Cedar to Cedar

From the Brockman Tree Tour to the Forests of India

Yoav Bar-Ness, '01, is a scientist who specializes in climbing trees to explore canopy biodiversity, and an outreach ecologist who uses geography and photography to create environmental education materials.  Bar-Ness went on to get a master’s degree from the University of Tasmania, and has since participated in projects as varied as preparing fossilized Quaternary pollen samples for the UW’s Paleoecology Laboratory and researching canopy arthropods for The Nature Conservancy. For the arthropod study, he led an insect diversity team that collaborated with SEFS graduate student Royce Anderson in collecting arthropods in the treetops of the Ellsworth Creek Preserve and nearby forests in the Wlllapa National Wildlife Refuge. The team was amazed to discover, among the moss, leaves, lichen, bugs, and nests of the treetops, that there were annelid worms living hight in the forest canopy.  In 2008-2009, Bar-Ness was awarded a U.S.-India Fulbright Fellowship to study the landmark trees of India. 

Reflecting on his discoveries among the world’s forests and their canopies, Bar-Ness traces his inspiration to the UW’s Brockman Memorial Tree Tour.  “In a dusty box, on the back of the bus stop near Anderson Hall,” says Bar-Ness, “there was a stack of photocopied maps, the culmination of a project initiated by Professor Emeritus Frank Brockman (1902-1985), who recognized that the UW was blessed with a wealth of trees providing shade, majesty, decoration, and history.  Brockman, who joined the UW faculty in 1946, was a geographer as well as a naturalist, writer of not only the Golden Guide Trees of North America, but also the Principal Waterfalls of the World.  His campus tree tour inspired others to travel around the world through experiencing these “ambassador trees”.  Here’s how:

On a map of the campus, Brockman numbered 80 trees, and it was a fun, educational challenge to seek them out. From the Deodar Cedar to the Yoshino Cherry, to the Silk Tree to the Cork Oak, I marveled at meeting these quiet neighbors and realized how few passersby even noticed them. Before long, I was enthusiastically naming them to friends, and even talking to the trees as I encountered them. The Deodars, (Cedrus deodara) remained a favorite, and I imagined one day visiting the Indian Himalaya to see them in their native home.

Ten years later, I had the good fortune to visit the deodar forests of India, and to join Dr. Hemant Gupta, Head of the Forest Survey of India, Northern Zone, in a focused tree tour around the State of Himachal Pradesh. I was in the country on a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship, and the field skills and theory learned as an undergraduate gave me a good platform from which to collaborate and contribute. From the Forest Survey's base in the old British Summer Capital of Shimla, we explored outwards into the forest zones to record old and landmark cedar trees, and to establish a baseline forest inventory plot. Cedrus deodara (Pinaceae) stretches across the mid altitudes of the southern Himalaya, stretching to China in the east and through the highlands of Pakistan to the west. Its Sanskrit name, Devadaru, means "Divine Tree."  Here, vast forests cling to impossibly steep slopes where monkeys, leopards, and peacocks survive.  But few places in Asia are truly wild; almost every stand of cedar I observed showed the impacts of firewood harvesting or illegal log felling. While most forests in India are officially protected, local people depend on this habitat for their livelihood, and forest management has a distinctly human dimension in this country of one billion people.

The older forests were often protected as sacred groves, and hiding in the green shade of the cedar, walnut, oak, elm, and rhododendrons would be a shrine or temple. Towering trees, on the scale of our own American coniferous giants, would sometimes stand above or on the edge of younger, regenerated forests, serving as landmarks and objects of veneration. From Shimla, we could look out to the icy peaks of the High Himalaya in the not-too-distant horizon and at the green foreground of cedar forests.  Dr. Gupta arranged field trips to the tourist town of Manali, where ancient cedars shade a wooden temple, and the military property of Kanasar, where we photographed the massive trees during a lightning storm.  In Jageshwar, one thousand stone temples to Shiva are built, in a myriad of shapes and sizes, beneath the shadow of a colossal cedar.

It was at Sipur, an ancient sacred grove closest to Shimla, that I was able to contribute most effectively to the Forest Survey's work. Every two years, the “State of Forests” report summarizes the results of a national forest survey based on remote satellite imagery and field site visits. However, this national survey samples forests geographically, and the Forest Inventory Plots for the cedar zone had inevitably been placed in areas of younger, regenerating forest.  Large regions of the forest landscape had been modified over millennia of human occupation, with the pace of impact quickening during British colonial rule. The sacred groves, rarities on the landscape, had apparently never been surveyed. In a week of field work, Hemant, the Forest Survey technicians, and I measured the forest trees of Sipur Grove. We performed the standard measurement and photo-monitoring protocol, enhancing it by climbing and measuring a subsample of the trees.  From the top of the cedar tree, resting on a branch, I could see across to the mountains beyond the grove. As we prepare our report for the Forest Survey of India, Hemant and I hope that the initial baseline survey of this accessible and important forest will create the seed of future collaboration and research. The comparison to the younger forest stands can help guide the management and understanding of the younger forests as they mature.

Our visits to famous trees and groves were part of a Landmark Trees of India environmental education project, and are now waypoints on a vast tree tour around this most diverse and important of nations. Should you travel to Himachal Pradesh, you should visit these splendid cedars; you might find them to be familiar friends, instantly recognizable as Tree Number One on Frank Brockman's Tree Tour. You can find Deodars growing along Stevens Way on the UW campus, and throughout the city of Seattle.”

Bar-Ness’ latest project is to develop a Field Institute in Tasmania.  He says, “This endeavor aims to reach out and share the field science techniques of forest ecology with the widest possible audience."

Brockman "Tree of the Week" display is part of the Brockman Memorial Tree Tour’s public art project. Deodar cedar is tree #1 on the tree tour.

Climbing into the cedar treetops, Kullu Valley, Himachal Pradesh, India. Photo: Hemant Gupta.

Giant cedar at Jageshwar, near Almora, Uttarakhand, India. Photo: Hemant Gupta.