All difficulties are but easy when they are known

I find it encouraging to chance upon information that I already know -stuff that makes me think I’m still keeping up; stuff that reassures me that I’m not quite yesterday’s man -this morning’s perhaps, but at least not struggling in the wake of the next boat. This is important for an elder; the young used to come to us for advice; now they just Email us with a website in the off chance we’re still interested.

I’m not trying to sound erudite, however; much of what I know I have acquired with open ears and inquisitive eyes; I listen to what the very young are asking and try to reply in kind. Sometimes, though, I have no need to reply because it is not a question they are asking, but an observation they are making and a theory to explain it: early Scientific Method in action, I suspect. But, more on that in a minute if you’ll indulge me.

There is much serendipity to Life, don’t you think? An unsuspected partnership between seen and unseen. I happened upon a delightful little article on urban trees, written by a forest ecologist Alison Munson from Université Laval en Québec (c’est en Français, malheureusement.)

Munson writes about the fact that there is more to a tree than meets the eyes. It’s ability to thrive in a given area is as dependent on what goes on around its roots as in the environment in which it is placed. And, ‘According to Élise Beauregard, a landscape planner who studies soils and who has more than twenty-five years of experience in landscape architecture in Montreal, “we do not treat the ground as a ‘living’ element but simply a neutral matrix, like concrete.”’

Much like in a forest, the interconnected fungi and its root system is essential to the wellbeing a tree wherever it finds itself. But if you think about it, the ground beneath a city tree may contain pipes, or wires, and the usual debris that becomes buried under sidewalks and roads may interfere with the soil health. And not only that, each type of tree may have distinct requirements for its nutrition and maintenance that needs to be considered. You can’t just plant stuff willy-nilly and expect it to grow normally. Forest trees, like families, live together when they can, because their requirements are similar and they can share nutrients and fungal communication systems.

Of course, too much of the same is often boring for city folks, so biodiversity can help to encourage them to support greening their neighbourhoods. But even that must be chosen with care -as with people, plant diets differ. ‘The compacted and infertile soils that are often found in cities cannot support a great wealth of perennial species. Frequent disturbances of urban soils (works, human traffic, accumulation of salts) result in a degradation of processes important for the renewal of their fertility (cycling of carbon and nitrogen, for example, by the continuous addition of organic matter), therefore resulting in less biodiverse plant areas.’

Even urban lawns require some work –‘The lack of return of organic matter in lawns… causes a decrease in the potential of ecosystem services: water retention, carbon storage and fertility… Also the massive importation of fertile soil or peat for new development is simply not sustainable; the soil is not a renewable resource in the short term.’

The soil is a living entity as much as the plants it supports above it. In modern cities, however, one assumes these needs do not escape the ever vigilant ecologists -although as new developments flourish, I have to wonder how difficult it must be to factor in the changes to the green ecosystem: putting in a new sewage system, or even storm drains to service a building across the road might have unintended consequences. And instead of worrying about the soil beneath the cement, it might be financially tempting just to plant new trees if the old ones die. I mean, if trees are simply a vehicle for the sequestering of greenhouse gases, then it’s easier just to keep replacing them… As long as there’s something green to break the monotony of concrete and brick, then maybe everybody wins…

Well, ‘In the city, our canopies are made up of trees of all ages, but it is the old trees that provide us the most benefits. These will not be visible for 30 or 40 years in new plantations.’ So, is it just the thought that counts -just the green…?

My daughter has always disagreed. One day, years ago, I was walking through a busy downtown area in the city with her when she stopped mid-sidewalk and pointed to a young tree growing by itself in a little boulevard between two rows of passing cars. She must have been only 7 or 8 at the time, and although she also lived in the city -albeit in an admittedly more heavily treed area- I was curious as to why she found the solitary maple so interesting. Actually, from the expression on her face, it seemed more disturbing to her than interesting.

“We had a talk from a ‘cologist last week,” she said -as if that was enough of an explanation. I decided to probe her a little with my eyes to find out what she meant. She looked at me with one of her eyes closed and shook her head. “Daddy,” she said, shaking her head as if I was one of the kids who sat in the back row of her school room for a reason. “It’s was a person who takes care of the forest who came to our class.”

I felt I should clarify the word. “You mean ecologist…?”

She tilted her head to one side, just like her mother, and sighed. “Anyway, she told us how connected trees are in a forest. They grow in families with their children never very far away.” She stared at the tree again for a moment. “And she said they can talk to each other through little wires that stretch between them under the ground, or something…”

“Fungi,” I clarified; I thought I should show her I knew a little about it.

She nodded her head -sadly, I thought- and stayed silent for a bit. Finally, she glanced at me and then back at the tree. “I don’t think they should make it live by itself like that… It’s an orphan now, daddy.”

I waited for her to finish her thought, but she grabbed my hand and silently pulled me down the street. Children have a way of being in a world that we ignore at our peril…


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