It was a hot, muggy July day and I was standing in the black muck of a swamp looking up at the top of a bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum) four times my height. I saw green, round cones in the top of the tree— the seeds of future generations. I looked down and saw wooden bumps poking up from the muck— the characteristic knees of the bald cypress. I was thrilled—I planted this tree fourteen years ago! Standing in that hot swamp I was happier than I could ever be in the cool, luxurious stateroom of a cruise ship.
FOR DAYS AFTERWARD I could think of nothing else but time. It is, perhaps, the central enigma of human nature that we behave as if our lives were going to continue forever, in much the same form they have now, all the while knowing, but not admitting, even to ourselves, that in just a short while we will no longer exist in flesh and blood. The insanity of such behavior has only been magnified by our culture. The technological and economical forces at work in our lives cause most of us to focus on an ever-smaller wedge of time. Our global systems have turned time into what Joanna Macy describes as “an ever-shrinking box, in which we race on a treadmill at increasingly frenetic speeds.”1 We are caught in a time trap, she says, where the economy and its technologies depend on decisions made at lightning speed for short-term goals. We go faster and faster but have less time instead of more.
To understand how aberrant the human concept of time has become, you must understand how other species use time. All other species are future-motivated. Plant or animal, the most important thing for each is the success of future generations. Plants spend a huge part of their energy budget making flowers, producing nectar, provisioning seeds, and making the seeds attractive to dispersers— all for the sake of the next generation. New seedlings will not help the parent plant; some may even become competitors, eventually shortening the parent’s life. The important thing, the reason for the energy expenditure, is to send one’s genes into the next generation. Animals are likewise future-oriented. Animals put themselves at risk by mating— at risk from contagious diseases, at risk from predators, and, in the case of female mammals, at risk from giving birth. Yet it is the first imperative of every organism to mate, no matter how short its life span or how dangerous mating may be. All biological organisms are future-oriented because the genes that make them so are the genes that survive.
Most human societies and human economies, however, have become focused on the now. We may be putting away dollars for our children’s college tuition or our own retirement, but at the same time we are leaving future generations fewer forests, fewer coral reefs, less farmland, and less clean water. The irony is that in order to change this scenario we turn to government and politics, and to be effective in that realm we must work in the little box of contemporary now time. And that very time-style is what has divorced us from ecological time—the time we most need to be in if we are to cure the earth’s ills and reconnect with other species and future generations of humans.
We learn our time-behavior as we are acculturated into our particular society. Some societies—not many—are still living in ecological time, a circular time; but the concept of linear time, now-oriented time, is spreading rapidly, and it is without doubt the time culture dominating the global business world.
Recognizing that our treatment of time is a societal construct is a first step toward practicing a different type of time. Joanna Macy, whose innovative work helps to clarify our situation, suggests that we practice experiencing what she calls Deep Time. The Deep Time exercises she has developed are designed to get us out of our now box, out of even the limitations of the human life span, and reconnect us with both the long past of our species (including its evolutionary development) and our, hopefully, long future.2 It is her hope that by practicing Deep Time we can see our lives in their proper context, as a bridge between those who have gone before us and those who will come after. If we could all envision our lives through the lens of this more expansive concept of time, less ecological damage would be committed in the name of short-term goals.
Macy isn’t the first to espouse such ideas. Many Native American societies considered seven generations into the future when making decisions. I have long thought that our political system would be improved by having a third senator from each state to represent the concerns of future generations. Our energy policy, to name just one example, would probably be wholly different if future generations were represented.
In his book The Spell of the Sensuous philosopher David Abram describes an exercise he developed to expand the now box. He stands in an open place.
Then I close my eyes, and let myself begin to feel the
whole bulk of my past—the whole mass of events leading
up to this very moment. And I call into awareness, as well,
my whole future— all those projects and possibilities that
lie waiting to be realized. I imagine this past and this
future as two vast balloons of time, separated from each
other like the bulbs of an hourglass, yet linked together at
the single moment where I stand pondering them. And
then, very slowly, I allow both of these immense bulbs
of time to begin leaking their substance into this minute
moment between them, into the present … the present
moment begins to grow.3
No doubt Macy would encourage Abrams to expand his “past bulbs” and his “future bulbs” even further, past his own lifetime, to include other species and other generations. The result would be an even more expansive present moment. Living in such a present would put us more in tune with the earth’s possibilities, and its limitations.
And now we can turn this discussion back to the trees. Last week I went across the river and up the creek to visit my river-neighbor and his trees. My neighbor bought his eighty-acre farm on the creek in 1982. The farmland had been degraded by the shortsighted (short-timed?) previous owner, who had sold tons of topsoil off the farm. In many places there were only weeds, and even they didn’t grow well. A scattering of huge sycamore trees grew along the lane, and a few exceptional pine and gum trees remained along the bank of the creek, where the loggers couldn’t get to them, but for the most part the native forest had all been logged.
