Thursday, August 14, 2008

Trees, We Love Them

A friend called my attention to the NYT's profile of Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a medical researcher who has written books about trees, including Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest.

Her ideas range from the common-sensical to the visionary (and perhaps beyond, to the wishful).
She tries to bring together aboriginal healing, Western medicine and botany to advocate an unusual role for trees. She favors what she terms a bioplan, reforesting cities and rural areas with trees according to the medicinal, environmental, nutritional, pesticidal and herbicidal properties she claims for them, which she calls ecofunctions. Wafer ash, for example, could be used in organic farming, she said, planted in hedgerows to attract butterflies away from crops. Black walnut and honey locusts could be planted along roads to absorb pollutants.
One thing the article's author focuses on is the speculative nature of some of her proposed uses for trees. Many are based on folk medicinal lore, some of which has been confirmed by science and some of which are certainly far-fetched.

© Scot MacLean

But the real challenge of her ideas seems to me to be something different--it is a radical idea that we should look to the particular uses of trees and plan which trees grow where based on their uses rather than their appearance. For one thing, most forests aren't planned, they just grow. Urban forests are partly planned, as when city foresters pick street trees to create an aesthetic and disease-resistant mixed forest. (This is a top concern ever since our monoculture street trees were devastated by Dutch elm disease.) But urban forests are mostly unplanned. Norway maples, at least in my New York neighborhood, grow wherever they find soil and aren't pulled up or mowed down. And people make aesthetic decisions about planting trees which are based on fashion and availability.

Planning a forest, outside of the context of plantation planting or restoration projects, is a novel idea. I think that some might jump on this idea and worry that too much planning undermines the agency of nature. That is not my worry. The agency of nature is already working against a great burden. Apathy is the real force that would work against it. For instance, some would not see the point in growing medicinal or food trees when we are living in such a time of plenty. A half dozen times last month, neighbors saw me and my kid grazing on mulberries and asked "You really eat those?"

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