Guest Editor Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian: Nonficton Selections

To have a particular relationship to a place, to a homeland, to another species is a special thing. As fundamental as this may seem, these types of relationships are more fragile than ever. We often treat landscapes and other species as replaceable, interchangeable — a tree is a tree is a tree. Collectively, as a species, we are noticing less and moving faster than ever before. So much goes unwitnessed.

Each of these four essays involve different stories of encounters with trees, and each is told very differently. The encounters take place in different parts of the world — from Armenia to Harlem, and from the Sonoran desert to the Hudson Valley. Each piece is told by a person who notices, who knows how and when to move slowly. This is the quality that binds these writers, whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing on a more personal level. Rodney and Grace were my students Bard College, Cole has been my friend and co-conspirator for over a decade, and I have connected with Lilly over our shared diasporan Armenian identity.

Lilly Torosyan’s poetic essay, “Remnants of the Soil,”is a vexing and ethereal piece that winds the reader through a literal and figurative graveyard of the Armenian Genocide. Rodney Bailey’s essay, “The Trees That Grew From Concrete on 148th Street: That’s What It Is,”is a candid and sober vignette of his complicated coexistence with the trees that accompanied the gentrification of his neighborhood in Harlem. In “The Sound of Sap,”Grace Derksen spirals the reader through their intimate work coring and sugaring maple trees. And in “Red Creek,”Cole Larson-Whittaker paints a vibrant and ornate ecology where beauty and risk exist in equal measure.

A fear of loss pervades each piece, and, in both Lilly Torosyan and Rodney Bailey’s essays, a great loss has already happened. But somehow each author makes space for their trust in the earthly or even cosmological memories that precede them and, as they intimate, will inevitably follow. The essays by both Cole Larson-Whittaker and Grace Derksen show the eros that animates their scientific work — work that blurs the line between the body of the human and the bodies of the botanical subjects. Also blurred is the author’s relationship to the scientific method, the rigid demands of which sometimes challenges the authors’ ecstatic devotion to their companion species.

There is something sacred about each of these places and the species therein, that much is clear. But none of these places demand your attention, they humbly offer it, and it is through attending to them that their sacredness is revealed.


Patricia Ononiwu Kaishian is the Curator of Mycology at the New York State Museum, and a professor of biology with Bard Prison Initiative. Her research focuses on fungal taxonomy, diversity and evolution, as well as queer theory and philosophy of science. Her essay “The Magnetism of Eels” appeared in Ecotone Magazine, and her forthcoming and debut book, “Forest Euphoria: a queer bestiary,” will be published by Spiegel & Grau.

Lilly Torosyan

Remnants of the Soil

կարծես հողի տակ մի բուռ ընկույզ էին թափել։ – Ակսել Բակունց
[It’s as though someone threw a handful of walnuts beneath the soil.]
—Soviet Armenian dissident writer Axel Bakunts. 

We share a birthday: 13 June. After a twenty-five-minute trial, Bakunts was shot by Stalin’s goons, his body buried in an unmarked grave. He was two weeks into his thirty-eighth year.


At the airport, Mama gripped my arms and whispered two truths and a lie, “Happy birthday, Bulka. I love you. But remember, it’s their country.” 

In me, a vine was growing. I would spend the next two weeks where we began. The terroir-turned-terror of our fruit. Kılıç artığı, they call us. “Remnants of the sword.” The blight in their origin story.

I spent my birthday on the plane — suspended between the past and its leftovers. 

When we alighted on firm ground, I looked out the window. A massive Turkish flag waved in the distance, knotting my belly. There wouldn’t be much need to remember. 

In the taxi line, the pot-bellied attendant kept pressing where I’m really from. 

After three rounds of back-and-forth, my throat blurted, “Armenian.” 

I remember the muscles in my face contorting a smile — to ease the punch of three deadly syllables — but it must have landed because the once-chatty man fell silent. 

A clean shot to the gut.

When my cab arrived, he mumbled some words to the driver. That vine, which had settled for a brief moment, now wanted to crawl back onto the plane. In-and-out.

We were pushed out of here, like excrement. Here I was, going the other way around — like pulling a shit back in. 

Closing my eyes, I felt the flag thrash against my vine. Then, a silent prayer; a calm acceptance. 

I’m here to rejoin the ancestors. After all, is there anything more Armenian than dying in Turkey?

How quickly the body will find safety. Even if it means digging a grave before the trigger is pulled.

When we arrived, I gripped my Turkish friend, and flashed that same smile — as if to say, “Don’t worry. I remember everything.” 

The next day, that Turkish friend walked me around the city’s main sites. Often, she’d point to some glorious building and say, This was built by an Armenian. She told me of the Balyans, a five-generation family of architects, who built many of the city’s palaces and mosques. 

“In our schools, we learn that they were actually Italian — the Balianis.” 

Years later, in a queer bar in London, that same Turkish friend would tell me that walking around Istanbul is like traversing around a graveyard. “There are so many ghosts.” 

But, like most Turks, she’s never been to the east of their country. 

“You have no idea,” I wanted to say.

A couple days after Istanbul, I landed in the east. What Kurds call Northern Kurdistan. And what delusional diasporans — the ghost-babies of this land — term Western Armenia. 

There was no ‘west’ when we were here. This is a name birthed in death. A graveyard of broken vines and wilted fruit.

Here’s another origin story: 

In Moush, Astghik, our pagan goddess of love and fertility and water, would come down from her celestial dwelling on Mount Ararat, to bathe in the local river. 

