Our Math Is Not Nature’s Math


We built our house on the edge of a woodlot thirty some years ago. Now the trees have reached out and enveloped us. They shade us in summer, protect us from wind in winter, and try to kill us by falling in all seasons.

To be able to live in the woods in our cornbelt county is an amazing achievement (or in our case a piece of luck) since progressive farmers in the pursuit of more corn land have done their darnedest to obliterate every woodlot they can get their hands on. One of the greatest ironies of history is to see farmers today getting soil conservation awards and money for erosion control practices on land that they bulldozed free of trees just a few years ago. In many cases this land was still in trees because it was, and is, too hilly or flood prone to make a profit in corn if it were not for government subsidies and subsidized crop insurance. Such is life while it lasts.

Living among the trees, there’s never a dull moment. Something is always falling, even on windless days. Sometimes it’s a whole tree but usually just a limb comes down. Last week, one branch big enough to kill me fell directly on the path I take at least three times a day to the barn. Just this morning (prompting this essay) a dead elm fell out from the woods onto the lawn, reminding me of a snake lashing out from the brush to fang an unsuspecting passerby. I have been hit by falling walnuts and acorns which, while generally harmless, can hurt plenty. I’ve even been attacked by a screech owl, dropping on me from a low branch. It is downright dangerous living in what poets call the peaceful sylvan environment of the forest.

There’s nothing peaceful about it. All those trees growing side by side are in a life and death struggle with each other, fighting for sunlight. The tree that gains a bit of height over the ones around it will grow faster and eventually shade out its competitors.

Might I learn something here? If I can feel at ease among the trees constantly rising and falling, can I perhaps reconcile myself to humans, also engaged in life and death struggles with each other?

Woodland teaches patience. Where we count the time in years, the trees count in centuries. The big white oak that stretches its limbs so comfortingly out over our deck (not all that comforting as I now realize) is still in its ascendancy, not dying out in its upper branches. I know from cutting down trees of this size and counting the rings that this one sprouted not long after the Civil War. One of the lower limbs was dead when we came here 35 years ago. It still has not broken off and fallen.

The trees teach a different kind of mathematics than what we humans learn in school. One plus one equals two, we say, all prim and satisfied with our numbering system. Oak trees reckon differently. Four thousand acorns in a year might equal five new trees, or maybe none in some years if the acorn-loving deer continue to overpopulate. We humans in our simplicity consider this kind of economy to be extravagant and inapplicable to our purposes. But if in its 200 years, a white oak generates only five new trees altogether, that is plenty to keep the species going. In the meantime, several hundred known species of insect, fungus, bird and mammal, including humans, use the oak for food or lodging. When it dies, we can use the wood for fuel or construction material. Also every year the tree enriches the soil with a crop of leaves decaying into humus. Nature’s ways are many times more economical than our simplistic reckonings based on a presumption that one plus one equals two. One plus one in the real world can equal an uncountable sum. That realization is the beginning of economic wisdom.


Hi Gene,
Your post about it being “downright dangerous” to live in the forest couldn’t have been more timely. I moved out to the country a little over a year ago now, and the majestic sugar maples and willows surrounding my house and backyard garden are exactly what drew me here in the first place. I found a sense of security from these ancient beings hovering over me. Not so anymore!
The two dead-but-resprouting black willows that stuck their thick arms out over my garden have always been a source of paranoia for me; if a gust of wind comes, I drop my shovel and sprint as fast as I can to the nearest (pre-determined) exit. A little scary in a fenced-in garden, I might add.
I’ve always laughed at my skittishness, but a couple weeks ago one of those willows came down. I’d only heard two knocking sounds, and if I wasn’t already so uber-aware of these trees I might not have heeded the call. I booked it out of the garden in time to watch the whole tree slowly, slowly tilt over from the base and then pick up speed and crash onto the ground right where I had been digging a new bed for garlic. It flattened the fence, but nicely bordered my new beds!
So now there’s one more willow left–a massive thing–home to many squirrel families and a consistent food source for a pair of pileated woodpeckers. But since I’m the human with the money to pay the arborist, all that wildlife will probably find a different home in a matter of weeks. I keep thinking that once the willow’s down its ghost will haunt me for the rest of my life here, but I guess that’s better than my own ghost haunting it!
Nature probably has a different opinion…

Gene, we are much more alike than dissimilar; if more people could wake up to that fact there would be a heck of a lot less hatred and warfare in this world. “If you cut me, do I not bleed?” On the subsidy issue, I have always been of the opinion that government should provide–in return for our tax money–what we cannot do for ourselves. In that light, forts make good sense if you can’t make friends and partners out of the Indians, renegade whites or invaders from another country; settlers generally don’t have the wherewithal or people power to do more than hunker down and try to fight off an occasional skirmish. But subsidies make you a captive and a slave in the long run, and instead of a best judgment call by the people who live on the land and know it well, you have a bureaucrat making the call according to policies set up by superiors with little or no knowledge of farming. Kind of like the consultants who became so ubiquitous in the health care world when money started getting tight–they could come in and practice slash and burn “reorganization”, because they didn’t have to live with it. They just collected their hefty fees and went merrily on their way. Meanwhile, patients were having more complications because there were either fewer staff taking care of them or not enough RNs to recognize potential complications and plan to avert them. I’d rather live poor and free.

