18, 2005: Ten percent of your body is made up of
microorganisms. They’re crawling all over you and inside
you, and good thing too. Without them, you would die. It is
not so different for a tree, which depends upon the bustling
microbial life in the soil (a paperclip worth of soil can
hold up to ten billion microorganisms). Microlife is just
one of the many subjects in The Overstory Book that
relates to working with trees. The compilation of 127 articles
spans everything from growing live snow fences to choosing
species for timber production, from inoculating logs with
mushroom spores to marketing strategies, from growing a fruit
and nut windbreak to cultivating wild $500/pound ginseng (don’t
count on it). The bios of contributing authors and organizations
alone take up fifteen pages. The upside of that is that if
you don’t like a writer you can skip to the next article.
The downside is that you may only get a few pages of the one
you especially like.
It would be true but insufficient to say that The Overstory
Book is about trees (‘overstory’ means canopy).
The book is also about the soil in which trees are rooted,
the fungi and insects that help or hurt trees, the shaded
environment under trees known as the ‘understory’
(when we buy ‘shade-grown coffee’ we are purchasing
an understory crop). Knowledge of these intricate interactions
and systems can help us go about things more intelligently.
For example, the Kayapo people in Brazil introduce nests of
odorous Azleca sp. ants on trees infected with leaf-cutting
ants. These “smelly ants” emit pheromones that
repel the leaf-cutters. The ants also have medicinal value
and are crushed and inhaled to relieve stuffy sinuses. The
end result is a healthy tree and free medicine without toxic
by-products or waste.
The Overstory Book offers practical advice on how
to establish such multi-purpose permaculture systems (no,
you won’t have to snort crushed ants). Examples include
using greywater—the non-sewage waste water from the
house—to water the yard; planting nitrogen-fixing trees
to buffer street noise as well as provide mulch for the garden;
and incorporating a chicken tractor in the yard so that you
can simultaneously mow the lawn and feed the chickens (for
those deep-rooted weeds, bring out the high-powered snuffling
pig tractor). The hands-on recommendations are interspersed
with just enough scientific background to convey the richness
of these agroecosystems without bogging the reader down in
overly specific detail. The contributing writer Alex Shigo
describes the rhizosphere—the interface between the
soil and the roots—as the place where“[a]moebae
are eating bacteria. Some bacteria are poisoning other bacteria.
Fungi are killing other fungi. Nematodes are spearing roots.
Fungi are trapping nematodes. Earthworms are eating anything
they can find” (p. 83). It’s easy reading, but
the subterranean complexity comes across.
The book’s heft and design gives it the appearance
of a specialized textbook for agroforestry students, but the
simple language—with little, if any, technical jargon—makes
for fast reading. Simple is good, although occasional articles
treat us like simpletons (do we really need to be told that
when you visit a farm you shouldn’t ask to use the farmer’s
telephone and you should make sure to say thank you when you
leave?). The excellent resources section at the end is so
extensive that it is fair to say its title, “The Agroforester’s
Library,” is no exaggeration. There is also an agroforestry
glossary for those who, like me, thought that “live
fence” refers to the infamous electric wire on which
teenage boys deliberately zap themselves in a demonstration
of idiotic manly courage (in agroforestry a live fence is
a boundary made by planting trees and/or shrubs and—once
they are big enough to serve as posts—attaching wires
Towards the end of The Overstory Book there is a
half-page photo of several trunks soaring into the sky, as
if the photographer took the photo lying on his back. The
caption reads: “Hawaiians considered trees to be ‘the
hair of the earth’…” It reminded me of a
section in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass where
the poet is reminiscing on how he could not respond when a
child once approached him with a handful of grass and asked
him what it was. But now that he is alone, the poet reflects:
“And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of
graves…” That seems to me as good a reason as
any to care about the grass or the trees.
Constantine Markides lives on Monhegan Island, Maine.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org