Tag Archives: ecosystems

Monster or member of the family?

My most recent reading about tamarisk trees was in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, which is about two French missionary priests serving in New Mexico in the 19th century. In Santa Fe their house has a garden, with poplars and tamarisks:

On the south, against the earth wall, was the one row of trees they had found growing there when they first came, — old, old tamarisks, with twisted trunks. They had been so neglected, left to fight for life in such hard, sun-baked, burro-trodden ground, that their trunks had the hardness of cypress. They looked, indeed, like very old posts, well seasoned and polished by time, miraculously endowed with the power to burst into delicate foliage and flowers, to cover themselves with long brooms of lavender-pink blossom.

Father Joseph had come to love the tamarisk above all trees. It had been the companion of his wanderings. All along his way through the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, wherever he had come upon a Mexican homestead, out of the sun-baked earth, against the sun-baked adobe walls, the tamarisk waved its feathery plumes of bluish green. The family burro was tied to its trunk, the chicken scratched under it, the dogs slept in its shade, the washing was hung on its branches.

Father Latour had often remarked that this tree seemed especially designed in shape and colour for the adobe village. The sprays of bloom which adorn it are merely another shade of the red earth walls, and its fibrous trunk is full of gold and lavender tints. Father Joseph respected the Bishop’s eye for such things, but himself he loved it merely because it was the tree of the people, and was like one of the family in every Mexican household.

You know how people are always trying to figure out just what the manna was, that God gave the Israelites to eat in the desert? Some think it was the sap of the tamarisk tree, as Wikipedia tells us: “At the turn of the twentieth century, Arabs of the Sinai Peninsula were selling resin from the tamarisk tree as man es-simma, roughly meaning ‘heavenly manna.’ Tamarisk trees (particularly Tamarix gallica) were once comparatively extensive throughout the southern Sinai, and their resin is similar to wax, melts in the sun, is sweet and aromatic (like honey), and has a dirty-yellow color, fitting somewhat with the biblical descriptions of manna. However, this resin is mostly composed of sugar, so it would be unlikely to provide sufficient nutrition for a population to survive over long periods of time, and it would be very difficult for it to have been compacted into cakes.”

But honey that bees make from tamarisk nectar — that’s for real and you can buy some right now. Rusty on her Honeybee Suite site calls it a “dark secret,” and says it tastes like “malt and molasses topped with overtones of horehound and citrus—and not excessively sweet. It had a lingering, smoky, slightly bitter aftertaste.”

Honey that is not excessively sweet? I guess it’s all relative. Emily Heath on Quora explains: “Nectar, which honey bees collect to create honey, varies considerably in the types of sugars it contains – some nectars are mainly fructose, some mainly glucose, some mainly sucrose, others roughly equal mixes of the three. This causes variation in the sugars present in the honey, depending on which nectars the bees collected… An average honey which has not been tampered with by humans might contain 17-19% water, 38-40% fructose, 31-35% glucose and 1-3% sucrose.” Here is another interesting site that compares many varieties and benefits of honey: Honey Varieties.

Wedgwood “Tamarisk”

It was when I began to look for photos of tamarisk trees that I found warnings about their invasive and supposedly thirsty qualities. People say they take more water from the ground than native trees, and also crowd them out. After searching for a deeper analysis of their current place in the arid ecosystems of this area, I was thankful for an article in Discover Magazine, “The Battle Over the Tamarisk Tree,” a few paragraphs from which I’ll share below. It explains about the complex interrelationships of the flora and fauna, including the current dependence of the Southwestern willow flycatcher on the tree. At first, local and federal agencies attacked the trees with bulldozers, herbicides, fire and chainsaws; then they found an also non-native insect pest to help with eradication.

I should mention that the genus Tamarix includes 50–60 species of flowering plants. The one that is of most concern in the Southwest seems to be Tamarix ramosissima.

Southwestern willow flycatcher

“In 1930, [the tamarisk] was a cure-all for erosion concerns in the West. Before long, it was vilified as a water-hogging monster. And by the 1950s, federal and state agencies had galvanized to bring the monster down.

“But tamarisk isn’t quite the monster it’s been made out to be. Sure, it’s highly flammable, and it may salinate the soil when it drops its salty leaves. But water hog? Turns out, it uses roughly the same amount of water as native riparian trees like willows and cottonwoods.

