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  • Writer's pictureLinwood Watson, MD

The Consequences of Knowledge

On a crisp and sunny October day, the Mulberry man and his wife ended a two-year quest to find a fabled century old mulberry tree. The tree achieved published fame, in the early 1900s, when it was said to have fed fifteen hogs a day throughout the mulberry season. The Mulberry man is avid horticulturist, forager, book lover. He is the steward of a small two-acre orchard that from March to November, is a Garden of Eden, abuzz with beauty and life. Maintaining the delicate balance of life and death on this small plot of earth is no small feat. He has planted, nourished and prayed for a plethora of oddball horticultural icons and heirlooms for the better half of a decade. He specializes in native fruits that defy the mass market. On this early October day, the Arkansas Black apples are thriving. Months earlier, soft, luscious figs and boysenberries yielded a wealth of divine jams and now persimmons of all types, with their vibrance and astringency were awaiting the first frost. This small orchard yields enough fruit in its young days to sell to nearby suburban restaurants. One of the “best” sellers for May and June are the mulberries, which a local chef uses to make the “jelly” for a peanut butter and jelly mousse. Fresh dainty mulberries garnish the popular French toast brunch for crowds nursing Sunday morning hangovers. This is why he is lovingly known as the “mulberry man”, a name he secretly relishes as it is the embodiment of a kinship with the earth, even if it had the “taint” of a financial transaction. He sees this exchange as his calling- trying to bring old plants and fruits to the masses while preserving the spirit of these “unshippables.”

On this particular day, the Mulberry man and his wife sought the special tree cited in the seminal work, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture, by J. Russell Smith, originally published in 1929. The author, a true conservationist, akin to centuries of Indigenous knowledge the world over, wrote of practical sustainability. The book examines various trees in their naturally suited climes and then argues for their strategic use on misnomer “waste lands” to allow animal, food, and wildlife enrichment. It covers the gamut from chinquapins and chestnuts, to mulberries and persimmons. In short, Smith would contend why does society so heavily rely on a fossil fuel laden system of massive fertilizer runs killing the Mississippi to raise Midwest corn to then feed Iowa hogs, only to then need to transport the hogs to grocery stores around the country. Why not plant numerous floodplains with mulberries or rocky hillsides with persimmons, and then allow animals to graze (and grace) and enhance the trees and soil while eating the fruit? Moreover, this localized production would prove a more natural and sustainable fit for many endangered heirloom animals, from Navajo Churro sheep to Cottonpatch geese, that are less rigorously adapted for mass production agriculture and thrive mainly in specialized local environs where other breeds fail.

Perhaps because of the pride in being the mulberry man, he finally spurred himself a few days ago to try to find the nearby mulberry mentioned by Smith. He happened to mention this mulberry tree to his neighbor, an engineer working with the town on floodplain control. As the mulberry man described the tree to his friend, his friend, chuckled. “It is funny you bring this up now. My firm is assisting the town with some floodplain control of the stream from the springs, and I have a tree map in my office that a forester surveyed. Come by my office tomorrow and I’ll show it to you.” And so, the man and his wife showed up around lunch to the local firm and looked at the map of the town park and springs. Sure enough, within the 100 year floodplain was, per the map, a 3 feet diameter mulberry tree about 25 yards below the springs.

On a quest to see the famous tree before it was too late, the two followed the park sidewalk. Town crews were already doing some “floodplain modifications” and “stream management.” Standing on his tiptoes to get a view from across the park, the mulberry man’s heart sank as he saw the conspicuous gap revealing a 2-3 ft stump. As he walked back with his wife in a sad pall, he noted at the park side entrance a thick and massive “saved” burl trunk of a gnarled bark mulberry, about 10 feet long, Small limbs had mulberry leaves on it sprouting from the furled trunk. A hot pursuit had become a cold funeral. The pair were too late - exactly one day too late. As the man returned to his car, he thought about priorities. He thought about procrastination. He thought about points of no return. He thought about honoring the past and taking visible action to preserve the environment that nurtured that past. He also thought about the irony that a tree that had survived at least 200 years fell victim to a man made flood management plan. Not a Category 5 hurricane or a 500 year flood (as we had in 1999), but man’s “plans.” He thought about humility. Imagine the lunacy of trying to learn about and take care of a neighborhood, but then you suddenly and without talking evict a healthy resident of the neighborhood who had lived in (one spot no less) for over 200 years-such hubris! What a shame that the “stream management” did not confer with the tree, examining its roots and what helped them to hang on so well, even thrive. What was unique about their architecture, depth, and soil interaction? What if “hard science” engineering classes incorporated indigenous lessons on listening to the master teacher around you-Nature? All were now lost conversations. He wondered how the mulberries would have tasted. He wondered if his daughters would have liked them. All wonder, but no tree and no fruit. As the man solemnly thanked his neighbor, for his neighbor was merely a pawn of the omnipotent but invisible “stakeholders”, the neighbor added, “You know, there is a large mulberry tree here behind the office near the fence. A forestry friend from college said it was the largest he had ever seen or read about.”

100 year old Mulberry Trea
Image Credit: Linwood Watson, MD

More out of curiosity and courtesy than hope, the man and his wife walked about 20 yards to see a wisteria and poison ivy choked mulberry trunk. The vines had crippled the tree by covering it at the top and reducing its sunlight, but it was still alive. Two massive lower canopy side branches, each a foot across, had been broken off by laboring construction trucks and their height. Still the tree had 2 large trunk forks, each trunk being 1.5 feet across, and the base was 3.5 feet across. Impressive. Perhaps this was the Smith tree’s parent or relative.

As he said a prayer for the tree, the man spied a mulberry seedling growing in the massive trunk fork. He pulled on it, and it had a vigorous, canary yellow root, over double the length of the sapling itself. Sacrificial fragments of decaying wood in the fork from the elder parent tree were rhizome wrapped by the small roots. He thanked the Creator and planted the sapling fifteen minutes later in the home orchard. Smith’s tree may be dead, but Smith’s words are not. Smith’s lessons are not. He is still spurring action, and perhaps in a few years, that progeny tree will once again feed fifteen hogs.

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