Reflections on the Roots of Trees

Because I’m interested in the invisible side of what is visible, I sometimes reflect on the roots of trees, the subterranean parts of those big, strong, long-lived beings that are so important in shaping our world.  Some of my writing is done in front of a window that looks into the crowns of trees – a Japanese maple close by, then a large native maple, several big spruces, and other trees beyond that and off to the sides, a whole screen.  

I watch the wildlife whose habitat this is – crows and blue jays in the spruces, and in the maple all kinds of birds including, sometimes, woodpeckers and nuthatches.  Squirrels, of course.  Their movements help me to feel my way into the shape and texture of the tree: this branch slopes this way, that one crosses it.  They seem to have some established routes, like the Native peoples and fur traders in their canoes, following a stream and then portaging to the next.  As I watch the squirrels, my hands become little black claws, gripping bark.  Like the squirrel, I stop to nibble something, or to freeze in watchfulness.

From my desk I observe the motion of the branches, varying in their response to different kinds of wind and differences in the bulk of foliage that they’re carrying.  Being at tree-crown level, I’m close to the leaves in their cycle from the bursting of the buds to the autumnal severing, and to the revealing, minimalist state of the tree in winter.

And I think about the trees’ roots.  Like them, as they feel their way through the soil with delicate but strong fingers, my mind probes their world, their life.  Obstructions: a solid lump of earth can perhaps be pried apart, but a stone may have to be circumvented.  How big is it?  How hard?  No matter – the root begins to explore the stone’s shape and dimensions.  

The whole root structure is almost a mirror reflection of the tree’s crown, a similar network existing out of sight.  All parts of the tree, visible and invisible, nourish each other, water and nutrients flowing through leaf and wood.  As I sit here ruminating about the life of the maple tree in my back garden, I can feel the slow flowing of its nutritional system because my body contains something similar.

I reflect on the stress that the trees’ roots suffer during storms.  Occasionally you see an entire tree blown over, roots and all, and then you can sense the enormous struggle that took place, how the roots must have striven to hold on and then, in spite of their strength, had their grip broken or their fibres pulled apart.

When I moved into this house and began to dig in the garden, I came upon the remnants of the root system from a large tree.  The stump was no longer visible above the surface, but when I began digging I discovered what tree roots look like when they’re so decayed that they’re almost soil.  But I could tell which was which: the roots were still a bit fibrous, looser than the surrounding soil and a slightly different shade of brown.  Decayed root, I found, was easier to dig, and it didn’t take a gardening genius to realize that mixing that wonderful organic matter with earth would be good for growing things in.

No two trees have exactly the same shape.  Two chipmunks, or two Canada geese, are to the naked eye indistinguishable; nature, having evolved a pattern that works, keeps turning out copies.  Not so with trees.  Or people.

© Marianne Brandis, 2016