When voyeuring men would try to catch a glimpse of the deity, she would spray a thin sheath of mist “moush” around her frame. 

One eye in shadow; the other, in fog. 

In The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allen Poe tells us that the best place to hide a leaf is in the forest. Searching for Astghik, I learned that the best place to hide an Armenian is in a grave. 

And the best place to bury one, too. 

Since the 1890s, over two million Armenians have been murdered on this land. That is nearly the entire population of Armenia today. They have killed an entire Armenia below my feet. A literal mausoleum. 

I kick the dirt to remember to forget. 

Later that morning, we trekked to a fourth-century monastery — nothing standing but the foundation. In a generation, that will be gone, too. Like all the others. 

Once a pilgrimage site, now a refuge for local shepherds. For their lambs to graze and shit. In-and-out. 

From the corner of my eye, I spotted a stallion, running off in the distance. When I followed, my feet met a piece of khachkar (cross-stone), older than all the borders of this scorched earth.

Khachkars were a Christian response, rejuvenation, and reimagining of our pagan vishapakars (dragon-stones), which used to decorate this land—before the waste; before the word ours fell from our tongues. 

I pulled over a friend and asked what I should do. “If everyone took a piece, there would be nothing left to come back to,” he said, eyes glued to the rock. 

What they were really saying was, “If you turn this orphaned khachkar into a diasporan, the land will have nothing left but ghosts.” 

I decided to leave it with the horses and the sheep. Better company than my closet, anyway. 

In Sasun, the first place — the very first place — we entered was a gas station.

Toilet, overflown, shit and piss on the concrete. 

I stood as the tides tugged on the skirt of the mountain.

He missed her loins.

The one we ripped out of after they tore her inside out.

This wasn’t the first time. 

In the eighth century, Arab arrived, cracking khachkars by the dozen. For the next 200 years, Sassoun became their portal into Armenia. One they could not penetrate. 

My people spoke themselves into the history books. “The Daredevils of Sassoun.” Our origin story in a four-part epic. Myth and folklore to keep us alive, for the next time.

For a thousand years, the tale was passed down orally. Each generation, losing juice. 

A Daredevil of Sasun! From Iraqi Caliphates to a gas station toilet. A thousand years, we’ve been burying our tongues.

That night, I dreamt in letters.

What was destroyed

What has stayed behind

What continues to die in the light

Diaspora is a humiliation.

Related to mortification.

From the Latin mors” meaning death”

Diaspora. Another death. A million deaths, scattered into every crevice of this earth. 

Rip out the tree and plant another.

Squirt her juice into your eye and snap in two.

In Armenian, there are two words for walnuts. ընկույզ (unkooyz) and պոպոք (popok). If I change the vowels, popok becomes papik | պապիկ (grandpa).

I think of Papik. Mama once told me how his father, Ipro Papik, fled Sasun and made it to Soviet Armenia. He was 12 years old. 

Then, she says this, “As a child, he was blinded in one eye — from the juice of a walnut tree.” 

“Which eye?” I ask. 

“I couldn’t tell you.” 

“One day, lao, I shall see Sasun again,” the half-blind man would say, over and over, to the walls. Sometimes, his children would overhear promises, made and lost in cement barriers. 

“One day, we all shall return!” 

The same week I found out about my great-papik’s blindness, I was contacted by a missing branch of the family tree. A lawyer from Venezuela whose ancestor was the brother of Ipro’s father. 

As we chatted, I quickly Googled his name and discovered that the lawyer’s brother was murdered a few years ago. 

“Una tragedia.” As my eyes lingered on the lawyer’s words, he told me that he is awaiting his visa to visit Armenia, for the first time. 

“My wife is Italian, so it’s easier for her,” he wrote. 

“Is she related to the Balianis?” I wanted to say.

Instead, I bit my tongue. Stone crumbling in my hand, in my mouth, in the whites of my eye.

A child breaks a piece of mother, as the light 

hits her head

in then out. 

Here’s another origin story:

Moss clings to a rock, a twig, a branch — 

the vine thirsts for something sweet 

A tray of pakhlava. Popok shells intact. Glazed white, like Ipro Papik’s eye. Or the khachkar in Moush. 

If I pick it up, there will be nothing left. 

I look back at the shit on the ground. Out-and-in. Far past the cries of Death and Hollow Bone. 

After dipping in the misty river, I told my friend that Sasun felt like a graveyard to me. 

“When you’re there, it’s a graveyard plus one,” he said.

I think back on the piece of rock. The broken memories held inside cement walls. 

Now, something to hold—in my hand, in my mouth, in the whites of my eye.

On the last day, I hiked down a ravine. To see Khtzkonk monastery. 

Or what’s been left of it.

In the 1950s, the Turkish military blew up the site, turning its five churches into rubble. Locals can still recall the ghosts—day and night—wailing through concrete. 

Today, the contours of one church have survived. But in Turkish, the site is still called Beşkilise—“Five Churches.” This, too, has become a refuge—for the Turkish military to hold practice drills.

After circling around the ruins, I sat down on another slab of rock. My bum touched something hard and sharp. A gray bullet, warmed—by the sun or its birth, I’ll never know. 

If I pick it up, there will be nothing left. 

After rolling it between my fingers, I tucked the bullet into my pocket. 

A few hours later, I reached inside again, to caress my new remains before tossing it into the waste bin, just outside the airport. 

Let it grow—back in the soil—and take out an eye. 

