Category Archives: Joe

How Rudolf Steiner’s Agriculture Lectures can help us see the forest for the trees

This article was submitted for publication in the 2019 Stella Natura calendar. I encourage you to purchase a calendar (or two) to support the great things going on at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills.

Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.  John Muir

Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.   John Muir

Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.   Kahlil Gibran

I’m an arborist. Upon meeting people familiar with anthroposophy or biodynamic agriculture, the conversations often follows a familiar pattern. “So, you must find Rudolf Steiner’s description of a tree especially interesting,” they’ll say, referencing his eight-part lecture series on agriculture. Almost as an aside, Steiner offers a perspective on trees rather radical for his time in 1924. Placing spirituality aside, a reading of Steiner’s lectures today continues to provide a unique and refreshing understanding of Earth’s largest and oldest life forms – trees.

There are as many approaches available to the reader to study Steiner’s agriculture lectures as there are people with different life experiences. Perhaps as a result of spending most of my adult life teaching science, my approach has been to identify patterns and mechanisms which underlie natural phenomena. Although the focus of this article is on advancements in the physical realm of tree biology, for the author feels he still has much to learn about the spiritual realm of trees, the information should help both the novice and more seasoned readers of Steiner gain new insight into his descriptions of both physical and spiritual processes at work in trees.

Scientists, today and in the past, wrestle with a working definition of a “tree” that distinguishes it from other members of the plant kingdom. Biology textbook and dictionary definitions vaguely describe “a woody plant that’s perennial” but differ with respect to their confidence on height, number of trunks, distribution of branches, and other characteristics that vary considerably among trees. When presented with exceptions to dogmatic definitions, experts revert to the “I know it when I see it,” argument. Perhaps the problem with defining a tree is that a single tree, like a single bee or a single ant, doesn’t represent the larger and more complex life form – the forest as a superorganism. If trees are a subunit of a larger whole, where do “trees” end and other lifeforms begin? Steiner doesn’t attempt to craft a succinct textbook definition of a tree, but he does describe an organism physically and cosmically intertwined with other life forms. Perhaps it’s time to tug at the veils of our limited physical understanding of trees and consider what Steiner proposed about trees “fitting” into a larger organism, in his case, a farm. This article will consider two concepts introduced by Steiner: interconnectedness of trees to their soil environment, and the tree consisting of herbaceous plants “rooted” to the branches and trunk of a tree.

Steiner set out in his fourth lecture to explain the importance of having an expanded awareness of subtle interactions of unseen substances, forces, and spirits to better manage one’s farm. Steiner used an example of a tree, an often overlooked fixture in the landscape, to illustrate how one’s preconceived ideas stifle further exploration that may generate new insights and a deeper understanding of the trees’ true essence. By questioning a division between the bark of a tree and organic matter in the soil as two separate entities, Steiner challenges the reader’s perception of boundaries between living and non-living. Although Steiner uses etheric vitality as the thread to connect the bark of a tree with organic matter in soil, one could just as easily use the soil life around the root surface, in the physical realm, and achieve the desired outcome – an understanding that the tree is such an integral part of the greater whole that seeing a tree as a single organism limits one’s ability to understand the bigger picture.

One is not considered a radical today when recognizing soil to be a living organism. Steiner said as much in 1924, “the soil surrounding the growing plants’ roots is a living entity with a vegetative life of its own, a kind of extension of plant growth into the Earth.”1 Recognition of living soil is embraced and practiced by individuals today disillusioned by industrial agriculture’s approach to growing food. Increasingly people are referring to soil “health” instead of soil quality and mindful of practices that impair their farm and garden’s soil health. Organic and biodynamic growers often have a better understanding of living organisms in soil and speak in terms of feeding the soil with compost, instead of feeding the plant with chemical fertilizers.

Focusing specifically on the interface between the plant’s root and the surrounding soil, Steiner continues, “It is not at all true that life stops at the plant’s perimeter. Life as such continues on, namely from the roots of the plant into the soil, and for many plants there is no sharp dividing line between the life inside them and the life in their surroundings.”1  Soil scientists have long known that unusually high populations of microorganisms exist in a zone approximately 2 mm around the surface of plant roots known as the rhizosphere. Plant roots secrete a variety of compounds to manipulate chemical and physical soil properties to attract beneficial microbes, even jettisoning actively secreting living cells into the rhizosphere which remain alive for several days. Recent discoveries show that plant roots and soil microorganisms disregard artificial boundaries to form a seamless transition of plant-microbe life within, and beyond, the rhizosphere. Select soil microorganisms, loosely called endophytes, can enter root tissues and improve a plant’s ability to tolerate drought, acquire nutrients, and resist insect and disease damage. Beneficial bacteria which adhere to up to 40% of the root surface are involved in relationships with organisms as far out into the soil as the food web extends. Indeed, we now have a greater appreciation of how a bird, perched on a tree’s limb, can fly down to the ground, pluck up an earthworm, and tug on the strings of a resilient soil food web, ultimately modulating populations of bacteria adhering to the surface of that tree’s root.

