A few days ago, I was cleaning brush out of a fence row bordering one of our family farm properties. Old fence lines are commonly found along the perimeters of fields, and they serve as an excellent sanctuary for unchecked vegetation. Over time, they can become quite the eyesore and, if allowed to flourish long enough, quite the nuisance. After tearing out undesirable thickets of bush, weeds, saplings, and general overgrowth I decided to walk one last pass along the fence line, making sure that nothing had been missed.
That’s when I noticed a small, solitary tree standing out conspicuously in the stretch of old fence that we had already pilfered through. I’m not exactly sure how it managed to go unnoticed, because it was actually a very nice looking little tree, like something you might find at a nursery. I found myself looking at it more objectively now, as it stood in-between a heavily traveled road and a field that’s frequently trafficked by large farm equipment. I was starting to see it not as a pest to be exterminated, but as an incipient life form which, against all odds, had managed to take root and succeed in the most unlikely of places. It became a symbol of resilience, beaming triumphantly against the garish backdrop of weathered fencing and tall grasses.
I couldn’t bring myself to just let its fate be that of indiscriminate extraction by back hoe. So, I fetched a shovel and began to dig it out by hand. I dug around it in a wide circle, careful not to disturb the roots any more than necessary. It took longer than I was anticipating, and quite a bit of grunt work, as its root system proved to be pretty well established and unwilling to loosen its grip on the earth. But I now had invested interest in this tree and was not willing to give up on it. Finally (with some delicate assistance from the back hoe, after all) I was able to pull it up in one piece. I laid it carefully in the back of the truck, packed some more loose dirt around its roots, and took it back to our shop. Once there, I transferred it into a large plastic container, filled it the rest of the way with top soil, and watered it generously. I felt pretty good about myself, having saved this lucky little tree from its untimely demise. Within the span of a morning, I had brandished myself an environmental warrior, green ambassador, and expert arborist.
The next day, I walked into the shop where I had left the tree overnight, excited to find my new rescue perky and radiant with appreciation for the kindness I had shown it the day before. Imagine my surprise when I found that its leaves were wilting, and it was approaching the brink of death. How could this be? How could something that exuded so much vigor and fortitude, thriving amidst the elemental lawlessness of mother nature, now be practically dead after merely a day under my care? I’ve come up with two reasons: 1.) I don’t have even a shade of green in my thumb, and 2.) that tree was better off where it was in the first place. By my own determination, it was lucky to be alive at all in such an unfavorable environment. But, from the tree’s point of view, it had found its niche. That spot in the fence row was meeting all of its specific requirements and, though my intentions were good, I had done it a huge disservice by removing it from its habitat.
This experience got me thinking about adaptability. Trees have more in common with humans than most people probably realize. They are communal creatures who depend on each other for longevity. They are able to communicate with each other through fragrance and help each other with nutritional needs through vast networks of underground fungi. They care for their elderly, and mature trees assist the young during the early stages of development. But when it comes to adaptability, our likenesses tend to veer apart. That’s why I don’t have palm trees in my back yard, and you won’t find many maple trees lining the coastal beaches of South Florida. In contrast; humans are the most adaptable creatures on the planet. We have found a way to inhabit nearly every corner of the known world. From the cold, dismal climate of Antarctica, to the barren and harsh conditions of the Sahara and everything in-between, humans are quite amazing at our ability to adapt and thrive.
This proclivity for adaption doesn’t end at geographical orientation, but also extends to changes in circumstance. Unexpected life alterations can often bare the form of inconvenience, but rarely do they spell out our demise. We are uniquely capable of switching strategies, garnering support, and planning for the future in order to adapt and overcome. Being down on our luck does not equate to being out for the count. It’s only through heat and pressure that we are able to emerge tempered, hardened, and remolded for the better. Unlike trees, we are not bound by our environment, and we are not restricted to the path of least resistance.
Jason Duff is a local resident and contributor to the Record-Herald.