“Since the middle of the 20th century, humans have dramatically altered western rivers and made it harder for native trees to compete. We’ve built dams and diverted water, and we’ve tamed the periodic floods that once spilled over riverbanks to sprout new generations of willows and cottonwoods. As we engineered the rivers, tamarisk increasingly had the upper hand.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture began searching for a tamarisk biocontrol in the mid-1980s. By 2001, they’d launched the tamarisk beetle program, releasing the insects at 10 different sites with the caveat that no releases would be permitted within 200 miles of a known flycatcher nest.

DSC-NT0318_05“But by 2008, after an unsanctioned beetle release in southern Utah, Diorhabda carinulata reached the Virgin River: flycatcher habitat. Ecologists worried the beetles would destroy the tamarisks that this unique bird had come to rely on for nesting. And in 2010, the USDA ended the program.”

The beetles did not go away, and some people are still monitoring their numbers, hoping that they will help to restrain the tamarisks a bit. I guess the flycatchers don’t eat beetles that munch away at their homes; they like winged insects best.

Flycatcher nest

An older article at Terrain.org, “The Thirsty Tree,” explains in more detail how our human impact on rivers created the situation in which the tamarisk, also known as salt cedar, could dominate:

“Groundwater pumping, overgrazing, and the construction of dams altered the natural pulse of a river’s seasonal cycle. Was it possible that salt cedar, well-equipped to deal with salt and drought, simply moved into niches where native trees could no longer take root?”

“Water savings—that goal meant everything to the politicians and resource managers of the Southwest. To ‘save’ water meant not to conserve it, but to rescue it from rivers and aquifers and make it available to humans.”

“The old idea of ‘plant as machine,’ a monster of our own making, imagines salt cedar roots drinking from a deep bucket of water, easily reallocated to human use. The reality is much more complex. Stark numbers ignore the intricate workings of tree, rain, soil, river—not a machine whose parts can be scrapped for other uses, but a delicate dance of interrelationships.”

The history of water use in the American West is fascinating and depressing. If you want to understand more about it, Cadillac Desert is a must-read. More primitive peoples didn’t use water the way we have in the last couple of centuries, so there was no reason to see the tamarisk tree as anything but a blessing. Our holy forefather Abraham was of this mind.

The tamarisk tree is mentioned more than once in the Bible, but maybe the most striking reference is in Genesis 21:33, where we are told that “After the treaty had been made at Beersheba, Abimelek and Phicol the commander of his forces returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the Lord, the Eternal God. And Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines for a long time.”

Botanists and scholars think it was probably the Tamarix aphylla, or athel pine, that Abraham planted, and I have read in some places that it takes hundreds of years to get to its full height. It takes several generations, at least. As has been noted, you don’t plant it for yourself, but for your grandchildren, and beyond.

Abraham truly had the long view. No doubt his friendship with God, and the truth of things that he could know from closeness to his Creator, gave him the ability to look toward the future and make provision for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he planted more than one tamarisk tree in his life. And it seems likely that after the Israelites endured 400 years of slavery in Egypt, and wandered in the desert another 40 years before entering the Promised Land, they were very glad to find tamarisk trees waiting for them, and to sit down in their shade.

Tamarisk in Beersheba

Listening to the silent stars.

Diary of a mountain sojourn:

DAY 1:  I arrive at the cabin overlooking a lake for my second visit this summer. The last twenty minutes I was driving through a thunderstorm with huge drops splattering the windshield and dark grey-purple clouds all around the lake when it first came into view.

I am alone in the house until at least tomorrow night, and there don’t seem to be many people in the little village, either. It took me slightly less than six hours of driving to get here, if you don’t count the first hour when I got to the next town before realizing that I’d forgotten the keys to the gates and the cabin — so back I drove, and started over. I’m so thankful I remembered so soon; a few years ago we forgot the keys and it was inconvenient to say the least.

The quiet is so complete, it reveals the noise in my body and soul as so much jangling and buzzing and ringing. But it’s a weary and even bored kind of excitement – I hate to think of how so many of us get through day after day on this kind of “energy.”

I expect that as I go to sleep listening to God in the silence of the stars, the noise of my mad journey to get here will begin to evaporate.