Lilly Torosyan  is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. Her writing focuses on the confluence of identity, diaspora, and language—especially within the global Armenian communities. Her articles have appeared in publications such as the Armenian Weekly, h-pem, and EVN Report. She is currently working on her inaugural poetry collection. You may read many of her poems, stories, and musings on Instagram at @liminaltrees.

Rodney Bailey

The Trees That Grew from Concrete on 148th Street: That’s What It Is

Trees never stirred any kind of real emotions in me, which is understandable. I grew up in New York City and the closest thing to wildlife we had on my block, besides the strays, were the four or five trees that aligned our street on 148th between Broadway and Amsterdam. Add my mother’s city-girl-fear of anything nature—which she instilled in all of us—into the equation and it is easy to see why I never really paid much attention to the trees where I lived. That is, unless I needed them for something in the moment. Maybe I needed them to provide me shade from the sun or a prying eye for a second, but as soon as I was done, both the trees and I went about our respective businesses with no further acknowledgement of the other’s presence.

My block in Harlem is along a major public transportation route in New York City. What this means is one can access a bus or train that could effortlessly carry them to any of five boroughs within minutes of where I grew up. Most of the city’s major train lines, the A, B, C, D, 1, 2, and 3, are all just steps away. Not to mention there are at least a dozen bus routes that zigzag throughout Sugar Hill on a tentative MTA schedule. The blend of Black and Dominican culture in this community was always the perfect environment to grab some lunch with a friend, do some last minute shopping at one of the many mom and pop shops on Broadway, grab dinner at your favorite restaurant and then end the night by hanging out on the block with some of the people you considered family or others who came by to visit from neighboring blocks. The cherry on top, at least for me, was the peacefulness of the roof of my building on spring and summer nights. Standing right there on top of my five story tenement I could see the brightness of Yankee Stadium to my right, watch as the lights of the George Washington Bridge illuminated the sky to my left, and turn 180 degrees south and I could see the whole NYC skyline anytime I dared to consume it and ponder the possibilities.

Back then I never understood how lucky I was to have the whole of New York City accessible to me within minutes. It was one of the many things that my friends and I took for granted about our community and growing up uptown. For instance, during the 80’s and 90’s, dilapidated brownstones lined Harlem streets. My block was no different. As youth, unaware of the dangers they held, we played in those abandoned buildings, and as young adults we used them for more nefarious things. No one ever thought to buy any of these buildings, even though they were owned by the city and being sold for pennies on the dollar. Manhattan’s nickname at the time, “Money Makin’ Manhattan,” emphasized the type of money being made on the streets of Harlem. It also underscores the ease with which young Black men and women could have been capable of becoming owners of the very communities we called home. Had we understood the value and potential of our neighborhood, and others like it, we might not have been so quick to allow those opportunities to slip through our hands. While we were falling short, however, there were others who were biding their time, laying in wait, because they did recognize the value and the potential of our neighborhood. Harlem’s 148th street was about to experience gentrification—a profound transformation.

I briefly left my block on March 12, 1997, and traveled the state for what can only be described as a three year I Love New York tour, courtesy of the Criminal Justice System of New York City and the New York State Department of Corrections. In October of 2000, not long after returning home, I left 48th again. This time for a more extended version of that same tour, and I would not see my block for another 21 years. As I moved about the state visiting upstate and rural towns like Attica, Auburn, and Dannemora, and even though my address changed from one P. O. box to another throughout the years, the place I called home was always in my heart and never far from my mind. Yankee stadium still lit up without me, kids still played in the busted brownstones, and buses still zigzagged across Sugar Hill.

 It was during this long stretch away, around 2014, when I first began to hear rumors that my mother was leaving the apartment we lived in for close to 40 years. The new landlords had offered her $80,000 for our three bedrooms, and this coincided with her finding a much cheaper place in the Bronx. Knowing my mother had never seen that much money in one place, I am not surprised by the decision she made in 2015 to take it.

Upon my return to the community in 2021, I noticed my mother was not the only one who had cashed in their rent-subsidized apartments for big payouts. Gone were all the people and families who became my family just because we all called 148th street home. But they were not just gone—they were replaced. Replaced with people I had rarely seen inhabit residences above 110th street. Not only were these new residents different, but so were the businesses that came uptown with them. I could not understand the audacity of some newcomer to have opened up a hookah lounge on the corner of my block. As in it’s-the-first-thing-you-see-when-you-get-to-my-block, corner of my block. If hookah had become that necessary in my absence, then I was out of touch.

Another big surprise I found when I got back to 48th was its new aesthetic appearance. The five trees I had left on my block almost a quarter century ago had now morphed into the very specific number of 20. Ten on each side of the street, neatly lined. These trees were too tall to have grown on their own in my absence, so I concluded they, like the new people and the hookah lounge, were all a part of the gentrification of my neighborhood. Brought there from someplace else. And while I knew how and why the people and businesses found their way up to 148th street, I was more intrigued with how the trees got there.

Under closer examination, and to my surprise, there was not just one species of tree transported to 48th. The more I dug into the background of these strangers, the more I discovered they were as different as the many races of people that now called the street home. Some of them did not belong in the immediate area at all, but a few did. Among the regular elms and magnolias native to Harlem was a white oak hidden in plain sight, like it had the right to be there. I soon found that, like the new people, it was a little strange for this tree to have taken up residence on my block. And the name was not lost on me either. A “white” oak? Why not brown or red ones? What did it represent? Was it the planting of a flag?

