Collecting Fabulous Trees: On Climate Anxiety, Adaptation, and Plants

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I have started taking pictures of trees while out on walks with my daughter. I have always loved trees. My wedding ring set is even designed to look like tree branches twisted together. This summer, however, as the trees started to leaf out more, the sun coming through the canopy caught my eye more than usual and at first I wasn’t sure why.

The park near our house mostly features grasslands with dirt or paved trails snaking by soccer fields, a canal, and homes. Where the dirt trail crosses the paved trail at the canal, old-growth trees line the path, their roots reaching toward the water.
In the afternoons, I take the stroller out for a jog on the trails, feeling relieved by the shade provided by the trees. The effort that it takes to push the stroller up and down the hilly path draws my mind toward worry and, more than anything else, I worry about the climate. After a few weeks of photographing trees, I realize that this impulse to capture their beauty is tied to that climate anxiety. I start to post my tree photos, hoping to remind my little bubble of how beautiful they are.
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Trees are not just beautiful. They are also foundational to the health of our planet, a fact so obvious that, of course, we are forced to realize it now that the consequences of the Industrial Era are starting to hit home. Trees sequester carbon, produce oxygen, cool off urban communities, provide shelter, and lower our blood pressure. New studies have discovered that trees even have wisdom and communicate with each other, as dying trees use fungal networks in the soil to transmit resources to younger trees, and different species of trees exchange nutrients so that they can achieve the balance best for each member of a diverse forest.

Recently, a study warned that by 2080, Colorado will have lost half of its snowpack and will resemble Arizona more than it does the ecosystem we know today. Already, every year seems to bring worse fires and less snow on a later schedule, even in just the six years I have lived here. I feel the anxiety catch in my throat a bit, thinking about what it would mean to the plants and animals in this ecosystem for a change like that to take place. Then, I remind myself that by 2080, I will be 93 years old. My toddler daughter will be 60. Certainly, a change like that is consequential, but it does not happen immediately. There is time along the way to adapt and to change with the climate. What will it mean, I wonder, for the old-growth trees? Some days, as I look at the afternoon sun finding its way through the towering trees next to our neighbors’ house, I wonder how old they are and if they will make it. I wonder how we are supposed to grieve heroes such as these.


288257950_10224985630440833_3886830069211995493_nWhile we deal with drought, my hometown experienced a thunderstorm with 98-mile-per-hour winds. Perhaps the strength of the storm had nothing to do with a changing climate. Strong summer storms are not unusual for the Midwest, but, at least in my memory, Northeast Indiana is usually spared the worst of them. The following morning, a nearly twenty-year-old willow tree was on its side by the pond in my mother’s backyard. She and my father planted the tree when my sister was a baby. The last picture taken of the tree was at her graduation party. Around the house, mature trees were splintered or torn up from the roots. They looked like toys that could just be set back upright, the circle of grass around their base smoothed neatly into place. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We get winds approximately that strong every winter here and even our baby apple trees stood up to the 100-mile-per-hour winds that sparked the Marshall Fire. My husband pointed out that they take that wind year after year. Strong winds; strong trees.

Mature trees look like they can withstand anything. They adapted, growing strong and durable through wind, frost, and drought, and made it to full-sized trees, providing shelter, habitat, and food for the ecosystem around them. A well-cared-for tree is meant to be stable, perhaps outliving every human and animal around it. Some species of animals, such as owls, can only build their nests in old-growth trees. I think it’s a mistake to believe that if we lose the old-growth trees and the owls we won’t lose ourselves as well.
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One day, on our walk, I listen to a story about the planting of the Green Belt in Kenya. In 1977, under the guidance of Professor Wangari Maathai, the women of rural Kenya started planting trees to help restore their ecosystem, addressing their own issues of having to walk further for water and work harder for firewood and food. After thirty years, Professor Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and The Green Belt Movement has planted over 30 million trees. Planting trees not only revived the watershed and improved the soil quality, but the project also brought about economic and social capital for the women, improving their lives and giving them power within their communities. The tiny saplings grew into mature trees that had the power to heal the climate and social issues.

For generations, writers have used venturing into the forest as a method for finding and healing oneself, either literally or metaphorically. Unaware of their existential importance, trees just go about their business, living and dying and healing their ecosystem as they do. Trees also have the ability to heal themselves, adapting and adjusting to their surroundings in ways that can be seen on a small scale, too.
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We have a Fiddle Leaf Fig in our bedroom, a houseplant that I have been tending for almost three years. Pardon me if you’ve heard about this plant before; it has become a legend in my home for its sheer endurance. In its native Africa, a Fiddle Leaf Fig can grow up to 40 feet tall. As a houseplant, it is notoriously fickle. My little Fig, however, was doing really well until a pack rat who was sneaking into our house stole all of its leaves. Twice. And the immature portion of its trunk. The tree was literally just a stick in a pot. I didn’t throw it out, kept watering it, and it recovered to such an extent that it has now moved up to a 12” pot and it sood over five feet tall. That tree is a marvel. A high desert like Colorado does not provide the humidity that it would prefer. A house is a poor substitute for a jungle. A rat stole its leaves. And still, it grows, turning and twisting toward the sun in its West-facing window, shooting up a dozen leaves in the summer and then resting in the winter. In my failure to turn it weekly, the Fiddle Leaf Fig grew to lean on the window, reaching for the sun, and the trunk developed a severe lean. My attempts to correct it were too little, too late, resulted in a sunburn, and I still had to cut back about 24 inches of height from the tree, hoping that it would grow back stronger and straighter. Ultimately, it will probably branch out, becoming more of a bush than a tree, but its roots are strong and I have faith that it will survive. The resilience of this tree seems to also reach toward a parable about what plants can do if given a chance. Technology will certainly play a part if we manage to escape the worst of the looming climate crisis, but so much healing could happen, so quickly, if we invested seriously in plants doing their work and stopped working so hard against them. (The devil works hard, but Big Oil works harder.)

