Illustrations by Curtis Parker
We have a dozen evergreens — pine, fir, spruce — in our half-acre yard. They are taller than our two-story house, but not as tall as the vast honey locusts or the towering cottonwood or the giant, looming elm. It “looms” because high winds splintered the beast, knocking its top half into a neighbor’s yard. Its remaining arms — thick as telephone poles — still stretch high to the sky, swaying majestically and ominously whenever the wind blows.
There is a big, broad-limbed maple, too, and several smaller maples that have shot up here and there in “the wild area” across the back of our lot. Most of these trees reside in this mosh pit of extravagant growth, along with sassafras, honeysuckle and mulberry trees of assorted sizes. The rose of Sharon has happily sprouted a few dozen start-ups, and we have trillium and hosta, some holly bushes, mayapples and an exuberance of perennial weeds of unidentified lineage. These all vie for sun and space amid years of leaves and sticks and stumps, a ground floor of decaying detritus, burrowing insects and little land mammals. This veritable free-for-all occupies about a third of our backyard.
The neighbors on the other side of this woodland menagerie said the couple who predated us had wanted to live in a forest, and they refashioned their grassy corner of suburbia with some success.
Not only did we inherit the yard’s woodsy borders but also flowering crab-apples and tulip trees, a Bradford pear and river birch, two sweet dogwoods and a lofty effusion of Ailanthus altissima, trees of heaven. We were also the beneficiaries of lush gardens expertly designed, meticulously tended, doggedly weeded. Our first summer in the house we were treated to a series of surprising blooms. From early spring until late autumn, fading blossoms here gave way to emerging colors there: daffodils and tulips, coneflowers and black-eyed Susans, false indigo, irises, lilies, Mexican primrose, billowing hydrangeas and sinuous vines of resplendent morning glory.
My mother often told the story of the time she lamented the condition of our yard when I was little, confiding to a neighbor that she felt bad our place looked so disheveled. The neighbor spoke of priorities: “You shouldn’t worry about growing grass or flowers,” he said, “when you are busy raising children.”
I have clung to that mantra over these years of backyard badminton and Wiffle ball, as we have knocked around soccer balls and volleyballs, chalked up the driveway, ridden bikes, coached and driven kids to their athletic endeavors — and lamented the condition of our yard. We have weeded and mulched, trimmed back and cut down, planted and pruned (somewhat conflicted about the generational playgroup of bunnies who eat only the good stuff). And we have failed to maintain what was here. We have, instead, fomented a horde of unruly anarchists, intent on toppling the order that new management has failed to enforce. A kind of entropy has incited randomness and chaos.
Some scientists, puzzling over the reason for such altruism among individuals competing for survival, speculate that social cooperation better ensures the long-term thriving of a species than the short-term selfishness of its members.
Serpentine Virginia creeper has wrapped itself around trees and threaded into the grass. The ropey grapevine has climbed fences and trees, engulfed the wooden latticework intended for roses, and now braided into bushes from one side of the yard to the other. Autumn clematis, which deploys delicate flowers to distract from its sinister encroachments, has expanded its range just as kudzu has enveloped parts of the South.
It is futile to hack and pull and rip apart; the root systems are dug-in and relentless. So, too, the mulberries and honeysuckles, that thorny, silver-leafed monster in the back corner, and those damn pokeweed plants with the purple berries (the ones the kids used when playing Little House on the Prairie, staining their clothes and scattering seeds all over the yard). It isn’t enough to chop these intruders off at ground level; they return with a vengeance, a tenfold explosion of clones at each juncture of root, sunlight and air. I have broken three shovels trying to rid the yard of invading specimens. Then there’s the goldenrod, milkweed, garlic mustard, stickery raspberry canes and poison ivy.
With children and well water, we have been reluctant to go heavy with fertilizer, to apply poisons and toxic chemicals. So the grass has had its own infiltrations of dandelions and clover, mock strawberry, prickly thistles and thriving colonies of weeds disguised as pretty little flowers. And moss. Insidious carpets of moss sneaking from forest to lawn.
A neighbor, who has since moved on, would visit occasionally, telling me what to do. When he surveyed a section near the wild area that I had spent a weekend clearing of burgeoning riffraff, he said, “Man, don’t know what to do here. You might just buy some sheets of black plastic, lay it down flat and hope that kills everything underneath.”
It was about that time I questioned the wisdom of imposing my will. I was on my hands and knees, digging into the earth with my fingers, once again clearing a garden plot that runs behind the house. A purple stalk of that dratted pokeweed was there, and clingy tufts of clover, a determined web of mock strawberry and the snaky tendrils of grapevine as pervasive as last year. I had done all this before. In fact, the mulberry shoot I’d been after for years was still locked to the base of the house. It has refused to budge, now showing off its tender green leaves folding open. I encountered other little sprigs of plant life rooted in soil, striving upward, seeking the sun, expressing themselves. And here a fine strand of a hopeful maple, popping out of its whirlybird beginning.
So it was that spring evening that I sat in my backyard and looked around with a new appreciation for this rich amalgam of single-minded organisms flourishing. I saw what I hadn’t properly seen before — life! In abundance. Teeming, brimming, resilient, tenacious and irrepressible. An effusion of life. And it all looked different somehow — the wild area’s bounty, the greenly layering of leaves swaying and bobbing, dappled by sunlight splashing. Beauty, color, spectacle, the rich diversity of life, a kind of glory.
