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Taking a closer look at Mississippi’s canopy trees

For many common elements of our natural world, most of us rarely stop and take a closer look. When is the last time, if ever, have you stopped under the large canopy trees in your yard or neighborhood and looked up? Did you notice just how tall these trees reach into the sky? Did you watch to see what birds or squirrels might be hanging around up there? Have you closed your eyes during a hot summer day and listened to the cicadas or birds singing in their branches? How about the katydids, owls, or even flying squirrels singing or squealing at night?

We miss so much by not looking up or listening. These giants of our forests stand sentinel and define much of our urban and rural landscapes. They can provide a level of spiritual contemplation, especially when we think about the length of their lives and what they could tell us about local history, if only they could talk. Sitting under a favorite tree can bring peace.

The question is do we take notice of our trees? More importantly, do we take good care of them? For those living in our urban forests, are they healthy? Many are not, especially those living along our streets, next to our buildings, and in our parking lots where they have been squeezed out by the hardscapes that make our lives easier but limit their ability to stay healthy.

Large canopy trees need their space, above the ground, but as importantly, underground where their roots need space to gather enough nutrients and water to keep the tree healthy. Sadly, we do not honor the underground space that most canopy trees need. Roots of these 60-plus foot tall trees can grow 50 feet or more outward from the trunk. The general rule of thumb is that we should avoid encroaching the area beneath any tree to its drip line – the lateral outward extent of its branches.

My point of this diatribe is this – we all need to take a closer look at our canopy trees. When we are not looking, we can and do miss the signs that can tell us if they are healthy and capable of delivering the many benefits that trees provide. So, please take time to look a little closer. Sit out under your backyard canopy tree with your favorite summer drink and look up. Find a bench along main street or in the local park in your community and do the same. In this way, we can all make the connection between what is happening under the tree, and how healthy the tree really is.

Only then will we come to understand that our canopy trees need our help to keep them healthy. If they are not and we value them as part of our communities, we should advocate for steps to help them recover. We can have them next to our structures, if we understand how to honor the spaces they need.

Our first step is to look up and take a closer look

Hope to see you “looking up” in our great outdoors!

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Written by Mark W. LaSalle, Ph.D.

Mark is a naturalist and wetland ecologist, providing expertise on wetlands, water quality and environmental impacts of humans. He has also developed and conducted a number of environmental education programs and workshops for youth, teachers, realtors, and the general public on a variety of subjects including wetlands, natural history, and environmental landscaping. Mark is a graduate of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (B.S. and M.S. degrees) and Mississippi State University (Ph.D.). Mark is the recipient of the Chevron Conservation Award, the Mississippi Wildlife Federation Conservation Educator Award, the Gulf Guardian Award, and the Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award.

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