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The Enigmatic Voice of a Tree

TREES have no teeth. That is one of the reasons why the mahoganies fall in Brazil, why irradiated pines stand as silent skeletons in Siberia, and why Himalayan larches crackle in the fireplaces of energy-starved Nepalese.

Trees have no teeth and very quiet voices - which is a distinct disadvantage in a competitive world. Fortunately for them, we need them. And we need them for reasons that man has always found persuasive. We believe that without them the atmosphere will choke up, the icecaps will melt, and before we can say reforestation, one of our most precious sources of renewable energy will have been lost.

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That is at the root, so to speak, of man's concern for the tree. That is why forestry programs are implemented and thousands of acres of Sitka spruce have been planted around us on the hills of Scotland, six feet apart, 1,500 to the acre.

But it was suggested to me the other day that there is more to trees than carbon and chlorophyll. I say this with tongue in cheek since the suggestion came from a buzzard. Why it should come via a buzzard is a mystery, but you have to agree that one is more likely to take notice of a buzzard than a circular from the Scottish Department of the Environment.

It happened the day when two elms were felled on the bank that slopes up behind the raspberry field. The trees have stood there forever and have been taken for granted as part of the scenery, greening our view every spring, pleasantly rounding the outline of the hill.

TWO or three years ago, the Dutch elm disease that wiped out the great elms of England in the 1970s reached our valley. Matthew, who farms the land on which the two elms stand, was worried that a January nor'easter might lay them across our power lines, or worse still, across an unsuspecting rambler, so he decided they must be felled. No tree-protection society would quibble with the decision. It was unfortunate but necessary.

I had never seen trees as big as these being felled, so I went to watch. Because the branches had grown to take advantage of a thrifty Scottish sun, the trees were weighted on the downhill side, making them difficult to fell.

The woodcutters discussed the problem, measured up the trees, paced out where they were to fall, and decided how best they should be dispatched. The victims, who were within easy earshot, were noticeably silent.

One of the men spidered into the canopy of the tree, deftly severed a few limbs, and attached a steel cable. The other man fitted a hand winch and fastened it to a tough oak. The chain saw snarled to life and was put to work against the trunk.

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The whole job was professionally executed, passively accepted, and seemed somehow slightly immoral, reminiscent of whaling where man's superiority is so obscenely exploited.

It was all over in half an hour. All the burgeoning growth of long-passed springs, the droughts and deluges of many summers, the travail of 200 winters, so easily and swiftly brought to an end.

The crash echoed across the valley and sent shock waves up toward Bodesbeck and Capplegill, into tiny glens where sheep lifted their heads from the heather and rowan saplings trembled. Only the chain saw seemed content, popping gently like a cat purring after its kill. One of the men casually snuffed its engine, and silence crept in.

At that moment, I heard the buzzard, a distant mewing, coming from high over Cornal Burn. Buzzards are not unusual in the valley, drawing their neat spirals on the huge mural of the sky, but they are, as a rule, small-time players on the periphery of rural life.

The men didn't hear it. They were engrossed in the bole of the tree, tracing the rings from the center: from its frail and feathery start in the late 1700s, through the Industrial Revolution, two World Wars, man's first visit to the moon, the Berlin Wall, Desert Storm, and on to this very day, when the chain saw put a stop to history. The men talked in small voices, then retrieved their ``piece'' boxes from where they had been laid out of the range of the crashing branches, sat down with their backs against the fallen tree, and poured out their thermoses.

I started to scramble up toward them when something about the buzzard's cry made me look up. The bird had left its station over the burn and was swinging down in uncertain ellipses, the easterly extremes of which stretched nearer and nearer to my position.

The creature was clearly nervous at this lower altitude, yet seemed impelled to come down to where we were. It glided in on huge silent wings and swept over the fallen tree, not 50 feet from the ground. And then it called, not the thin high-altitude ``meew'' we were used to, but a full sound, mellow and poignant. It circled twice, crying all the while in an unbuzzard-like fashion, its eyes unblinking, inscrutable, and then it swept upward and was gone.

The buzzard was there for only a few seconds, just long enough to spill its message into the valley. But I can hear it in my mind now, clear in the stillness of that morning. I can play it over and over. A message without words, enigmatic, not possible to construe or to misconstrue.

Since then, I have tried to read all sorts of things into the bird's behavior. Perhaps the buzzard was mourning the loss of an old nesting site, responding to instinct, that convenient word that permits us to credit animals with apparently reasoned behavior without actually endowing them with the ability to reason. But I know the bird has not nested there for the past 35 years. It is the rooks who litter the elms with ramshackle nests each spring and inconsiderately wake us with their raucous laughing. And they haven't been seen for weeks.

COULD it be idle curiosity? But buzzards are above the petty cheek and inquisitiveness of the robin and the blackbird.

The experience had no neat explanation within the comfortable parameters of human logic.

A child could happily believe that the buzzard had come down to lift the spirit of the elm on to its broad soft wings and carry it to the forests of eternity beyond the horizon. That would be nice, but fantasy bends few ears over the age of 10.

It started me thinking. There was one thing for sure, the buzzard had not come down for political reasons - to be seen as a passenger on the ``green'' wagon. It didn't care about votes.


If a buzzard had been moved to risk danger to attend this event, perhaps it knew or felt something that was outside our experience.

And was this so unreasonable? Just because we humans can't explain something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Perhaps the bird was empathizing with the tree, and if that was the case could it, or the tree, empathize with us - if we could tune ourselves in?

Plenty of people talk to their plants, and Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins are just two scientists whose experiments suggest that these people are not crazy.

Is it so preposterous to think that a tree that lives for 200 years and can cope with all the processes needed to survive has more to offer than an air purification system and some cheap fuel?

And if this is so and we benefit from a tree's great beauty, if we stand beneath its branches in melancholy or gladness and are affected by its ambience of peace and stability, should we be offering more than nitrogen, phosphate, and potash in return? Shouldn't we accept the tree as something nearer an equal, even though it has no teeth and a very quiet voice?

I was still thinking about this the other day when I was planting a young blue cedar just 50 meters away from where the elms had stood. I had a chat with it actually, saying that I hoped it would be happy there for the next 300 years or so and that many people would have the good fortune of making its acquaintance.

Yes, there is no doubt about it, I might not know what that buzzard was saying but he certainly made me think.

Of course, that might have been his intention.

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