Although not well understood in 1924, today soil biologists recognize the importance of the life that occurs within, on, and near plants’ roots, so much so that the rhizosphere has been called the most biodiverse and dynamic habitat on Earth.


A Canopy Rooted in the Crown

Just as there is no clear boundary between a tree’s root and living soil, likewise there’s no clear boundary between a tree’s twig and its parent branch, that branch and the trunk, and the trunk and root system. Iterative growth occurs throughout the tree, resulting in a continuation from the smallest of branches, to the smallest of roots. True, there are some anatomical and physiological characteristics unique to a branch as compared to a root, but the appearance and function are very similar and lack a feature delineating a boundary. This uniform development emerges from the action of a relatively small number of cells whose growth (cell division and elongation) and differentiation produce the more specialized tissues that make up the tree.

In temperate regions, most trees grow in a pattern alternating between increasing in length and width, primary and secondary growth respectively. Primary growth, in the above-ground shoot system, occurs when buds grow into young green shoots with leaves, flowers and fruits. [A similar mechanism occurs below ground in the root system producing fine absorbing roots.] The most notable effect of primary growth is the elongation of branches and roots. Secondary growth, in the above ground shoot system, occurs when a thin layer of cells within the vascular tissue, the cambium, undergoes growth and differentiates into a new layer of xylem and phloem. Xylem is the water and mineral conducting tissue composing the wood or central bole of the tree, while phloem is the specialized tissue actively pumping sugars throughout the tree located just under the tree’s bark. It’s the action of the cambium, situated between the xylem and phloem, that produces the most notable effect of secondary growth, the addition of an annual ring of new wood on the tree’s trunk and branches with a resulting increase in diameter. For the purpose of this article, the canopy of the tree will refer to new shoots with leaves, flowers and fruits produced by primary growth, while crown will refer to the trunk and branches produced by secondary growth. At first glance, a tree appears to be a simple organism that results from the iterative growth just described; however, the areas of the tree produced by primary growth that interface with the atmosphere/sunlight and the soil environment parallel sense organs in an animal extending out in both directions from the more inert woody portion of the tree.

In lecture 7, Steiner continues his unconventional view of a tree by suggesting the canopy of a tree, defined here as the products of primary growth, is similar to herbaceous plants “rooted in the twigs and branches of the tree, just as other plants are rooted in the Earth.”1  Steiner addresses the obvious confusion of his statement by acknowledging that physically there are no roots where the canopy is fixed to the crown observable by “coarse outer perception.”  He states the canopy has lost its roots and remain in contact with the tree’s root system etherically. Is it possible that even with “coarse outer perception” one can view the tree’s crown as capable of serving root-like functions?

A tree’s root system performs a variety of functions, five of the most recognizable being: absorption of water and nutrients; storage of starch; conduction of water, nutrients and sugars; structural stability; and production of hormones. Of the five functions, two, absorption of water and minerals and production of hormones, are primarily performed at the very ends of the root which may be considered a recent result of primary growth, not the secondary growth that produced woody tissue referred to as “root” and “crown” in this article. It’s interesting to note that the leaves, products of primary growth, also function in absorption (carbon dioxide) and, along with buds, production of hormones, the most obvious being the hormone auxin which stimulates the primary growth of roots.

The three remaining functions of the root are just as easily fulfilled by the trunk and branches of the tree. In other words, with respect to conduction, storage, and structural stability, one would be hard pressed to distinguish where the root ends and the trunk and branches begin. The vascular tissue is seamlessly linked from the roots through the trunk and branches of the tree’s crown. Like the roots, the trunk and branches are capable of storing starch, the preferred long term storage form of sugar. All parts of the tree modulate their growth to improve structural stability to remain intact in response to loads, such as gravity and wind. Through primary and secondary growth, the tree adjusts the number and orientation of roots, trunk and branches, including load-bearing components of cell walls, to optimize the tree’s ability to withstand loading events.

To gain a more holistic perspective of trees, follow the movement of sugar, not just within a single tree, but as it courses through an entire forest. Within a tree, sugars move from where they’re stored, or produced, to where they are being utilized. This network of sharing selflessly extends to other trees and soil organisms. Sharing of sugar with other trees may not make sense when viewed from a single tree’s perspective, but from a forest’s perspective, this collectivistic practice creates a complex and redundant network that results in a more resilient organism. Interconnectivity among trees in a forest has lead some to marvel at the similarities between the World Wide Web with the forest’s Wood Wide Web.

