Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Aboretum America - great book.

Unnecessary Preamble

-- sorry folks, had to edit --

Woohoo! I get to post again. The husband has been working so I can't play on the computer as much as usual. Darn the capitalist system. No worries, while cut off from my auxillary brain, I have had more time to read and found a great book for gardeners. Generally, I go to the gardening section of the library and think 'Read it, read it, won't read it, read it a long time ago so might read it again,' so I was surprised when after I had left my foray into the garden section and was passing through what may have been the 'ecology' section that a book called to me. I lifted it from its neighbours and read the title which suggested a tree book. 'Get it,' my mind said to me (yes, we talk). 'Why?' I asked, 'I don't feel like reading a book categorizing the many trees of the continent and I don't want to go traipsing through the forest on a voyage of discovery of some lost species, or at least not today.' My mind's reply: 'You'll regret that you didn't.' So of course I got the book and boy was I right!

Aboretum America
A Philosophy of the Forest
by Dianea Beresford-Kroeger

Do you remember standing in a forest for the first time? You started by looking forward at the sentries of the tree trunks. As you entered, you looked down to ensure that you did not trip and for a while you may have been captivated by the small details: the skeletal remains of old leaves, the mushrooms decorating rotten logs, or the rustle of a startled animal, but eventually you stopped and looked up. It is at this moment, that regardless of your size, you feel small. The wind stilled. The heat was subdued and you were surrounded by one of Earth's most important residents - the trees.

Every time I enter a forest, I am reminded of the magic of this first moment of smallness.

Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a self described 'renegade scientist' and naturalist, has written a book about the magic of 20 North American trees and emplores us to propogate them as medicine against world's woes. This poetic book is written with the passion of a gardener and the understanding of a scientist but there is something else. Vibrating from the words is a urgency that if we do not act to save the world's forests, we will endanger not only the health of the Earth but also our health.

Medicine is used in a way I read most commonly in aboriginal works though I have a hard time defining the difference, it implies the capricious use of source materials like leaves, bark and berries rather than the laboratory refined pills that most of us pop. It refers to the birch - a source of salicylic acid - not the aspirin.

Each of the 20 trees she has chosen to profile from the maple (Aceracea) to elm (Ulmaceae) is described in beautiful detail. She starts with our historical relationship with this tree in the global garden, where it will best grow and how to propogate it to ensure that the best specimens will go on to produce strong stands. She then describes how to care for it organically in the different climatic zones of North America with occasional reference to growing in other countries such as the UK. It is in the next sections where this book departs from the usual 'symphany of trees' book. She tells of the tree's medicine referring both to the chemical components in words that would make a chemist feel comfortable and to the common physical ailments that all of us can relate to. Drawing on the connectivity of the forest, she describes how the tree carves its ecological niche. It both provides habitat and acts as a food source, such as through the superior protein of the walnut, as well as protecting itself with such devilish tactics as the honey locus producing a girdle of thorns on its trunk to prevent feasters from getting to its leaf canopy.

You may find yourself falling in love with these trees not just for their usefulness but for the personalities we cannot help but impose upon them - the walnut's antisocial production of jugalone or the sugar maple's party of autumn colour before the long dormancy of winter. Now that you are in love with these trees, she will tell you how to incorporate them as part of a 'bioplan' pointing out which ones are low in pollen for urban areas and which ones may have useful agricultural applications such as high sugar cultivars of the honey locus as a forage crop. If that is not enough, she ends each section with details on designing with these trees and a list of choice cultivars and companion plants.

This book is beautifully written but there is a sense of desperation as she presses every big issue button in her arsenal to push the trees back into the ground. Commonly when talking about the use of these trees, she mentions 'climate change' and 'cancer' - two modern nightmares. Sometimes in her attempt to appeal to those in power such as city planners and agriculture, there is a sense that she is throwing out as many buzz words as possible: untapped cure for cancer, potential biofuel etc... without a more measured look at the problems of some of these products. However, I applaud her effort at getting trees back into the agricultural system.

Despite the desperation, and maybe a little bit because I too feel the uncoming environmental crisis, this is an captivating and informative read. You might find yourself lamenting your lack of space or dreaming of a rejuvenated forest in your own backyard.



jodi (bloomingwriter) said...

My solution to husbands wanting computers--give him my old one and buy a new one. I did that a fw years ago. End of problem.
This sounds like a wonderful book. I like renegades with intelligent calls-to-arms (so to speak) so this sounds like a definite must-read to me. I will see if I can find it at the used bookstore as I don't frequent libraries except to donate THEM books!

mamangenevieve said...

My latest library book is: Bioplanning a North Temperate Garden, by the same author!

She was recommended to me as a possible landscaper for our new land, so I figured I would read her books before contacting her.

This is basically an ecological landscaping book. She has lists of plants with their "use". Ex: attracts beneficial insects, edible...

Every section has a part on organic care of the plants as well as their biofunction. I got it before leaving town for 10 days so I'm just starting to read it. Looks really interesting!

Ottawa Gardener said...

I know the book well. I'm sure she would be a fantastic landscaper and if you do hire her, call me over, I'd love to meet her!