When you know that trees experience pain, you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives – Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees.
I regret causing injury to a tree who is rapidly declining as a result of my negligence.
It’s the semi-dwarf Italian plum that’s lived a productive life in my back yard until my misdeed.
This tale will sound strange to anyone who has not read Wohlleben’s book, or my writings.
It begins 37 years ago. We’d just bought a home in Maple Ridge and wanted fruit trees in the back yard: pink blossoms in spring; organic fruit during the winter.
Vali Lampman was the owner of Our Green Friends. Before introducing anyone to her ‘babies’ – saplings – she had questions for the adoptive parents.
“Are you really, really, sure you want trees?” she began.
I glanced at my wife only to be met with wrinkled brow and eyeballs rolling upward.
“Because,” Vali explained, “baby trees need lots of care. Not everyone has the patience.”
I thought I knew the answer she wanted. “Because we … love them?” I stammered.
She smiled. “Many people live quite happily without trees, you know. Folks who think trees don’t have feelings, shouldn’t have them.”
“Jack and I will be good to our … little ones,” blurted my wife.
Her words haunt me because of that one moment 30 years later, when I’d fail to live up to them.
There were other questions. Did we have rich soil? “Saplings, like teenagers, have huge appetites.” Space? “For inquisitive young roots.” Finally, would we promise “to feed organically, never apply herbicides or pesticides?”
We promised. Vali led us to two saplings, nestled side by side as if for company, their root balls still swaddled in muslin.
“I haven’t named the plum yet,” she said, “but the apple tree is Sam, after my dad, who passed last year. He’s a winesap, uncommon varietal, excellent apple sauce. “Take them both, they’re pals, and … love them.”
We named the plum Italia and planted her near Sam because “trees – like kittens and puppies – grow up looking after each other.”
We were skeptical then, but Wohlleben, a life-long forester, has since proven trees are family orientated, communicate through microscopic fungi from root systems – warn each other of drought, beetle attacks, storms. When one tree is weakened by disease, others share water and nutrients.
Sam has done this and more for Italia, his adopted sister, and soul mate, since I carelessly wounded her. We’d returned from a holiday to find Italia’s every limb heavy with fruit. Some would surely break. I’d support them with two-by-fours, but it was 4 a.m. I had to sleep first.
It was a fatal mistake. Hours later, branches hung by threads like the near-severed limbs of soldiers on a battlefield. The worst, I amputated; others I cinched together as well as I could with heavy insulated wire.
Italia survived, grew new shoots, and after two years, bore fruit again.
“She’ll make it,” my wife said, jubilantly.
Maybe. Last summer, I noticed the ant colony in one of her main branches. They’d entered the wound I hadn’t sutured tightly.
They were in the process of turning Italia’s fibrous core into humus now, eating her from the inside. Italia had struggled through a punishing winter. In her weakened condition, could she endure another amputation?
I doubted it.
“Wait a while then,” my wife said, “See that new growth? Our girl’s a real trooper. Let’s see what she does.”
We will have another hot, dry summer.
Two weeks ago, I promised Italia I’d water her every day if we did.
“I’m so sorry,” I said repeatedly, “for failing you in your hour of need.”
The other day, there were buds on new and healthy looking branches.
Jack Emberly is a retired teacher, local author and environmentalist.