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Happy Earth Day! Today, to celebrate our lovely planet, we write about the largest tree (by canopy area) on Earth, Thimmamma Marrimanu, a Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) which lives in Andhra Pradesh, India. Banyan trees are fig trees which propagate from aerial dispersal—birds eat the fig seeds and (in due course) drop them on trees, rocks, or buildings. The roots grow downward as aerial roots and then become tree trunks–so the tree is known to cover buildings or strangle other trees. Banyans also reproduce by vegetative, “branching” propagation. A whole twisted interwoven grove of banyan trees is often actually one tree.
Such is the case with Thimmamma Marrimanu which has spread out over eight acres and is at least 200 years old (though, as with clonal colonies like Pando, it can be difficult to ascertain the true age of Banyan trees). Thimmamma Marrimanu is named after a devoted wife who was married to a Bala Veerayya (whatever that is). When her husband died in 1434, Thimmamma committed sati and immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. A temple to the grieving (but misguided!) widow was built on the spot—then the tree sprouted from the temple.
Banyan trees are the national tree of India and they have become worked into the religions of South Asia. In Hinduism it is said that the leaf of the banyan tree is the resting place for the avatar Krishna. The fact that the Banyan tree forms a huge group of trunks and branches which seem heterogeneous but are actually a single entity is believed to have spiritual significance and underline greater truths about the interconnected nature of all living things.
On August 21, 1976, the joint military forces of the United States and South Korea launched Operation Paul Bunyan, a mission which involved 813 fighting men on the ground (including a platoon of South Korean martial arts experts wired with Claymore mines), 27 military helicopters, a number of B-52 high altitude bombers with their jet fighter escorts, and the aircraft carrier Midway along with its attack group of missile cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. At the heart of the mission was a team of eight soldiers armed with chainsaws! The rest of the forces were providing support for this small team of men whose mission was…to cut down a single poplar tree.
This requires some explaining.
On July 27, 1953 an armistice agreement effectively ended the Korean War by creating a buffer zone 4 km (2.5 mi) wide which runs 250 kilometers (160 miles) across the entire Korean peninsula. Although huge armies wait on either side, the Demilitarized Zone itself remains a no-man’s land, deadly for humans to tread upon (and, consequently, one of the most pristine temperate forests on Earth). Only a tiny portion of the DMZ is designated as a Joint Security Area (JSA) where people can go. Located near what used to be the village of Panmunjon, the JSA serves as a sort of neutral meeting place, where North Korean forces meet face to face with forces from the United Nations Command. Numerous military and diplomatic negotiations have taken place at the JSA (although the North Koreans abandoned all meetings in 1991 over a perceived slight), however, in the years since the armistice, the area has also been the sight of many kidnappings, assaults, and killings as the hermit kingdom repeatedly tests its boundaries like a dangerous animal behind an electric fence.
In the mid-seventies, American and South Korean forces near the JSA had a problem: a leafy poplar tree blocked the view from one guardhouse to another. North Korean commandos exploited this weakness to attack the isolated guardhouse more than once. On August 18, 1976, a team of American and South Korean soldiers was duly dispatched to trim the tree. Unfortunately a bellicose team of North Korean soldiers intercepted the landscaping team and precipitated a fight. The North Korean officer stated that the poplar had been planted and nourished by Kim Il-Sung and was therefore sacrosanct. In the ensuing melee, two American officers were killed with axes and clubs. The perfidious North Koreans rushed to the Conference of Non-Aligned Nations, and presented the incident as an American attack. With support from Cuba, the members of the conference passed a resolution condemning the provocation and demanding a withdrawal of US and UN forces from the Korean peninsula.
Gerald Ford decided the incident had to be answered in a way which asserted overwhelming force yet precluded further escalation. Hence, Operation Paul Bunyan was put together to chop down the tree under the rubric of massive armed force. Heavily armed infantry, artillery, and air assault forces were moved into supporting positions as was the Midway carrier group. The armed convoy cut down the tree (in 42 minutes) and left the 6 meter (20 foot) stump remaining. They also cleared away two North Korean barricades.
Response to Operation Paul Bunyan was swift an unexpected: Kim Il-sung sent a message to United Nations Command expressing regret at the incident. North Korea’s provocative actions along the border were subsequently muted down (although, obviously, not forever). In 1987, the stump was cut down, but a stone monument to the fallen American officers was erected in its place.