My questions sent me digging and I discovered that white oak was not particularly “white” or European at all. In fact, white oak is native or indigenous to this place, however dramatically the land has been transformed. White oaks are well known to a number of Native American peoples, and various parts of the plant were used to treat a wide variety of ailments, including diarrhea, mouth sores, chapped skin, asthma, and coughs. Botanists would later formally describe the species to science, noting the morphology of the tree with its pale gray bark, scaly ridges and shallow fissures. The leaves of the white oak are light green and alternate on stems 5 to 9 inches in length. Some of its leaves will turn red or brown in autumn and the rest will remain on the tree for most of the winter.

If I am honest, I was hooked at the word “Native” because it meant our visitor to 148th street may have inhabited my neighborhood before any of us had. Researching further I began to learn more about the tree itself, to see the tree more fully. I discovered white oaks are not supposed to grow in especially cold or wet conditions, and they need well-drained sites with rich and moist soil. And lots of sun. These trees can grow to be 50 to 60 feet tall, but are sensitive to soil disturbances. Salt is like poison to the white oak. They are intolerant to having it end up in their soil. All of these factors made it all the more ironic that white oak trees are now growing from concrete in Harlem — a place where sun can be moderate, any soil it lives in has to be transported to where it is planted and for at least one season it can be expected to be wet and cold and have salt constantly seeping into its soil.

Clearly this tree has gone through a lot to call Harlem home. I suppose 148th would not have been its first choice, but would it have been for any of us, if given a choice? The more I learned the more I realized just how much the former residents from my block had in common with the white oak and my skepticism about the tree slowly began to fade.

Another reason for my ultimate embrace of the white oak lies in the fact that I have come to understand the power in the connections Native Americans, and in this case the Lenape people, had with nature. Before colonial rulers arrived in New York City, the Lenape were stewards of what was then called Lenapehoking. Like other indigenous peoples, Lenape of what was Lenapehoking understood beings such as trees and even inanimate objects to be imbued with a spirit. This is intuitive to me, as I have always felt both the spirit of Harlem and the spirit that ran through 148th street, no matter how far or how long I was away from it.

Suddenly able to see the white oak, mother Quercus alba, or what the Lenape called ònàxkwimënshi, for her spirit and strength, I no longer judge her because she was brought to some foreign soil and, like me, forced to survive under the harshest of conditions. Conditions designed to ensure we both would not make it. So I get it. I have no argument for a kindred soul. Returning to my neighborhood, however, I noticed the spirit of it had diminished with the arrival of the new people—the place I was once able to feel even when we were separated by hundreds of miles had changed in some fundamental way. 

Although Harlem still has its dangers, these days I find they are a lot fewer than what I remember. And the elders and loud children who congregated in their carved out sections along the sidewalk of 148th street have been replaced with calming trees that now blow in the breeze. Gone too are the people whose circumstances forced them to survive on the block the best way they knew how. Those who, like the white oak, stood tall even when the odds said they should not. They have been replaced by people who now take full advantage of having New York City and its hookah bars within reach. In the end, I guess I am more jealous of the new people and shops, than anything else. Jealous that my community never took advantage of what we had while we had it. Jealous that in my absence a new community has arisen where a much more vibrant one once stood.

Looking at this another way, this new community has aesthetic beauty, relative safety, and lounges, and it allows the place I love to live up to its full potential, even if that means it will have a slightly different soul—is that not what we should all want for someone or something we claim to love? Am I being as accepting of someone else’s change as I would want them to be of mine? I cannot totally say I am ready to embrace everything else that accompanied the tree uptown, but perhaps we—me and the white oak, Quercus alba, ònàxkwimënshi—also have that in common. Or maybe we both have come to love the presence of one stranger while quietly acknowledging a kind of built up tolerance for the other. That’s what it is.

Rodney Bailey is a system impacted individual who grew up in Harlem, NYC. He is currently a student at Bard College in the Catskills in NY where he studies Sociology and Education. Rodney hopes to one day become a college professor.

Grace Derksen

The Sound of Sap

Spring begins as a faint quivering, a gentle pulse from the muted plink sound of sugar maple (Acer saccharum) sap dripping into buckets. The rhythm is patient yet persistent and the whole forest seems to hold its breath as the steady thud against galvanized steel promises the sweet return of spring. It is early February 2023, and a crew of Bard Farm volunteers and I have gathered in the forest to tap the maple trees. We inspect each trunk, running our fingers over the fresh increment borer scars from the fall’s fieldwork, and healed tap holes from years prior. Some holes are still clean and hollow, while others, decades older, have grown belly buttons where bark has begun to seal the wound. As soon as the drill bit is removed, the fresh hole wells with sap until the water tension breaks, sap rushing down the trunk in a tiny sweet rivulet. The sound of hammer against spile resonates throughout the forest, and our shouts of excitement ring out as we become cicadas. Crows call out to one another in a language we do not know, accompanied by the red-winged blackbird’s occasional raspy conk-cra-reeee, and we can only guess the coming spring is the talk of their town too.