What makes trees one of Earth’s largest and oldest organisms is a single male quaking aspen tree that has become an entire forest in central Utah. The Pando forest measures over 100 acres and consists of a “tree” that has cloned itself by repeatedly growing over 40,000 trunks from its spreading root system.  No doubt Rudolf Steiner would see the humor in experts stumbling on the terms “tree,” “trees,” and “forest,” trying to define this organism with its canopy “rooted” in the branches and trunks, which are in turn, “rooted” in a massive root system.

So in response to inquiries about whether I find Rudolf Steiner’s description of trees interesting, I reply, “Yes!” Judging by the startled expressions on the faces of the inquirers, it appears my response is more than enthusiastic!

1 Steiner, Rudolf. Spiritual Foundations for the Renewal of Agriculture. Translation by C. Creeger and M. Gardner. 1993. Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association. Kimberton, PA.

Plant Elemental Spirits Behind the Veils

This article was submitted for publication in the 2018 Stella Natura calendar. I encourage you to purchase a calendar (or two) to support the great things going on at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills.

As soon as any one belongs to a certain narrow creed in science, every unprejudiced and true perception is gone.       Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Recognizing and Removing the Veils

I enjoy learning about plants and welcome any proposed mechanism of plant growth that deepens my understanding of the plant world. As gardening is the number one hobby in the United States, I’m not alone in my interest in the plant kingdom. Like most students in public education, my education in plant biology was grounded in reductive materialism which continued through universities and into continuing education within my arboriculture profession. Sadly, my education in plant biology replaced my childlike wonderment of plant development with a rigid model of plant anatomy predictably responding to a cascade of chemical messengers. Armed with a scientific knowledge, I felt prepared and justified to pursue a career as a tree expert routinely prescribing and administering treatments to restore, maintain and even improve plant health, or at least that was my world view. Somewhere in my education, I lost sight of the plant being more than the sum of its parts.

The public was largely complicit in my earlier world view, all too eager to surrender any innate understanding of plants on their landscape to the care of an “expert.” This complicity includes universities, professional societies, and government agencies that determine proper care and the criteria one needs to be called an expert. As I have begun to remove myself from this mechanistic merry-go-round, I more readily see the influence of corporations promoting pesticides and fertilizers through infomercials to the public, marketing to the professionals, and “funding” of research that typically produces results favorable to their industry.

I’m in the process of retiring and transitioning into growing medicinal herbs and naturalizing habitat for pollinators on a little farm in the highlands of Virginia using Biodynamic and Permaculture practices. I am now making an effort to gradually remove some of the reductive materialism veils that previously permitted me to operate on a shallow, physical sphere. This quest for understanding began with an extraordinary gift of Rudolf Steiner’s books given to me from my mother upon her passing. My curiosity was aroused after reading Steiner’s lectures on Agriculture; an even deeper penetration occurred when reading Steiner’s 1923 lecture “Elemental Spirits and the Plant World,” the topic explored in this article.

Steiner says plants present an opportunity for a glimpse into the invisible world that, together with physical form, comprise the visible world that is outwardly perceptible. After a career solely focused on the outwardly perceptible, I’m now exploring that invisible world. Early in my attempt to understand the elemental spirits of the plant world, I was chagrined to hear Steiner state in the past that people had “instinctive clairvoyance” concerning the material which I was struggling to understand. As an avid gardener surrounded by dozens of books on gardening, I’m still in awe at our ancestors ability to grow food without the aid of pesticides, commercial fertilizers, mechanized equipment, and the pontification of experts.

It’s been hard for me to make room for another way of understanding other than the viewpoint I’ve been trained-in and practiced for many years. There are limitations to science grounded in the materialism: first, science is unable to address phenomena in the supernatural realm; and second, the farther one drills down in reductionism, the less likely pieces can fit together to explain higher-level phenomena.  I don’t claim, at least not at this time, to have the ability to see spiritually, nor to perceive that which is described as supersensible. However, I can say that by becoming familiar with the elemental spirits of the plant world, I have a new and more personally satisfying relationship with my land and the plants it’s supporting, as well as the web of all living and nonliving beings on our farm.



Starting below ground, Steiner describes the root spirits, or gnomes, as the bearers of the ideas of the universe. At home in their element of earth and moisture, the gnomes surround the root system of a plant and mediate transactions between the earth and the roots.

I don’t recall my textbooks suggesting a kind of intelligence existing below-ground. Our understanding today of a plant’s rhizosphere and its many intricate connections with other life forms contradicts my textbook’s view of the plant as an island onto itself. With a little imagination, I can picture industrious gnomes facilitating the complex activities below-ground in the spiritual realm.

