Magazine article American Forests

THE LANGUAGE OF Trees: On a Walk with Rutherford Platt

Magazine article American Forests

THE LANGUAGE OF Trees: On a Walk with Rutherford Platt

Article excerpt

IN THE WINTER OF 1929, RUTHERFORD PLATT WENT FOR A WALK in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with noted botanist, Dr. Arthur Graves. As his mentor began pointing out the buds along the leafless tree branches, Platt was astonished--he had always supposed that buds appeared in spring, just before they bloomed. When he studied the buds more closely, he discovered that the buds "were not standardized ovals, covered with overlapping scales. They were as varied as jewelry, in all sorts of exquisite shapes and bright colors. Some were covered with fur, some with glue, others were varnished."

On that winter day, 35-yearold Platt was a latent bud himself. Platt was an experienced editor and writer who often sought to bring his readers practical inspiration. He had worked for The World's Work magazine, which celebrated the American way of life; he authored "The Book of Opportunities, What 3000 American Occupations Have to Offer" and "You Can't Fail: A Quick, Sure Way to Find the Best Job For Every Man and Woman."

In the mid-1930s, Platt co-founded a New York-based advertising agency and promoted the offerings of a wide range of clients. But with the economic depression and world events, the lives of Americans grew more ominous, and Platt looked increasingly to the natural world for a source of inspiration. Over time, with no formal academic training in botany, he established himself as a respected natural history writer and photographer. His book, "This Green World," was awarded the 1945 John Burroughs Medal Award as the "foremost literary work" in the field of natural science, the first time in its 24-year history that the award was presented to a non-professional naturalist. Platt inspired readers with his photographs, specializing in close-up views of buds, flowers and other botanical details that required advanced equipment along with great skill and patience. His words and images were widely published in National Geographic, Scientific American and other venues. He served as botanist on two arctic voyages with the explorer Admiral Donald B. MacMillan and was a consultant to Walt Disney on a series of nature films. All this flowed from one serendipitous walk in the park.

In "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," author Annie Dillard describes Platt's book, "The Great American Forest," as "[O]ne of the most interesting books ever written." After following her recommendation, I fully agreed and was soon equally captivated by Platt's other books and articles. It was more than just his mastery of facts, and the way he made them easy to follow, that drew me in. Take the way he describes the movement of water through a tree in "This Green World." Many scientists explain this process according to the "tension-cohesion theory" or the "compensating pressure theory," but Platt refers to "the world's greatest water works" and likens the tree to an upside-down river system. Ground water, the source of this river, is collected by root hairs, then flows through roots of increasing size and ascends up through the trunk to the branches. The leafy canopy is the mouth of this river where water empties not into a lake or ocean, but by evaporating into the atmosphere. One reviewer remarked about Platt, "How is it possible to describe a tree's vascular system in a way that is not only understandable but thrilling as well? His curiosity is infectious, and he forces us not just to notice common plants but to study and glory in them."

TODAY, Rutherford Platt's work seems like a well-kept secret, yet it belongs on shelves alongside the classic volumes of other Burroughs Medal awardees such as Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez and John McPhee--some formidable company. I set out to introduce him and his "Green World" to a new generation.

After reading Platt's 1941 article in American Forests magazine, "Bursting Buds--A Billion Silent Explosions," I imagined taking a series of late winter and spring walks with him. Platt would point out tree buds and explain that they began growing late the previous spring or summer, when energy produced by photosynthesis was at its peak. …

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