The Socotra archipelago (Arabic: سُقُطْرَى Suquṭra), is a group of four islands which lie just off the Horn of Africa in the Indian Ocean. The islands are politically part of Yemen but their long isolation from any continental landmass has made them ecologically distinct. Of the many species of plants and animals which are endemic only to Socotra, one species is particularly emblematic: the dragon’s blood tree (Dracaena cinnabari). This monocot tree has an extremely unusual shape which allows it to survive on minimal amounts of soil and water. The crown is dense with foliage to reduce evaporation (and to maximize cooling shade).
The dragon’s blood tree takes its distinctive name from the blood red resin it produces when cut or scraped. The dried sap was a prized commodity in the ancient world when it was used as a dye, a medicine, a magic ingredient, and an adhesive. Even today the sap is still used in traditional medicine (it is said to be a coagulant and a stimulant but also an abortifacient) and as violin varnish!
The day has completely slipped away from me (as is the way of Mondays in January) but–even though I haven’t written a proper blog post–I wanted to share some photos of an extremely fancy tropical tree python with you. The green tree python (Morelia viridis) is found in southern Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Cape York Peninsula of Australia, all of which sound far preferable to the cold gray pall of Brooklyn. The snake has a long slender body which measures from 1.5 to 1.8 meters (about 5 to 6 feet) and has a pronounced head with a heavy square nose/muzzle.
The species is arborial and is notable for coiling up into a saddle position when sleeping or resting. Green tree pythons feed mostly on tree-dwelling mammals (which they catch by hanging their necks and heads into an S-shape and imitating vines) and smaller reptiles which live up in the rainforest. As with the green vine snake, the sinuous almost abstract beauty of the green tree python always makes me think of lush tropical forests on far-away continents and its exquisite green/yellow/chartreuse color reminds me of the beauty of nature.
I’m sorry there was no post yesterday–I was busy trimming my holiday tree. Tree worship was a common custom in many ancient cultures from China to Egypt to the Hebrews (and it is an underlying topic of this blog). Pagan Europeans—particularly Scandinavians and Celts also venerated evergreen trees as a symbol of undying life.
To symbolize life, I decorated my tree as a tree of life with all sorts of different animals from different epochs of life. Looking at the detail photos you will notice familiar animals from past Ferrebeekeeper posts. The mollusks are represented by the squid and the octopus. There is a pangolin, a walrus, a rabbit, and a muskox, as well as a variety of other mammals. Best of all, you will notice a tom turkey!
It took a while to gather all the different toy animals and put screw eyes and string on them, but I think you will agree the results were worth it! My Christmas tree actually does represent my feelings about what is sacred and numinous in our world of amazing living things. Hopefully it can get my friends and me through the dark yule/solstice season. Merry Christmas and seasons greetings to everyone out there! I hope you get the gifts you want and spend the season with the people whom you care for.
According to contemporary taxonomy, the primates (whom I haven’t yet written about because they are so near and dear) are closely related to two other groups of living mammals—both of which are native to Southeast Asia. The closest family, the Colugos, consist of two species of delicate tree-gliding mammals described here. The other close relatives are treeshrews (aka banxrings), 20 species of (largely) arborial tree-shrews which make up an entire order, Scandentia.
Actually “treeshrew” is a misnomer, the banxrings are not true shrews at all. They are small slight animals with long tails and neutral colored fur. They have large sophisticated eyes and they are largely diurnal. The arborial species have binocular vision so they can navigate in a three-dimensional world of branches where leaps must be perfectly gauged. The slightly larger terrestrial species uses its claws to dig for insects, grubs, and roots. All banxrings are omnivorous, feeding on arthropods, tiny vertebrates, seeds, berries, and fruits.
Treeshrews live in jungles, forests, mixed woodlands and bamboo groves. They range from India to Vietnam down through Southern China, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Of all mammals they have the largest brain to body mass ratio (although considering their slight mass that isn’t saying too much). They are social and families mark out small territories which they mark and vigorously defend. The treeshrews are anxious skittish creatures since they have numerous predators, including birds of prey, small carnivores, and snakes.
Treeshrew mothers leave their helpless silent babies for up to two days at a time. When the mother returns the baby treeshrews can put on up to 60% of their weight in one feeding. The mother is not inattentive: she interacts infrequently with her offspring so that they are not discovered by predators while they are completely helpless. Once the treeshrews grow big enough to venture beyond the nest, the mother becomes extremely engaged with them and she helps them to learn about predators, gathering food, and climbing.
