Cogs in a Wheel

We Americans tend to admire the superlative; the best team, the tallest building, the most powerful hurricane, the most intelligent human, or possibly the biggest tree.   And while the best, the most, the brightest certain may provoke some stoked human emotions, it somehow disrespects the ordinary.  Most   humans are ordinary.  We may have exceptional qualities, we may even do wonderful things, but despite these unusual traits most of us do not qualify to others as magnificent.  It is this trait, the attachment to excellence that helps us to overlook the real genius of the natural world: being a cog in the wheel of accomplishment.

Victories over imposing obstacles are seldom won by individuals, but rather cooperative efforts held by individuals on behalf of the larger group. Each one of us, as individuals, are the concrete result of a collection of experiences, most of which were passed down to us either by other individuals or collective cultural meandering.  Even our DNA is the result of millions of years of trial and error. While it is true that one person can make a difference, and this should never be doubted, it is even more true that a concerted effort is the better formula for success. Natural law tells us that the survival of a species is many times more important that the survival of an individual. It also tells us that many different species acting in concert is the most secure way to a lasting environment.

On this day I am standing on a north facing hillside.  Bitter winds blow from the northwest.  The biting cold is formidable.  The snow around my boots is less than a half a foot deep.  I stand here staring at the shaggy bark on a hop hornbeam tree, better known in these parts as ironwood (Ostrya virginiana).  This tree is a member of a species that is somewhat nondescript.  It blends into the deciduous forest.  It is neither tall nor is it large.  In fact, even at the age of 100 years old it is quite modest, perhaps 10 inches in diameter and twenty five feet tall.  This tree anchors the forest understory.  A noble and noteworthy part of the forest environment.

This small tree evolved to fill a niche.  While most trees grow tall reaching for the sun, this tree found an advantage in staying small.  In fact, low light is a requirement for it to succeed.  Old forests have big spaces available in their understory and this tree has learned to do best in this quiet environs.  The hop hornbeam competes with hardwood saplings, the occasional striped maple, and the forest shrub community.  By forest standards it is not a long lived tree, typically a hop hornbeam lives from 100-150 years.  It is a member of the birch family and provides valuable wildlife habitat for many species.  The seed are utilized by small rodents and by songbirds like the house finch and the evening grossbeak .  The buds are eaten by white tailed deer.  The bark of saplings is enjoyed by hares. The shaggy bark is utilized by birds and small rodents as a nesting material that is easy to shape and provides some insulation.  Like every single member of the forest community, both animal and vegetative, it works in concert to create a functional ecosystem.  In short it is doing its part as a member of its own unique community.

Ironwood, as the name implies, is very strong and incredibly heavy. Its seasoned weight is about 52 pounds per cubic foot as compared to 35 pounds per cubic foot for red maple and 44 pounds per cubic foot for sugar maple.  The tight grain makes the wood incredibly resistant to shock, and is very difficult to break, although it is not particularly rot resistant.

Humans have long employed this lesser known tree for their own use.  Native Americans used the inner wood as an ingredient in treating coughs and kidney ailments.  They also used the strong wood as framing for lodges, and branch forks for pot hooks to hang over an open fire.  Early European pioneers in North America found good use for this exceptionally strong wood.  It was used for wagon wheel spokes, planer soles, tool handles, wooden rollers in early machinery, and beams where extra strength was required in building homes and barns.  This tree grows notoriously slow and therefore was not managed as a forestry product.  In fact some foresters consider it to be a nuisance as an understory tree because it may utilize nutrients well suited for fast tree growth in the larger tree species.  Ecologists, and some foresters, debate this point of view recognizing the importance of the web of life in our deciduous plant communities where it is believed that each inhabitant plays a special role in an ecosystem’s survival.

After the last glacial period the New England forest recovered slowly over thousands of years as trees and other plant species repopulated the area from areas not impacted by the glacial onslaught.  The hop hornbeam was most likely a late arrival in the deciduous plant community.  Its low light preference dictated that it wait until a mature canopy was present prior to its arrival.  It may have lagged behind many of our modern forest species by several hundred years.  Needless to say its waiting game was a necessary part of its successful recovery.  Huge areas of eastern North America have significant populations of this resilient tree.  In fact, the hop hornbeam is found from Northern Florida to Cape Breton Island in Canada.  It truly is tree that has adapted to a wide variety of environments.

