Yes, Tree Farts

“Oh-my-gosh-do-you-guys-know-about-tree-farts?!”

There was, for a second or two, a silence among the members of the group.  Glances were exchanged, weight shifted from foot to foot, lips were pursed, and brows were furrowed.  The only sound was the steady rain hitting the brown leaves covering the ground, and perhaps a bird or two in the distance.

And in that north Alabama woodland, there was curiosity–curiosity that manifested itself in a sudden and concurrent movement toward the tree which prompted the outburst a moment before. 

A large tree, perhaps an oak or maple, was apparently oozing bubbles from a spot on its trunk some 10 or 12 inches off the ground.  If the weather was warmer and the foam on a smaller plant, a spittle bug might have produced the phenomenon we were seeing. But the weather wasn’t warm, and the plant bearing the foam stood above us some 40 feet off the forest floor.

“Yeah!  I was listening to a podcast about it just the other day.  It turns out that trees absorb methane and other gasses from microbes in the soil.  The gas travels up the tree through the xylem and comes out from breaks in the bark.”

There it was, right in front of us: foam that appeared, indeed, to be tree farts.

“But, it looks like this might be coming from water running down the trunk of the tree.  Maybe it’s a physical thing, those bubbles that are forming.”  This insight came from another member of the party, her eyes mere inches from the trunk as she knelt there on the humus and leaf litter around the tree. 

So we all had to take a close look, one after another, at the foamy mass.  

We were a group of eight educators, out for the morning to explore the oak-hickory forest on this Alabama hillside just a few miles outside the city of Huntsville.  Our gathering was an event held as part of the state’s environmental education association’s annual conference.  This year, given the circumstances of the pandemic, it was an “unconference.”  No group meetings, no dinners, and no large-scale socializing with friends from around the state.  As an environmental education group, though, we were able to keep our field trips as they’re all held outdoors.

Environmental educators being the people we are, we weren’t deterred by the steady rain falling over the northern third of the state.  Truth be told, I believe some of us took a strange pleasure in being out in the inclement weather, but that’s just my opinion.  

The steady rain, the result of a slow moving weather system, gave us a forest filled with the sounds of running water.  Without it, we wouldn’t have experienced the boisterous creeks and ubiquitous rivulets of water that flowed around us as we walked.  More often than not, the limestone trails we trod upon were those rivulets, and I walked more carefully than I normally would.

I’m not sure we ever came to a consensus on the bubbles.  Later that day I did a bit of reading and learned that trees do carry gasses such as methane and carbon dioxide that were produced through microbial digestion in the soil.  Those gasses are released through breaks in the bark of the tree, and, well, if methane released through a crack isn’t a tree fart, I don’t know what is. 

But the bubbling could have been a result of water traveling down the trunk of the tree.  Later during the hike we observed a similar occurrence, though higher off the ground; this time, it did appear to be more of a physical process.

That’s why we were there, though: to learn, to explore, and–perhaps most of all–to be curious.  As our group broke up sometime in the early afternoon, one of the participants proclaimed her joy at being with like-minded people.  I couldn’t have said it better, and I can’t wait to go again.

Most states have an environmental education group of some sort.  Here in my state, we’ve got the Environmental Education Association of Alabama (https://eeaa.us).  To find an organization in many of the other 49 states, you can check the North American Association for Environmental Education’s affiliate directory at https://naaee.org/our-partners/affiliates.

28 thoughts on “Yes, Tree Farts”

  1. Tim, what an engaging way to create curious minds about environmental science! Here you have the scientific approach of observations in nature as they spark new questions about the ways we respire and transpire. You have me thinking about personification of trees – – living things that may lack personality but don’t lack the ability to provide a little humor along the way. Was the tree embarrassed? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hysterical, Tim! I laughed out loud when I read your title, and then, of course, the whole piece! At first, I thought you were with students and one of them exclaimed the tree fart knowledge, but it made an even better story that it was a group of adult environmental educators….you captured the essence of who “we” are as a collective profession..curious, quirky, and able to enjoy standing in the drizzle just to be outside with a group of like-minded individuals wondering where gases come out of trees! Excellent post!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for sharing Tim. I’m now curious about other tree gases. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to visit the famous farting trees of Alabama. It seems somehow fitting that a tree would fart on a bunch of science teachers in 2020.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This might be exactly what I need to entice my kiddos out on their next hike. Tree farts. And in your title, no less. Also, as if by some miracle of destiny, I’m listening to the beautiful book of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass, and today she talked about swamp farts (or marsh farts) & her students’ laughter as they experienced them. All this talk of flatulence and my preteen boys haven’t even come home yet!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Teaching middle-schoolers, I am sure my students would absolutely love this! Tree farts – of all things! What an inspiring group of educators! I wish all educators had this same passion.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a great thing to name it– tree farts! Such a good reminder that humor makes learning memorable and joyful. I’ve never heard of this but I’m intrigued now.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. LOL! LOL! LOL! So I’m pretty sure I won’t be sharing about tree farts with my Kindergarteners, but that’s ok. Although, we are learning about digraphs right now, so there is a chance one of my smarty pants would try to write about tree pharts. Just sayin’!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Tim, I loved this post. And yes, there is the sophomoric side of me that couldn’t get past the whole farting thing. There! I confess! That being said, I loved reading about your adventures in the open, and about your work with environmental education. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh my goodness, Tim, you are a hoot and a half. I never know what wisdom your posts will contain, but I know I can count on being both amused and informed! Thank you. I must look for The Farting trees of New Brunswick now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Karen, I can’t be sure, but I think trees might be different north of the border. Following stereotypes, they’ll be a bit quieter and more discrete. Look closely!

      Like

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