Although Steiner refers to the underlying spiritual process when referring to the exchange of materials between the soil and roots, he could have been describing what is known today about the dynamics of the physical realm as well. Plant root systems have the ability to attract specific microorganisms to create a complex community in the immediate area of the roots, the rhizosphere, for the dizzying array of exchanges involving minerals, organic compounds, and even information.  This local network of exchange and communication extends beyond the plant’s rhizosphere and connects into a much larger web by connecting with other plant-microbe networks. Research in the area of mutualistic symbiotic relationships between plants and soil microorganisms is turning the field of plant ecology on its head with a new view of plant communities (forests, for example) being driven by cooperation, not competition, and managed at surprisingly complex levels by soil-borne microorganisms.


This image of a wall hanging is a creation of Fi Bowman, a wonderful artist in the UK. (Temporarily posted while awaiting official authorization from the artist. Fi, let me know what I owe you so I can send it through PayPal.)


The gnomes assist in the growth of the plant upwards in


to the watery environment of the plant’s shoot system, the domain of the water spirits or undines. Steiner describes undines as world chemists continually separating and binding the air.

I envision undines, in a dreamy state at the interface between air and water, conducting a miraculous exchange of carbon and oxygen with hydrogen attaching and releasing, from gas to solid to gas, again and again. Products released in the air and captured in the plant’s watery environment circulate for a time before returning to this interface in the leaf to again participate in the undine driven atomic dance.

In the physical realm, the cells in plant leaves sequester carbon dioxide in photosynthetically-active tissues while releasing oxygen. At the same time all living plant cells consume oxygen while releasing carbon dioxide in the process of cellular respiration. In addition to this “breathing” of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen between the plant and its environment, there exist innumerable other chemical reactions, all interconnected and borne in the plant’s watery environment.



Building upon the chemical forces produced by the u

ndines, Steiner describes how the sylphs, as light bearers, mould and shape an archetypal plant form. In the fall, when the physical substance of plants fades, the imprint of the form is sent downwards to the gnomes where they can perceive world ideas, given shape in plant forms, as spiritual ideal forms.

On a summer day, sitting calmly before a plant in a meadow, I’m amazed at the diversity and density of small flying insects around the entire surface of the plant. Where the sunlight strikes the leaves, my eyes are unable to focus on detail but report to my brain the presence of a fuzzy halo. In such moments I can imag

ine sylphs, like an army of architects and engineers, applying unseen forces to mould and shape the plant’s morphology.

In the physical realm a fascinating phenomenon of the plant world is “tropisms” (plant movements and growth responses to environmental stimuli). The most recognizable tropism is the plant’s response to light – phototropism. When contemplating the overall form or morphology of a plant, an observer sees the res

ult of an interplay between the genetic potential of a plant modulated by environmental stimuli, typically via plant chemical messengers or hormones. [Plant hormones are still a relatively new field of research with most having been ‘discovered’ within th

e last century and new plant hormones and their interactions are still being identified.] The study of plant responses to environmental stimuli has challenged existing paradigms and divided the plant physiology community into those who vehemently stick with the existing models and refuse to entertain the possibility of plants demonstrating intelligence vs the newly formed group, plant neurobiology, who have broken away and now have their own peer-reviewed journal, “Plant Signaling and Behavior,” and separate annual conference.


Fire Spirits

The last elemental plant spirit Steiner describes are the fire spirits – the inhabitants of heat. The fire spirits gather and transmit warmth – the cosmically generated male element – to pollen. After pollen fuses with an egg, the resultant male seed is prepared to join

with the female principle, the earth. The female principle is influenced by the ideal, or spirit, form sent down to the roots and into the soil by the actions of the undines and sylphs. In the winter, gnomes play the role of “spiritual midwives” in their earthen womb bringing together the female principle with the male principle (seed) to complete the act of fertilization in the spiritual realm. Or, as Steiner says, For plants the earth is the mother, the heavens the father.

As someone classically trained in plant physiology and the definitive role of DNA, it is Steiner’s description of plant reproduction that I find most challenging. As typically taught in a plant biology class, the union of the pollen grain with an egg cell results in an ovule that becomes a seed, and the task of fertilization and plant r

eproduction is complete with the formation of the seed. Steiner, however, is adamant in stating that “fertilization” occurs when the gnomes carry the ideal forms, received from the undines and sylphs, to the male seed.

