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.