Introduction to a Tree


Wonder is a function of the degree of resolution—in birdsong, in optics, in philosophy, in theology.

-Charles Foster, “In Which I Try to Become a Swift”

Doug Ladd, until recently the Director of Conservation at Missouri Nature Conservancy, led us on a wide-ranging, foundational conversation on the meaning and biology of trees, and the abiding link between temperate forests and humans. Treeness, he argues, is best understood as a morphological definition of something that conferred advantage. Here, he skipped from tree to carnation to dandelion to draw out a point on adaptation, and the increased fitness through natural selection. The conversation took us through the ancient Quercus prelobata, oak fruits, cache trees of woodpeckers, green tree reservoirs, apical dominance, and cellular senescence, and forward through our own Quercus palustris and their native flatwood habitats.

With an initial, deceptively simple prompt to construct a model of a tree, Doug in fact introduced into the discussion two questions: what is a tree, and what is a model. Here, the question of relationships–of the network of associations that allow something we call a tree to emerge in the first place–proved to be crucial. As we sketched and annotated our clumsy tree diagrams, questions of reproduction, fungal associations, structural stability, water and nutrient exchange, and habitat were all teased out of the conversation. The model of one tree quickly gave way to the idea of a vast biological system that happens to include a tree.

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