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Thoreau's answer to "what grows under pine trees?"

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  • Robert Monie
    Henry Thoreau had his own answer to the question of what grows under pine trees. The answer was young oaks and chestnut trees grow there, well-nursed during
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 2, 2002
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      Henry Thoreau had his own answer to the question of what grows under pine trees. The answer was young oaks and chestnut trees grow there, well-nursed during their tender early years.

      Thoreau lived another eight years after the publication of Walden. He had time to read Darwin and, with the acquisition of Asa Gray's Manual of Botany, develop his plant identification skills.

      Thoreau's manuscript The Dispersion of Seeds, written toward the end of his life and not published until 1993 (in the Bradley Dean collection "Faith in a Seed"), takes up the question of forest succession around the town of Concord. Thoreau had long been aware of a curious pattern: "In some cases I have found hundreds of . . . oak seedlings under only a half dozen pines. At first thought, one would expect to find seedling oaks in the greatest abundance, if not exclusively, under and about seed-bearing oaks, that is, in oak woods; but when I looked for them there, they were obviously fewer and feebler than under pines" (p. 109).

      He is referring to the ability of pine trees to "nurse" young oaks and also the habit squirrels and other animals have of carrying acorns some distance away from their origin point. Thoreau examined an official English document on the planting of forests that urged foresters to deliberately plant young oaks under pines with the long term goal of eventually trimming and removing the pines to allow the oaks maximum growth.

      Thoreau could scarcely believe that the author of the forest manual seems to have thought that he invented this method rather than having copied it from nature. His comments are years ahead of their time and might just as well have been written by a natural farmer today:

      "Thus much the English planters have discovered by patient experiment, and, for aught I know, they have taken out a patent for it; but they appear not to have discovered that it was discovered before, and that they are merely adopting the method of Nature, which she long ago made patent to all" (p. 124).

      A little later, Thoreau saw that chestnut seedlings also grew better under the protection of pines ( and oaks) than in chestnut woods. The spread of the chestnuts was due not to the intervention of human agents but the actions of "a quadruped or bird" (p. 127). Both the chestnuts and the "dense and stretching oak forest, whose withered leaves now redden and rustle on the hills for many a New England mile, were all planted by the labor of animals. For after some weeks of close scrutiny I cannot avoid the conclusion that our modern oak woods sooner or later sprang up from an acorn, not where it has fallen from the tree, for that is the exception, but where it has been dropped or placed by an animal" (p. 129-130). For whatever reason, a significant number of animals run off with the chestnuts and acorns to the protection of a pine woods and deposit them there. And this they do without having read any "patented" instructions in an official manual.

      Bob Monie







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