 Perhaps there is more to plant reproduction than simply the formation of seed. Is it possible I’m missing the forest for the trees? Is it realistic to consider the plant in a vacuum? I’m beginning to accept that there is no true separation of a plant from t


he microbes inhabiting the plant’s surfaces, internally and externally, as well as above-ground and below-ground. In this context, the plant completes its lifecycle when it is again united with its legions of microbes.  Even the field of genetics wrestles with new advances indicating that factors external to the plant modulate and even change a plant’s genetic composition outside of rules dictated by classical Mendelian genetics. I’m comfortable accepting that over winter there may be unseen mechanisms at work in the soil influencing the seeds and important steps that occur surrounding germination and early development. I’m accepting a “higher-level” type of fertilization occurring when the seedling connects with the soil’s existing network of microbes. This newly infused plant elemental spirits perspective is helping me better understand certain phenomena with plants that I felt was lacking with my science training, for example, why “volunteer” vegetable plants out perform pampered transplants introduced in my garden.


I’m beginning to wonder if academia’s superficial perspective on plants has led us astray and contributed to growers assaulting their gardens with pesticides, fertilizers, tilling and other products and services we used to control nature and to force plants to produce a prescribed yield. Is it possible that there are some subtle mechanisms, yet to be detected, at work in the plant world? Wouldn’t it be in the best interest of plants and our environment if we at least attempt to work with these forces? We are beginning to perceive how our meddling with pesticides and fertilizers overwhelms finely tuned plant hormonal feedback mechanisms and separates plants from their network of microbes. On a larger scale, we see the effect of our reliance on chemicals manifested in impaired water quality and  large-scale soil degradation. Perhaps our understanding of plants, indeed of greater living and nonliving systems, is incomplete. Although reductionist thinking is wonderful for specific purposes, it has unnecessarily blinded us to other ways of knowing and understanding. We are only now becoming aware of an immense intelligence that lies beneath our feet in the network of microorganisms. Who is to say this web of intelligence doesn’t connect with other higher level phenomena, natural and supernatural? As for me, I’m going to place my scientific textbooks back on the shelf, not completely out of reach, and return to words of wisdom from Steiner and other writers who approach the plant world in ways that restore my wonder, once again.

Treason and Tree-zen

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading and experimenting with traditional forms of agriculture (pre-industrial agriculture’s introduction of pesticides/chemical fertilizers/genetic manipulation) that I have recently felt the need to create presentations on landscaping and tree care that some label “rebellious.”

As I perceive my audience responding to my presentation, I turn to one of two imagined scenarios. If I detect individuals in the audience displaying signs of resistance and questioning my message, I pause my presentation and acknowledge my ideas can be considered “treason” with respect to what they’ve heard from other speakers. Conversely, if I sense individuals in the audience embracing my message and making connections in their minds I pause for a moment and acknowledge that with such open-minded acceptance of the “treeness” of a tree, there’s the possibility that we can let go of control and co-create with nature – in short, “tree-zen.”

Raleigh Tavern, Williamsburg, VA (Photo Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Admittedly, the two imagined venues are diametrically opposed. When it’s clear that my message is considered treasonous, my mind conjures up an image of the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg, Virginia, mid-1700s, where I’m addressing a group of rebellious arborists upstairs in the Apollo Room (a room where later Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry will meet to discuss truly treasonous actions against the Royal Governor and the Crown of England).   When an audience is sympathetic and supportive of my message, my mind conjures a peaceful spiritual eco-village in Findhorn, Scotland, on the coast of the North Sea. The venue is inside a small, round Hobbit-like home that once held 9,000 liters of Speyside whisky. Most of the spirits that now occupy the barrel sit comfortably on a pillow-strewn wooden floor.

Whiskey scented floor of the Apollo Room. (Photo JD Rockefeller Jr Library)

[It probably hasn’t escaped the reader that although these settings are significantly different with respect to time, politics, and location, they do share one commonality – a faint smell of whiskey in white oak wood floors.]

Though my audiences can detect my passion for the topic, they’re unaware of the surroundings in which they’ve been placed.  I’m the only one privy to the heightened awareness that accompanies each scenario. It’s a pity my audience is unable to smell pipe tobacco mixed with smoke from the fireplace or the tension in the room when all eyes look at the door after footsteps are heard coming up the stairs leading to the Apollo Room. Nor do they know the faint smell of burning incense and bird song mixed with distant wind chimes of a new age spiritual retreat. As I begin one of my more progressive talks, I’m ready to proceed down either imagined pathway; it’s my audience’s response that determines how I will deliver my material.

Barrel houses, Findhorn, Scotland. (I took this photograph standing atop Craig Gibsone’s ‘barrel.’)

I find it fascinating that although the overall content of my talk remains relatively the same for both imagined venues my pace of delivery and examples vary. The pace of my treasonous talk is delivered rather quickly with an eye to the door to see if this is the night I’m arrested! Conversely, my delivery of the tree-zen talk consists of numerous long pauses to let my words, and unspoken intent, resonate with those in attendance. When encouraging arborists to focus on trees as part of a larger landscape ecosystem and to work within that context to recommend appropriate care, my message may turn treasonous, challenging those in attendance to abandon even the thought of using pesticides, chemical fertilizers and the mindset that has allowed for environmentally unfriendly and unsustainable prolongation of selfish landscapes. Conversely, the audience receiving the tree-zen presentation learn of trees forming socialist networks with the aid of microorganisms, above and below ground, to achieve a level of intelligence and resilience that researchers are only just beginning to understand.