As the afternoon light slips towards the edge of the southern horizon and the cold north winds die down I realize that it is time to begin my walk home.  Along the way I will see more ironwood, and I will remember its subtle but important role in the forest community.  As I think about this I am comforted by some similarities that I have with this wonderful tree.  We both are contributing members to a larger community that is important to the planet.  We are both unique.  Neither one of us would be described as a superlative, but we are important cogs in the wheel and we contribute to the web of life.

And what’s wrong with that?

Originally written for the Heath Herald in December of 2010.

  • Barbara

    Bill, what a beautiful and brilliant piece of writing…I learned about the ironwood as I’ve always called it, back in the 70s when my husband and I bought 40 acres which had 15 acres of mixed bush – he was a forest technician… There’s something about the shaggy bark I find lovable…but I had no idea it was so useful. Thanks so much for the essay. Regardless of what you think or say, I think you’re a great ecologist with a truly deep love for our environment and nature… and an eloquent writer… rare in my books.

  • Annie

    Beautifully written Bill.

    I keep a little tablet of paper on my desk and every now and then I find a quote or a few sentences that speak to me. The last three sentences of this article are now lovingly written there. They form a statement that I truly believe in, one I often share with the children who come to the wildlife area where I work to learn about the wetlands and nature. It seems such a simple concept but one that humans, with their abundance of ego, have difficulty accepting.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Annie. We are all part of the big picture, the web of life, and we should do our best to keep this web alive and healthy. And you are absolutely correct. We humans are out of step with the true intentions and need of our planet. Only a complete overhaul of how we correspond with the earth with salvage our future.

    That you have included my words on your tablet is the greatest of all personal compliments. I am truely honored.

    Thanks for reading Annie, I really appreciate your feedback.

  • Anonymous

    Your wonderful compliments are greatly appreciated. My internet writing experience has proven to me that there are many people like you that share my belief in the our planet. I am humbled to be in the company of readers like you. We all learn so much from each other. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    Ironwood is incredibly unique and overlooked. There are so many secrets to our forests. I can’t wait to share more of them!

  • Emily

    I always admire how you take your knowledge of the natural world and wed it to a life lesson. This is one of the reasons that I am so pulled to nature–that you CAN find truth where ever you look. And your thoughts on superlatives are especially important. There is so much pressure in our society to stand out. It’s a relief to look out at a grove of trees and be reminded that just contributing is enough.

  • Emma Springfield

    Well said. Without the “little” things the “big” things would be simply average.

  • Anonymous

    I like, perhaps love, the see life through the processes of the natural world. It is my opinion that humans have wandered far off course by not paying attention to the processes that guide life. Perhaps our largest flaw, I believe it is one that can be overcome but it will require reworking how we think and live; a tremendous challenge, don’t you think?

    As you know I really admire the way that you write, particularly your use of words in beautiful ways that bring out human emotion. And I still can’t figure out how you say so much, so effectively, so beautifully with so few words. Everyone should visit to read your wonderful writing.

  • Anonymous

    Actually, you just said it better Emma. So succinct. Thank you for reading. I really appreciate it.

  • Sandy

    I have not been able to identify hop hornbeam in the woods behind our house yet. This next summer season, I will concentrate on it. I know the name ironwood from a collection of small animal carvings I have from Mexico. They are very heavy for the size and the wood seems to be very dark. At least all my pieces are, and they were not bought at the same time or at the same place.

    Thanks for the information, Bill. It is so amazing what we have around us, isn’t it?

  • Anonymous

    There are several trees that go by the common name “ironwood”. The other in our area is hornbeam (not hop hornbeam, also known as musclewood. The scientific name is Carpinus caroliniana, and it is found along streams and at the margins of wet areas. It is easily distinguished by the smooth, gray, bark that is twisted and looks like the muscles of a body builder or iron worker.

    I believe there is another ironwood found in the Mexican desert and it is called desert ironwood. The scientific name for this species is Olyena tesota. It grows at elevations of less than 2500 feet and is used for carving, perhaps this is the wood that was used for your collection of small animal carvings. Just an educated guess.