The smell of spring is promised in the air. Amid the barren February landscape, layers of life churn beneath the surface of the bark, and we must rely on our ears and noses to sense this activity, this coming spring, this flickering of the unseen processes within the xylem. Across the Muhheakunnuk valley, the layered pattern of the Catskill mountains’ sedimentary bedrock shows itself through the leafless branches, illuminated during the period of tree senescence, and tinted purple in the distance. Later in the season, these layers will be invisible, hidden under bursting foliage. As the planet inches towards the vernal equinox, photosensors within the maple sense the coming light, triggering the sucrose-rich sap to flow up the trunk with muscular force, food for the unfurling buds. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben writes: “Water shoots up the trunk with such force that if you place a stethoscope against the tree, you can actually hear it.”[1]

We return in the coming weeks to gather the gifts of maple sap, graciously filling the five gallon buckets. Bearing the tradition of sugaring through repetitive tasks— carrying buckets, stacking wood—we cultivate a greater relationship with the forests of the northeast. The next day, our muscles remember our labor of love, silent scars dotting the trunks link us to those who have tasted the sap years before us. The symbiosis of sugaring is embodied through our labor and attention. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the sound of sap — the drum of springs’ return—as the song of reciprocity between the humans, the trees, and the seasons. As the buckets gradually fill, the song changes pitch throughout the day, a persistent reminder of interdependence. Our relationship is in the smell of the steam and wood smoke billowing from the evaporator, and the taste of maple sugars. As trees communicate through the releases of chemical compounds, smelling becomes a form of listening.

In the evaporator pan, the low, resounding hum of the boiling crescendos as the sap animates, rising up in churning white anthills. We tell jokes as we skim off the peaks of rising foam, and the sap condenses, sweetening slightly with every spoonful, weaving a story of the history and ecology of symbiosis with the maples. Kimmerer tells the Anishinaabe story of Nanabozho, who teaches that this sugaring work should never be too easy: “The responsibility does not lie with the maples alone. The other half belongs to us; we participate in its transformation. It is our work, and our gratitude, that distills the sweetness.”[2] Approaching the process of maple sugaring with reverence, we become attuned to both the changing season and the ecology of the forest.

As I collect sap, I scoop out the occasional drowning moth, and watch as ants pace the bark near the spile, sipping on the sugars. While the photoreceptors keep the calendar, the sap connects other species—insects and humans alike—to a collective forest clock.[3]

In her Queer Ecology seminar last year, Patricia Kaishian told me once that cicadas also rely upon cues while waiting in the roots of the trees until the right moment to come out of the ground. The most agreed upon explanation for the cicada synchronicity is that they taste for the right cocktail of sugars in the sap.[4] Throughout the growing season, the sap composition changes, and cicadas can taste the seasonal rhythm of trees growing and shedding leaves. The sugar maples’ sap connects species over time in polyrhythm; cicadas emerge every seventeen years and we return annually, buckets in hand.

The tradition of collecting maple sap also attunes us to the larger story of climate change, as the sugaring season returns earlier and earlier each calendar year. This season, as a result of mild temperatures, will be cataloged by way of omission next to the scabbed sugar maples’ bark. I texted Rebecca, my friend and manager of the Bard Farm, asking if we would tap trees for the 2024 season, and she responded with an alarming, “No.” She elaborated:“Last year sucked monkey balls. We got so little sap. I’m just not sure if I want to go through all that work again when the weather has been so warm and we’ve only had a few days all year that have been below freezing.”

Climate change raises concern for the future of sugar maple trees, a threat that presents itself with more and more urgency. Rising temperatures, change in precipitation, and disruption of seasonal phenological cues result in habitat loss and vulnerability to sugar maple stands, regardless of age, size, and soil fertility.[5] Changing freeze and thaw cycles become asynchronous with the tree’s internal clock, which uses climatic cues for leaf aging and bud break. Climate change is forcing tree migration further north, and with it the beloved tradition of maple sugaring. Maple sugaring production range is expected to migrate to around the 48th parallel by 2100.[6] As the climate changes faster than these rooted pilgrims can travel, grappling with this impending loss becomes an insurmountable task.

The threat to the sugar maple represents a kind of ecological loss different from other plants or animals, our relationship woven together in the dovetail joinery of our kitchen tables and chairs, sticking to our fingers after pancake breakfast. The sugar maple roots us to a sense of place, creating a bioregion which Kimmerer calls Maple Nation. This is the land where sugarbushes are the most prevalent; where sap harvest time is the celebrated turning of the seasons; where sugar shacks dot the backroads, wood smoke billowing from their chimneys. Maple Nation can be mapped as the geographical region where the leading citizens are the sugar maples—extending north into Canada, across the Great Lakes Regions, and stretches southward in the peaks of the Appalachians—though it does not contain discrete borders. Cartographer Bill Rankin defines bioregions as not delineated by political boundaries but instead by both the natural and cultural landscapes; circumscribed by area’s climate, geology, natural history, watersheds, and the local geographies of flora, fauna, and human communities.[7] On Maple Nation, Kimmerer writes of “[these] iconic beings who shape the landscape, influence our daily lives, and feed us—both materially and spiritually.”[8]

Confronting the uncertain future of the sugar maple requires a consideration of the trees’ perspectives. The trees teach us slivers of this history through their concentric growth rings, each one a memory of photosynthesis, and temperature and moisture levels over time. Through dendrochronology, the study of history through tree rings, we are able to partially decode these memories, constructing a story of how trees, humans, climate, and land have all reacted to one another.

And so I returned to the same stand of trees, this time with an increment borer—a long, hollow instrument used for sampling tree ring cores—ready to pose the question: How do these trees make sense of climate change? How do they reckon with the challenge of evolving on an impossible timeline? How can we begin to understand these trees’ memories of ecological reciprocity? Twisting the borer in rhythmic creaks that cut through the ambient forest murmurs, I gradually make my way into the heartwood of the tree. When the barrel reaches what I think is around the center, I stop twisting to extract the core, revealing a button of bark, fragrant cambium, warm heartwood, soft fibrous heartwood rot, a century of fragmented memories. I am not quite sure how to thank the tree. In steady half turns, this time in reverse, I remove the increment borer with the same pulsating creaks that break the forest silence.

