[JoAnn Malek is a long-time Museum member and a recent participant in the Natural Connections Writing Workshop. JoAnn has graciously fine-tuned an essay that she drafted during that class. It touches on realities we all must face at some point—for ourselves and our loved ones--and I’m excited to share it with you this week. –Emily Stone]
I am a November child. The bare bones of empty trees have always fascinated me.
After the leaves finished falling each year, and after I grew tired of jumping in the rustling piles, I looked upward to admire the bare trees. Some are long and straight and stretch upward. Other gnarled tree trunks send out crooked branches every which way. Some form Vs over and over again, just the way I liked to draw them.
These days I look out on a mesh of straight twigs or a labyrinth of curlicues. Every so often the bright white of a birch shines, stretching tall among neighboring hardwoods to sprout branches reaching for the Sun. Some trees who were connected at the base have grown apart, a melancholy reminder of me and my siblings. The many patterns captivate me.
When a tree topples, and underground growth is exposed, we see another kind of pattern. In some we find the broken taproot that was reaching far into the ground, providing needed anchorage, collecting water and nutrients, and storing reserved foods. The plant sends out a maze of lateral roots near the surface. In my garden, placed where trees once stood, I battled these lateral roots as they spread far and wide
Until recently I did not know that the trees I love to look at are able to connect with one another through their roots. Some species have fungal connections known as the mycorrhizal network. Trees can recognize their relatives. They can detect poor health in the network. Saplings rely on sugars from older trees in order to survive in the shade. Elders receive support when necessary. Trees of all ages supply additional nutrients to the ones in need.
In a forest I frequent there is a section dominated by maple trees. A few large “grandmas” are surrounded by many younger trees of different sizes. When I visit in autumn, the whole area is enclosed with a warm golden aura, even on the greyest of days. I, too, hope to create a warm golden aura around my family. I have fed them as they’ve grown, and now they support me, too.
Fallen trees, once strong and beautiful, bring to mind my dear Jim. The photo on my dresser pictures him at the end of the 1995 World Masters Marathon in Buffalo, N.Y., muscles straining, face taut. Jim was broken by Parkinson’s disease; he’s already gone (“can it be?”) nine years. Other trees in the forest, damaged and leaning, bring sad thoughts of friends struggling with physical challenges and their fears.
Our country and culture seem to celebrate independence and autonomy, but we must acknowledge the roots that connect us. Our rootedness in the past. Our relationships. Our faith in higher powers. Our care for the Earth and all that surrounds us. We need one another in thousands of physical ways, but also spiritually and emotionally. Only the rare individual can survive intact when separated from fellow humans.
As I venture through the November of my life, I treasure memories of role models in my family tree. I am honored by a large--even growing--network of friends. I am blessed with a strong root system and the ability to appreciate patterns my life etches on the grey November sky.
For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. The Museum is now open with our exciting Growing Up WILD exhibit. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.