TOM EARNHARDT: Trees hold up the sky

Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020 -- During difficult times, trees -- nature's pillars -- keep the sky from falling. Not only do they hold up the sky, but more than any other living things, trees define our sense of place and provide much needed equilibrium. Their shapes, bark, leaves, smells, and colors tell us where we are in North Carolina.

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EARNHARDT-5 Fraser Fir
EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Earnhardt has been described as the “steward of North Carolina outdoors.” A lawyer, he pioneered environmental law in the state. He is an avid naturalist and was co-producer of more than 80 episodes of the natural science television series “Exploring North Carolina.” His observations and photos are a regular weekend feature for the coming weeks.

I am happiest when the trees around me are older than I am. I spent the day after Election Day, looking at the tops of trees in my yard and in Umstead State Park. When I am tense and the world around me lacks clarity, being surrounded by trees is grounding and calming. During difficult times, trees — nature’s pillars — keep the sky from falling.

Not only do they hold up the sky, but more than any other living things, trees define our sense of place and provide much needed equilibrium. Their shapes, bark, leaves, smells, and colors tell us where we are in North Carolina. For example, wind-gnarled live oaks with dark leathery leaves — accompanied by thickets of yaupon, myrtle, and red cedar — inform me that I am on the North Carolina coast.

When I see the smooth gray bark of tupelo (AKA swamp black gum) and reddish-skinned bald cypress, standing in the water with trunks shaped like bell-bottom pants, I know that I am in the coastal plain along the Roanoke, Tar, or Cape Fear. Widely spaced pine trees, with long needles and tops barely touching, in a carpet of wire grass and bracken ferns assure me I am in a longleaf pine savanna.

Mixtures of hickory, chestnut oak, white oak, and spindly pines on rocky soil tell me I’ve arrived in the Piedmont. And I know that I’m in the embrace of a mountain cove forest when surrounded by American beech, tulip poplar, northern red oak, yellow buckeye, basswood, sugar maple, eastern hemlock, and yellow birch. Finally, Fraser fir and red spruce signal a cooler “northern” ecosystem when I am near the top of one of our highest peaks.

Whether we fully appreciate it or not, trees also hold our world together. They hold river banks in place, keep mountain sides from sliding, and when linked together, trees form barriers that protect farm fields and homes from wind and storm. Tree buffers assure water quality in inland rivers and coastal estuaries. As if this weren’t enough, trees help the world breathe by producing oxygen, and enable the planet to stay cooler by storing CO2 (carbon sequestration) in their trunks, limbs, and roots.

Their very presence provides permanence and stability. Just like pencil marks and dates on doorframes in houses marking the growth of our children over many years, the height and diameter of trees help mark change in our lives. My family and I have been fortunate to live in the same house for 30 years.

When our son was born in 1991, we planted a bald cypress next to the creek in our yard. In 1994 we planted a American beech to mark the birth of our daughter. Both the trees, now 60 feet tall, and our children have matured and grown in countless ways over the past quarter century.

Some trees in our yard bear scars — broken limbs or a pronounced “lean” — marking events like Hurricanes Fran (1996) and Floyd (1999). A couple of our larger trees have twisted limbs and scars that date back to Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Just like humans, trees can show injury and stress.

As I have grown closer to the earth over three quarters of a century, I have looked for the largest, oldest trees around me and wondered what people or events passed under their limbs. Old trees, often called “witness trees,” grow in proximity to important places and events. Many of us are familiar with the “Davie Poplar,” on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. Known to be about 350 years old, it was already a mature tree when the university was founded 1789. It has seen and heard governors, generals, presidents, and tens of thousands of young Tar Heels seeking a better life.

I am even more interested, however, in the ancient cypress on Phelps Lake and those lining the Pasquotank, Roanoke, and Black rivers. You may remember that the oldest living bald cypress on the Black River are over 2,000 years old. These trees witnessed generations of native Americans in dugout canoes long before the arrival of the first Europeans.

