Trekking through the woods is difficult this year. The ground is littered with whole trees with their root balls bulging up into the air creating earth walls comprised of dirt, roots, and rocks. There are also tree tops with a plethora of branches that create webbed obstructions that must be climbed through or walked around, and multitudes of branches ready to tangle your feet and send you to the ground without notice. It takes twice as long to go anywhere. For the longest time I thought of this as a nuisance; hardly worth the time to travel short distances. As usual persistence pays off. I have learned to see things differently now. I have found new routes through old territories. New Adventures will be realized as I explore new areas. There are few direct routes these days. I wander in anything but a straight line in order to find the most efficient track that will get me from place to place.
Old tree friends, lying on the ground, are already starting to change form. Leaving their mark over the next few decades they will provide ample character for this forest that they once looked over. Rodents will nest under their large trunks. