This month our book club is reading “Lab Girl”, by Hope Jahren. It’s a memoir written by a scientist who studies trees. It doesn’t sound like it would be very interesting, I know. I mean, how interesting are trees? They are everywhere, and seem pretty basic. And how could a book written about a woman talking about her life getting her PhD to study trees be that interesting?
The answers are: trees are fascinating, and getting a PhD is super interesting, if you write about it well enough.
I like gardening and I like learning about how things grow, so this book fit into my wheelhouse of interest pretty well. But I wasn’t prepared for how it would fundamentally change how I view the natural world around me. And how it would make me feel about trees.
Apparently, trees are just like us. Sort of. What I mean is that they have an infancy, an adolescence, a late stage of life, and then death. And like us, adolescence is the time of the greatest growth for trees, where they shoot up, growing fast and furious to take advantage of their resources. And their main resource is light.
Basically, all forests are full of trees battling each other for light. The tallest of the trees get the best light, obviously, and the ones down at the bottom have to struggle for the precious shafts that come through the leaves. Trees grow quickly so they can beat another tree to the light, or they face certain death. While trees can live on low sunlight, such life is not sustainable over long periods of time. This is a possible explanation why California Redwoods are so old. They dominate all other trees when it comes to getting to the light.
Each year of a tree’s life, they put out more leaves, more branches, all so they can soak up more light and sustain their life. Ideally, they grew tall enough during their adolescence that they are not battling any other tree for the light, but trees always hedge their bets to keep themselves alive. A tree’s re-emergence from a winter slumber is not, as I would have thought, dependent upon temperature. Somehow trees have figured out that temperature can be tricky in the late winter and early spring, and that a warmish day can quickly give way to a layer of frost the next. So they don’t spend their food making their leaves according to when things get warmer. Their production of leaves is timed with the lengthening of days. The lengthening of light. Temperature will fluctuate, but light is ever constant.
After I finished this remarkable book, I was driving out of my neighborhood, and I considered the trees. We live in an especially wooded area of the country, which means that I easily have 30 trees in my backyard. We also have a bazillion squirrels, which means every year I have to pluck out an infant oak tree or two out of my flower beds and window boxes where a squirrel tucked away a forgotten acorn. I’ve had to dig out volunteer maple saplings that sprouted up almost over night in my lawn, and this spring I was astonished to see a 3foot tall tree of some kind burst forth from our compost pile. I keep saying to my husband, “We have to dig that out before the roots become too big and it goes from an easy task to a really really hard one.” He nods and I nod and we vow to get to that tree this weekend and then 3 weeks later, we are having the same conversation. And the tree, the volunteer, now adolescent tree, which has somehow miraculously found a sunny patch in our otherwise rather shady back yard, furiously grows towards the light. At this rate we may need to bring some professional help to remove it.
So as I drove by the towering oaks and elms and maples and pines in my neighborhood, I thought of the battle they are engaged in. A furious, constant, sometimes (maybe) losing battle for light. And I wonder—am I engaged in such a battle? Do I fight for light in my life? Do I time my movements to light? Do I align myself towards light, grow towards it, seek for it, reach for it?
Sadly, the answer is probably not really.
Sure, I go to church, I pray, I read scriptures (sometimes, not daily, sorry, please don’t judge me), I value my family, we avoid R rated movies and other yucky media as best we can. But I spend more time than I should on Netflix, family home evening is a bit hit or miss these days with the kids’ activities, and I also confess that I have a pretty big potty mouth. (But studies say swearing makes you smarter! I read it on the internet so it must be true!) So while I’m not avoiding light, and I feel happy when I find it, I’m not like the trees. I don’t seek light as if my life depends on it. And yet, in so many ways, it does.
At the end of her book, Jahren gives some short but poignant warnings about how climate change is impacting plants in the earth. Humans consistently undervalue trees and how much we need them. She urges, in plain and persuasive language, for every reader to plant a tree. Not a fancy, flashy, trendy tree popular in landscaping, like the Bradford pear tree, a fragrant flowering tree that is actually sort of destroying native trees and is an environmental nightmare. She suggests planting an oak, a solid oak, and nurturing it, feeding it, loving it, so that the people who live in your house after you are gone can also enjoy this oak. An oak is a statement of permanence,an example to the world. An oak is a testimony to the power of light.
Not everybody can plant an oak tree,or has room for such a tree in their yard, but after reading her book I did convince my husband to dig out a particularly treacherous looking bush in our front yard and plant a red bud tree. Red bud trees are native to the eastcoast, and are an undercanopy tree, which means that they bloom early in the spring, low in the canopy of a forest, drinking in the early light of spring before the trees above them spread their leaves and hog it all. We have tried to plant things in that area of the yard before and have been disappointed. Our red bud tree, however, is thriving happily. And it’s leafy joy is a reminder how much we all need the light. How much we need to reach for what will keep us sustained in the end.
I hope Ms. Jahren would approve.
Are you actively filling your life with light?How do you sustain light in your life? What are things that bring light to your life?