You should know by now that I am obsessed with owning some property with big, old trees on it. It seems like that should be an easy enough thing to accomplish, but there are some obstacles in my way. For one thing I’m very impatient with realtors. They always have the wrong shoes on, and I haven’t met one yet who is anxious to tromp through the woods with me. Then there’s the fact that most of the wooded land here has been cut and cut again— and big trees are becoming increasingly difficult to find.
Last month, on the way to pick up vegetables from the CSA farm I belong to, I saw a sign on the road advertising the upcoming auction of a house and all of its contents. I followed the signs down to the little village of Wetipquin. I should correct myself here; Wetipquin is more a scattering of houses and a few churches than a village, but it is next to the village of Tyaskin, which is a real village although it has only four commercial establishments: an antiques store, a notary, a small restaurant, and Barthine’s Unique Beauty Salon. So, I followed the signs down to Wetipquin and onto a dirt driveway. The driveway went up a small rise as it cut through a nicely maturing forest! I was excited. Way back off the road, where you’d never hear a single car, there was a tiny, claustrophobia-inducing box of a ranch house next to a beautiful creek. The house and the twenty-four-acre forest it was in belonged to a nature lover who had recently died at the age of eighty-seven. The bird feeders were still in the trees, and the squirrels were scampering around looking for the handouts that had suddenly stopped.
I spent the next week daydreaming about the property, considering a purchase price, and gathering a down payment (they wanted $20,000 the day of the sale). I didn’t have much experience with auctions, but everyone I knew who did advised me to have in mind an amount that I would not go above. But what amount? I finally decided that my maximum would be $185,000. After all, I would not be moving to the property—I just wanted to own and protect some trees.
The morning of the auction I arrived early wearing knee-high black rubber boots—my standard Eastern Shore hiking gear—ready to explore the area of the forest I hadn’t seen yet. I wasn’t expecting a virgin forest, but I did want to get a feel for how old the forest was and how it had been managed; after all, in a matter of hours this forest might belong to me. The tallest of the trees—the oaks and the maples—were impressive but not spectacular. What did impress me was the size of the understory trees, in particular the holly trees (Ilex opaca). Not all trees, and not all people, have the ability to grow into towering giants; some trees, like some people, are genetically programmed to stay shorter, smaller. We call these naturally short trees understory trees. They have to be very shade tolerant to live in the shadow of their taller peers who get all the attention and the glory. Hollies are understory trees. The presence of these old holly trees told me that either this woods was quite old compared with most of the forests here— or that it had been selectively logged. Selective logging generally leaves the understory trees because they are not commercially valuable.
Unfortunately, there is no selective logging around here anymore. We grow pines, and pines grow fastest in full sun, and to get full sun you need to clear-cut. So the woods are clear-cut, and everything goes—valuable timber, understory trees, and everything else. The dead understory trees are pushed into a pile to get them out of the way of the new baby pines. As a final insult, to prevent any of the native trees from regrowing, the whole clear-cut area is sprayed with an herbicide that kills every plant except pine. The goal of this “industrial forest management” is a forest that contains almost nothing but pine trees. This so-called management is eliminating many species of plants and animals, including understory trees. Famed ecologist E. O. Wilson claims that 90 percent of the biodiversity in a forest is lost when it is converted to pine plantation.1
An organization in Asheville, North Carolina, is trying to stop this “dumbing down” of our native forests. The organization is called the Dogwood Alliance because dogwood trees are another understory species destroyed when forest land is converted to pine plantation. Every day we lose many acres of our native forests, with their understory species, when the forests are converted to pine plantations. There is no end in sight to this conversion, and no one is mentioning when, if ever, these plantations will be allowed to convert back to real forests. Are we willing to give up the springtime bloom of dogwood trees in our forests for cheap paper? I hope not.
My personal reaction, and one that I encourage of everyone, is to say no to inexpensive paper made at the expense of biodiversity. We have a choice; it just costs a little more. I am an avid reader with shelves full of paper in the form called books. I am a writer who doesn’t enjoy reading off a screen, so I have piles of drafts. I get a daily newspaper. In short, I use a lot of paper. I guess you could say I’m a product of my environment. Americans use more paper than anyone else in the world, and we use more of it every year.