  • Wendy

    The hop hornbeam “it is doing its part as a member of its own unique community.” I so agree, Bill. The needs of the ecosystems of the world are so huge I get overwhelmed. Just this week I was talking to a wise person who recognizes just what you are saying. We each need to tend our given place in the ecosystem of our local lives. The hornbeam didn’t want to help ALL the forests of the world recover, just this one. Just the one where you are walking on this winter day. This is where we begin. And you do it with your presence to your land and the words that tell us about it so beautifully.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Wendy. You bring up a really important issue: “We each need to tend our given place in the ecosystem of our local lives.” This cogent thought brings us back to “Think global, Act Local” when it comes to ecological issues (and perhaps politics and human behavior as well). If we each do our part it will help tremendously.

    My internet writing experience has broadened my horizons. I now know that there are people who care about their region and the planet all over this nation, and the world. I’m hoping we can find a way to spread the word like wildfire. If the message could go viral in a positive way that would be wonderful.

  • Montucky

    Very interesting and informative post Bill. I don’t think we have that tree here, but I remember seeing the desert version in Arizona. You also make an excellent point: the tallest trees don’t necessarily make the forest, nor are the prominent people necessarily the ones who make a country great. I’ve often found that it’s not the shortest trees on a high ridge that are usually hit by lightning either.

  • Anonymous

    I like that “I’ve often found that it’s not the shortest trees on a high ridge that are usually hit by lightning either.” So true. Forests, like many human communities, are comprised of many diverse elements all working in concert toward the end of sustained health and success.

  • Debra Argosy

    We have the hardy Olneya tesota here in the Sonoran desert. It’s called a “nurse plant” or “keystone species,” because as you described it is of great benefit to a wide variety of plants and animals. It’s one of the hardest woods in the world, rot-resistant, and drought-tolerant, enabling it the longevity needed to have an impact on dependent species. The lushness of the high desert is due in part to the ironwood. Ironwoods here even create their own little micro-habitats, providing nutrient-rich soil and dense canopies where seedlings thrive. These tiny communities support birds, rodents, and reptiles—and in turn provide food for coyotes and birds of prey.

    Think Globally, Act Locally is my motto. We cannot stop the influx of humans into natural habitats, it’s a battle the land will lose. Yes the bloated developments of Tucson have expanded into ironwood forests. But we can protect what we do have in small ways that make a difference. Of course this is true for our land and its creatures—but humans, though they may be causing harm simply by being born, must also be accommodated. I do not say this because of a love of humans, but because if humans don’t cooperate, subsequent destruction of our planet is almost a certainty. Being a cog in the wheel of our own communities is our obligation.

  • Anonymous

    Wisely stated Debra, our best hope is to find ways to cooperate with the natural world rather than compete with it. This is a tall order for the human species and requires rewiring the way we think.

    Thank you so much for the great description of the desert ironwood and the habitat it provides. This type of exchange enlightens us all and helps us to see the “web” in the web of life.

  • Nature-Drunk

    I am continually amazed by Nature and her ability to adapt; the ironwood is a good example of adaptation. Another cog in a wheel tree, my favorite, is Quercus douglasii or blue oak. This California endemic is drought tolerant to say the least. When prolonged dryness becomes stressful, it will go dormant and shed its leaves. This survival mechanism ensures a chance at withstanding the drought, able to live on another year. Mind blowing, isn’t it? I have goose bumps!

    Also, when there has been a severe fire year, the oaks will produce copious amounts of acorns the following year in attempt to replenish the forest. Oh, how I love Nature.

  • Hilary

    Very nicely written. I’ve never heard of this tree but nature never fails to amaze every day. Thanks for sharing this wonder. And thanks also for your visit to my blog today.

  • Anonymous

    This is really awesome information, there are many examples of adaptations that plants have made to survive all kings of weather events and other acts of nature. I love this dialogue, keep it coming!

  • Anonymous

    Yes, nature is mind blowing, isn’t it? The examples are likely countless, and I enjoy learning about and discovering these each and every day. It’s almost overwhelming! Thanks for reading!

