Morgan Florsheim is a writer and educator based out of Nashville, Tennessee. Though she no longer does ecology research, she still loves spending time in the woods and playing in the dirt. Her favorite plant is Princess Pine. If you’d like to read more of her writing, you can find it in Yes! Magazine, Entropy Magazine, Sidereal Magazine, and Hobart.
Toward the Pith
It had taken a whole crew of men with chainsaws and machinery to fell the massive beech, and I had the idea to go back at night to count the rings before they took away the stump in the morning. I convinced a friend from my environmental science program to join me, and we ducked beneath the construction tape once night fell and kneeled beside the stump, shining a light on it with a phone and counting out loud, starting at the bark and moving toward the pith. I forget how old the tree was, and it doesn’t really matter. It was more an act of commemoration than anything else. The men came back the next morning and dug out the stump, leaving a strange gouge where it had been, and that was that.
A year later, I stood next to a lone Magnolia macrophylla, leaning up against the borer embedded in the bark. I was only just beginning to get the hang of the tool, which was a hand drill for extracting cores from trees. That day I’d struggled to get the teeth of the borer to take hold and now that they had, I put my back into it, sweat dripping down my face as I twisted the handle to tunnel the borer closer to the center of the tree.
If done right, the borer would go straight through the magnolia’s heart, hitting the pith at the center and leaving behind a deep hole once I pulled out the core. Some trees creaked loudly in response to this assault and others bled sap, which was dark and sweet and made my hands sticky. For the tree, though, a punctured heart was only a flesh wound, nothing that would last forever.
I fell into a serious preoccupation with tree cores somewhat haphazardly. In a 9 a.m. class, a scruffy grad student blew up photos of cores on the projector and told us to contact him if we were interested in doing dendrochronology work, which he explained was the study of tree rings. That sounded all right to me, so I emailed him. As we chatted in the lab, the professor came in and told me he would be glad to work with me and planned the next eight months of my life in three minutes, which was really how I preferred it.
Tree ring work is exactly what it sounds like, though people often believe it must be more glamorous. It’s not. It’s hours in front of the microscope making small dots on the sanded surface of the core to signify the passing of years, decades, centuries in the wood. Counting the rings, however, has unexpected benefits. It takes up just enough of your brain energy that you can’t have other thoughts. Counting rings is like meditation for people who can’t meditate, but in a productive sort of way. Though sometimes, when I come across a core from a tree that broke earth in 1998, I pause and consider for a moment that this tree and I are the same age, and that always gives me some tiny jolt of excitement.
There are many reasons why one might want to study wood in this way. Wood is a means of reconstructing the past, a natural history that appears between the thin lines of latewood marking the end of each growing season. Two scientists, Gordon Jacoby and Charles Stockton, learned about the past 400 years of Colorado River flow by studying tree rings. They measured the width of the rings and learned that the river flow during the early 20th century was an anomaly, that the river had never been so wet as it has been this century. Without the trees, we’d never know that it was an anomaly that had influenced policy on dividing the river’s flow, that we should expect drought in the future.
And then there is the way that trees tell the story of their own movement. As climate changes in the north, species that never could have survived there before are springing up, escaping from cultivation to establish populations of their own. These species are adaptable, innovative, resilient. I am following their movement, trying to understand why it is happening, how it is happening, which species are finding new homes far north of their native range. To me, each tree is a lifetime of information, and each tree is a datapoint.
Revealing the inside of a tree is a peculiar kind of autopsy, one which occurs while the subject at hand lives on. Some trees are more forthcoming than others. My favorite type of wood is that of Gleditsia triacanthos, the honey locust. The tree itself is covered in giant spines; you can’t get too close to it without getting speared. But honey locust wood lays its cards on the table, the years clearly demarcated by the gradient of pores. Diospyros virginiana, the persimmon tree, on the other hand, falls among the secretive. Reading its life history is slow and effortful and sometimes fruitless.
Before I can even begin counting, though, I have to sand each core with an electric sander, exposing the intricacies of the tree’s innards so that I can more precisely assess the year it germinated. I prefer softwoods to hardwoods. They are easier to sand, bend more readily to my will. Hardwoods are more likely to be “sensitizers,” too, which means they build up in your system over time, irritating bit by bit until you’re short of breath or your skin starts blistering and you have to step away from the sander. I wear a dust mask, eyeglasses, and gloves when I sand, but still I prefer not to imagine the places the dust might settle, silently and slowly building up in some corner of my body.
Lately I’ve been carrying around clementines in the pockets of my roommate’s coat. I eat them everywhere: in class, sitting on the curb, on a bench, in study rooms, on my couch, on my walk to therapy, and sometimes before a run. My fingers perpetually smell of clementines. This makes me think of Christmas and my sister, because she bites her nails and always needs me to peel clementines for her. The pith of clementines is out in the open; it’s stuck beneath your fingernails and flaking onto your clothes. I like that about citrus fruits.
All I seem to do these days is hint at something that I can’t quite see. Graduation approaches and the ambiguity grows. The “Pith?”column of my spreadsheet, where I record whether or not I hit the pith of the tree while coring, is the only one with a question mark, and if I’m being honest with myself, it’s full of far more noes than yeses. no. no. yes. no. no, close. no. If the core did not go through the pith, there is no way I can be certain of the tree’s age. Any number I mark down is just a minimum, a best guess. I’m majoring in uncertainty. And counting. I’m really getting very good at counting. One, two, three clementines for tomorrow.