Last week I needed paper and happened to be in one of those big-chain copy stores. I had a choice of spending $3.99 or $5.99 for five hundred sheets. The cheaper paper had 10 percent recycled content and 90 percent virgin tree content— meaning not that it was from virgin forests but that it went right from trees into paper. The trees may have come from a plantation being cut as part of its regular rotation, or they may have come from a diverse native forest in the process of conversion. I had no way of knowing. The more expensive paper was made from 100 percent post-consumer waste— meaning no new trees were cut to make it. I bought the more expensive paper. Unfortunately, I can’t convince the university where I teach to do the same. The university uses twenty-two thousand reams of paper a year—enough to fill two tractor-trailer trucks— but unless the price is the same or less, the purchasing agents won’t buy 100 percent recycled paper. Money is power, and we should all be using our power in the direction we want the world to go. But sometimes that’s not easy.
I was in the store because I needed to print out a copy of my book-in-progress to try to entice an agent to represent me. I’m normally very conscientious about my paper use; I recycle all my newspapers and junk mail, and I never throw away paper that is blank on one side— it goes back in the printer facing the other way— but writing about trees makes one extra aware. I didn’t think my agent-to-be would be impressed by a manuscript printed on scrap paper, but perhaps she would understand if I printed on both sides of the paper? My inexpensive printer wouldn’t print on two sides, so I saved the manuscript on a CD and took it to the copy store to print it on one of the machines there. The manager of the store didn’t think it was possible to print on two sides from their self-service printer. Only at my insistence did she even try. As it turned out, it was possible, but my satisfaction in accomplishing my task was tempered by the disappointing awareness that I was the first person ever to express a desire to print on both sides of the paper from that machine. I know I was overracting, but at that moment I felt sorrowfully alone, brooding that no one else in this small city cared that we were turning our forests into paper, that the paper in our hands represented not just trees but beetles and birds and bats and more. Unfortunately, it’s clear that we can’t rely on businesses, government, or our institutions to make the changes necessary to save our forests. It’s going to be up to individuals, and if we don’t care— well, the death of hope is even sadder to me than the death of a forest. “My feeling sinks, as if standing on fishes” (Rilke).2 During times like that I have to turn to the poets; the scientists have nothing helpful to say to me.
LET’S GET BACK to the subject of holly trees. We have discussed trees through the lenses of poetry, science, childhood, and corporate profits, but religion has interests in the arboreal as well. Did you know that we associate the colors red and green with Christmas because of hollies? Hollies are unique because in many areas they are the only broadleaved trees that don’t lose their leaves in winter. When all the plants in the forest seem dead and lifeless and the ground is covered with snow, the hollies remain green.
This evidence of life during the darkest days of the year is why the Druids used holly branches in their winter solstice ceremonies. They would bring holly branches inside their homes in midwinter so the nature spirits could dwell with them and be protected. The Romans also used holly branches in their winter Saturnalia celebrations. When early Christian church leaders converted existing local celebrations and rituals into Christ-based celebrations— solstice or Saturnalia into Christmas— the old customs, such as holly boughs, were naturally included. But the Christians gave the holly further significance by making its thorny leaves symbolize the crown of thorns Christ wore during the crucifixion, and the red berries the drops of blood that came from his head. Many early paintings of the saints contain a representation of a holly branch— an artistic symbol of the crucifixion like the lily is an artistic symbol of the annunciation. And so, in England in the 1600s, holly boughs (Ilex aquifolium) were brought indoors at Christmastime and the colors red and green were associated with Christmas. The Puritans objected to the celebration of Christmas, but other, non-Puritan settlers who arrived in North America gladly used the American holly as a substitute for the English holly in their holiday decorations.
NOT ALL HOLLY TREES have berries. Like redcedar, a holly tree produces either male flowers or female flowers, and only the female flowers, if pollinated, will produce berries. The berries turn red when the seeds mature, not as a symbol of Christ’s blood but as a signal to birds. And the birds do take notice: migrating flocks of small birds, such as goldfinches and cedar waxwings, rely on holly berries as fuel for their long migrations. They can quickly eat all the berries off a tree. The seeds are carried along to the birds’ next stop, so we can thank the birds for the holly’s wide distribution.
In an interesting twist of nature, it sometimes happens that a holly berry doesn’t turn red when all the other berries on the tree do; instead it stays green. The birds overlook the green berries, which are left hanging on the tree.3 That is just what the midge larva (Asphondylia ilicicola) living inside the green berry wants. The little midge just wants to be left alone until it completes its life cycle. In early spring, when the holly trees are in bloom again, the pupa scrapes its way out of the berry, and the newly emerged adult midge flies off to mate and, if female, lay eggs. The adults live only a few days, so timing is critical. The fertile female midge inserts an egg into one of the four ovules in a female holly flower. If the flowers aren’t blooming during the few days the midge is ready to lay eggs it is the end of the line for that set of midge genes. This is how nature shapes her amazing intricacies: sudden-death playoffs. You lose and you’re out forever, you win and you— or your offspring—get to try again another season. The tuning becomes finer and finer, and the organisms that are here now are the best ever— for this planet’s twists and turbulations anyway. For now. Tomorrow all the rules might change. Life is the most complex game ever, and each one of us (and each one of the midges) represents a long line of successful players.