Under the microscope, the sliver of tree trunk transforms; golden red streaks radiate outward from the pith, intersecting with the more prominent annual rings. The bark twists around the pale cambium, the life-giving layer of the tree, and I count backwards through the pale sapwood and the darkened inner heartwood, searching for marker rings—years of visual abnormality—listening for syncopation in the steady beat of growth.

The tree rings stitch together to create an intercorrelated chronology of the forest as a whole, weaving through it the local history of the landscape and atmosphere, telling tales of historic droughts and spongy moth attacks.[9] When comparing the tree rings to historic climate data, you can start to see a relationship between early spring temperatures and sugar maple growth. Based on the interactions of historic climate and tree ring measurements, late spring temperatures impact the following years’ growth. The patterns that arise are blurry due to low sample size, yet I can look to those who have come before me—such as dendrochronologist Neil Peterson—whose studies corroborate my own translations of maple tree chronology. The connection between spring temperatures and maple tree growth provide insights into how future climate predictions will impact this species.[10] At this crux of uncertainty, the rings tell us a story grounded in time, stretching farther back than many human memories.

The microscopic cross sections reveal the saps’ architecture, the xylem and phloem, as they trace the tree from the roots to the farthest reaching branches. Stacked together they create an archive of entanglement, passages of sugars and energy ripple outward through the ecological web. Staring through the microscope I see our cellular history, our deep-time community. I see vessels twisting in relationships, linking the past and to the future. I see myself, again and again, returning to the maple trees.

Inspired by Wohlleben’s writing on the velocity of sap flow, I went out to the woods with a stethoscope slung around my neck, and knelt at the base of a tree whose spile dripped steadily. Placing the chestpiece to the bark, I sat and listened. Within the trunk, within my eardrums, I heard the amplified sounds of the slight movements of my finger joints, a deep creaking as they worked to press the stethoscope to the rough surface. I heard the sounds of the leaves in constant readjustment on the forest floor, gently rustling against the base of the trunk and the base of my own knees. Together these sounds mixed with the silence in my ears, creating subsonic murmurs. While I heard no pulse of sap through the xylem, I was able to hear the sounds of myself listening to the tree. And I imagine that it sounds similar to the noise that sap flow makes.

[1] Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, 58

[2] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, (Milkweed Editions, 2013), 63

[3] Anecdote from Patricia Kaishian, during her Queer Ecology Seminar in the fall of 2022, which is an excerpt from her upcoming book, Forest Euphoria: a queer bestiary published by Spiegel & Grau 2025.

[4]  Meg Matthias, “Why Do Some Cicadas Appear Only Every 17 Years?,” Encyclopedia Britannica, April 13, 2021,

[5]  Daniel A. Bishop, Colin M. Beier, Neil Pederson, Gregory B. Lawrence, John C. Stella, Timothy J. Sullivan. “Regional growth decline of sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and its potential causes,” Ecosphere 6, vol. 10 (2015): 1-12, accessed April 30, 2023,

[6]   Joshua M., Rapp, David A. Lutz, Ryan D. Huish, Boris Dufour, Selena Ahmed, Toni Lyn Morelli, and Kristina A. Stinson. “Finding the sweet spot: Shifting optimal climate for maple syrup production in North America.” Forest Ecology and Management 448 (2019): 187-197.

[7]  Bill Rankin, “Arborregions,” Radical Cartography, 2016,

[8]  Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, 168

[9] Derksen, Grace, “Mapping Maple Memory” (2023). Senior Projects Spring 2023. 82.

[10] Bishop, Daniel A., Beier, Colin M., Pederson, Neil. Lawrence, G. B., Stella, J.C. Sullivan, T.J.

“Regional growth decline of sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and its potential causes.”

Ecosphere 6, vol. 10 (2015): 1-12. Accessed April 30, 2023.

Grace Derksen is a writer and farmer hailing from the Connecticut river valley in Vermont. They recently graduated from Bard College, where they began researching maple trees in their cumulative senior project Mapping Maple Memory, and received the Rachel Carson Prize in environmental studies. They reside in the Hudson Valley, where they work as a wetland map maker.

Cole Larson-Whittaker

Red Creek

In early August a monsoon cloud empties a quick and violent burst of rain onto the northern half of the gruesome, but aptly named, Bloody Basin. Drops of water the size of table grapes fall onto the ancient and decaying exposed red granite, collecting in near-invisible rivulets, only a few millimeters deep and a few centimeters wide. The rivulets knit the landscape like the stretchmarks of rapid teenage growth or a pregnant mother’s taut belly, joining and swelling together, carving their way through well-worn traceries in the landscape, flowing and sheeting into deep, steep ravines and off flat, narrow buttes.

The water that lands among juniper, agave, a medley of desert chaparral shrubs, and grasses too numerous to name takes with it mementos of its initial landfall. Along with the inorganic dust, sand, pebble, rock, and boulders this water drags downhill, it also carries last season’s organic desert debris; a mix of seeds and scat, blanched branches and bones, leaves and the desiccated husks of insects, the pads from prickly pears and cholla.

If it is a good monsoon season, with steady torrents every three days or so, and if enough rain falls for the right amount of time during each of those torrents, then the majority of that organic material will make its way down to the Verde River in just a couple of weeks. If it is a shit monsoon season (the likes of which this part of the desert has been seeing more and more frequently) and the rains come once or twice or not at all, then it could take years to wash everything down.

