intelligence for a whole tree exist in one branch of it? And branches broken from maples and alders in the winter will sprout in the spring, until the dying slowly occurs from lack of water and nourishment.

The mystery of the life in trees deepens when we consider that stumps of some species can continue to grow bark from the nutrients they get from neighbouring trees. On Quadra Island, some of these living fir stumps can be found at Rebecca Spit and, occasionally, elsewhere. The stump has no trunk, no branches or needles, yet the bark continues to grow over the top of the wound to form a fully enclosed living “tree”. What, then, is death for a tree? Where is its life energy? When and how does it die?

When are the stumps, which are the remnants of logging, truly dead? A careful examination of some stumps will sometimes reveal an effort of the cambium to grow bark over the chainsaw’s cut, but without sustenance from neighbouring trees, this effort slowly fails. Are the logs, which are dragged out of the denuded forests and placed on trucks, actually dead? We know that logs don’t come back to life, but we don’t know when and how they actually die.

The evidence suggests that life in trees is more diffuse than it is in us. Over the 500 million years of their existence as a species—aside from making crucial sugars with photosynthesis and trading this essential substance with fungi for minerals—they are alive without an apparent central nervous system. They know how to grow and in which direction. They know how and where to spread their branches. Their root systems are complex, intricate and sophisticated. Cutting research by foresters such as Dr. Suzanne Simard have discovered that trees have a social consciousness—forests are literally societies of species. Trees share nutrients, giving favour to their own kin. Old trees are information centres in the distribution of information throughout their surrounding area. What happens to this system when these old trees are cut down? What happens when they are left standing but all their younger “friends” are felled?

Yes, we have to be careful about anthropomorphizing. But the current thrust of the most significant research in biology is revealing a sophistication and intelligence in non-human species. As our estimation of them rises, our estimation of ourselves falls. Why were we so unaware? Why did we think our fretful journey between birth and death was so unique? Life’s magic was happening all around us, but we were too self-centred to notice.

This, perhaps, is how trees became objects, resources, annual allowable cuts, board feet or cubic metres. The massacre has been and is staggeringly vast and pervasive, a kind of world war in which only a few villages are left standing to show what used to be. This gesture, hollow and ironic, is a denigration of ourselves, and how we think and feel—if, indeed, we are capable of feeling very much at all.

Is the appropriate word “genocide”? Maybe. The irony, however, is that the death of so many trees is a precursor to the death of ourselves. In the great interconnectedness of things, we need them to live. Our ignorance and insensitivity will return to haunt us. Our individual and collective mortality is hastened by the death of trees, even if we don’t know exactly how they die.

Ray Grigg, for Sierra Quadra

Top photo credit: Cuttings ‘planted’ in the Dillon Creek wetlands – Photo by Roy L Hales

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