It has been an uncommonly windy spring. I grew up in a place where the wind never stops, and even I felt like the force of the wind was relentless, excessive even. The trees are in a near-constant state of motion, the soft fluttering of their leaves soundtracked by the wind rushing past our ears. I started to think about those pioneer women who were driven out of their minds by the wind. In May, the wind came in so hard that at night it screamed through the doorframe to our patio, making me feel like I was sleeping in the hull of a ship. The wind brought with it 5 inches of snow, falling on branches that had just started to leaf out. Under the weight of the leaves and the snow, the trees’ limbs sank, reaching toward the ground. Some limbs snapped. One landed on the powerline connecting the barn to the house, straddling the wires, but not breaking them. I went out the next morning with a broom and shook as much snow as I could from the branches, dodging snow as it fell to the ground. Relieved limbs stretched back toward the sky. The beginning of our garden survived the snow, tucked under blankets and tarps, and, because we had just had the trees trimmed, our backyard did not look entirely like a tornado had blown through.

Ahead of the storm, we frustrated gardeners moaned about our seedlings and pots of flowers. I fussed over the patio garden that I lugged inside, snuggling the plants as best I could under a grow lamp for two days. The trees had neither a forecast nor a tarp to use. Chilled leaves drooped, and smaller limbs continued to fall under the force of the wind nearly two months after the storm. The storm was out of season for the trees, too.

Of course, weather and climate are not the same things. These storms could be singular events, not reflective of a long-term change, but seeing the trees struggle through the wind and snow made me wonder if they will have time to adapt to a changing climate. Evolution is slow, but the changes projected by climate forecasters are not likely to play out at a usual speed. Will our trees here die from drought or from bugs that will thrive in winters with much less snow? Will the trees back home continue to fall over under the force of storms or will they grow stronger, able to persevere? I hope the trees along our trail will find a way to survive as well.
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Today, on the day that the Supreme Court handed down their devastating decision in West Virginia vs. EPA, my daughter and I went to the Botanic Gardens with our friend Rachele. Much of the gardens contain flowers and smaller plants, and we enjoyed looking at the colors and watching the bees at work. At the edge of the garden stands a three-story greenhouse where the tropical plants and trees live. From the outside, it looks like a future utopia, a tall, beautiful glass structure, with the shadows of the large trees hinting at the forest housed within. On the inside, it looks like Eden. Although I smiled when I saw a Fiddle Leaf Fig looking even shabbier than mine, despite the humidity, my predominant emotion was wonder. “Can you imagine growing that tall?” I asked Rachele, looking up at the palms that reached from the ground to high above our heads on the third floor. The diversity of the trees’ colors and textures worked together, across the glass haven, to create a seemingly impenetrable canopy.
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I looked up at these trees on the day that six powerful people decided that the EPA cannot regulate the emissions from power plants. The major headlines hint at how disastrous this ruling is for the fight against climate change. I felt so angry on the way to the garden. My frustration, fury, and fear of late could probably serve as a renewable energy source. Under the trees, however, I felt so small, in the good way. I looked down at my daughter and saw that the breath of the trees, trapped under the glass, had started to condensate on her flushed cheeks and made her hair go curly. Such small people, up against such a force as nature. I will work forever, however I can, for a better, safer, cleaner future for my girl and the rest of us, but the trees don’t need me. The natural world will find a way to heal, given enough time. The real question is if humanity will still be around to see it, and what our lives will look like if we are. If we can learn from the trees, we need to keep our eyes on the wisdom of the forest. It’s not a parable about individual adaptation. We have to work together, as a system, for all of us to flourish.

Now, as I write, above my head hangs a pink Nephthytis in a “Sky Planter.” The planter suspends the plant upside down, like a chandelier, and features a basin at the top for self-watering. It looks precarious but fabulous. The Nephthytis is delicate and leggy, but healthy, and my desk window offers the medium-low light that the plant shop said it could take. Yet, over the course of a day, the leaves have curled upward toward the sun, rejecting the idea that they should hang down from the sky. I wonder if the plant will continue to grow in this way, climbing toward the window, adapting to this upside-down environment invented by some houseplant enthusiast. I may make it a mascot, watching it adapt and grow as I do myself.
(Unless it dies.)

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