Tree photo courtesy Barrie Fisher

“Does anybody recognize this seed?” ecologist Shelby Perry asked the audience, pointing to an image projected on the wall of the Mad River Valley Arts (MRVA) gallery last Thursday, April 18. “It’s a tough one.”





It was the seed of an American chestnut tree – a spiny burr that moves around by hooking itself onto mammals’ coats. When found, these seeds are often sterile due to lack of fertilization, Perry said. In the early 20th century, a blight fungus nearly wiped out the entire population.

Perry, an ecologist with the Northeast Wilderness Trust, shared a trove of knowledge about trees in her lecture “Trees and Rewilding” – an event that wraps up the MRVA exhibition “RISE: Trees, Our Botanical Giants.” The show features artworks made primarily from wood, or those that take up more conceptual aspect of trees and forests. It comes down on Friday, April 26.

Perry used field recordings and other bits of audio in her presentation – peepers, chickadees, and the soundscape of a shaded summer forest. She described the intricacies of tree development across the seasons, focusing on the present moment – spring.

It’s a period of re-awakening, of seeds moving, of flowering tree tops, and the birth of baby animals, she said. The audience looked at an image of the flowering tips of a red maple tree.

Perry suggested collecting the budding branches in winter, putting them in a vase of water, and waiting for the buds – either leaves or flowers – to open. “I’ve brought home a lot of red maple twigs,” she said, “and I love it when the flowers open in January and February, when everything is white and I need to see a little taste of spring.”

As for why the leaves are red, Perry said the latest theory argues that the color is a product of a chemical acting as sunscreen for the foliage, which doesn’t yet have the chlorophyll needed to absorb the sun’s energy.




Perry spoke about species that thrive on the ground, alongside trees – wild flowers like Spring Beauty, Trout Lily and Blood Root. As “spring ephemerals,” Perry said, “their whole life cycle is about taking advantage of this moment, right now, before all the leaves come out, and there’s a bunch of sunlight reaching the forest floor.”

Some of these species are in critical partnership with ants, she said. Their seeds have a sugary coating, with ants hauling them to their sandy ant hills, where they germinate and grow from inside.

Perry pulled up an image of the bright orange Eastern newt – a creature that wanders the forest floor for up to a decade in “their Kurt Vonnegut phase,” she said – and the Honeycomb Coral Slime Mold, “single-celled organisms that are essentially a giant bag of nucleuses, that ooze around on the forest floor…then fruit on rotting logs and woods.”

Perry concluded her talk by speaking briefly on the concept of “rewilding” – a form of ecological restoration that aims to restore natural processes, reducing human influence on ecosystems. The Northeast Wilderness Trust is involved in a more passive form of this. They purchase and protect land, leaving it alone and letting natural processes play out. “For me, it feels like an act of humility,” Perry said. “It’s about saying ‘we don’t know what’s best,’ so we can let some places decide for themselves.”

Most of what we know about trees is based on observations from 50-80 year-old forests, she said, with only 3.3% of New England forests currently being rewilded.

Rewilding take a long time, “but somebody has to start the clock somewhere,” she said. Thinking on a small scale, landowners can rewild parts of their land by letting the edges of their property get brush-y and thick. They can also mow paths in their lawn instead of the whole area, letting native species repopulate. It might not seem like much, but Perry said that even letting a half-acre grow wild would be building a home for a ton of really small organisms like frogs, fireflies and slime molds.

“Any place you can just reign in that manicuring a little bit, is a little bit of rewilding, and it’s at a scale that’s beneficial to the small things that fit in that place.”

This year, MRVA’s mission is to host exhibitions and events that show the intersection of art and the environment. The next show, “ALOFT: Birds, Insects and Aerial Phenomena” opens on May 2.