I don’t know if this relates. But I recently was told a story by some 90+ year old ladies about how their father’s farm was saved by peas. They remembered that they were about to lose the farm and talked with the bank and the bank worked with them in contacting a local facility that canned peas and other vegetables. The processor provided the pea seed and loaned (not rented, mind you) them a planter and harvester. They had a good year, a good harvest and the farm was saved. This was done without government help … but what they had then was a local bank and local processing facility and a community that worked together to really help farmers. If some of that government subsidy money went into really creating a local economy again through processing facilities, etc. maybe we’d be better off. Of course, they were growing real food then (peas) and not “commodities” that can’t be used locally anyway. Wrong kind of wheat, corn and beans…. Grow hard winter wheat for bread and encourage local bakeries. Grow sweet corn and process frozen and canned corn and good cornmeal. Grow all sorts of dry beans (kidney, black turtle, soup, etc.)and teach people how to cook them again or have a canning facility for them. When I mention these things to conventional farmers they look at me like I’m nuts. Suggesting adding animals back to their farms and they just laugh. They tell me it’s too much work….

Russ, oh man, I wish I would have thought of that when I was writing that blog. How one plus one can equal one. What a great observation. Gene

Brad, I remember as a child, listening to my Dad and other farmers talk about how the government was paying them to kill pigs, the idea being to reduce the number and raise the price. We are still doing the same thing, with dairy cows and it does not work. I remember the payment being ten cents a pig but I don’t trust my memory on that. Although ten cents meant quite a bit in those days. The program back then that I remember best was one that allowed a farmer to borrow money from the government to keep up payments or not have to sell out. The Federal Land Bank administered that program and it saved my wife’s parents’ family farm. I think about that a lot because without that program I probably would never have met my wife. I would say that the difference between subsidies then and now is that today more of the money goes to wealthy farmers and quite a bit to wealthy landowners who don’t know the front end of a cow from a front end loader. But agriculture is in such a precarious situation today (despite high grain prices) I suppose it can be argued that even rich farmers need to be saved. Much of that money goes right out to farm suppliers or to keep food “cheap” (not so right now, bought any pork chops lately?), so the subsidies benefit a lot more than farmers, which of course is the same argument bankers and car companies use to justify their stimulus money. Subsidies are a very unresolved and disputatious practice. Our frontier pioneers, bragging about how indpendent they were, begged government for more forts to protect them fron native Americans. Subsidy is probably a necessary evil. All governments in all times resort to them while descrying them. The human race is pitifully contradictory, Brad. There’s an ancient Greek saying that goes something like this: “As soon as the people in a democracy learn that they can get their hands on the national treasury, they will steal it blind.”
Beth, I didn’t know about pine cones. You are teaching me something. I always thought that the West Coast was a whole different place from Ohio. Not so at all. Gene

There was a tragedy in our community a number of years ago whem a tree limb broke off and fell on a teen mowing the yard. He was killed. Mother nature is not in the business of reciprocating love – a healthy awe and respect usually serves us better and even then cannot guaruntee our safety.

As one who makes a living from math, I would say that my faovrite equation is biblical: 1(husband) + 1(wife) = 1(flesh). Since that is very difficult to understand, I have found it necessary to test its validity under many and varying circumstances. My tests are not yet complete but the empirical evidence would support its truth.

I have read much from yourself and others about the current farm subsidies that support the progressive cash grain farming, etc. However, having recently watched “King Corn,” I noted that when they discussed the evolution of the farm over the last century or so they said how back in the depression era these smaller farms where also supported by various sorts of government subsidies. Having heard a fair bit about the modern subsidies and little to none about subsidies from that era, I would be interested to hear what you have to say on this subject. What sort of subsidies were there then, and were they of a similar magnitude in economy and influence on the shape of the agricultural industry/organization of the time? Seems like there might be another side to it, I’m not sure, but thats why I ask. Might make good blog material sometime, thanks,

Take care

We also have to watch out for falling pine cones on our place, and a sugar pine can have a cone nearly a foot long and close to a pound. When those come down on you from close to a hundred feet up, it’s like being hit by a guided missile. You are so right that it’s a different kind of math, Gene–probably because we’re (meaning us people-type folks) trying to add two of a like quantity such as apples. The tree, meanwhile, is juggling such disparate items as water, sunlight, wind, temperature, soil microbes, nesting birds, marauding squirrels, time, insects, humans with chainsaws or axes, deer, space, other trees, other woodland plants…and over many years, if not centuries; it boggles the mind. And the poor tree doesn’t even have a pencil and paper, let alone a calculator!

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