This is a good monsoon year. Traipsing down progressively wider and deeper desert washes, the flash flood heads to the main arterial drain for the northern part of Bloody Basin, eventually adding its waters to the perennially flowing Red Creek.

Here, in Red Creek, everything from the steep canyon walls to the diverse and constantly changing plant and animal communities are the result of the countless flash floods that annually rip their way downstream.

Here, in Red Creek, seeds from higher, cooler elevations are carried down and left to grow after the waters recede, and the steep canyon walls and ever-present water supply, create the perfect nursery for those seeds to grow, despite being in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. 

Here, in Red Creek, where the intertwining of biotic and abiotic factors is laid viscerally bare, the beauty of its ecosystem flaunted.

Here, in Red Creek, is a thriving a copse of Arizona cypress, Hesperocyparis arizonica, a mid-to-high elevation wetland tree species growing next to low elevation desert species.

Here, in Red Creek, the rain that fell an hour ago up in Bloody Basin tickles the Arizona cypress as they cool their knees in the fast flowing water.


Three or four months later a bighorn sheep makes its way off of the grassy Agua Fria plateau above Bloody Basin to the west, and heads eastish towards the Verde River. The rain clouds decide to watch the bighorn, and spend the next few days sitting misty while they slowly, gently soak the area at a pace that recharges the water table more than it rearranges the landscape. 

The bighorn sheep picks its way down sixty foot near-vertical cliffs, the black and pitted and jagged rocks suggesting a volcanic origin. At the base of the cliff the bighorn begins to move along the upper edges of the escarpments, twenty or so feet from the tops of the buttes and hills, avoiding silhouetting itself against a grey sky for any passing predators.

Impossible to know the true intentions of a bighorn without asking, it seems as though it is in no real hurry. It stops to eat a late breakfast, then brunch, then an early lunch, a second lunch, tea, a geriatric’s early dinner, dinner, a Spaniard’s late dinner, finally settling down in a copse of junipers for the night.

The next day, the bighorn seems to eschew the more easily traveled canyon bottoms (probably to avoid any predators watching from higher ground) following contours of the slopes tracing the Easterly course of Red Creek below.

Over the last day and a half the bighorn sheep has descended almost 3000 feet of elevation. It traverses in and out of a mosaicked tapestry of biotic communities that have been condensed and pressed together due to the dramatic changes in elevation here in the Bloody Basin. The bighorn sheep is, like most animals, oblivious to the human names given to these biotic communities in 1979 by Brown and Lowe[1]; Semidesert Grassland, Interior Chaparral, Great Basin Conifer Woodland, Arizona Upland Subdivision, Sonoran Desert Scrub.

The steep, acute angles of the canyon walls have softened, the deep time battlements of hills and cliffs that define Red Creek have become respectively shorter and more obtuse.

Here, in Red Creek, the bighorn sheep is drawn down to the canyon floor by the handsome sight of a familiar friend; leaves a shade of dusty, green-blue held up by a scaffolding of brown-red, vertically peeling bark, colors and textures helping to define the tall, elegant, lanceolate canopies of a copse of Arizona Cypress.

Here, in Red Creek, the bighorn sheep seeks the sweet relief of getting off its feet under the leaves of a few huddled trees.


It was early March, about fifteen miles east of the spot where the bighorn sheep started its descent off the plateau several months ago, and I was alone with my left ankle swollen to the size of a halved cantaloupe. The joint had become stiff and swollen to the point of immobility and I had spent the three hours limping, unable to put any weight on that leg, through a mile of desert to get to where I could soak my ankle in the ice cold water discharging from Red Creek into the Verde River.

I sat on a gravel bank, half in the shade of several large Platanus wrightii watching the shadow thrown by a small rock arch slowly trace its way across the reddened, wizened face of a granite escarpment that has been watching the interplay and confluence of Red Creek and the Verde River for eons.

My mind wandered.

Over the previous two years I had spent over forty days over the course of a dozen trips coming to this remote corner of the Sonoran Desert to conduct field research for my masters thesis, a kind of snapshot-in-time style botanical inventory referred to as a flora.

During my time in this wilderness, mostly spent mostly alone, I thought I had experienced almost every danger the desert had to offer me—intense electrical storms, midnight flash floods, several bouts of dehydration and heatstroke, being stalked by a mountain lion (probably more than once), hypothermia, run-ins with rattlesnakes and skunks, and face-offs with feral cattle. Having met these corporeal threats with aplomb, I was devastated to now be laid low by the single spine from the pad of an errant teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia biglovii) that had somehow gotten lodged in my ankle, resulting in what a doctor later diagnosed as cellulitis.

It was the perfect day in the desert, the kind whose chilly early morning shoulders are quickly warmed into a golden brown perfection by a bright azure blue sky and a gentle, but firm, spring sun. With my head and upper torso in the shade under the spreading canopy of my riparian refuge, my belly and thighs baked by solar radiation, and my calves and feet in 50 degree water, I felt like some sort of interdimensional subatomic particle, existing in several differently places at once, while also caught between existence and non-existence. Butterflies floated past me on wings of warm palette reds, oranges, yellows, creams, visiting the kaleidoscopic flowers sensuously hugging the landscapes every curve. The Gila monster that made its home in the among the saguaros standing sentinel above the riparian zone ignored me as it rumbled past armored in pink and black. The bifocal white noise rush of water that comes from sitting at the confluence of two rivers was washing away the cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones that had been coursing through my bloodstream. I could smell the rich, earthy, inorganic yet fertile scent of the recently deposited alluvial sand and gravel pressed comfortably into my back, thighs, upper arms, buttcheeks. The water swirled and eddied past my ankles and calves at three hundred cubic feet per second.

