FACTS FROM A FORESTER’S FIELDBOOK (C. 1958)

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Excerpted from The Evidence of God in an Expanding Universe, edited by John Clover Monsma. New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1958

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By Laurence Colton Walker, Research Forester and Plant Physiologist

B.Sc, Pennsylvania State University, M.For., Yale Univer­sity, Ph.D., State University of New York College of Forestry at Syracuse University; formerly Research Forester, U.S. Forest Service; presently Associate Professor of silviculture in charge of the forest physiology laboratory, University of Georgia School of Forestry. Specialist in forest soils, plant physiology, silvicides for hardwood control, radioisotopology.

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God is not the author of confusion.”  Quite in contrast, His creative acts are systematically arranged to exhibit order at its highest level.

Often the layman merely views the summits from the valley and then ascribes the nobleness of the hills to God; or hears repeated “Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” in the rustle of wind breaking the silence of the lily-studded field.

True, this grandeur is the handiwork of the Master Archi­tect. But to seek no further for evidences of personal provi­dential creative activities is not unlike one’s admiration for a carpenter’s handsome home—admiration for the manner in which the siding is tacked to the frame, but never troubling to note the exactness with which the joists are leveled, the corners squared, or the interior ornaments tooled by hand.

If God’s government of the universe were limited to the creation of fertile valley fields from the alluvial sediments of eroding hills, His energies would not be highly regarded by the forest physiographer or physiologist. To see His designs and purpose one needs to focus sharply, with aperture wide, upon the minutiae of field and forest. Then the natural becomes the supernatural; and to believe in the supernatural is to believe in God at work.

Karl Heim in his recent volume Christian Faith and Nat­ural Science phrased it thus:

The marvelous constitution of the world’s structure not only permits the influence of an intellectual Creator, but invites such an inference. The line of approach from Nature to God which was pursued by men of the Enlightenment and Ration­alism, but which was blocked in the age of causal-mechanism, is now open again following the breakdown of the causal-mechanism world-view.

From my own experiences as a research forester dealing primarily with ecology (mutual relations between trees and their environment) and tree physiology, I pen these few notes of the witness of the woods:

Recreating forest soils. In the Adirondack Mountains deep sands of glacial outwash origin occur. Under native vegetation the acid soils develop weak to medium podzolic characteristics. Basic nutrients, particularly potassium, except for the portion retained by the organic component, are leached from the soil as rapidly as released by mineral decomposition. These “sand plains” once supported forests of spruce, pine and hemlock, but the favorable topography led to cultivation early in the nineteenth century. A hundred years of intensive farming resulted in depletion of natural fertility. Finally the plains were abandoned and reforestation by planting took place.

Dense post-fire tree regeneration following the Wedge Canyon Fire (Glacier National Park).

A few years after planting of spruces, and white and red pines, symptoms of potassium deficiency in the soil occurred. Further investigation showed that certain native weed trees, such as gray birch and wild black cherry, produced foliage symptoms of potassium shortage and that these abnormal colorations could be used as guides for prospective planting sites. God’s creative (and I use the term in the present, active sense) orderliness in rebuilding man’s mess was most apparent. Not only did He provide guides for where not to plant the spruces and red and white pines, but other species of commercial value, like scotch and jack pines, exist which do not suffer from low levels of soil-potassium. It was also found that foliage of Andropogon grass, wild strawberry, several weed trees, and even white pine could be quanti­tatively analyzed to determine site potential. White pine, for instance, always exhibits deficiency symptoms when less than 0.5% K (potassium) is in the needles. This foliar K is cor­related to 20 ppm of exchangeable K in the soil.

Still another phenomenon was observed. White birch, ordinarily a weed species, seeds-in abundantly and thrives hardily in the plains. But under the crowns of these “nurse” trees white pines also seed-in and dense seedling and sapling stands result. The pines are found on all sides of the birches, but only to the crown edge. None of the characteristics of potassium deficiency are manifested by these overtopped trees. Soil and foliage analyses showed that exchangeable potassium was over three times as great under the birch-pine groups as in the open, and the differences in the amount of the element in the foliage were statistically highly significant for the two conditions. Thus, the “foraging” capacity of white birch is providing a way for restoring nutrients to agricultur­ally-depleted soils; and mineral nutrition is the Master Work­man’s bridge between “dead” inorganic material and the world of life.

A similar vegetation influence was noted in the Connecti­cut Valley where eastern Red Cedar, accompanied by the lowly earthworm, was responsible for greatly increasing calcium levels. Red Cedar leaves deposit calcium on the forest floor, although tied up organically. Attracted by the high lime content of the foliage, earthworms rapidly digest the foliage and, in doing so, release calcium as a readily available nutri­ent for plant growth.

In the Red Cedar case, not only was nutrition effected, but all the physical characteristics of a soil which are instru­mental in flood control—porosity, infiltration rate, field capa­city, and volume height—were significantly improved.

But more may be said for the Divine plan of restoring lost soils. (Is there a human analogy here?) Under virgin condi­tions forests are perpetuated, and the climax type, like the oak-hickory of the Southland and the beech-birch-maple of the Alleghenies, predominates and reproduces itself ad infini­tum unless disturbed by man, fire, or storm. It is man’s influence, in cropping or grazing lands best suited for timber, which destroys trees and soil. Floods follow.

