More Lovely Than a Poem

pecan-tree-1I think that I shall never see, A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest, Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wear, A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree

“Trees” by Joyce Kilmer

We took a break from fishing in the creek and wandered across the field of new winter wheat towards the towering old pecan trees. It was pleasant beneath the partially leafed trees, and while my dad sat against the trunk, my brother and I searched for windfall pecans. Some were still in their dried green husks, most of which we could break open. Some had been nibbled on by insects, but we could find a handful of intact ones — avoiding those in the scattered cow patties.

Our dad had shown us how to crack the pecan shells by taking two in your palm and making a fist. Then covering with the other hand, you squeezed until you felt or heard the first crack. Opening your hands, you rotated the cracked shell, and repeated the process. Delicate, but strong squeezes would create a shell cracked sufficiently to pull apart and remove the nut intact from within. Small, weaker, kids’ hands were less able to produce the delicate strength necessary, and the hard shell often resisted our efforts. Squeezing harder could also crush the shell completely, leaving you with a jumble of broken shell and nut.

If allowed into the field, cows would lie beneath the trees to enjoy the shade. In the heat of summer they preferred the massive live oaks that bordered the field and the nearby creek. While the fields were open and inviting beneath the pecan trees, the border was a brushy chaos of trees, shrubs, vines and grasses. That’s where you could spot a rabbit or an armadillo, or find a shed antler, sometimes only partially gnawed by rodents.

Having lived in some places with lots of trees, some with virtually no trees, and some with scattered trees, I tend to enjoy trees when you can see them individually. I guess I like to be able to see the trees through the forest.

I respond to trees somewhat emotionally and identify with them on a personal level. I’ve been responsible for removing trees when it was time, and I’ve planted trees where it was appropriate. But it does seem to me that trees need to be treated with some reverence, befitting something that lives as long — maybe longer — than most humans. Ironically, Kilmer, whose poem about trees resonates with many people, was killed at the age of 31 by a German sniper in WWI. Not a particularly long life for a tree, let alone a man.

Trees are often taken for granted. If you live or are from one of the areas with heavy forests, you want fewer trees to allow the sun in; if you’re from treeless or tree-deficient areas, you want a friendly copse or thick forest. But, trees are not just pretty, they provide many benefits; call them ecosystem services — the components of nature, directly enjoyed, consumed, or used to yield human well-being.

Nature consists of integrated mixtures of life, collections of different species, flora and beings. Where humans corrupt nature, we remove the diversity and try to create a one-purpose environment. We’ve made urban areas solely for humans and farms solely for monoculture crop production. Neither works as well as more natural, diverse environments tailored to the needs of many living things.

Climate change threatens to worsen our quality of life and possibly our very existence, particularly for densely populated cities that have limited natural features. Population increases and the concentration of people into cities and urban areas will increase power demand and water needs. Climate change portends more extreme climate events and changes in hydrologic systems, including droughts and flooding. Most parts of the world still rely on burning fossil fuels for power supply, and these practices are the main source of fine particulates that cause health problems.

Studies by The Nature Conservancy have demonstrated that street trees can be part of a cost-effective portfolio of interventions aimed at controlling particulate matter pollution and mitigating high temperatures in cities. While trees cannot and should not replace other strategies to make air healthier, trees can be used in conjunction with these other strategies to help clean and cool the air.

Moreover, trees provide a multitude of other benefits beyond healthier air. Trees and other vegetation provide habitat in urban areas for a variety of animals and insects, can facilitate better water quality and reduce storm water flows. Of course, natural features also promote the presence of microbes that are thought to improve human health, and they provide relief from the stress of daily living. Feeding birds, smelling flowers, hearing the rustling of leaves in a breeze or just watching a bug going about his daily business takes us outside of ourselves and reunites us with the greater world, however briefly.

Climate change and increased population also places a burden on agricultural systems to provide more and more nutritious food on limited available lands. We’ll have to grow better, smarter and more efficiently, while reducing the damage to natural systems.

Studies show that greater diversity in vegetation is good for farming. Agroforestry, intercropping and other concepts of agroecology have proven to increase yields, mitigate pests and create a healthier environment. Recent studies have provided additional data demonstrating this fact. Cara Byington reported on several studies in which “Scientists found that fields surrounded by habitat had more diverse insect populations, including greater numbers of the beneficial insects – like syrphid flies – that prey on agricultural pests. Conventional farmers often seek to control so-called “bad bugs” (like aphids) with synthetic insecticides, which are both expensive and known to have negative human health consequences.”

The pecan trees and border vegetation of my youth illustrated this needed diversity. The cows could graze the field, add some fertilizer and enjoy the shade of the pecan trees. We and other scavengers could enjoy the nuts, the shade, the view and companionship of an old soul.

The connections between humans and nature are critical to our quality of life and the quality of nature as a whole. Farming not just for the present but for the future is necessary for our very survival. In urban areas, trees can both help make our air healthier and our cities more verdant and livable. They are an important way that we can keep the coming urban world — the cities in which most of us will live — resilient, livable, and thriving.

Additional Reading:

“Nature Doesn’t Hurt Farmers, It Helps”, Cara Byington, Cool Green Science, The Nature Conservancy, June 3, 2016

Planting Healthy Air, A global analysis of the role of urban trees in addressing particulate matter pollution and extreme heat, The Nature Conservancy, 8/25/2016

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