  • Jack Matthews

    When I first read your post a few days ago — and I have read it twice more — I knew this was a “great” piece. I see the personal experience in your writing coupled with the ecological knowledge you possess and the post really does fly. The notion of cogs in a wheel, lesser known tree, is developed into an ethic we need to be mindful of, as you state at the beginning of your post, seeing as that we Americans admire the tallest and fastest. The personal, the other, the web of life and the extension of time (your glacial comment) all blend to make an ensemble, Bill, that instructs and gives the moral compass a direction. It’s beyond informative, it’s almost hermetic. Your ironwood reminds me of mesquite that we have down here, a tree whose name is Nahuatl and seems to get in the way of so many farms and ranches. I’ve taken a different opinion about the mesquite, its beans and shade for birds, and will, I hope, do a piece one day approaching your work with the ironwood. I submit this is a great piece because it shows light outside of the abyss of consumerism, monumentalism, harvesting, clearing, extraction and belittling the other, the small and the weak. Ironwood, Bill? We are all ironwood. Do print this post as a broadside and drop it from the sky, won’t you Bill?

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure that I am deserving of all of these comments but I sure do like hearing them. I am just a writer, self-described at that, who sees around the next corner and likes to tie things together between the natural world and human behavior. When I first wrote this piece it was really pretty much a description of a wonderful plant, and the story grew and morphed into what you now see. The name “ironwood” now seems somewhat prophetic.

    Thank you Jack, you are quite a good writer yourself and can really tell a solid and entertaining story. I usually read your posts two or three times, partially because I have to digest life in a different climate, and partially because I have to digest your intellect. You are a powerful thinker.

  • Zoologirl

    I love Ironwood trees because they seem to sneak up on me. The tall trees and even shrubs are what grab my attention. But once I finally spot an ironwood they seem to be everywhere. I think that’s the best I can explain it. I love what you’ve weaved together here to tell the story of the modest Ironwood. Great post!

  • IcyBC

    You’re truly one with nature in this wonderful post, Bill. I’m starting to appreciate nature more and more each day! It’s soothing for me to just get out of the house, and look at every tiny thing around me, and just marvel at its existence!

  • Anonymous

    The natural world is addicting for many people. The more time you spend with it the clearer things become, and I mean everything! Keep getting out there and tell me what you discover. I really want to know. I’ll check in at your blog to see!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Zoologirl! Ironwood does kind of sneak up on you. You turn around in the woods and suddenly realize your are staring at it. I was once in a stand of ironwood and young white oaks and it wasn’t until I looked at the buds and some withered leaves that I noticed the difference. Pretty surprising tree altogether. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  • Tammie

    you, standing in the cold of winter shows a spirit that is willing to participate in all the seasons. there are gifts in every weather, every day , and each moment. Seem you know this and enjoy this and are part of this.
    Lovely to learn more about this tree.

  • Anonymous

    It takes no extra effort for me to enjoy, observe, and write about each season. As you say, it is appreciating the gifts that the natural world has to offer that makes it easy. Thanks for readind Wild Ramblings Tammie, it is a pleasure to hear from you!

  • Barb

    Hello Bill, Sometimes, we lose sight of each individual’s place in the scheme of Nature. Your essay is a wonderful combination of fact and metaphor. I’m enjoying your posts.

  • Anonymous

    Homo sapien has totally lost track of his/her place in the scheme of nature. We have broken the web of live, food chain, and nearly every ecological theory I can think of. We have the greed gene and that is not a good thing. However, we also have the logic gene which should allow us to see the error of our way. Hoping its not too late. Thank you very much for reading.

  • Dana

    Just wondering if we have ironwood here. This spring I’ll have to get into the woods and check it out! Another adventure to look forward to. Right now I’m staying warm by the fire. HA!

  • Wild_Bill

    I don’t blame you for staying warm. Go to rocky areas with poor, sometimes thin, soil to find ironwood. Look for a small tree living in the understory of taller mature trees. The leaf is birch like with deeply serrated edges. Gray scaly bark. I’ll bet you find if you look in enough places.

  • Mike B.

    Nothing wrong with that at all. Great narrative!

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks Mike. I’m glad my question turned out not to be rhetorical, thanks for your response!

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