Words by: Jeremy Harper
Photo by: Heather J. McClelland
Photo by: Heather J. McClelland
LSU graduate student and researcher Clay Tucker is translating the hidden stories trees can tell us about earth’s past to ultimately help us better understand how our ecological future may unfold.
As a PhD student in Geography at LSU, Clay’s primary research focus is dendrotempestology: the study of how hurricanes affect tree growth. He uses pine and cypress tree growth rings to illuminate how hurricane storm surge impacts tree growth, telling the narratives of environments in the past while also leveraging the data to illuminate the possible futures of the planet.
In addition to his dissertation research, the proud seventh-generation Baton Rougean works as a graduate research scholar with Louisiana Sea Grant. Science outreach is also an important element of his work. Clay teaches K-12 students about tree-ring science and assists in environmental workshops that introduce college students from around the southern U.S. to some of Louisiana’s most important environmental issues.
We recently chatted with Clay to discuss his work and life. Read some highlights of the conversation below.
How did you come to study trees and climate?
I was not a great student during my undergraduate years, and as an elective, I took (State Climatologist) Dr. Barry Keim’s Geography of the Atmosphere class as a sophomore. At the end of the semester, I was the No. 1 student of 120. Dr. Keim took me out to lunch to celebrate the achievement, and I changed majors the following semester.
What is your favorite part about the work you do?
Outside in my favorite place in the world. I was raised by a Louisiana sportsman, and as such grew up with a profound love of the Louisiana landscape, culture, food and lifestyle. Unfortunately, my father was forced to only enjoy those aspects outside of work. However, I want to do for a lifetime what my father did on the weekends — and so far, my journey has proven that statement true.
Is it true that your friends sometimes call you Mr. Baton Rouge?
Definitely. It’s tough to say where it originated, but I commonly tout the nickname when meeting new people. Baton Rouge sometimes gets a bad rap from natives, visitors and transplants alike. I consider it my duty — as a person who really likes Baton Rouge — to fight even harder to show how great our city can be.
What do you find most fascinating about trees?
My favorite fact about trees is that 95 percent of their mass is carbon, and the only way they can get that carbon into solid form is by converting CO2 to C6H12O6 (glucose) and forming that glucose into different molecules to make their mass. Trees breathe in air and make it solid. That’s amazing.
What is the most underrated Louisiana tree?
Ah yes, the water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica). I often do my best to personify trees. Louisiana’s state tree, bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), is extremely charismatic. It grows perfectly straight up; it’s crown is perfectly circular; when it’s old, it gets bald and gnarly-looking; it’s one of the few deciduous conifers in the world and it dramatically loses its leaves all at once during winter; it’s considered one of the greatest construction timbers due to its rot resistance, great flexibility and high density, and it’s the oldest-living tree east of the Mississippi. It’s Type A and ENTJ on the Myers-Briggs.
The water tupelo is nothing like that: sinuous trunk, simple broadleaves, spongy wood and ugly bark. It’s the “wallflower” of the swamp. Very few people want to know more about a water tupelo. But, the worms that sustain Louisiana’s freshwater fisheries and native crawfish feed on tupelo leaves, which often regenerate once or twice a season to keep those worms happy. Tupelo seeds are much more edible than cypress seeds and provide good sustenance for migratory and local birds. Tupelo trees rot from the bottom up — unlike cypress that rot from the top down — and they ultimately make incredible homes for four-legged mammals like bears, squirrels, raccoons and opossums. And tupelo pollen is used to make the best honey in the world: one with the right sugar content so that diabetics can eat it, but it doesn’t crystallize. Bald cypress gets all the press and glory, and really it is extraordinarily charismatic. But tupelo trees, those are your hero. They’re the ones keeping everything in check, while the bald cypress keeps your attention.
What can trees tell us about climate?
Everything I do in tree-ring research is related to climate. In my case, I use trees to tell us about the past. However, we also have instrumental readings that tell us about past climate. I can use that instrumental data just like I use the tree ring data. I tell stories about the past to inform us of changes in the present so that we can be confident of changes in the future.
What do you do when you’re not studying trees?
I spend as much time as possible on the coast celebrating Louisiana’s four seasons: Mardi Gras, Crawfish, Fishing, and Football. Right now, it’s Mardi Gras season, and I’ve already had the taste of 7 different king cakes. My family has a camp in Cocodrie, so we fish frequently, especially in the summer. I also hunt when I get the chance — mostly waterfowl, but winter is often an extra-busy time for me. I am also very much an LSU football fan, so from September to November, when I’m not physically tailgating, I’m usually planning the next tailgate. In the meantime, I’m also an avid cyclist, a lover of documentaries and a foodie.
To learn more about Clay or about TEDxLSU 2019, follow TEDxLSU on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Reserve your seat now to experience Clay’s talk, as well as the talks of all of the other TEDxLSU 2019 speakers.