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The value of great old trees

In the woods in Persimmon Ridge Park, one finds Luke’s trail obstructed somewhat, near its camp-ground entrance, by limbs and withered foliage of a fallen white ash.
Of stature such as author Donald Peattie would style an “umbrageous” (shade) tree, its long horizontal arms now hug the ground, though several reach up into the newly open space above, seemingly forty feet or higher.
Its trunk dimension below the breakage point exceeding 30 inches of diameter, this fallen giant may have been among the park’s true veteran trees.
On the down-slope when it crashed, the ash brought down with it a number of younger — basswood, beech, sugar maple and other — companions, the splintered stem of a sizeable beech now a pedestal, as it were, to hold the bole of the fallen comrade.
A display in an exhibit on the extraordinary diversity of trees, plants and animals in the Amazon jungle, in Leipzig (Germany) this summer, told a remarkable story.
When a giant tree becomes old and decayed and near death, botany scientists have found, volatile chemical substances spread out from it, “informing all the surrounding plants that the tree has been taken ill.”
They, in turn, “enter into an alert ‘stress’ stage” that protects them from possible germ infection, and await the old giant’s death.
When, with a thundering crash this eventually comes, years of abundance begin for the fungi and bacteria which return its nutrients to the soil, the better to help the saplings to grow that have bided their time in the pool of shade under the old tree’s foliage.
White ash seedlings, such as there are many in the new natural clearing in our park, at only a foot high may be fifteen years old, writes Peattie.
How long have they sensed, or “known,” from the elder’s messengers, that their day of sunlight and growth spurt was imminent, one wonders.
A new book, Losing our cool, by Kansas agriculturist and environmental writer Stan Cox opens with reflections on the near intolerable heat he encountered, 114 degrees in the sun, on a July day in Phoenix.
It made him ponder how an indigenous people, the Hohokam who occupied this central Arizona-Valley area into the 15th century, numbering up to sixty thousand, could live there and sustain a thriving civilization “through a thousand such summers,” without artificial cooling technology such as the now near-universal air-conditioning.
On posing this question to the city’s archeologist he learned that, among other practices, the Hohokam “clearly appreciated the value of trees and would have left plenty of shade trees standing” amidst the network of canals from which they watered their crops.
This last is an observation with which I sympathize strongly, more especially so after a giant hybrid-poplar tree shading the south side of the house had to be removed last fall.
With no liking for air-conditioning, and thus, by choice, not having it, the loss has made this year’s exuberant summer heat somewhat trying at times.
Ah, for the value of great old trees!