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Our math is not nature’s math

We built our house on the edge of a woodlot thirty some years ago. Now the trees have reached out and enveloped us. They shade us in summer, protect us from wind in winter, and try to kill us by falling in all seasons.

To be able to live in the woods in our cornbelt county is an amazing achievement (or in our case a piece of luck) since progressive farmers in the pursuit of more corn land have done their darnedest to obliterate every woodlot they can get their hands on. One of the greatest ironies of history is to see farmers today getting soil conservation awards and money for erosion control practices on land that they bulldozed free of trees just a few years ago. In many cases this land was still in trees because it was, and is, too hilly or flood prone to make a profit in corn if it were not for government subsidies and subsidized crop insurance. Such is life while it lasts.

Living among the trees, there’s never a dull moment. Something is always falling, even on windless days. Sometimes it’s a whole tree but usually just a limb comes down. Last week, one branch big enough to kill me fell directly on the path I take at least three times a day to the barn. Just this morning (prompting this essay) a dead elm fell out from the woods onto the lawn, reminding me of a snake lashing out from the brush to fang an unsuspecting passerby. I have been hit by falling walnuts and acorns which, while generally harmless, can hurt plenty. I’ve even been attacked by a screech owl, dropping on me from a low branch. It is downright dangerous living in what poets call the peaceful sylvan environment of the forest.

There’s nothing peaceful about it. All those trees growing side by side are in a life and death struggle with each other, fighting for sunlight. The tree that gains a bit of height over the ones around it will grow faster and eventually shade out its competitors.

Might I learn something here? If I can feel at ease among the trees constantly rising and falling, can I perhaps reconcile myself to humans, also engaged in life and death struggles with each other?

Woodland teaches patience. Where we count the time in years, the trees count in centuries. The big white oak that stretches its limbs so comfortingly out over our deck (not all that comforting as I now realize) is still in its ascendancy, not dying out in its upper branches. I know from cutting down trees of this size and counting the rings that this one sprouted not long after the Civil War. One of the lower limbs was dead when we came here 35 years ago. It still has not broken off and fallen.

The trees teach a different kind of mathematics than what we humans learn in school. One plus one equals two, we say, all prim and satisfied with our numbering system. Oak trees reckon differently. Four thousand acorns in a year might equal five new trees, or maybe none in some years if the acorn-loving deer continue to overpopulate. We humans in our simplicity consider this kind of economy to be extravagant and inapplicable to our purposes. But if in its 200 years, a white oak generates only five new trees altogether, that is plenty to keep the species going. In the meantime, several hundred known species of insect, fungus, bird and mammal, including humans, use the oak for food or lodging. When it dies, we can use the wood for fuel or construction material. Also every year the tree enriches the soil with a crop of leaves decaying into humus. Nature’s ways are many times more economical than our simplistic reckonings based on a presumption that one plus one equals two. One plus one in the real world can equal an uncountable sum. That realization is the beginning of economic wisdom.

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