A Parliament of Owls: As Written By A Weston Oak
Did you know a group of owls is called a “parliament”? In the case of the Weston Owl, a Parliament of Owls is a guest post on this page. Today’s post is written by the 21″ inch (that’s the diameter at breast height) Northern Red Oak Tree that lives in the front setback of my yard on the north side of Weston. If you think that trees can’t talk, you just don’t know how to listen.
I am around 80 years old, just a youngster for an oak (you can estimate your tree’s age by going to this site). It’s likely I grew up in the shade of an older tree, or was dropped off by a blue jay who forgot where he buried the acorn. Blue jays and oaks cannot live without each other–it really helps all of us that blue jays are ditzes–they bury more than 4,000 acorns each fall, but it’s estimated they only remember where about a quarter of them are. More trees!
I pre-date the road that travels through this subdivision of Weston; my red oak friend twenty feet from me across the lawn was planted purposefully around the time the subdivision was created in the 1960s–I know this because my steward, the owner of the property, hired specialists to tell her all about me and my tree friends.
What humans cannot see is that over the last 80 years, I have spread out my roots so that they run everywhere –across the street to the neighbor’s red oak, and when the red oak nearest me was planted, we also intertwined our roots. We are very sturdy trees and not likely to go down in a windstorm. We store carbon. We manage stormwater and how it is absorbed–free of charge. Every tree you meet harbors caterpillars who are like walking leaves for the birds–and an important part of the food that keeps your birds alive all winter long. Most birds get their major calorie intake not from your feeder, but from your trees. Your big oaks. Me. Caterpillars love me. Birds love caterpillars. You love birds (I hope– unless you are a cat). If you want to see more mathy sciency stuff about why I matter, please see this Arbor Day Foundattion page.
My steward sometimes says that I talk to her. We are fully aware, here in the tree kingdom, that she is a little nutty. I do talk all the time with the wood-wide web underground which is the biggest definition of community you can imagine. If you haven’t read The Hidden Lives of Trees, you might want to. Also The Nature of Oaks where you will find out that my roots, and the roots of your oak trees, extend far beyond the canopy. The older the tree, the more valuable we are–not in board feet, mind you, but in carbon sequestration, soil health, caterpillar hosting and in how the quantity of leaves you have to rake allows you to quit your local gym. My steward has learned to leave my leaves alone–I like them where they fall, and keep them at my “feet” year-round.
I don’t like to be arrogant, but my value to the ecosystem, both as a mature tree and as an oak, is far above any new tree you can plant to replace those you cut down. As Douglas Tallamy writes in The Nature of Oaks, oaks support more forms of life and more fascinating interactions than any other genus in North America. Mr. Tallamy lives in Pennsylvania where oaks support more than 511 species of moths and butterflies–nearly 100 more than native cherries. And for those who like to chop down my chatty friends, the white pines, know that even they support 179 species of caterpillar. Those showy redbuds? 24 species. Don’t get me started on the non-natives. Beautiful. Not interesting in the food web.
Mature trees are worth much more to an ecosystem than the new guys–yes, plant new trees, all the time, but think– not once or twice but many times– before cutting down the old guard. Know that cutting down groups of trees, especially mature trees, will cause soil erosion as rainwater runs through that lovely soil I have spent years making nutrient-laden. Yes, unforeseen consequences indeed.
“Replacing” me (as if it were possible) with a tiny oak is going to be frustrating for you–oaks grow down, spreading our roots, for a few years before we grow up. Incidentally, that’s why we’re okay next to sidewalks and driveways without lifting them up…we have deep deep roots. Young planted trees have a high mortality rate–watering and soil health is key, and keeping away all the animals who like to munch them. The mighty oak was once an acorn which held its ground, so they say.
Did you know about a third of Weston’s street trees are oaks? Y’all are so so lucky to have us. We’re 900-year trees–yes, I could live 8 centuries more if someone cares for me. I’m going to be growing for around 200 years more, then staying about that size for 300 years, then I’ll go in my twilight years from age 600-900. Cool, right? And yet, I will never meet the 150-year-old black oak known as the “Station Oak” in Wellesley or even the twisted tree (tupelo) in Lincoln, because trees can’t move–not for a 15,000 square house or a car barn or anything else. In particular, oaks cannot be moved–we extend down a long taproot that ends all chances of transplant.
Before going back to my early May workday which means pushing out leaves and re-starting the engine room, I will close with a passage from the Lincoln (MA) tree tour, which explains the value of trees better than I, just a silent (to you) guardian of the ecosystem:
…”these colossal beings [trees] are responsible for much more. They provide us with the most basic necessities for our survival — oxygen, food and shelter. In one year, an acre of mature trees provides enough oxygen for 18 people, according to the nonprofit TreePeople. An apple tree can yield up to 20 bushels of fruit in a year, even when planted on the tiniest urban lot. We are not the only ones who depend so dearly on trees. Bears, bees, birds and all sorts of wildlife necessary to keep our forests healthy also need trees to survive….In a year, an acre of mature trees can absorb the carbon dioxide produced by a car driven 26,000 miles.“
“We cannot live without trees. And due to the alarming effect of development on our environment, many of them depend on us to survive. In America, we have a tradition of clearing enormous areas of trees. Let’s look up and thank them instead. Let’s protect our trees, think twice before taking them down and work to preserve them.“
The Hidden Lives of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Tree by Douglas Tallamy