The Nurse Tree

In a limited area of the Sonoran desert there is a tree called the Ironwood tree. It grows only below 2,500 feet above sea level, but despite its limited range, it is a valuable and important tree to the desert. It can grow to 45 feet in height, providing a 15-degree difference in the heat beyond it and the heat under its shelter.

An Ironwood tree seed pod in gold. Seed pods often come in multiples, and when dry, make a subtle rattling sound when shaken. The seed inside is red.

It creates biodiversity and creates food for the birds that live around it. Doves, quails, and rodents eat the seeds. Deer and sheep eat the foliage within reach.

The seeds grow in pods. The pods are hard and tough. When the pods drop from the tree, they don’t disintegrate. Instead they protect the seed  inside. When the seedpod gets rained on, it begins to soften. The fibrous hull opens and the seeds are released. Birds eat them and move them to other locations.

The spreading branches of the Ironwood tree allow other growth below it to thrive. Ground cover keeps what little moisture there is protected. Other sheltered plants grow and provide cover, homes and blossoms for bees, insect, lizards, birds, and coyotes.

Saguaro cacti, which are fragile in the first ten years of their growth, thrive in the

Gold seedpod next to real seedpod and original seed. The pods are tough until it rains, then, having protected the seed, the pod opens and the seed germinates.

shelter of the Ironwood. Saguaros are opportunistic and often seek nurse trees. Ironwoods are exactly that–they nurse the tender Saguaros and bushes by protecting them beneath their branches. The earth is cooler, damper and richer beneath the tree. The roots fix nitrogen and the other plants, which would starve if they were 100 feet away, thrive.

We all have the opportunity to be nurse trees. We don’t need to do anything else except follow our life purpose. Stand tall. Provide shelter. Stay cool when you want to feel overheated. Provide food with what you grow naturally. Encourage biodiversity. It’s a good life, and it can last 1,500 years.

Quinn McDonald is a naturalist who learns a lot from walking in the desert. Alone.


12 thoughts on “The Nurse Tree

  1. This blog certainly hit home for me.
    I have been (what has been called) “in service” all my life. I think I was born just to be “in service”. I like the term Iron Tree. You have to be strong to be of service to others. It has taken me most of my life to understand the need to be available to others and I have taken a lot of flack through the years for it.
    Most of my service has been for children, who, of course need advocates. My brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, foster children and others have all found shelter under this Iron Tree.
    I have always said that if I can make some difference in someone’s life (causation), if some small act or word will help to make this person’s life better, it is all worth it. Perhaps it will just be a hot dinner every night at the table, or clean clothes every day, a hug, a smile or recognizing the value in something they’ve done that will be remembered and change the course of their life. You may think that their lives might not need changing…and you might be right…but how could something so positive not make things better even if they are already good?
    Besides the benefits for me are greater than I give. I live with the peace of knowing I am doing what I was meant to do.
    And…I like the idea of lasting 1,500 years.

  2. Thank you Quinn for this easy to read and understand piece of wisdom that was exactly what I needed to read/hear on this day in my journey. Once again you have provided the nourishment needed.

  3. This reminded me of David Bohm’s work on “implicate and explicate order” and his book “Thought as a System”. Bohm was one of the best theoretical physicists of the 20th century. He was concerned about the limitations of thought itself in trying to describe processes holistically, and proposed some alternatives. Unfortunately I think you may have to be as smart as Bohm to really understand his alternatives, but they’re really interesting, if difficult. The kind of articles where I end up reading each page about three times.

    Anyway the link is this: all the things you describe are characteristics of a system including nurse trees. When we look at a system like that we tend to pick a focal point — the tree, for example — and start our description from there. The tree, from that “angle”, causes things. If we pick a different focal point — say, a bird — the causation changes. But it doesn’t *really* change; it’s just our description that shifts from the tree causing biodiversity to the birds causing the distribution of the trees.

    When we describe something this way, we do a kind of a mental trick: we implicitly acknowledge that the description is bounded (in Bohm’s words, it has a “domain of relevance”). We don’t expect much about nurse trees to apply to ballpoint pens, for example. But at the same time we don’t allow that for some other aspects of the same description; causation is assumed to be universal, as are some other things deeply embedded in our description, like gravity, atomic structure, the speed of light, etc. These are so deeply embedded, of course, that we don’t even really notice they’re there.

    Bohm worked on the cutting edge of quantum theory, where experiments demonstrate that some of those things are not as universal as we assume. Causation, for example, doesn’t work the same way (or maybe at all) at the quantum level. SOMEwhere between the quantum world and our macroscopic world, something changes somehow. Nobody knows where or how. Bohm suggested that maybe it doesn’t change; maybe we’ve just bumped into a shortcoming in the way we talk about and *think about* things.

    We have plenty of ways to pick a subset of a system, choose a point of focus, and describe from there. But we aren’t very good at talking or thinking about the whole system in which, for example, the nurse tree doesn’t cause anything but is a process entangled with millions of processes…well, there it is, it’s really difficult to talk about.

    • Bohm sounds interesting in a way that I sort of understand if I don’t look directly at it and don’t think too much. I call the thing he was talking about “perspective” but it’s not nearly as complicated in my head. Watch for a post on perspective on Friday.

      • His book Wholeness and the Implicate Order is where he lays out his implicate/explicate order ideas — it’s difficult. He also wrote a later book, “Science, Order, and Creativity” I found much clearer. I always thought it was funny that while Bohm mentions the importance of communication, I would frequently get to the end of one of his paragraphs and think “um…what?!?”

        Or maybe it was just the “systematic problem” he explained in Thought as a System. He might be talking about pretty much the same thing as Robert Pirsig, but both of these approaches seem to get a little blurry here and there.

        I think it’s a little like how some mathematicians claim that with years of practice they can visualize shapes in more than three dimensions — but they can only express what they visualize in fairly arcane mathematical terms.

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