Here’s another strange painting from contemporary master of surrealism, Mark Ryden. The subject is the “tree of life” a subject which comes up in religion, philosophy, science, and art. A tree of life from Greek myth even found its way onto this blog several Octobers ago. In Ryden’s interpretation, a princess with a bouquet and a baby sits suspended in a sentient tree. Hidden among the boughs are the seven platonic solids. Beneath her a bear and a monarch symbolize some unknown dualism.Somehow this painting combines Crivelli’s creepy diagram-like realism with half of the topics from Ferrebeekeeper. Seriously there are hymenopterans, crowns, trees, mammals, a snake, and garden flowers (not to mention all of the colorsfrom a master’s palate). The only things missing are a Chinese spaceship and an underworld god (and even the latter is hinted at by the death’s head and the tree’s occult eye).
As always I am moved by Ryden’s realism and by his eerie milieu, but I am at a loss as to the cohesive meaning. Perhaps there isn’t one and the piece is meant to convey atmospheric mystery and sacredness of a renowned tree which does not actually exist anymore than does platonic perfection.
Hurricane Sandy is nearly in Brooklyn: the sky looks like a sepulcher and dark winds are roaring down the street. The gale is howling in the huge London plane trees outside which are swaying and bending as though they were bamboo. This is nothing to sneer at since trees are nearly a meter (three feet) in diameter and twice as tall as the two and three story houses. The trees are probably as old as the neighborhood—which was built about a century ago. Hopefully the trees and I will all be standing tomorrow and not floating out in the Atlantic on our way towards Newfoundland.
For purely academic reasons I looked up London plane trees and I was gratified to discover that they are “fairly wind resistant.” I was also cheered to learn that the trees are a strange hybrid of Eurasian plane trees and American sycamores. Only in 17th century Europe were the new world trees planted in proximity to their old world relatives. The tree loving English realized what a beautiful and hardy tree this is and they began planting the hybrid plane trees along streets.
The trees really are beautiful. Like the magnificent rainbow eucalyptus, London Plane trees have mottled bark albeit in muted splotches of cream, gray, brow, and verdigris rather than in insanely colorful stripes. The trees can grow to 35 meters in height and can be up to 3 meters in circumference–in fact there is (hopefully still) one that big by a nearby church.
Resistant to pollution and able to survive with highly compacted roots, the London plane tree is a perfect ornamental city tree—so much so that the NYC Parks Department tries to limit its planting since the hybrid sycamore/plane makes up more than 10% of the trees in the city. Ironically the logo of the NYC Parks Department is a London plane tree leaf crossed with a Maple leaf.
The London plane tree is said to have beautiful wood which looks like freckled pink lace. The tree also grows ample crops of spiky seed balls which are eaten by squirrels and birds. The true worth of the tree is as a magnificent living specimen tree. I am devoutly wishing for the best for the plane trees on my street (and not only because they tower over the stone house I am inside).
In this part of the world, most of the truly spectacular flowering trees bloom in spring. The redbuds, magnolias, cherry trees, and the empress trees all burst into blossom months ago. Do any trees flower in the very heart of summer? Well, actually all sorts of trees flower now, but many of them have tiny blossoms or green flowers which are not easily seen. The pagoda tree however (Styphnolobium japonicum) is not so modest: during the end of July and the beginning of August the trees can be found covered with bursting clusters of off-white flowers.
Pagoda trees obtained their English name because they were planted around Buddhist temples throughout East Asia. The species name “japonicum” is a complete misnomer—the trees actually originate in China and were imported to Japan (where they first came to the attention of botanists). In English the trees are also known as scholar trees or “Sophoras.”
Pagoda trees grow slowly but they can eventually become large growing up to 10-20 m tall (30-60 ft) with the same breadth. They are members of the sweetpea family, which becomes evident in autumn when the trees are festooned with strange long seedpods which resemble huge yellow snow peas. Like other popular ornamental city trees, the pagoda tree can tolerate high pollution and poor soil quality.
In China, the pagoda tree is esteemed for its beauty but it has a more sinister reputation than it does here. In 1644, a peasant army was storming the Forbidden City after conquering all Imperial resistance. The Chongzhen Emperor, the last Ming Emperor, ordered a lavish banquet for all of the women of his family. When the meal was finished he killed his wives, concubines, and daughters with a sword and then went outside and hanged himself on a pagoda tree. The actual tree lived a long prosperous life but was uprooted and killed. Even the Chinese name 槐 is somewhat sinister, combining the characters for wood and demon. This is partially because the pagoda tree does not suffer other trees to live near it in its native forests and partly because of harrowing old Chinese myths about families that died when living in houses made of pagoda tree wood.