Without human witness this 300 year old oak toppled to the forest floor last winter. Broken off completely at the root crown this massive monument crushed a dozen or so eastern hemlocks, american beech, and red maples in its’ fall to earth. It was a sad end to a marvelous era of forest history.
On an ordinary day in May I was taking a short cut through this section of woods where I would cross an old stone wall along my property line. As I was about to cross the rocky barrier I looked to my right and saw the skeletal remains of the old tree laying on its side in the woods. Even from a distance of a hundred yards or so I could see the massive four foot trunk lying on its side. Old branches, bigger around than my waist, stuck up in the air giving the tree a rigor mortis appearance. As I walked over to this lost edifice I felt a distinct sadness. Even though this old friend had been near death for a decade it was shocking to see this wonderful tree in its final resting state, already in the process of returning to the earth.
I first witnessed this mammoth tree in 1974. I had bought an adjacent piece of property and was exploring the woods in the area. The red oak was positioned off the end of a stone wall, an obvious property boundary, and it marked the location where the steep terrain would no longer allow the construction of a rock fence that was meant to keep cattle in place. The boundary from this point on was made by an old barbed wire fence that was now embedded more than a foot into the old tree. The tree was centuries older than the next living member of this forest. The old tree had been spared a saw blade by fortune of being a property boundary marker and a handy place on which to hang barbed wire.
Most of the surrounding forest is about 80 to 100 years old. The neighboring trees were of mixed age ranging from seedlings to the century mark. The forest was remarkable diverse, playing host to red maple, sugar maple, red oak, American beech, eastern hemlock, white birch, and an occasional white ash. There were a few red oak trees, likely the offspring of this mammoth tree, abd the oldest looked to be about a hundred years old.
At that time the old tree had large spreading branches that hung out perhaps fifty feet around all sides of the tree. The top had some severed branches and many of the branch tips lower on the tree were leafless, all signs of the tree’s advancing age.
This area of forest was relatively mature. The understory was uncluttered and you could see a good distance between the trunks of the trees. Given the gentle slope, views of a well built stone wall, and this huge tree the area would become, over the years, a favorite spot to reflect on the wonders of nature.
Time passed, I really don’t know where it went, but the tree got older and so did I. Along the way we purchased the land on which this ancient tree resided and became caretakers over the old tree’s domain. And there I stood on that May morning, head covered with white hair, my beard mostly gray, bearing witness to a fallen friend in the forest. I felt a deep sense of remorse as I walked along beside the long trunk that lay on the ground. It is hard to witness the passing of an old friend; especially the passing of something so rich and significant to the natural history of the area.
Some three hundred, or so, years ago this red oak sprouted from a seedling. The odds of it surviving, even the earliest stages of life, is astounding. Red oaks are monoecious, meaning one plant will produce male and female flowers. However, oaks are a little out of the ordinary. In fact, even though they are monoecious they do not self pollinate. Oaks are rather cleaver in this regard. To maintain a better mixing of genetic material the female flowers do not bloom at the same time as the male flowers on the same tree. Therefore a single tree is pollinated by wind blown pollen from another red oak tree. Dome years the red oak can produce a scadzillion acorns! In a mast year, those years when red oaks produce peak crops of acorns, the ground is littered with piles of acorns. By some exotic method of chemical communication (plant pheromones), and perhaps with a little help from the nurturing of Mother Nature with ample rain and ideal conditions, all the oaks in a given region will produce a peak crop of acorns during the same year. In fact the oak trees produce so many acorns that they can’t be all consumed by the many animals who depend on them for essential forage. The sheer numbers increases the chance that some acorns will survive, sprout, and eventually grow to a mature oak tree. In reality, even after an acorn makes it through the first series of obstacles, including avoidance of being consumed for food, the acorn must find itself in a suitable place for germination and this is not always close to home. Blue jays provide a critical link in the spread of red oaks. In their witty way the Blue Jay gathers acorns and buries them far and wide in an effort to hide food in a variety of locations for future use. When there is significant competition, sometimes the Jays disperse these acorns to some pretty distant places. When the acorn finds itself in just the right environment, the appropriate amount of soil cover, moisture, and sun light, the acorn just might germinate and develop a sprout that will yield an oak tree seedling. But the adventure doesn’t end here either! Young seedling oaks can get trampled by hooves, eaten by white tails, or just plain dry up in a drought year. There is no real sense of security until the seedling becomes a sapling, which still must endure the elements to eventually become a young tree. Even as a young tree an oak can perish to an ice storm, a large falling branch, or other natural factors. As an adult tree red oaks become valuable as an economic resource for humans. This, however, can actually shorten the trees long range life span. Good oak is often harvested in the 80 year old range, far from the 300 to 400 years it is capable of living.
This particular tree was able to navigate through all of these stumbling blocks and live to a ripe old age. Without cutting into trunk and actually counting the rings, I am only guessing at the age of the tree. Soil fertility, climate, aspect, and happenstance can affect how quickly a tree grows. This tree had very good growing conditions, and save the barbed wire fence that was attached to it about 100 years ago, it was not heavily impacted by human activity. My best guess is that it lived about 300 years, maybe as long as 350 years.
The first European settlers in this central New England town came in the middle 1700’s. The tree was about 50 years old when those pioneers arrived. It was likely about 16 inches in diameter and producing a good acorn crop in peak mast years. Somewhere in the vicinity of the year 1800 land clearing became prevalent in this New England region. Large forests were laid down to make way for sheep and cattle pasture. By 1900 this area was about 80% cleared and only 20% forested. By evidence of all the stone walls that surround this great oak it is evident that the land is this area was mostly cleared as well.
This wonderful tree witnessed the clearing of trees, the building of the long stone walls, and the introduction of agriculture. It also witnessed the failing of New England agriculture and the abandonment of farms. It stood ready to take part in the reforesting of the area. A quick walk around the area of this great oak reveals all of its descendants. It is easy to see children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and beyond. The next generation of oaks are generally about 120 years old. These wonderful trees mixed with other hardwood trees, all descendants of the parent hardwoods that survived along this hedgerow/property line, provided the seeds and mycorrhizal bacteria that brought this forest community back to life. No small feat, this reforestation process, but nevertheless largely unappreciated by humans.
It will take decades for all of the nutrients of this tree to be returned to these forest soils. The old trunk lying on the ground will not only slowly recharge the soil but it will be essential to the ecosystem of the forest. Fungi, plants, microbes, insects, crustaceans, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds will all share in the environment provided by this decaying tree for decades. Even after its death, this great oak will partake in the continuation of the natural cycle. What comes from the Earth returns to the Earth. None of us escape this law of nature.
On that May day I reflected on all of this as I surveyed the carcass of the dead tree. A northwest wind began to blow. Oak pollen filled the air. The never ending cycle of life and death was taking place right before my eyes as tears slipped down my cheeks and joy filled my heart.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in September of 2010.