Man makes costly efforts to reduce the damage of the floods by large dam-construction projects. But these are only temporary injunctions against a power no rock and concrete wall can contain. True flood prevention must tackle the problem at its source. It is not in building dams but in restor­ing vegetation to the land. Such land restoration is freely given. Within a year after eroded old-fields have been abandoned, dense grasses, herbs, shrubs and tree seedlings have invaded and begun their work of rehabilitation. Often in the lower Piedmont Province of the Eastern United States twenty-five years will see the establishment of a new and distinct humus horizon at the surface of the soil. Even in colder climates, where organic decay progresses more slowly, restored A horizons are not uncommonly seen within fifty years following abandonment. While the soil is never again equal to the virgin state for flood prevention purposes, its redemption is a worthy cause. Goethe puts it this way:

There is no trifling with Nature. It is always true, grave, and severe. It is always in the right, and the faults and errors fall to our share. It defies incompetency, but reveals its secrets to the competent, the truthful, and the pure.

Recreating forest stands. When Endothia, the pathogen responsible for chestnut blight, spread rapidly in the first two decades of the century, many visualized holes in the forest canopy which would never be filled. The unique position which the American chestnut occupied was unsurpassed by any other species. High-grade, rot-resistant lumber, wood pulp, tannin, nuts, and shade were a few of its uses; and it grew on poor mountain ridges, as well as in rich fertile val­leys. Until Endothia arrived from Asia about 1900, nothing attacked the chestnut. It was truly king of the forest. Now, it is practically extinct as a forest tree. Only sprouts from stumps of once-lofty stems remain as grim reminders that the mightiest—men as well as trees—may fall.

When the Chestnut tree was destroyed by disease, the Tulip tree quickly grew in its place.

But the holes in the forest stand were filled. Tulip trees were waiting for just such openings in the canopy which would provide sufficient fight for that shade-intolerant species to develop. Until then these trees were minor components of the forest, only occasionally developing into valuable timber trees. Now, however, chestnut trees are hardly missed where dense stands of tulip trees have become established, often growing as much as one inch in diameter and six feet in height per year. In addition to fast growth, wood of superior quality, especially for rotary-cut veneer purposes, is pro­duced. Is the master plan of Nature executed by more than a set of circumstances?

On the subject of how to manage chestnut-blighted areas an old-time National Forest ranger, with whom I delight to observe Nature, is continually admonishing others, in their silvicultural decisions, to open Nature’s book and find the answer. Isaac Watts phrased it rhythmically:

Nature with open volume stands To spread her Maker’s praise abroad.

The eminent botanist, Asa Gray, in his Yale lectures of 1880, so indicated, saying, “No Christian theist can . . . agree that what science removes from the supernatural to the natural is lost to theism. But the business of science is with the course of Nature, not with interruptions of it . . . it is the business and privilege of science … to refer events and phenomena not at the first but in the last resort to Divine will.”

New light on an original creation. Plants contain hor­mones which function in various ways. A single such com­pound, 2-4-5-T, serves to ripen tomatoes, inhibits sprouting of stored potatoes, actuates rooting of vegetative cuttings, and perhaps a host of other metabolic functions yet to be discovered. This hormone, or more properly growth regula­tor, since it is a synthetic organic compound which behaves like a hormone, is currently under scrutiny in our laboratory¹. The fact that the Master Synthesizer constructed molecules which could be very closely simulated by man is evidence of an orderly creation.

We are particularly interested in the behavior of the radio­active equivalent of this compound in forest trees. The last carbon (C12) shown in the chain is synthetically exchanged with its isotope (C14), a weak beta emitter. With C” as a tagged tracer, the route and rate of movement is readily followed—from leaves to stem to root. To an agnostic this may be sheer magic, but to us it is a revelation of the directive power of God.

Of great importance in these studies is the fact that the compound remains as 2-4-5-T, regardless of its apparent destiny in the tree. Less than 10 percent is converted to other compounds by chemical exchange. Of equal importance is the fact that regardless of the dose applied to leaf surfaces, only a minute amount is absorbed. The plant apparently permits only a bare excess for its purposes to be absorbed in the metabolic stream. The host of questions which this tech­nique presents is evidence to those who seek their answers in the vast unexplored depths of the cosmos—the ordered Whole of Nature—of a Supreme Intelligent Author.

We test for 2-4-5-T by the paper chromatographic (composite color tones) technique. The method involves spotting a drop of the unknown near the end of a strip of filter paper. That end is then placed in a dish of “developer,” with the other end hanging over the dish. By capillarity (mutual attraction of molecules—minute particles of matter) the developer is absorbed, carrying with it the components of the drop. Each organic component will be deposited on the chromatographic map at a particular spot, as the capillary stream progresses, and no other compound will be found there. Done! The picture is complete! A geiger counter passed over the paper reveals the location of the Cu.

Here is evidence that Nature is an ordered and fixed system of forms, what Hägelis called its “principle of perfec­tion.” Here, in the organic molecule, the C14 atom, and finally in the electron ejected from the atom on the paper, is an example to the earnest inquirer of the revelation that there can be no real conflict between science and God. God reveals Himself to man through science; through such mighty works as those here described. As the great apostle-philosopher Paul phrased it: “He (God revealed in Christ) is before all things, and by Him all things consist.” And as Philips (sic) in his Letters to Young Churches translates Paul elsewhere, freely, and in the modern vernacular: “Indeed He has made the truth quite plain. For since the beginning of the world the invisible attributes of God, e.g., His eternal power and divinity, have been plainly discernible through the things which He has made and which are commonly seen and known.” (Colossians 1: 17; Romans 1: 19,20)

¹ Later synthesized as Agent Orange: http://www.toxipedia.org/display/toxipedia/2%2C4%2C5-T

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