Our communality with trees


Getting a Christmas tree is much simpler these days. Long forgotten are the times that we drove out into the Swiss mountains with a small hatchet in the trunk of our old Volvo, fully intent on committing the crime of stealing a perfect young Spruce to fit our “religious” needs.

A lot of time, planning, and hard work went into those little expeditions. Not always were the results totally satisfying as, in the wild, trees are like people — they differ a lot and very few are perfect — present company excluded.

Some had totally straight stems but crooked branches. Others were thin and scrawny, like underfed, sickly children. In fact, most of them had some defect or other and would not present an even, pretty profile, once decorated with lights and baubles in a corner of our living room.

In the U.S. we do things better, I think, or do we just have a better climate for young aspiring Christmas trees? To fill our needs this year we visited a local hardware store — I will not tell you which one as I do not wish to be accused of unfair favoritism — and after inspecting about a dozen identical Fraziers, we tossed up a coin to help us choose between the two most perfect specimens.

How do they do it? Grow truckloads of identical Frazier twins, quadruplets, thousandlets? I suspect something not totally kosher is happening here. A little or perhaps a lot of fiddling with the DNA of the Frazier family, like what they do with our fruits and vegetables? Just the other day we bought some nice-looking apples that were identical in appearance as well as their total lack of taste. 1984 and worse is rapidly approaching.

Perhaps it is not all as bad as it seems. Perhaps these trees are all alike because they are grown on a farm, evenly spaced, watered, and fertilized — so totally different from the way trees grow in the wild, where the environment and competition play a much more dominant role. They all start off the same, but soon one of the siblings gets hurt by a beetle or a hailstone, and another gets trampled on by a deer or a human, and from that moment on their shape and appearance will be different from the others, and as they get really old they will hardly be able to recognize each other, these old gnarly fir trees in the forest. “Is that really you, Amber? Good Lord, you have aged well since I last looked at you.”

“Yeah, yeah, old Barkus, let me return the compliment, you are as ugly and charming as ever.”

I can’t vouch for it but I have read that trees communicate between them, by playing footsie with each other’s roots. Sort of under the cover of a blanket of needles and leaves. As I look out of the window at my forest of trees I am struck by the rather romantic idea that we have a multitude of love affairs in progress, right in our backyard. I hope they keep it decent out there. For all I know there may be all manner of footsie rootsie going on, like incest or even worse, inter-racialism. Imagine the offspring of a pine and an apple tree. . .And now they even have snow in Hawaii.

I need to get back to the subject – nature’s diversity and the role of the environment. I have among my many relatives a couple of nephews, and they were born identical. They looked exactly alike and followed almost identical careers. Both became surgeons, both married, and had three children each and now after close to 60 years of life, they do not look alike at all. What happened? The environment happened.

Like it did to the trees below, drawn by the visionary Italian artist, designer, inventor, futurist, and visual philosopher Bruno Munari (Oct. 24, 1907–Sept. 30, 1998)

In his words: “Here we are at the point where the sky turns dark and a real storm comes, the tree waves frantically in the wind as if it were afraid. A flash of lightning from the almost black sky hits the tree that disappears in a blaze of light. Through the heavy rain, you can see part of the tree on the ground, a big limb with its smaller branches. All you hear is the sound of the heavy rain on the leaves.

“The next year the tree is different, wounded. New branches still shoot out, but the tree is different now. This is how trees change shape: a flash of lightning, the weight of the snow on the branches, insects that gnaw at the wood… and the tree takes on a new appearance.”

Without the effects of the environment, trees would follow geometric fractal growing patterns, as in those shown below, also by Munari.

Personally, I am very thankful that we have an environment to mold and influence us. Just think of it, without its guiding effect you might all look like me, but only if you were lucky.