Eons in the making.
While new discoveries keep scientists rethinking timelines, the consensus is that plant life emerged from algae at home in the sea before colonizing the Earth’s land masses. Over the millennia, plants made roots and leaves, produced seeds and flowers, developed vascular tissues to internally transport water and minerals, and grew the chloroplasts in their leaves to absorb sunlight and make sugar in the marvelous act of photosynthesis. These prospering food factories gave newcomer animals something to eat, provided breathable air and eventually transformed themselves into the fossil fuels that a subsequent animal species would use to thrive. And when forests of tall trees appeared on the planet some 400 million years ago, plants began producing the wood that would enable that species to warm itself, to build big and make things.
Almost 400,000 species of vascular plants are known to scientists today; estimates for the total on Earth range wildly — all well into the millions. Our yard is but a tiny corner, a miniscule sampling of this life. Appreciating the robust nature of these sessile creatures and browsing their evolution story brought a new perspective and a different relationship with the plants I had previously wrestled with. And a renewed acceptance of reality’s force and splendor.
Across the street we have three-quarters of an acre of woods. We pretty much let the inhabitants over there do what they want — honeysuckle and a host of elms, scrappy undergrowth and trees of heaven. We can’t be so laissez-faire with the rabble closer to home; we do play favorites here in our yard. Somewhere between running amok and a fastidiously manicured lot is a happy place of live and let live.
So we cultivate, too, some tolerance for differences in these populations — where control, constraint and ornamental affectation coexist with nature’s propensity toward life as a divinely choreographed melee. Plants, it seems, offer their own example of harmonious equilibrium.
Not too long ago trees were seen as solitary individuals competing for sunlight and nutrients with neighbors in a “survival of the fittest” scheme, but findings over the past few decades present a different scenario. Scientific research, led most notably by Suzanne Simard at the University of British Columbia, has demonstrated that forests are extensive communities of sharing that include not only trees of the same species but also different species of trees and other life forms.
As Ferris Jabr writes in “The Social Life of Forests” from The New York Times Magazine, “An old-growth forest is neither an assemblage of stoic organisms tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless battle royale: It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society. There is conflict in a forest, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even selflessness.”
The work is done below ground where a tree’s extensive root system interlaces with thread-like fungi in a symbiotic partnership called mycorrhizae. The fungi, which both envelope and penetrate the roots, supply trees with water and nutrients in return for the carbon-rich sugars and other carbohydrates derived from photosynthesis. These subterranean networks are also found in prairies, grasslands and the Arctic tundra, and they grow large and long. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben points to a honey fungus in Switzerland that covers 120 acres and is 1,000 years old. Plants tied into such a cooperative will get twice as much of the essential phosphorus and nitrogen as plants going it alone (with fungi even filtering out harmful minerals).
Bigger, older trees support younger, smaller ones. Trees with ample nutrients share with those running low. Trees have also been shown to supply sugar to the stumps of felled trees, keeping them alive for centuries when they no longer have the means of making their own food. If a tree is near death, it will pass on a significant amount of its carbon to neighbors through a source-sink gradient dispersing resources through a population. If the soil lacks nitrogen, fungi can release a toxin that kills minute organisms, releasing the nitrogen stored in their bodies, converting them to fertilizer.
Not only do mycorrhizae facilitate the trading of water, carbon and other nutrients but also hormones and chemical and electrical alarms. When insects begin eating some trees, they may unwittingly trigger the production of chemical defenses to alert as many as 250 other trees within the community. Douglas fir seedlings stripped of needles and likely to die will transmit stress signals and a substantial sum of their carbon to nearby ponderosa pines, accelerating their production of defense enzymes. When a giraffe bites into an acacia, the tree releases a warning gas that tells neighboring trees to produce toxic chemicals that drive away the giraffes. Some trees can even differentiate the saliva of various leaf-eating insects, prompting a chemical signal that dispatches pheromones to attract predators that feed on that particular insect.
Some scientists, puzzling over the reason for such altruism among individuals competing for survival, speculate that social cooperation better ensures the long-term thriving of a species than the short-term selfishness of its members. Some see the collective as a singular organism in which the unique but interwoven parts perpetuate the well-being of the whole.
We know well that plants use color, scent and nectar to attract pollinators for the mutual benefit of plant and animal — a more remarkable symbiosis than we often consider because it is familiar even among children. In his book, The Revolutionary Genius of Plants, Stefano Mancuso tells of lesser-known attributes and strategies that reveal the inventiveness and ingenuity of a realm of creation we may have long underestimated. His examples not only detail the intricate systems of chemistry and physics that abound in plants but also ask if plants possess such traits as intelligence and memory. How else do they behave as they do?
There is much to ponder as I sit and watch the greenery grow. And this, too.
Trees have come down at our place; some plants haven’t made it. Some trees have dropped limbs; others stand tall with bare spots and barkless branches. When you nurture life, the losses hurt, and I miss the departed. The hurly-burly woodlot across the street is a festival of life forms . . . as well as a kind of graveyard of decaying trunks and stumps and old trees leaning into each other, threatening to fall. For all the ascendant frolicking of abundant life, there is also a resignation to time passing and seasons turning and a faith in the rightness of nature’s purpose. And gratitude that we are part of it all.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.