My river-neighbor has the deepest sense of time of any person I know. Instead of pouring chemical fertilizers onto the farm and growing corn and soybeans— the fastest short-term economic return on his investment, he began to collect and germinate tree seeds. Hickories, pecans, walnuts, oaks, tulip poplars, and beeches can all take years to establish a root system large enough to withstand the stress of transplanting. By the time the trees were ready to move, his little boy was big enough to help his dad. Sixteen years later my neighbor’s son can already see a young forest where there was none before. He can eat nuts from trees planted with his own hands. He is young to have learned such a valuable lesson. Most people today think they don’t have enough time to make a forest. Time for a pine plantation, perhaps, but not time enough for a mixed hardwood forest that will, in all likelihood, outlive them. Often, elderly people look back and see that they did, indeed, have time— it just didn’t feel like they did. They couldn’t stop doing what the now box required long enough to step outside it and into the future.
That’s where my neighbor is different. Given a choice between two tasks— and we always have a choice— he will work at the one that will change the world the furthest into the future. His sons are lucky, and his sons’ sons will probably reap the rewards as well.
ACCORDING TO archaeological explorations, this area had many more bald cypress trees in prehistoric times than it has today. The current distribution of the species is some what curious. The next river south, the Pocomoke River, has many beautiful stands of cypress, but my river, the Wicomico, has none. At least it had none until my neighbor came along. I’ll get to that in a moment.
I WOULD LIKE everyone who reads this book to be able to relate to all the trees and the ecological relationships that I write about. But I know that my desire is impossible to fulfill, because every spot on this planet is unique. The species that grow in my forests may not grow in your forests. For a time, as an undergraduate, I thought I might like to become proficient in biogeography, the study of what grows where and why. Biogeographers are always trying to make generalizations and lump things together into “forest types” or “communities.” The reality on the ground, however, is that each species follows its own ecological rules. The result is like a Venn diagram of overlapping niches more complex than any human could comprehend. Nature is unpredictable. Diversity and change are the hands she deals. The lines humans make on maps mean nothing in reality. I quickly saw through biogeography and moved on. I wanted to try to understand real relationships— what the ground really looked like.
I know that relatively few readers will be able to relate to what I write about bald cypress trees. They grow only on the flattest, wettest spots of the southeastern United States. They grow in the muck, where the water moves slowly and the mosquitoes move quickly. And, oh, they used to grow so large. Never lacking for water or sunlight in those flat swamps, their tapering, smooth-barked trunks would shoot up toward the sky. They are the redwood trees of the East—members of the same family, in fact, and the longest-lived trees we have.
Foresters once estimated that the virgin bald cypress forests the early settlers cut were thousands of years old, but recent evidence indicates that you can’t trust a bald cypress tree ring to indicate annual growth, as it does in most other species.4 In some years, due to fluctuating water levels, the cypress will make more than one ring. Only an experienced observer with a microscope can confidently age a bald cypress tree. Still, improved methods have aged bald cypress trees as four hundred to six hundred, and occasionally a thousand, years old.
I have mucked around in many beautiful cypress swamps in the Pocomoke River watershed. The trees seemed impressively large to me until I saw the stumps hidden under the vegetation: stumps from trees four or five times as large as the ones I was walking under. In 1797 an early citizen of Delaware wrote that the native cypress forests “impressed the beholder with religious solemnity.”5 I wish I could behold those forests, but they are gone now.
All of the big, old cypress trees were cut to make timbers for boats and shingles for houses.6 The trees were in great demand because of the wonderful rot-resistant property of their wood. It was the heartwood, from the big old trees, that was most rot resistant. But bald cypress trees don’t begin to form marketable heartwood until they are two hundred years old. Wood from sixty-year-old trees rots readily. Woodworkers of today, beware: the cypress wood you buy may not have the same properties as the cypress wood of the past.
Another unique property of bald cypress trees is that while they are conifers, like pines, they are not evergreen. They are among the few deciduous conifers. In the fall their featherlike branchlets, each supporting a double row of soft, green needles, turn reddish brown and drop to the ground. The tree stands bald through the winter; hence its name. By springtime there are few traces left of the old needles, which readily dry up and blow away or decompose. The new needles are slow to appear in the springtime, but at last the day comes when little green “droplets” line the branches. These droplets are the buds of the new branchlets; they soon unwind themselves, and the tree is once again covered in soft green.
I know this pattern well because I have, growing in my yard, a young bald cypress tree. When I planted the tree it was eighteen inches tall, one from the bundle of seedlings my neighbor and I planted in his marsh. He had an idea that the wetlands bordering the creek on his property would make a fine place for a cypress swamp. The cypress trees would slow erosion and add diversity to the landscape. They would be a food source for wood ducks and other birds, just as they used to be a food source for the now-extinct Carolina parakeet. The seeds that weren’t eaten could float off to populate other wetlands, he thought. So, wearing our rubber boots and carrying planting spades, we wandered into the muck and said here would be a good spot for a bald cypress tree, and here, and here, and here …
And now there is a cypress grove along the creek. Is it the first one in the Wicomico River watershed, or did groves, since cut and converted, exist here in previous eras? Were we doing a restoration or an introduction? Any answers— if we had them—would have to be qualified by time: How long ago? How far into the future?
Was our manipulation ecologically right? Right or not, my neighbor puts it like this: “We really did something that day.” And I feel good about what we did.