Layer upon layer. There is another player in the midge game. When the she-midge deposits her egg she also inoculates the berry-to-be with a fungus. The midge grows only in holly berries, and the fungus— an unidentified species— apparently grows only in holly berries with holly berry midges inside. Scientists have not been able to get the fungus to grow anywhere else, and they can’t identify it until they can induce it to form reproductive structures.
There is so much left to learn about the living things here; I often wonder why we spend so much time and energy looking for life elsewhere in the universe.
Another mystery that remains in this story is what causes the berry to stay green. Is it a chemical released by the developing midge? Is it a chemical change in the plant in reaction to the midge? Or could the lack of color change be caused by the fungus— which also has a stake in ensuring that the midge gets to complete its life cycle?
Next time you’re in the forest during the winter, look for green berries on the holly trees. If you find any you will know that inside is a tiny insect larva in a cocoon of white fungus that we know very little about.
ANOTHER INSECT VISITOR to holly trees— one that you are sure to see signs of— is the holly leafminer (Phytomyza ilicicola). The leafminers leave squiggly trails through the leaf tissue. These insects, too, are specific to American holly trees. The English holly trees have their own particular leafminers. The life cycle of the leafminer starts in early spring just as the soft new leaves are expanding. The adult leafminer looks like a miniature version of a housefly: gray and black with the big eyes and single wings characteristic of a fly. When the flies emerge in the spring the first thing they do is mate (sound familiar?), and then the females look for young holly leaves to lay eggs in. The adults live only a few days, so timing, here again, is critical. The female has a pointed ovipositor at the tip of her abdomen. Again and again she pierces a young holly leaf and lays a single egg between the upper and lower surfaces. The liquid that oozes from the pierced leaf is lapped up by both male and female flies as a source of nourishment. The females seem to prefer some trees more than others, although we do not know what is at the root of their preference.4
The newly deposited eggs stay where they have been placed for four days and then hatch into pale yellow larvae. The larvae begin feeding on the plant cells between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaf, always moving forward and leaving behind a telltale map of where they have been. The movement of the leafminer, like the growing of corn on a summer evening, is one of those phenomena that we understand is happening but haven’t the patience, as humans, to watch. If you examine holly leaves in early summer you will see a small cleared area where the larva is feeding; if you look at the leaf again in fall you will see the telltale serpentine track. Sometimes a single leaf will have multiple miner tracks. The larvae live through the winter in the mines and in the spring complete their pupation into adult flies, emerging from between the leaf surfaces.
Now look again. There is another layer. There is an organism that can only live on the leafminer—the leafminer that can live only on the American holly tree. The organism is an endoparasitoid wasp, Opius striatriventris, that lives and grows inside the body of the leafminer larva. More than 80 percent of the leafminer larvae D. M. Kahn and H. V. Cornell looked at were hosts to these parasitoids.5 The adult female Opius wasp somehow detects the newly hatched leafminer larva between the leaf layers and lays a single egg next to it. When her egg hatches, instead of tunneling through the leaf, it tunnels through the body of the miner larva. The miner gets mined! In the spring, instead of a leafminer adult hatching out of the leaf an Opius adult hatches out. This is poetry. Tell yourself again that you have a choice in how you view these little insects. You can consider them pests— or as one of my reference books categorizes them, “damaging agents”— or you can marvel at what this planet has wrought in four billion years and then at how little we understand of it.
More pine plantations: fewer hollies. No hollies: no holly berry midges, no mystery fungus, no holly leafminer, no Opius wasps, fewer birds, less colorful Christmases. Every link … every link …
SO I WAS STANDING in front of a beautiful old holly tree in woods that I hoped would soon be mine to protect as long as I was able. I had a beautiful morning tramping all over the woods. When I arrived at the house I found many people gathered for the auction. I registered my name and looked in my pocket once again to be sure I still had the cashier’s check. My heart thumped in my chest as the bidding began. The bidding started at $125,000 but rose quickly. When it reached $180,000 I knew it was my turn and I raised my hand to bid $185,000. The bidding stalled there for a heart-stopping moment … and then went on without me. It was at $200,000 by the time the blood stopped rushing through my ears. A young family was bidding against a local real estate developer; he got the price to $224,000 before they dropped out.
So my woods, my holly trees, are owned by a man who made his money by building houses in corn and soybean fields. I hope he treats them well.