I’ve made friends with these two fanciful scenarios. They’re before me every time I write an article or prepare a new presentation. One might think I prefer the harmony that accompanies a training with like-minded audiences in the serene setting of a new age community, but that would mean missing the spirited debate and healthy criticism that accompany the exchange of ideas in the Apollo Room. Yes, I’m of two minds with my presentations; I’ll continue to embrace this duality and divide my time between treason and tree-zen.    

A Right-Of-Way for Pollinators and Electric Distribution Lines

I can state, with a high degree of certainty, that the famed Italian Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi, was not inspired by a utility right-of-way when he created his well-known violin concerto, “The Four Seasons.” Yet, while composing this article and looking over pictures I have taken of our right-of-way through the seasons, I admit to humming many memorable tunes from that musical masterpiece.

Aerial image of 7 Acre Wood Farm. The utility right-of-way runs parallel to Muddy Run Road. (Photo Google Earth October 26, 2016)

On a map in the office of the Bath, Allegheny, Rockbridge Counties (BARC) Electric Cooperative, this small linear patch of real estate approximately 800 feet along Muddy Run Road in Bath County, Virginia, is just another nondescript segment of land defined by numbers on utility poles carrying a single phase line with 7200 volts of electricity; to me, it’s an oasis. Far from being a barren swath of weedy vegetation cutting through a forest, this right-of-way is aesthetically pleasing and supports a unique habitat of plants and wildlife.


Utility ROW as an Edge Environment

When a right-of-way goes through a forest, it creates an abrupt transition between the maintained vegetation within the right-of-way and the forest. Succession is a natural process in which successive stages of plants colonize the soil following a major disturbance, like fire. Pioneer species (grasses and herbaceous plants) are first to become established on disturbed land. After a year or two, pioneer species are overtaken by woody vegetation, including a sequence of trees starting primarily with conifers and ending with deciduous trees until a stable climax community is achieved (oak-hickory in the Appalachian forests where we live). The vegetation within our right-of-way is repeatedly cut back and managed so that only early successional plants exist while the adjoining forest continues with its successional stages until it eventually achieves a stable climax community.

The proximity of two plant communities representing different successional stages located next to each other is not common in nature; this indicates human intervention, as in the case of pastures next to forests. Sudden transitions between plant communities can occur naturally when there is a permanent environmental feature, including extremes in topography, like cliffs with a significant change in elevation. Lacking any natural physical transition, the sharp division of vegetation created by utility rights-of-way traversing through forests is completely dependent upon the actions of humans for its existence.

Scientists know that “edge environments” between forested and non-forested land create steep gradients of wind flow, moisture, temperature, and sunlight between the open land and interior of the forest. I’m particularly excited that the utility right-of-way traversing our property is oriented west to east, bathing the south-facing side of the right-of-way in sunlight while plunging the north-facing side in shade. Ecologists note that in midsummer, south-facing edges may receive up to 10 times more hours of sunshine per month than the north-facing edge. This differential exposure to sunlight results in the south-facing side of the right-of-way supporting vegetation suited for an environment experiencing direct sunlight, drier and sandier soil, and rapid melt of snowfall. On the north-facing side, the environment supports vegetation more at home in the shade as soil moisture remains high through the year.


A Feast For The Senses

Both Vivaldi’s concerto and our right-of-way experience four pronounced seasonal changes; each offers something for all of the senses.

For the eyes, there’s a sustained eruption of wildflowers coloring the right-of-way from spring through fall. After the flower show subsides, dried seed heads of grasses and wildflowers offer interesting contrasts in textures and colors, their forms particularly striking when standing in snow.

For the ears – bird songs, the call and response of insects, and the hum of pollinators. In the evening, chirping of crickets creates a hypnotic soundscape punctuated by staccato squeaks of a residential bat colony. In winter, especially in the still silence of a landscape blanketed by snow, an attentive visitor hears the rustling of dry vegetation in the subtle stirring of crisp winter air.

For the tastebuds, there’s a variety of edible plants to sample – greenbriar and wild asparagus in the spring, blueberries (high and low bush), blackberries, and elderberries in the summer.

