Witness Tree: Seasons of Change with a Century-Old Oak, Lynda V. Mapes 2017

Mapes, a science reporter with the Seattle Times, spent a year in Massachusetts as a Knight Fellow in Science Journalism at MIT and a Bullard Fellow in forest research at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, MA.  There she dove deeply into understanding the science of the forest, working with and learning from biologists, mycologists, landscape ecologists, wetland scientists, wildlife biologists, ‘all kinds of tree scientists, and perhaps most importantly, becoming immersed in phenology, the study of periodic animal and plant cycles.  Mapes focused her observations on a single oak tree, BT QURU 03, a red oak (Quercus rubra) in the Barn Tower section of the forest, and 03 because it was the third red oak entered from this plot.  She observed the changes in this tree over the year—the timing of its leafing out, the timing of the color changes, its leaf drop—-and used the changes in timing of those events over recent years to create the central focus of the book, the impact of the climate change that is occurring with unprecedented speed and impact in our world today.  The tree is a 100-110 year old specimen that grew from an acorn likely sequestered in an old stone wall by a chipmunk or squirrel.  By continuous observation of the tree via a camera, by climbing it in all seasons, and by observing the oak and its surroundings in person over a 12 month period, Mapes is able to give us a wonderfully detailed look at this organism, its surroundings, and how they interact.  Her ability to translate the science into engaging and informative prose is impressive.  I found the quantitative details she provided were charming and fascinating:  animals (primarily deer, squirrels, turkeys) can make 8000 acorns disappear in 48 hours; Petersham has 436 miles of stone walls; a tree moves 99% of the water it absorbs through its roots out of the stomata on its leaves.  Since I spend many hours in all seasons in the woods behind our home in Vermont and have seen stone walls, huge trees, the forest floor covered with acorns and the fallen leaves of autumn, Mapes’ book has added information and a new dimension to my future walks. When she writes that ‘forests are repositories of only good verbs” it reminded me of a favorite quote from Rachel Carson:  “Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”  I recommend Mapes’ book for anyone who loves our New England woods.

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