In my conservation biology class, we have been considering the different values that can be placed on nature. Your favorite species of tree perhaps, can be assigned a value preceded by a dollar sign—should it blow down, your insurance company for one will be able to tell you exactly how much it was worth even though you could never pick up a 50 year old tree from the store. If you cut your tulip poplar down, you could burn it next year or sell the wood, direct use values. But then you would lose the value, the sheer enjoyment of looking at it out the window, or swinging your child from one of its branches, or sitting beneath its shade on a warm summer afternoon while reading something like A Sand County Almanac. And all the while you spent admiring it, or forgetting it, it would be busy sequestering carbon, soaking up water from the soil, producing oxygen, letting a bird nest in its branches so that each morning you could hear it calling out the business of the day. We can put dollar signs on it all (even the dollar bills themselves will have come from trees).
Aldo Leopold is a lover of trees and there are many pages devoted to his debates over which tree to cut down and whether or not he’s wrong to favor the white pine he planted over the red birch that sprung up on its own. His determination, “The only conclusion I have ever reached is that I love all trees, but I am in love with pines,” has me thinking about the trees I love and those that changed my life, something I have not tried to assign a dollar value to, even if I have assigned value nonetheless.
My first research internship with the US Forest Service had me climbing towers (see an example below) with a graduate student measuring photosynthetic activity of the leaves of trees at different points in the canopy. Climbing up the tower, I remember seeing all of the tulip poplar flowers sitting on branches like cups of tea. That is a tree I fell in love with…it was such a surprise and the flowers looked like something out of Willie Wonka’s factory. The graduate student was a quiet man down on the ground, but a little chattier up in the tops of trees. Really, he has a lot in common with trees, I have come to know these last 20 years: He is steady and reliable, patient and kind (if you will allow trees some kindness), a man with a soft heart who wears a suit of bark (really, some of his clothes are intolerable); he leafs out in a predictable fashion and where those leaves fall will be far and wide, and should you nag a tree, it will pay you no heed. My husband and I have “a tree” (the tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera) the way other people have “a song.” Yet, ironically, we do not actually have a tulip poplar tree and I realize it would have been better than a box of chocolates (the reality is, I will eat them all anyway). I must stop now to find a piece of paper to write my valentine an IOU for a certain tree to remind us when we forget why it is we are both in love with tulip poplars.