Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Naming the Trees
distributed 8/24/07 & 10/15/10 - ©2007, 2010

The 2007 distribution of this Eco-Justice Notes was underwritten by Jim McBride, of Laguna Beach, California. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

"I'd never realized that there are different kinds of pine trees here."

That was a startling insight that a Lutheran pastor shared with me while we were on a nature walk in the Colorado mountains. It was startling to him, as he realized something about the amazing biological diversity of his home region. It was startling to me, as I realized how unaware a bright, well educated person might be about his surroundings.

"Pastor Bill" had come to an ecological retreat that Eco-Justice Ministries offered for area clergy. An afternoon session had us go out, two-by-two, into the hills around the retreat center with an open-ended assignment to report back on what we found.

As Bill and I walked along a trail, I made a comment about the interesting mix of trees in this streamside location in the foothills of the Rockies. I mentioned the blend of scrub oak and willows and fir and pines. Bill gave me a rather blank stare, and asked what I meant.

It turns out that he -- on his travels through the mountains -- had noticed lots of "pine trees", which was his collective term for evergreens of any kind. It had never occurred to him that the mountains have many different kinds of trees with needles and cones. He certainly wasn't aware that the diversity of those conifers made any difference to him, or to the ecosystem.

I became an environmental educator for the next half hour, instead of being a workshop participant. I started off by having Bill grab a branch from each of two trees growing side-by-side. One was a Ponderosa pine, which has very long needles. The other was a Douglas-fir, with short needles. That simple touch gave an instant lesson about differences between these two tree species. With that new recognition, Bill could then start to notice other characteristics of tree shape and bark texture, and even smell. [Scroll down at this link for pictures and more details.]

I pointed out that Ponderosa pines grow in open, widely-spaced stands in the lower mountains of Colorado. At the retreat center, they were present on the warm and dry south-facing hillside. The Douglas-fir likes cooler and wetter settings, and it was found in a more close-growing forest that spread up the north-facing slopes.

We were blessed to be walking in the zone where those two forest types meet. The area along a streambed also had a mix of deciduous trees, shrubs and grasses. That diversity of plants allowed a lovely variety of birds and other wildlife.

Bill and I didn't walk very far that afternoon, but our 30 minutes in the woods provided him with a glimpse into a whole new way of seeing the world.

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"To a person uninstructed in natural history, [a] countryside or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall." -- Thomas Huxley

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On one level, the ability to notice the diversity of trees in Colorado's mountains -- or of shorebirds at the coast, wildflowers on a prairie, or cactus in the desert -- is valuable simply for the aesthetic and spiritual delight that it brings. When our eyes are opened to that rich variety of nature, we can rejoice in the beauty and complexity of this world. Our minds and hearts are opened, too, so that we can appreciate and give thanks for the wonders of God's creation.

When we are able to recognize a few species of trees, rather than seeing an undifferentiated batch of "trees with needles", we can become aware that the wonderful variety of plants are marvelously attuned to their environment. In Colorado, a person minimally "instructed in natural history" can differentiate between the mixed pinyon pine and juniper woodlands of low elevations, the Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir of mid-range mountains, and the dense Lodgepole pine forests of the high country.

But there are very practical factors, too, in an awareness about the variety of trees. Knowing that there are many kinds of evergreen trees in the mountains makes a big difference in how we are able to address important questions of public policy and environmental concern.

  • Without knowing that there are diverse forest types, it is impossible for citizens to make appropriate comments about the management of National Forests and other public lands. Ponderosa pine forests need frequent, low-intensity fires to be healthy. In exurban areas with many homes it is not prudent to allow those fires to burn, so selective cutting of trees and undergrowth is necessary to thin the forest. The Lodgepole pine forests of the high mountains, though, need very rare but high-intensity fires. Appropriate "forest health" policies are highly dependant on the type of forest involved.

  • If all those different kinds of pines, junipers and firs are thought to be alike, then the uninstructed won't understand how climate change can be so damaging to mountain forests. Because each kind of tree is adapted to grow in a certain ecological zone, rapidly changing temperature and precipitation disrupt forests in each fragile habitat. An awareness of climate impacts depends on a basic knowledge of distinctive habitats.
Wendell Berry said "What we do not love, we will not save." Biologist Elaine Brooks took the process back a step farther: "humans seldom value what they cannot name."

If we cannot name the different trees, or at least recognize that they are different, we will not value the forest enough to save it. If we do not care enough about God's creation to recognize and rejoice in its variety, we'll be unlikely to work for its preservation.

For our own enjoyment, and to equip ourselves for ecological stewardship, may we all get out into the natural settings near our homes. May we all learn enough about God's creation to be able to care for these unique and fragile settings.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

An Eco-Justice Notes from 2001, The Forest and the Trees, has a somewhat similar pondering from a walk in the Colorado foothills.

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