Reverence for the forest cathedral

Stanley Wyatt illustration in “The Great American Forest”

I’ve been reading field guides from the 1960s, focusing on several that Annie Dillard references in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. After finishing The Strange Lives of Familiar Insects, I moved on to “The Great American Forest” by Rutherford Platt.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading old field guides, he noted how steeped in geology they are. Indeed, Platt does an incredible job of describing how forests emerged and thrived in response to geologic shifts.

Here Platt describes Psilophytum, the naked tree, as it struggled to gain a root-hold on dry land hundreds of millions of years ago:

Contemplating the scene in our mind’s eye, the little tree looks lonely in a very empty world. It is a fair day; the sea is calm and blue. The land is low, rolling rock, with no shadows when the sun is high. Land and sea are the same emptiness, blended together in a bluish mist and sultry silence. No gulls squawk. No terns wheel. No sandpipers run back and forth with the sliding waves. Nothing blows in the wind. The only motion is the heaving of sea waves, their breaking and their spreading on the sand, and the doomlike creeping of the tides. Although it is a tree’s nature never to grow alone (trees have an inevitable tendency to form forest), for naked tree there would be neither forest shadows nor forest soil. We can visualize naked trees scattered widely and thrusting upward from black clumps of wrack that frame the broad bay. Their little green sticks might also be seen in a little farther inland in shallow gullies. Their jaunty silhouettes poke up from clumps of ferns and moss where rain water has puddled in depressions of the rock. The stark geometry of naked tree’s world, the eerie stillness, where even the winds, with nothing to whistle through, were silent, the lonely, abruptly vertical, little trees like exclamation points in jejune surroundings, suggest a contemporary abstract painting.

This sounds almost like stage directions for a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. And it reflects Platt’s ability to bring the distant past brilliantly to life as he makes his case for why the American forest is an unrivaled gem of the natural world.

It’s hard not to nod in agreement during Platt’s paean to the great American forest:

The American hardwood forest of history — the domain of the woodland Indians, the forest which was so dangerous and unlivable in the eyes of the first English settlers and which we call primeval today — was in truth a luminous, youthful, supple forest, new-born out of the Ice Age. In the nobility and quality of its trees, in the number of species of trees, bushes, vines and flowers; in the purity of lakes and streams, in the abundance of color of its birds and fish and in the personalities of its animals, no other forest that ever grew on earth could be compared with it. Its vitality was revealed in the way it had created trees of various sizes: for stony places and rich bottom land, for shady ravines and sunny hilltops, for south-facing slopes and north facing slopes. And with the trees were created a host of bushes and herbs with which the forest colonized every niche and corner of its domain.

Witness the bald cypress, which has evolved to thrive in swampy areas where flooding can cause problems. “Bald cypress has the shape of a giant bottle with a long neck,” Platt writes. “This form tends to keep it in a vertical position, in the manner of a toy clown, weighted so that it cannot be tipped over.”

Or the sycamore, which betrays its ancient lineage with bark that it must burst through to grow and expand, similar to the way Dr. Banner shreds his clothes as he transforms into the Hulk.

“Look twice at an old sycamore and you will see how it bears the imprint of antiquity,” Platt says. “Its bark is smooth, but unlike the smooth bark of the more recent cherries and birches, it is inelastic. It rips off as the trunk expands, exposing whitish inner bark. All the trunk and the main limbs of the sycamore are heavy in proportion to the twigs — massive central axis with short slender branches. This is the style of very ancient trees.”

I did run into a few examples of how much botany has progressed in the 50+ years since Platt wrote his book. In a section on the forest floor, Platt gives short shrift to fungi’s role, noting it’s mostly “well stocked with game for the meat eaters — baby earthworms and slugs, and succulent larvae of moths, flies and beetles.” True. But as the movie Fantastic Fungi (which I recently saw at the Athena Cinema) points out, fungi serve as a sort of neural network in the forest. Trees use it to communicate with each other, and we’re only scratching the surface of how sophisticated fungi are.

The book teems with lyrical language and imagery. I also picked up a few new words and etymologies that I found fascinating.

  • Deciduous is from the Latin “to cut off” and reflects the fact that trees of this ilk shed their leaves each fall.
  • Pullulate — breed or spread so as to become extremely common: the pullulating family.
  • “Birches, flaunting white bark and shimmering leaves in the sunlight …”
  • “Gravity, not air-breathing, was the chief obstacle to colonizing land.” He goes on to show how wood and its complex structure made the world as we know it possible.
  • “At the base of some trunks, especially on rocky hill sides where the soil has been washed away from the crown of the roots, their contortions depict the Laocoön struggle of tree roots tackling the ground.” Damn. What an incredible image. Of course, I had to look up Laocoön to get the true impact of this adjective.

In researching this post, I found a great article on Platt in American Forests. Worth checking out if you are so inclined. (Interesting to discover he was from Columbus, Ohio, just up the road …)

Perhaps the best way to close is to turn the floor over to Platt:

“Who can say, “it is in the public interest” to let poison gases from exhausts fill the fragrant misty twilight under the redwood canopy and leave serene giants standing on the remains of their severed sacred ground, quivering in the uproar of tremendous trailer-trucks. If their cathedral had been wrought in stone by man instead of in living cells by sunlight … why doesn’t a redwood cathedral inspire equal reverence.”