For the nose, there’s the pleasant smell of soil in the spring coming to life. Neuroscientists have discovered the soil bacterium, Mycobacterium vaccae, stimulates specific neurons in the human brain (the same cells targeted by Prozac) resulting in a marked improvement in one’s mood. Physicians in Japan prescribe visits to a forest for individuals as part of a stress management therapy called “Shinrin-yoku,” or forest bathing. Volatile compounds emitted by trees have been shown to have a positive effect on human health. A visitor to our right-of-way can experience these uplifting sensations simply by taking a slow and mindful walk along its serpentine path.

For the sense of touch, a seasonal transformation of properties occurs in the vegetation and soil. During the growing season, wildflowers cautiously emerge from the soil with soft and flexible stems before stiffening and undergoing fibrous reinforcement to face summer challenges. At the end of the growing season, leaves fall away, revealing seed heads atop withered stems. Similarly, the soil begins the growing season soft and moist before summer’s heat causes it to dry and harden. The winter’s sun rarely falls upon the hard frozen ground along the north-facing side of the right-of-way; yet thirty feet to the north along the south-facing portion of the right-of-way, the daily freeze-thaw actions on the soil result in a pattern of lifting and falling of the surface soil, producing an undulation of soil mounds wherever bare soil is exposed to the sun.



Be aware; the distribution right-of-way described in this article does not happen naturally. Maintenance of a distribution right-of-way requires planning, work, and most importantly, an understanding of the potential electrical hazards present.

It’s common for homeowners to plant a tree close to their house and claim they’ll prune the tree to manage its height only to later realize the tree has grown beyond their ability to prune or remove. In reality, one shouldn’t need to manage a tree’s height (size) if the tree has been properly matched to its site. The routine reduction of a tree’s crown is neither a cost effective, nor biologically sustainable, management practice for the homeowner. In situations where the tree does not match the site, the homeowner might give serious thought to replacing the tree with a more appropriate tree species. Depending upon the size of the tree, a homeowner may call in a professional tree care company staffed with Certified Arborists recognized by the International Society of Arboriculture to perform the work.

It is also a common for homeowners to contact their electric cooperative to request that their right-of-way be placed on the company’s no-spray and limited removal/pruning list without fully appreciating the capacity of the vegetation in, and around, the right-of-way to grow aggressively. Unlike the rest of a home’s landscape, the majority the trees “volunteering” to grow in the right-of-way are inappropriate for that site. Furthermore, the homeowner will find that the options for managing trees that have grown close to the electric lines in a distribution right-of-way are severely limited because of the electrical hazards present.

Failure to properly maintain the vegetation in a right-of-way can result in several outcomes – none desirable. An overgrown right-of-way will eventually result in vegetation bringing down a power line resulting in a power outage for everyone receiving their electricity downstream of the failure. A downed power line presents a very dangerous situation because it sends electricity through the ground and conductive objects (chain link fences) that may cause fatalities to those who come in contact with the electric current. [Note: Stay at least 30 feet away from any downed power line.] A downed power line can also start fires if it contacts combustible material. Overgrown vegetation also makes it more difficult for the utility lineman to repair the downed power line. If the utility company has to return to the property to reclaim the management of the right-of-way, they may resort to similar land clearance practices used when the right-of-way was first established. These outcomes add expense for the utility company and customers as utility line clearance work is typically the most costly operating expense incurred by utility companies.

Utility companies hire specially trained contractors to implement vegetation management strategies – often a combination of pruning, removals, mowing, and herbicide applications. Where possible, the intended outcome of vegetation management is to encourage a low-growing plant community to provide environmental benefits (prevent erosion, mitigate storm water runoff, support wildlife, etc.) while helping to compete against fast-growing trees that threaten the overhead lines. It’s easier to achieve the desired goal if the vegetation is managed on an annual basis; utility companies extend their management cycles to multiple years in order to balance the cost of vegetation management with the ultimate goal of providing reliable and safe electric service.

If you’re interested in managing the vegetation in and along your right-of-way, arrange a meeting with a representative from the electric cooperative involved in right-of-way maintenance to discuss how your proposal fits with the utility company’s expectations and responsibilities. Consider asking the utility company to proceed with the removal of trees that will be perpetually pruned so that you can replace them with a more appropriate species to better support the goals you hope to achieve. For example, we asked for the removal of a large black cherry and sugar maple located on the border of the right-of-way to provide additional light for the shorter growing scrub oaks, hawthorns, and elderberries. Removing trees along the edge of the right-of-way that will eventually threaten the utility lines not only helps to decrease the likelihood of power outages, but also helps the utility company save money on pruning.


The most important step in the process of managing vegetation in your right-of-way is planning. There are three equally important issues to decide in the earliest stages of planning: first, state the purposes of the spaces making up the right-of-way; second, plan for access for yourself, the utility company, and their contractors; and finally, decide how you will manage the vegetation to achieve the standard vegetation height restriction and width requirements on your right-of-way.

