When a Tree Falls….

Autumn Glory.

Life sometimes seems to have no rhyme or reason. It is unpredictable. Good things happen. Not so good things happen. Trying to dissect the course of events often yields little results. It is human to wonder why. It is our curiosity that makes us humans interesting.

Forest Ground Cover

About a year and a half ago on a cold March night as my wife and I were about to enter into a deep slumber we heard a thunderous crash in the woods. The impact sent shock waves though the forest. I knew from the long groaning noise that came before the loud crash that a tree of huge proportions had met the end of its days. It sounded like death. As I lay there huddled under the blankets I wondered which tree it was. I have a close relationship with our forest and am familiar with many of the individual trees that inhabit our land. You might say I have a personal connection with some of the older trees in the forest. I have sat under their long branches while thinking about everything under the sun. I have climbed into their bows and made temporary tree stands while scouting and hunting. I have stood by their mighty trunks that support thousands and thousands of pounds of weight and admired their strength. And yes, in the presence of these masters of the forest, I have marveled at their wisdom. Trees are wise in the most sentient way. They are symbiotically and intricately involved with both bacteria and mychorrhizal fungi that create very real and effective communication networks that are used directly and indirectly by forest community members both flora and fauna.

Sulfur Fungi Growing on Rotting Tree Trunk

The next day I went off through a shallow, crunchy snow in search of the fallen tree. Every step resounded through the forest. This was no stealth in my walking. Any animal that was within earshot knew I was moving about in these cold woods. About 500 feet from our house and about 50 feet off a main trail I could see that a very large sugar maple was laying on the forest floor. It was about 3.5 feet in diameter towards the base and had a very large and well branched crown. What was unusual was that this large tree had snapped off about 6 feet off the ground; an area of trunk where a tree is usually strong. Upon closer inspection the heartwood was decayed, nearly rotten, and it was clear that without its backbone the tree was toppled by its own weight.

On this planet all living entities have life term limits. A bristle cone pine can live for 5000 years. A gastrotrich (a tiny marine animal) only lives 3 days. All living organisms on this planet have a purpose. Some are obvious and some are very difficult to discern. Trees, in general, are among the planet’s longest living organisms. This sugar maple was about 200 years old. Some live close to 300 years. Nevertheless this woodland giant had a long and useful life. In a moment it’s life was over. It died without any fanfare with the exception of few forest lovers like myself. No one will ever know its exact history but we can comment with some accuracy about its value to the forest ecosystem. This great maple provided forage for nearly countless forest birds and rodents. It provided sugary sweet sap for sapsuckers, squirrels, and maybe humans. The massive tree structure with its intricate branches was likely used by many birds and the cavities may have been nested in by flying squirrels, gray squirrels, and forest birds. The root system provided stability for forest soils helping to prevent soil erosion as well as structure and sugar for bacteria and mychorrhizal fungi. In turn the fungi and bacteria breaks down soil minerals into more usable forms on which the sugar maple can use as essential nutrients. The sugar maple, along with the other surrounding mature trees (red oaks, American beech, yellow, black, and white birch and stately white pines) are essential elements of this healthy forest. Each contributing what it can to the overall ecosystem within its term limits.

Like all that is alive trees reproduce. Most reproduce by making a seed but some like poplar and American beech can recreate exact genetic replica of the parent through root cloning; certainly one of nature’s most creative miracles.

Fallen Tree Holds New Life

Natural law dictates that death begets life. Hordes of different kinds of fungi, micro-organisms, bacteria, and other living forms participate and begin to populate and work in concert as part of the tree’s decomposition process. A maple tree trunk of this size will take years, perhaps decades, to completely decompose all the while serving its neighbors by providing nesting sites, forage sites, escape habitat, and a moist environment enjoyed by moisture loving creatures like salamanders. It is a virtual micro habitat where multitudes of creatures unknowingly celebrate the life of the might maple. Perhaps a proper and relevant tribute to maple that stood over this landscape for more than 200 years.

We chose to use much of the crown for firewood. It provided about a third of a winter’s wood supply. Sugar maple is choice firewood. It burns hot and leaves coals that last for hours. The time spent cutting and gathering the wood at the site gave me time to think about the personal significance of this wonderful tree. I remembered sitting under the tree about 20 years ago while scouting white tailed deer before deer season. A young buck hopped over a stonewall in the distance and followed a deer trail that brought the deer to within 20 feet of me. The buck saw me when I blinked, stood there for a moment, and then turned around and ambled back in the direction from where it came. I also remembered watching gray squirrels chase each other around the massive trunk. Despite strenuous pursuit neither one of the young squirrels ever caught up to the other. No doubt this tree was an excellent training site for young squirrels developing moves that may sometime help them to elude a predator.

There are no words to adequately memorialize a once great tree. It stood in one place for more than two centuries. It let the world come it it. And what it did for all that were graced by its majesty cannot be summed up into an essay or a book. Only those who experienced the wonder of this tree will truly understand.

And although this great maple tree is no longer a living organism it still participates in the cycle of life and will for sometime into the future. A fit and proper last hurrah for this vestige of local forest history.

The memory of this maple tree will echo throughout the forest ecosystem for years and years to come.

Originally written for the Heath Herald in September of 2017.

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