During my fieldwork, I brushed up against poison ivy on most days. Poison ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, is a strange plant. I wasn’t allergic to it at first, but after several months of close encounters my skin reacted violently, bubbling and oozing upon contact. I had a habit of scratching mindlessly until my skin was raw, exposing mottled tissue beneath that lacked the elegance of tree cores. I much preferred the pain to the nagging itch. It reminded me of my corporality, of the physical existence of my body.
In my therapist’s office, I create a list of resources for myself, patterns of habit I can return to when the grip of anxiety makes normal routine weightier. I write down wake up early and think about how I should leave my shades open so I can be reminded of the morning. I write down counting rings, too, though I’ll be done with that soon. Therapy has its own brand of counting: breaths in fours, the pulse in my fingers, weeks of Wednesday morning sessions, minutes past when I was supposed to say see you next week. I am grateful that these meetings don’t feel like a performance of extraction, that I don’t feel drilled so much as reinforced. It works best if I am the one to choose when I lay my innards bare.
Trees are often more resilient than people. In especially dry years they remain dormant, sleeping through the summer and starting up their growth again the next year. Missing rings are the only clue of hardship, and even then, they are difficult to pinpoint. You have to compare multiple trees from the same site and match them up to unearth the collective history. Rarely do the trees suffer alone.
In other hard times they build reaction wood, which resists drooping under the weight of the wind or other trees or its own growth. I count past missing rings, past reaction wood. The pith, the oldest part of the plant, the true heart of the tree, remains elusive.
Get to the pith, you say. Where are you headed? I imagine that lone magnolia some eventual summer and wonder if insects found the holes I left behind. I try to picture myself, too, lay out the years ahead for examination, and I get this feeling like I am simultaneously over- and underdressed for a party. I want to peel back my bark it is so itchy. I want to peel off my skin, slide out of it, escape the harsh light of this microscope I’ve found myself under. I imagine myself naked, the audience clothed, like some inverted public speech exercise. I have an urge to curl up, as if that would hide my naked flesh, as if I could just return to seed and wait for spring.
Consider for a moment Pinus resinosa. Or was it Pinus nigra? I remember the way to tell the difference: the rougher exterior of nigra and the way the needles of resinosa snap cleanly when bent double. Yet the bark is inconclusive, and who breaks cleanly? Not me, not me.
The first signs of the illness emerge in December 2019 in Wuhan. Few people pay much attention to the wilting of leaves until it is too late. The university shutters its windows on a Friday in March 2020. I leave the Monday after. We have all been uprooted unexpectedly. Masks for wood dust transform into masks for disease.
I talk to my sister on the phone, my mind sticky with questions of the future, and she says she’s glad to be someone who thinks deeply about things. Sometimes I’m not so sure. Sometimes I think I’d rather my head be clean of thoughts. I’d rather have my knees in the dirt. I’d rather be counting. This sedge bed may not have any answers, but it seems a fine place for a nap.
Get to the pith, you say. You seem to have wandered. I’d like to wrap this up neatly with my hot pink flagging tape, hand you the GPS coordinates and a compass. To do for you what I did for each of my species, draw a map which tells us where to go from here. Present a table filled with concrete evidence of my own resilience, of my ability to persist in new territory, stronger even than I was before.
I go to the lab one last time before I leave. My mom asks me to bring her back a core or two. But I have trouble deciding which of my cores to leave behind. They all seem potentially important now, and who am I to decide who stays and who goes?
But going I am, away from the Pinus rigida of Rhode Island and toward the Pinus banksiana of my home in Wisconsin. The dogwood trees I leave behind on campus are forming buds. Trees like these, in the Cornus genus, exhibit a special ability. When their leaves are torn apart gently, the halves remain connected by spiral strands of lignin inside the xylem cells. If you hold up one half of the leaf in your hand it appears as if the other half is floating.
I finish my thesis in quarantine, and my results are significant and inconclusive. The results are significant because they are non-random, different from null expectation. The results are inconclusive because we don’t know what they mean. I won’t bore you with statistics or p-values. It is all just a theory anyway: my trees are moving at different rates for different reasons. Some species are flourishing far beyond their original homes, seemingly unlimited by climate. Others are barely inching northward as temperatures warm, just trying to keep their heads above water. Some species we classify as having “No Pattern” in their expansion. Who is to say what the future might hold? One year of counting later, all we really know is that expectations are unreliable. Maybe it’s better that we can’t answer the question of what forges resilience. That all we can do is keep learning and mending our wounds and finding homes where we can.
In class this week, on Zoom, my professor reminds us that existence can cohabitate with collapse. I ask him how he manages to not be overwhelmed with the world. He replies: “It is significant to tend to life as we encounter it.”
If being torn does not have to mean falling apart, perhaps I could see myself growing. Perhaps I could dig in the earth with my fingers, ground myself. Perhaps I could open my shades, wake with the light, and find within myself an arboreal instinct that tells me to heal in the sun.
Here I am. Tending.
“ I will forever be grateful to the teachers, both formal and informal, who have helped me to find resilience in the face of uncertainty. Special thanks to the professor quoted at the end of this piece, Dr. Myles Lennon. ”