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DOT'S BEAT: Tree Hugger: Single Trees Are Lonely



by Dot Helling

Can you be a tree hugger and live in downtown Montpelier? My guess is Montpelier Tree Board Chair John Snell would say yes! It depends on your definition. Kind of like the debate we used to have with Reverend John Nutting about whether or not transplanted Vermonters ever become real Vermonters. I came to Vermont in the early 70s and would argue to him, “I’m not even a flatlander. I was born in another country.” ”Don’t matter,” the Reverend would say in a heavy Vermont brogue, “Just because the kittens were born in the oven doesn’t mean you can call ’em muffins.” In other words, it requires generations of Vermont-born predecessors to consider yourself a native.

But definitions do change and expand. Just look at some of the new words entered into the Merriam-Webster’s and Oxford Dictionaries: “dogtor,” “binky,” “teenmentia,” “cancerversary,” “gimongous,” “trumpism,” “spaghettification,” “confuzzle.” The definition of “ki” expanded as a pronoun and is used to describe trees personally, not as “its.” Webster’s defines “native” to include those who are homegrown, meaning we are native to or characteristic of a particular area. So, in my book, I am a native. It is a state of mind.

I am also a “tree hugger.” Tree hugger is generally defined as someone who loves the environment and advocates for the preservation of woodlands. It has been used disparagingly in reference to radical environmentalists, eg. “Duck Squeezers,” “Green Panthers,” “eagle freaks,” “crunchies,” around here it’s those “Goddard folk.” In reality a tree hugger is anyone who is passionate for their environment, whether it be for your one and only tree on your downtown lot, or your 400 plus acres in the Northeast Kingdom, or out enjoying our State and National Parks.

Unlike those who own large tracts of land, a city tree hugger cares about the global landscape, the concept that every tree is a part of the greater whole. Today 78 percent of Vermont is forested but fragmented. In the 1800s the state was mostly fields full of sheep and marked by stone walls. Today 81 percent of Vermont’s forested land is privately owned. More than one third of Vermont landowners own an acre or less. Tree huggers need to appeal to “small” to think about the connectivity of parcels and encourage wildlife movement corridors.

This September I participated in a three-day Vermont Coverts: Woodlands for Wildlife  program at the Kehoe Conservation Area near Lake Bomoseen, in Hydeville. I became a certified Coverts Cooperator. I am not alone. In Vermont there are now over 650 Coverts Cooperators. In Washington County we have 43 individuals who have completed the program since 1984. The Coverts mission is to “enlist Vermont landowners in a long term commitment to maintain and enhance diverse wildlife habitat and healthy ecosystems.” “Covert” is defined here as a thicket in which game can hide, undercover but not as a furtive spy. It is pronounced with a hard, short “co” like “company.”

Invasive barberry bush in front of City Hall. Photo by Dot Helling.
Invasive barberry bush in front of City Hall. Photo by Dot Helling.

Coverts Cooperators are stewards, charged with networking and educating others about the threats to our forests and wildlife and how to preserve and protect them. Among many other benefits, forests sequester and manage carbon. Many stewardship steps are “small” in the grand scheme, but each small step makes a difference. Retaining dead wood and “snag” trees is good for forest regeneration and provides roosting, foraging, nesting and perching sites for birds. By leaving deadfall in the forest or creating a brush pile, you provide a place for nesting habitat and nester protection from predators. Bringing back wild apple trees is a food supply for wildlife. A simple forest stewardship plan includes identifying and removing invasive plants and keeping out exotic insect pests. The latter often come in on firewood from other states. Invasives are sold as ornamental plants that quickly spread. The three most prevalent invasives in Vermont are Japanese barberry, common and glossy buckthorn and bush honeysuckle, all pretty, not native and harmful. Believe it or not, there is a barberry bush planted in front of our city hall. Learn how to identify these plants, don’t plant them, remove them if you find them and prevent their spread.

Japanese barberry quickly colonizes forests and shuts out room for native shrubs, tree seedlings and herbaceous plants. It is home to mice populations and a Lyme tick harbor. Buckthorn contains a natural laxative which prevents mammals from digesting the sugar in berries. It also increases the amount of nitrogen in soil, thereby impacting native species in the area. Non-native “bush” honeysuckle impacts forest regeneration and increases the predation rate of songbirds who build nests in it. And there are others, like Dame’s rocket the four  petal phlox impostor, wild chervil, which looks like parsley, our new toxic skin-burning enemy yellow parsnip and purple loosestrife which is a pretty draw for bees but will take over our fields. Montpelier huggers are battling bush honeysuckle, goutweed aka bishop’s weed and Japanese knotweed. This spring a Vermont Coverts expert, in collaboration with the Montpelier Tree Board, will hold a public workshop on invasives impacting our city. The University of Vermont Extension Program offers an online course called “Backyard Forestry” which will also provide you with the knowledge and tools to take care of the forests and wildlife in your world. You can also apply to become a Vermont Coverts Cooperator.

Most tree huggers intentionally commit to being such, but there are also “accidental” conservationists like Mike DeMasi of Northfield. DeMasi, a long time hunter, has come to love his forest and the wildlife therein so much that he had an epiphany: he still likes to hunt but not pull the trigger. DeMasi became a Coverts Cooperator in 2014.

According to forester Peter Wohlleben who wrote “The Hidden Life of Trees,” single trees are lonely. In a forest they communicate and work together as a family to drive off invasive insects and environmental threats. They fend off chemicals and parasites by sending chemical and electrical signals through their roots. Wohlleben’s book focuses on ecosystem preservation and the social life of trees, a good read for huggers.

During the Coverts workshop one of the presenters told us, “Hug a logger and you’ll never go back to trees.” I may not have found Mr. Right Logger, but I don’t believe I will ever stop hugging trees, especially during Vermont’s fabulous fall foliage seasons.