What the ponderosa pines told me

4 Mar

I used to get some funny looks from people.  Well, actually, I get them a lot.  Mostly because I tend to occupy my own universe where a lot of society’s so-called norms don’t apply.  I dress how I want to, for comfort and function, and I’m prone to forget what I’m wearing when it’s necessary to make a trip to the store.

Hence, I may someday appear as one of the People of Walmart.


But that aside, the subject really is plants, specifically the ponderosa pines that grow on the Mogollon Rim of Arizona.  I used to love to spend time on the rim, hiking and camping and just reveling in the smells and sounds of the region.  Once, during a trip through Sunset Crater, my son had gotten an activity book from the ranger station.  One of the activities listed was to smell the ponderosa pine tree itself, and I mean go up and stick your nose in the bark and give it a good sniff.

It smells of chocolate or vanilla, actually.  It varies between trees and between people, but those two scents are distinctive.  We were amazed, and after that experience, we added sniffing to our outings everywhere.  I guess I have a long history of not worrying about what other people think, because we probably appeared a little odd to any casual observer to our activities when hiking or walking anywhere and everywhere.  We sniffed trees.  At least we didn’t pee on them too, which I suppose is a good thing.  (We also sniffed at the height of our heads, just in case you are wondering.)

For us, this tree sniffing was normal, and part of our regular observation of the natural world around us.  We liked it, we smiled at each other as we did it too.  It was a shared thing, almost a secret joy, and we didn’t have to say a word unless we wanted to.

Then, one day, in one of our favorite parts of the national forest, loggers came and cut down many trees near a spot we often stopped for a break beside the road.  It was also a spot we’d often collect hardened chunks of resin from the trees, both ponderosa pine and pinon pine, as there was one big lone pinon there too.  The logged area was about two hundred yards away, and it did look like a disaster zone with skinned logs stacked and waiting for trucks to carry them away, and vast piles of discarded branches just laying there.  Those brush piles, found through out the forest, were our usual source of firewood when we would camp in the forest too.  There was always a lot of it there.  We were talking about the things we’d seen that day, as well as making comments about the logging, wondering how much of an area was slated to be cut, as we began our tree sniffing.

Lo and behold, the trees smelled wrong.  Really wrong.  The whole vanilla/chocolate thing was gone, instead, we smelled a sickly sweet aroma, rather like very fermented fruit.  We changed trees, sniffing each others trees, but it was undeniable.  The trees smelled entirely different.

None of the trees we were sniffing had been touched by the loggers or their equipment.  Nothing had been disturbed on the forest floor at their feet, yet somehow, the logging activity had changed them.  What had changed?  Why?  How did these trees know that those trees had been cut down.

We didn’t have any answers, but we knew without a doubt.  Trees have some kind of consciousness, some way of communicating.

It gave us all a bit more respect for them too.

As we told others of our observation, they would roll their eyes.  It was disregarded as me being a little “touched” and going overboard with the whole nature thing, they would tell me.  There is no way, they’d remind me.

It didn’t matter, I still KNEW they knew, somehow.  I knew they were reacting, and to have a reaction, they had to have had some kind of communication about what was going on.  It also took about six months after our observation (unknown exactly how long after the logging ceased, but they had finished cutting when we made our first observation) before the scents returned to normal.  They had been traumatized.

After years of scoffing, my statement has finally got some scientific proof that these trees may have actually “known” about the logging and actually reacted.   (Here’s the article)  Plants emit gasses when they are damaged, warning their neighbors that trouble is brewing and providing an opportunity to react to protect themselves.  In our case, the changes caused a change in the scent of the bark of the tree that our human noses could detect, even if it didn’t deter us from being near them.

So before you roll  your eyes the next time someone else tells you of their observations of the natural world…remember.  Science doesn’t have all the answers yet, and the event may well be based on actual fact.

And, the next time you are in the woods…remember to not cut down living trees.  They have feelings too.

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