Archive for March, 2012

The Lorax Lesson

The Lorax

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One of the joys of parenthood is indoctrinating your child in your views, molding their impressionable minds into clones of yourself and your thinking.  Launching them upon society, a parent hopes that one day those seeds will bring forth an adult as completely entrenched in their visions as they are, which, of course, is The Only Good and Just Way. 

 If you’re a gardener it means saving the world, one seed at a time.  So it was with purpose that I read to my toddling son books and tales of controversy, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Good Night, Moon.  Deliberately, I selected material to foster in him environmental awareness, rabid tree-hugging, and rampant dirt worshipping.  It meant, of course, that I read him The Lorax.

 The Dr. Seuss classic, published in 1971 and now a major motion picture, is, according to some critics, a left-wing Hollywood conspiracy, a pinko-commie plot to indoctrinate children into being anti-industry and pro-trees.  Cue the outraged gasps. 

 What’s surprising is that anyone would assume the movie would have a different message than the book, which is a lesson in the effects of deforestation, human-centric consumptionism, and the dangers of a throw-away society.  What shouldn’t surprise others is that many gardeners will flock to see it.

 Growing up in our house, my son saw parallels between the book and real life every day, so the message doesn’t frighten him.  If you’ve read it, you know it’s a tale of a furry, mustachioed creature that “speaks for the trees,” something I do regularly by shouting at television ads and whispering warnings to shoppers in stores.  

 When the Lorax appears, he’s mistaken for a tree since he’s wearing foliage on his head.  Nothing new about that in our house, either; it’s a source of pride to see my son pluck a seed from me and joke “you’ve got hollyhocks in your hair again.”

 Saving trees is a message we get behind in our house, and I confess that the moment the Once-ler gave the boy-hero the last Truffula tree seed, encouraging him to plant it in the middle of town for all to enjoy, I nodded, because a gardener would plant over everything if given the chance.

 For me, that’s the message – go out and plant a tree, and the best time to do so is now.  Choose the site carefully for exposure and room for the tree to grow where it won’t rub against houses or power lines.

Measure the height of the root ball to determine depth of planting hole, which should be one to two- inches shorter than the root ball.  Dig a saucer-shaped planting hole, three-times the root ball width.  Straight sides limit root expansion, so slope the sides of the hole. 

Prevent sinking of the tree by firmly tamping down the bottom of the hole.  Remove the tree from container, clip any girdling roots, score the root ball, then set tree in place so that the knees of the root ball – where the ball begins curving in toward the top – are an inch higher than the soil line.

Pack soil around the lower third of the root ball, to help stabilize it, then backfill the rest of the hole, leaving soil loose.  Add water to firm the soil around the root ball, then backfill again.  Water the planting area and mulch the tree.

With car chases, a granny with attitude, and corny musical numbers, I worried that the message would be lost.  But in the closing scene, as tiny, new Truffula seedlings were tended by the contrite Once-ler, a little boy in the row in front of me said “I want some of those.”   And I thought, yes you do, and so do we all.

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Dr. Tisserat examines dead walnut in Boulder, CO. Black lesions under bark are diseased area.

  When you watch a television sitcom, you must suspend reality or risk driving yourself nuts arguing their implausible scenarios.  Lucille Ball proved this weekly, as she and Ethel managed to get into some ridiculous shenanigans, as do the ultra-geeks on Big Bang Theory today.  But when a sitcom takes an uneducated stand on a heartbreaking topic of tree catastrophe, well, any person who considers themselves a Lorax is bound to rise up in protest.

Such was the case on the show Last Man Standing, starring Tim Allen on ABC.  Set in Denver, the show’s recent episode, Tree of Strife, took on the topic of Thousand Cankers Disease and the plight of the Black Walnut.

Thousand Cankers disease attacks black walnuts, and cities from Pueblo to Fort Collins are suffering losses. So far, towns to the east are spared but researchers at Colorado State University expect that it’s a matter of time before the disease spreads to Greeley and beyond. 

Last Man Standing portrayed this disease as infesting a walnut branch thrown through their window by a severe storm; that the tree was owned by the city set up the story that the City of Denver required the show’s character, Mike Baxter, to cut down a walnut in his yard.  The role of the tree branch was played by a Siberian Elm.

Intent on ridiculing city foresters, the show depicted the inspecting arborist as a smug bureaucrat with the ability to pet a branch to diagnose the disease.  In reality, plant pathologists must pry the bark up, exposing the tunnels and blackened cankers.  Holes from the twig beetle are tiny, and difficult to see.  But after one glance at the downed branch, the forester condemned a nearby walnut planted on Baxter’s property as diseased and hazardous.

Allen’s character became indignant, not over the preposterous notion that any forester would condemn a tree willy-nilly, but because of the government telling a citizen what to do with private property.  “I don’t like The Man telling me what I can or can’t do on my property,” said Allen’s character, evidently in favor of having a judge tell him he could pay damages after leaving a hazard tree up until it fell on someone else’s property and destroyed it.

The problem with leaving the diseased trees standing is the mobility of the walnut twig beetle (Pityophthorus juglandis) which carries the fungus, Geosmithia morbida, from tree to tree.  Boring into branch and trunk, the beetles deposit the fungus, which kills with thousands of rotting wounds, called cankers.

 “Slowly but surely, this is eliminating black walnuts here in Colorado,” said Dr. Ned Tisserat, CSU professor of plant pathology and disease discoverer. “It’s hard to know the final outcome, but the real threat is outside our state, to the billion-dollar black walnut timber industry.” Walnuts in Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Utah are infested.  Nut-production walnuts appear resistant.

To be fair, there was a plea from the daughters and mother on the show to spare their tree’s life, evoking the emotional attachment many people feel for trees.  Recounting tire swings and first kisses under its branches, the family fought city hall in a doomed attempt to block the order.  Several cities in Colorado have requirements for removal of infested trees.

In the end, Allen’s character vows to replant his walnut, brandishing a seedling tree brought home for the purpose.  It’s a ficus, which should provide the daughters with the poignant but powerful lesson on what happens to a houseplant when planted outside in our area.  Most cities offer advice or a tree replacement program which feature trees best suited to the Colorado climate.

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