This piece appeared in the Aug. 2020 edition of Ripples, our internal newsletter.
People have very emotional relationships with trees, and for good reasons. Trees bear witness to the decades and centuries. They create shade, water,
timber, and food from thin air; store carbon and culture; serve as history books for fires, insect outbreaks, and atmospheric composition. As we mortals pass through our own decades, we often find a tree to journey with, their seeming stability an anchor for our frenetic wanderings.
A couple years ago we watched a giant black oak begin cracking in front of the Motherhouse. After felling, we cut out a “tree cookie” and counted all 109 rings, dating back to 1909 or so. This predates the Motherhouse by more than a decade. The first European settlers born in Marshall County were only in their 60’s when it sprouted and might have passed by this tree. Some perhaps even remembered from childhood the removal of the Potawatomi in 1838.
Another giant of unknown age stands in the horseshoe drive. This Tulip Popular (Liriodendron tulipifera) is Indiana’s state tree and the tallest-growing hardwood species of the eastern U.S. Its leaves feed the caterpillar of the gorgeous Eastern Swallowtail butterfly. Sister Mary measures this tree at 3’6” at breast height. You may have seen a few parking spaces temporarily blocked off next to this Tulip. That’s the work of aphids, raining down sticky “honeydew” from their abdomens as they suck moisture from the leaves. The bounty produced a sugary windfall for all manner of hymenopterans (ants, wasps, and bees). The forest community evolved to handle this, and the aphids’ many predators and parasites will ensure that the Tulip species will persist. The ecological value produced by this single living being – whose life is interwoven with ours and so many others – far exceeds the trivial inconvenience of moving our motor vehicles.
You may have noticed the tree that was felled in the employee parking lot nearby. This was a Basswood or Linden Tree. It grew at a severe tilt to the ground, making it the best candidate to be transformed into beautiful woodwork of the new organ planned in Ancilla Domini Chapel. Even for trees, there is life after death!
Lastly, there are three American Chestnuts hidden on the property, planted by Sister Mary. This species once comprised one in every five trees in Appalachia. A blight (fungus) was introduced from East Asia in 1904, leading to the loss of some 3-4 billion trees and near eradication of the species. Thanks to Sr. Mary’s diligence, foresight, and patient care, we are now stewards of the small genetic remnant that may be used to restore this species over the 21st and 22nd centuries.
Being stewards of these slow and patient beings requires that we not act out of ignorance. Ecologists call this the “precautionary principle.” If we don’t know what we are doing, we hold off on action until we gain wisdom. The fool in a hurry is likely to cause harm, damage that may take centuries to undo.
On this subject, Aldo Leopold wrote:
“The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, “What good is it?” If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of aeons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”
Really great article! I’m in the process of writing about a chestnut tree here at the lake. Great minds.
Thanks! I’m looking forward to reading. Just subscribed! 🙂
Hopefully we will have an announcement about chestnuts soon!
I really enjoyed this article. The framing of the giant black oak’s life puts into perspective how recently we Europeans have occupied this land.
Thanks for reading (and commenting) Leah.
I think I may have slightly miscalculated with the timeframe, but I’m glad it nevertheless got the idea across.
In the 1600’s the continent saw 90% of the human population die of smallpox and infection disease brought by Europeans. What I also find interesting is that the period between that time and European colonization of northern Indiana is about the same time as European colonization and now (~180 years).
There has been extensive debate about how that catastrophic experience changes early settlers understanding of the ecology of the place, as early 19th century was not necessarily representative of how humans occupied the area in the 16th century. That is, there was a huge regrowth of shrubs and trees after the smallpox epidemic, whereas before, prairies & savannas were more widespread, and woodlands more open.
More on that later!