Unsung Heroes

litbonanza.jpgOn a blustery day in the windy season, I walked out to my study plot in the tropical cloud forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica. For the last 25 years, I have ascended trees with mountain-climbing gear to study forest canopy biology. Three miles up the trail, one of the largest trees in the plot had toppled, an individual I knew intimately from scores of trips up and down its trunk. I had named this tree “The Mansion” because its giant crown suggests a gracious home of many rooms, each branch festooned with orchids, bromeliads, and ferns, and inhabited by a diverse assemblage of arboreal animals. But the tree had fallen in the previous night’s windstorm, tearing open a huge gap in the fabric of the forest canopy, which created a sunlit area that had previously been held in deep shade on the ground. I took a seat on the ground-bound trunk, and felt sadness at its transformation from vertical to horizontal, living to dying. Yet the sunlight that could now penetrate to the previously darkened forest floor would awaken the dormant seeds that lay buried in the soil at my feet. In a few months, new tree seedlings would sprout and make their own way to the canopy. By the time I stood to leave the light gap, I had shifted my saddened attitude, viewing the trunk of the fallen tree as the trunk of a fallen hero who inspires his followers to move from stasis to action, from darkness to light.

I need heroes – entities that inspire me to overcome the challenges I face in my life by demonstrating inspiration, endurance, and protection. A hero is a person or thing that does something for other people, something that others don’t and can’t do. I confess that I have few human heroes. As a child, my history classes concerned the military conquering and dismantling of empires, which held little fascination for me. Because history books yielded few heroes, I have looked to trees as my heroic figures. But how can trees – so sedentary, so silent – be heroes? The word tree is derived from the Sanskrit word deru, which means to be firm or solid. From it comes not only the English word tree, but also the words durable, trust, continue, shelter, and endure, all of which typify heroism.

The endurance of trees has inspired me to take risks to overcome my fears. For example, when I climb into the upper canopy to carry out my treetop research, at rare intervals, I will be struck by a sudden “fear flash”, a short, irrational sense of danger that paralyzes me. Over the years, I have learned to dissipate these jolts of fright by making myself aware of the strength of the tree. I pull myself to the trunk and breathe in its smell. I place my hands on a branch and feel the rough bark against my palms. My senses remind my brain of the enormous length of time that the tree has stood, weathering wind, insect attacks, and fire, and which now stands strong enough, surely, to hold my own weight and one hundred more like me. Its long life and endurance through time inspire me to push past the fear flash. I let go my grip, and continue upward. There, at the top – – now free of fear — I can look over the forest that stretches miles beyond what I would see from the ground, a perspective that shifts the way I view my limits. I have gained a safe foothold on the top of this huge tree, hanging only by a rope the diameter of my pinkie. The tree has inspired me to overcome this and other challenges in my life that pull at me, like gravity or anxiety, toward earthbound limits and toward the mundane.

I attribute the heroic qualities of giving to trees that I meet on city streets. I hold one tree in particular in my memory as an unlikely looking hero, a misshapen linden tree that I encountered in the tiny park near my piano teacher’s house during my childhood summers. After my class, I would sit on a bench in the muggy summer heat of Washington, D.C. and eat my sandwich beneath this lone and scraggly tree, grateful for the shade it cast. I could almost hear the graceful arpeggios of its branches against the severely straight lines of my urban surroundings. Now, as a forest ecologist, I realize that any urban tree – meagerly fed by poorly drained soils, near-stifled by car exhaust, peed on by dogs, carved on by teenagers, roots captive under cement — is a model of heroic endurance and bounty for humans. Urban forestry studies document that trees absorb airborne pollutants such as deadly carbon monoxide, have significant cooling effects on urban structures, provide critical exchanges of oxygen for carbon dioxide, and reduce stress of time-pressed city-dwellers within the concrete confines of their cityscape.

Providing refuge for those who need protection is another attribute of heroes. Some of the trees I climbed as a child were heroic in exactly that way. I grew up in a large family that – like many others – had a dangerous undertow of disorder, with bursts of inexplicable anger that flared at unguarded moments. I was the middle child in an energetic brood of five siblings, with accompanying pets, projects, homework, chores and expectations. My father, a Hindu from India, and my mother, an Orthodox Jew of Russian parentage from Brooklyn, New York, created a home that at times had to strain to contain the diversity of customs and values it held within the family and to resolve conflicts with suburban American traditions and ideals just outside our door. As a child, I struggled to gain a sense of the self that I knew to be me, but which could only rarely emerge within the turmoil of our house. Early on, I found a safe place in the eight sturdy sugar maples that lived in our front yard. When my small limbs climbed into their strong limbs, I knew I would be undisturbed by parents or siblings until the dinner bell. Aloft, I occupied my own world of peace and safety. Those trees – my quiet heroes – gave me faith that I would be able to find a refuge when I needed it.

I have learned that heroes need not be restricted to humans who live far away in space and time, framed by television screens or the rifled arches of a 21-gun salute. My quest for inspiration does not require a long journey. I need only look out to a fallen trunk or upright giant in my study plots, the inhabitant of a tiny city park, or to the maple tree in my own front yard.

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Dr. Nadkarni is a forest ecologist and Professor of Environmental Studies at The Evergreen State College. She carries out field research in the upper canopy of cloud forests of Costa Rica and temperate rainforests of Washington State. She is also President of the International Canopy Network, a non-profit organization that promotes communication among researchers, educators, and conservationists concerned with forest canopies and forest ecosystems.