A right-of-way may consist of multiple smaller spaces, each with a unique purpose. Once the purpose for each particular space has been determined, future decisions on desired plants and maintenance will be easier. Draw a map of your right-of-way and include the areas immediately around the right-of-way (roads, lawns, forests, drives, etc.) to help you envision access routes for you and representatives from the electric cooperative. Explore your right-of-way and make a list of all the activities for which it may be used. After you have created your map and generated a list of possible activities for different areas in your right-of-way, talk to someone knowledgeable about vegetation in your area to see if your plans are feasible. Now you’re ready to contact a representative from your electric cooperative to share your ideas about the future of your right-of-way!

For the area of the right-of-way photographed for this article, the purpose was fourfold: first, to provide habitat for pollinators; second, to provide an opportunity for leisurely strolls when walking to the mailbox; third, to observe wildlife; and finally, to harvest blackberries, blueberries, and elderberries. Planning for the pollinators proved to be relatively easy since wildflowers emerge naturally over time. To assist in the establishment of the desired wildflowers we removed competitive vegetation and avoided year-end clearing until after the flowers dispersed their seeds. For leisurely walks we laid out a pathway in a serpentine manner to observe the diversity of plants in the right-of-way and for access to the berry producing shrubs. The serpentine path also enables visits to the plants along the south- and north-facing edge environments. On a summer day we can observe prickly pear, yucca, and blackjack oaks basking in full sun in parched sandy soil on the south-facing side of the right-of-way before the path takes us into the cool shade of the north-facing side inhabited by mosses, ferns and dogwoods comfortably at home in the moist, loamy soil. To improve our chances of observing wildlife, we created habitat by leaving dead branches and logs on the ground as well retaining standing dead trunks with heights low enough to avoid any threat to the utility lines.


Access Routes

Early in the planning process it’s important to consider how workers will maneuver equipment in the right-of-way to access the utility infrastructure and, if needed, prune trees and remove incompatible vegetation. Discuss potential access routes with the representative from the utility company during your face-to-face meeting.  Include these potential access routes on your map and only allow annual, biennial and/or non-woody perennial plants to grow in these areas.


Planning for Compatible Vegetation

When deciding what type of vegetation will grow in the right-of-way we decided to work primarily with native compatible vegetation with respect to maximum growing heights. We’re fortunate that the seed source for vegetation in, and around, the right-of-way is as varied as the weather conditions and animals capable of delivering seeds. Our earliest efforts involved removing incompatible vegetation we could safely perform while staying a safe distance from the utility facilities. Trees that required properly trained utility line clearance arborists to remove were tagged with ribbons for removal the next time our right-of-way is scheduled for line clearance work.  A commitment was made to dedicate the greatest amount of time and energy removing invasive plant species including Japanese stiltgrass, oriental bittersweet, Japanese honeysuckle, autumn olive, Japanese barberry, multiflora rose, and crownvetch. As everyone with experience battling invasive plant species knows, we will never truly “control” these invasives but the time and effort needed to manage their attempts at spreading has already been greatly reduced.

Early in the planning process we made the decision to manage the vegetation in the right-of-way without the use of herbicides. As a consequence of this decision, we ended up at an outdoor power equipment store seeking the advice from a professional regarding power trimmer recommendations for right-of-way vegetation management. The sales representative recommended a professional model trimmer that allows for different cutting attachments. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of having the right piece of equipment for the task of managing vegetation. Working in your right-of-way should be enjoyable, not a chore that you dread; otherwise you should abandon the project and hire someone else to perform the work. Most importantly, whenever you are working in your right-of-way, be mindful of safety. Do not perform any procedure that is unfamiliar or places you in a situation that can cause an accident, from either the equipment you are using or from getting too close to the overhead electric lines.


Being a Good Steward of The Land

In addition to being a good steward of our land, we are also playing a part in improving the environment of my community. Since distribution rights-of-way exist all across the US, there’s a wonderful opportunity for property owners to have a significant impact as they manage invasive plant species, improve water quality, decrease storm water runoff, improve the welfare of pollinators and improve air quality, on a national scale!

Maintaining a right-of-way does take time, but it’s the right thing to do. [Anyone fortunate enough to own land should be a good steward.] The rewards for proper land management are innumerable. When it comes to a distribution right-of-way traversing through one’s forest, the property owner can support safe distribution of electricity while providing important habitat for plants and wildlife. In turn, these good land stewards provide important environmental benefits for the community. And like listening to a classical musical masterpiece, the property owner can experience the joy of the “big picture” when the smaller components come together to create a coherent, vibrant, and sustainable end product. In short, a properly managed right-of-way can allow an electrical corridor, humans, and nature the opportunity for “Cooperative Living.”