The same trees saw enslaved African-American watermen moving the cargo and farm products of a new state and nation. They also observed African-American families seeking freedom on the “Underground Railroad” that incorporated many eastern Tar Heel waters.

North Carolina’s ancient forest sentinels are also repositories of information that we are just beginning to comprehend. The rings of a tree are simple structures. Each ring has two parts: light colored wood in a ring shows the growth of a tree in spring and early summer, while the darkest part of a tree ring marks growth in late summer and early fall.

Wide rings usually indicate wet, warm growing seasons. Narrow growth rings tell of slow growth from lack of water or sun. Tree rings can record forest fires of the past and a changing climate. In short, our oldest trees have not only witnessed the activity of humankind, they are also libraries of natural history and change.

I have one final observation about the trees I know well in North Carolina. The almost 500 native woody plants found in this state rarely do well alone or isolated.

Trees survive best as part of a natural community, in which each plant, animal, and fungi, has an important role. From the largest trees providing shade, food and nesting sites, to the smallest insects and birds responsible for seed distribution and pollination, everything is connected. In our diverse forest communities, there is both symphony and synchrony.

As I walked through my yard and Umstead State Park last week looking high into the trees, I saw recently occupied bird nests, hustling squirrels, the chrysalises and cocoons of next year’s butterflies/moths, and myriad seed forms. As trees of every size and shape quietly performed their assigned duties, I knew they were also capturing CO2 and recording the history of the year in their rings. Even when stressed, each member of a natural community knows how to pull together and survive.

I could not help but wonder what the trees must think about their human neighbors. We have not done well confronting the pathogen threatening all of us, and we seem to have forgotten the rules and courtesies that once united our communities. How will this discord and disfunction be reflected in the tree rings of 2020?

After looking up for several days, I have decided to plant another tree in our yard before year’s end. It will be a long-lived species native to the Piedmont. The tree will mark a new beginning, provide important eco-services in the yard, serve as a witness, and record the events around it for future generations. Most important, it will be a constant reminder that we are healthier and happier when we work together.

Remembering: Trees hold up the sky,

Loblolly Pines (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)
American Sycamore (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)

Trees hold up our sky. Two of my favorite skyscrapers found in many parts of North Carolina are the loblolly pine (Photo 1) and American sycamore (Photo 2), both of which can reach over 100 feet in height.

Live Oaks (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)

Trees tell me exactly where I am in North Carolina. Wind–gnarled live oaks are found behind the Outer Banks, like these twisted trees near Corolla (Photo 3).

Tupelo/Swamp Black Gum trees (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)

Tupelo, or swamp black gum, tell me I am in the floodplain of one of North Carolina’s great eastern rivers, like the lower Tar River shown here (Photo 4).

Fraser Fir (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)

Naturally occurring Fraser fir are found on North Carolina peaks above 6,000 feet, including these trees with Mount Craig shown in the background (Photo 5).

Bald Cypress (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)
American Beech (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)

My wife and I planted trees for each of our children—a bald cypress to celebrate our son in 1991 (Photo 6), and an American beech at the birth of our daughter in 1994 (Photo 7). Both trees and children are doing just fine.

UNC-CH Davie Poplar (courtesy UNC-CH)

“Witness trees” are usually large, old trees located in proximity to important people, places, or events. The “Davie Poplar” at UNC Chapel Hill has seen leaders and future leaders of North Carolina and the nation pass in its shadow (Photo 8).

Bald Cypress on the Black River (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)

As a student of North Carolina history, it is hard for me to imagine what the bald cypress on the Black River have observed—Native Americans, early explorers, enslaved people, and 2,000 years of coastal storms (Photo 9).

Heart carved with "I-L-Y" on tree (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)
Roots (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)

Let us not forget that native trees perform countless services and are integral members of natural communities (Photo 10). They keep the sky from falling and hold our world together (Photo 11).

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