I can’t say how long I remained in this state of suspended animation, stripped naked in perfect status, caught like a piece of canned pineapple in a potluck jello salad. Birds came and went flying to whatever essential birdy tasks their avian biology impelled them to do. Like those birds, whose names I had not learned, I had seemingly been drawn to this time and place.

As I convalesced, the swelling around my ankle (after steeping in chill water near viscous with sediment) was beginning to slightly reduce. I flexed my foot and felt the recently rigid synovial bend slightly, a good sign. I continued to steep my ankle hoping for further limbering and some improved flexion.

I lay there weighing my options. I had been dropped off by a friend several days earlier about five miles up Red Creek from where I was now, with the promise of being picked up two weeks later. I was, in essence, stranded. Had everything gone to plan, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but now, as I sat here injured to the point of immobility, it was very much a problem. The closest cell phone service was 30 miles away. I had a panic button on my GPS tracker I could press that would have brought down a rescue helicopter within the hour, but that seemed like an overreaction and it would have probably ended up being pretty costly. I could have waited there to rest and recuperate for the next few days with the goal of continuing on a truncated version of my planned 14-day excursion. But if my wife saw my GPS tracker in one place for more than a few hours she would have probably thought the worst and called in a rescue helicopter that would have probably ended up being pretty costly. The only option remaining to me was to hike out, back up Red Creek to the forest service road that intersected it, and hope to flag someone down who could give me a ride out.

After a while the swelling had gone down enough that I could put weight on that leg again.

I knew what had to be done and I was finally at the point where I was physically capable of doing so, but the idea of giving up this peaceful Eden to face something dauntingly full of pain and uncertainty was proving to be a heady inertial brew.

I was slowly melting into the desert’s warm familiar embrace, when I needed to be slowly hiking up Red Creek. I slowly decided to start by slowly repacking my bag, after which I slowly got dressed, then I slowly drank some water and slowly refilled my water bottles before slowly putting my pack on. As I slowly began making my way up the middle of Red Creek, I was slowly overcoming the inertial pull this place had on me as if this confluence was a celestial body and I was its moon experiencing orbital decay.

I stuck to the middle of Red Creek, both because it felt good on my injury and because the high springtime water level meant the trail on either side of the narrow canyon was flooded out. My ankle regained some flexibility as I went, but only to a point. By the time I had made it two miles, as my tummy was grumbling its dinner bell, I was ready to call it a day. I camped on a rocky outcrop, five or six feet above the running water, and backed by a twenty foot high cliff face. This location pleased the primal survival instinct of a secured sleep, guarded, at the very least, on one side by some impenetrable object.

I was too tired to prepare anything for dinner so I spent half an hour taking alternating spoonfuls from a jar of crunchy peanut butter and a jar of nutella. I slept hard that night, not waking once until first light.

My ankle was still very swollen and stiff, but it wasn’t as painful as the day before. I felt immensely hopeful for the day to come. I took my time in breaking camp. I built a small fire on the rock, heated some water and made myself pad thai for breakfast. I sat by the fire until the morning warmed up. After dousing the fire, I soaked my ankle, filtered water, and packed up. I started hobbling up the middle of Red Creek.

The current pressed hard and cold against my legs as I waded, knee deep, upstream. Fraxinus, Populus, Celtis, Salix, Berberis, Ambrosia, Baccharis, Chilopsis, Dodonaea, Platanus, Stephanomeria, and countless others were an impressionistic blur of green vegetative hues on background of red and pink granite that surrounded me and urged me along as I focused on keeping each step sure and steady. Headed west, I felt like a ship at sea, my kneecaps the prow and my back and head the sails catching a stiff morning solar breeze.

I was pulled out of my trancelike march by my tummy, as accurate a keeper of time as any Swiss-made wristwatch, letting me know that it was nearing noon and it was time for lunch.

As my eyes and brain refocused and took in my surroundings I realized I had made it to the copse of Arizona Cypress that grow into and around Red Creek. Their roots, having trapped rocks and boulders as they grew out into the streambed, have created a terrace of tiny cataracts.

Here, Red Creek has cut down into the rock and soil, but the cypress have kept the erosion at bay with their roots and knees, so the bank is high and steep. Being in the creekbed I was at eye level with the base of the trees. I heaved my pack up, then hauled myself up after it.

I sat with my back to the flaky trunk of one of the cypress. After eating a pleasant meal of sweaty cheese and damp salami, I lay down on my back with my leg propped up on the tree to prevent any further swelling.

Under the green-blue canopy, lulled by surround sound susurration, I drifted off to sleep counting bighorn sheep.

[1] In 1979, David E. Brown and Charles H. Lowe published a comprehensive description and map of each biotic community in the Southwestern United States aptly titled Biotic Communities of the Southwest. This seminal work has since been used by countless scientists, academics, and educators as a foundation for understanding the ecosystems and biodiversity of the southwest. The map is also beautiful and makes it immediately clear that much of the biodiversity in this region is the result of a high number of ecosystems that are crammed together due to geography and geology.

Cole Larson-Whittaker is a herring gull who, though persistently dehydrated, found an unlikely home in the Sonoran Desert.