Connecting landscapes

As a child, I felt connected to what was around me. The way my grandmother saw and interacted with her surroundings created a sense of belonging and living in that moment for me. Many places were marked by (and often times named after) large boulders, stream pools, waterfalls, hills, kinds of vegetation and trees.

The heavy deforestation and erosion of the soil is evident across my grandmother’s land but there are a few trees that have made it and stick out across the hilly landscape. Some of these trees are standing at a sharp slope on the hillsides and many along the edges of streams and rivers. I recently asked my grandmother about one of the larger trees on a former property of hers and she told me that it had been standing there even before my grandfather was born. As a seven-year old, this tree, el amate, with its long extended shady branches, which at times were full of caterpillars, was scary. This tree lives right in the middle of a field where the water drains out to during the heavy tropical rains. Walking through this field often means losing one boot every other step. It seems to me that this amate tree has lived forever.

Moving to Somerville, Massachusetts was a shift in many ways. The housing complex where I lived in had a massive strip of concrete on one side and the I-93 highway on the other. I remember that when renovations began on the building where I lived at, the trees around the corner were the first to go. I missed those trees and seeing their branches from my living room window. Having now lived the majority of my life in the Boston area, I have never experienced that deep connection of belonging to this part of the world like the one that I did as a child with my grandmother in that small village in El Salvador named after the achiote tree.

The Learn to Farm program incorporates forestry as part of its curriculum. As part of our introduction to the forest around us, we have taken two guided group walks through different parts of the forest here at the Farm School and another one down the road at the Harvard Forest in Petersham. In being part of these walks, I have started to identify more trees that grow in this area and taking note of their characteristics.

At the start our first walk, the shagbark hickory was the first tree to be pointed out with its prominent bark that peels out along the trunk, its giant compounded leaves and the sizeable walnuts that plunge onto the ground as the wind blows. I have probably walked by many shagbark hickories before but I have never recognized one until coming to the Farm School. I have learned that the black birch tree gives off a sweet peppermint smell when one of its twigs is snatched off, and I have started to connect more seeds to their parent trees. As the final leaves start falling, it has become harder to differentiate between trees based off from their bark but I am hopeful that as I spend more time in the woods this will change.

From the complementary readings, I am beginning to understand more of the history of trees in New England. The majority of the New England forest has been cut more than once since the arrival of European settlers and with that comes a historical reality that has had and continues to have implications for the surrounding environment. The American Chestnut, a deciduous hardwood tree, once soared to nearly 100 feet in height, and now most of them stay as saplings due to a fungal infection that was introduced starting in the late 19th century. I imagine that it was a similar scenario played across large parts of Central America as it was colonized by the Spanish. The land that belongs to my grandmother was probably once filled with large tropical trees that were probably cut down for timber and firewood, and certain species might have met similar fates to that of New England trees.

The walks, readings and now with the introduction to felling of trees has felt like an opening for an appreciation of the New England landscape. I feel uncertain whether New England will ever feel like home especially as the temperatures drop every autumn but being surrounded by and working with trees feels closer to that feeling of walking behind my grandmother across her farm. It feels comforting to walk in between a line of large shagbark hickory and oak trees that seem to have been a part of this land for longer than I have as I make my way to maggie’s. Sometimes as I gaze across the fields and see the mountains in the distance, I start to think how beautiful they are and how they remind me of childhood mountains.