DAY 2: Every time I wake and turn over in the night, the silence is there enveloping me as cozily as my sleeping bag. Until 7:00, when a bird call breaks the quiet and brings me to consciousness. Other than the Steller’s Jays, I don’t know most of the mountain birds. I do see a woodpecker occasionally.

This morning, the sky is bright blue and cloudless, but the deck is very wet, and it’s only 44 degrees. In spite of my deep sleep, I am groggy and have a slight headache from the altitude. This is a catch-up day, so I go back to bed and eventually to sleep again.

Not getting much “done” today – I’m trying to enter into that rest, in spite of a brain that can’t hold a thought. There is less oxygen up here for sure! Well, not exactly:

“The percentage of oxygen is the same at sea level as it is at high altitudes, which is roughly 21 percent. However, because air molecules at high altitudes are more dispersed, each breath delivers less oxygen to the body.”

It takes me a long time to shower and dress and to decide about breakfast. I make summer squash with scrambled eggs, and yes, I will have coffee this morning. Suddenly it seems that a big mug of coffee with cream will complete the event in the most comforting way. Will it compensate for the oxygen?

It used to be that coffee was made by my father in a percolator, and my husband always loved that strong brew. Daddy bought a second, extra large version for the rare times that we had a crowd here. But lately someone has added a French press and a grinder to the kitchen equipment, so I use that, only because it’s what I’m used to.

While eating breakfast I text with friends on my phone! Even more than using the French press, it feels a bit sacrilegious to be in contact with the world “down there.” Three or four years ago when it became an option in the cabin, I didn’t use it – but at this stage of my life I don’t crave Alone Time that is absolute, and when you are trying to coordinate meals and supplies with people who are coming later, it’s very helpful. We don’t have phone service, but those with iPhones up here can text with iPhones elsewhere, and then there is email, Facebook, etc.

Not that I know what all the etcetera are. I have no hope of catching up in the tech world; “they” are always changing things and calling it upgrading. I don’t know why Apple Photos have to be so complicated: It’s so so easy to take pictures and have them stored in Moments and Place and in the Cloud. But then I can’t find them when I want to put one in my blog!

Oh, well, I can finish the post when I get home. And I want to read while I’m here. I brought The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben, which one or more of my readers recommended, and am reading it on the deck surrounded by a virgin forest. But I haven’t gotten past the introductory chapters when I come to a hint that this forester author is going to be annoying.

Tim Flannery in the foreword explains a little about how trees in a forest communicate by means of fungi in their root systems. Trees send electrical impulses, they exude chemicals toxic to specific insects when one starts chewing on a neighbor… I have heard about these phenomena and want to learn more, which is why I am reading this book. Trees show us God’s glory, and He fills all His creation with His presence, including trees. I want to know and love them more.

In the introduction to the English version, the author uses half of the page space to tell the story of an ecosystem, how wolves that have been reintroduced to Yellowstone Park have “kept the [elk] herds on the move,” so that the elk aren’t defoliating the trees along the streams, the beaver are back, and so on. I understand all this.

But then he tells us that we humans ought to learn from the wolves’ “stewardship of natural processes.” Wait a minute! The wolves are just doing what comes naturally to them, as do the elk, when they “make quite a meal of the aspens, willows, and cottonwoods….” I don’t know why he doesn’t label the elk as poor stewards, because they are equally intentional in their destruction as the wolves are in their destruction. The author also doesn’t mention that the reason the wolves are keeping the elk on the move is to kill and eat them – not to promote the restoration of streams. And a wolf would eat a beaver if it were convenient.

Stewardship is intentional and not instinctive. Wikipedia: Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. But why tell this story of wolves, when it has only the remotest connection to how trees communicate with one another? The motivation for doing that might make an interesting tangent to run along, but I know you are glad I won’t. I hope the author will get down to business now and tell us what he really knows about trees, and not fall into too much romantic euphemizing and speculating, but I’m not very hopeful.

The air is cooling as the sun sinks behind the peaks. Dusk comes early in the mountains. It’s 5:30. Tonight, or tomorrow, Pippin’s family will arrive and we’ll spend a few more days together. They invited me for this stay, but I arrived first, glad to get through my lethargic day without the children around for contrast.

I found a way to get some photos in here, so I will publish this part of my “diary” now – otherwise it would be way too long by the time I get home. But before I go, here are some elderberries I saw on the way up yesterday. And my family just drove up… Good night!

Next day’s entry is HERE.