The forest for the trees

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

“If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.”
~ Jack Handey, Deep Thoughts (Saturday Night Live)

Never mind the TV or the Internet. Trees report the real news in northern Minnesota. Is the maple sap running? Are the oak trees budding? Have the aspens leafed out? The trees tell us what we *really* want to know. Is spring really here? Trees know the schizophrenic seasons of northern Minnesota better than any calendar. They must, to survive.

Trees know when to sleep for five months and when to wake up, burbling sap and birthing buds like 1,000 eggs through the same substance we use to make furniture. Trees are a miracle, and yet so common of a miracle that we can’t sustain modern life without piling all manner of abuse upon them (starting with the newsprint on which many readers will see these words).

On one branch, trees are as transient as weeds: saplings gobbled up by deer, ATVs plowing down green growth like wet April snow. People wrap cars around trees, chop trees down for heat or recreation, even removing trees simply to let light pass through the air where trees once stood.

But on the other branch, trees outlive us. Trees can live through changes in climate, good years and bad. Some trees outlive whole societies and languages. Which tree will outlive me? Which tree will enter my house in the form of toilet paper? It’s hard to tell.

I know one tree that won’t outlive me, the tall basswood that fell down in our yard during the big wind last week. Actually, two trees fell out of a grouping of three, and the third is not long for this world. They seem to have fallen along a direct north-south line, the third slumping east. Rotten, splintered; the deer having been eating the salvageable branches for several days. The stuff must taste pretty good because you can almost walk up to the deer and touch them before they give up on eating it.

Trees in my yard have been dying off this way since we first disturbed the soil to build our house nine years ago. You could see them become a little less vibrant each year until some strong wind or rotten root conspired to bring them down. I really didn’t want to commit the sin of the flatlander: clearing the property as though to farm. I wanted to retain the forest as much as possible. Still, these trees were part of something and when their band was broken up by external forces, they never played the same tune again. Down they go. Down we all go.

So, trees are fragile. But then again, trees are strong. I’ve heard about the give and take of tamarack boughs bent into ceiling beams for 70 years only to straighten out once taken down. Bend them back and it stands to reason this could go on and on.

Yes, you don’t know which tree is going to be the one that lasts; like the wooden chair that becomes an antique through simple attrition. All you know is that up or down, dead or alive, standing shady with birds atwitter or buckled hard into your favorite former vehicle; trees are the fiber of life here. And they’ll tell you the truth, because it’s all they know.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the DATE edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.



  1. We may have to take down a very large Aspen tree to get a reliable signal for our internet. Kind of ironic, since the net us how I read the newspaper these days. Oh, and trees block my Direct TV signal in summer, so no local TV stations either, nor is satellite ‘net an option.

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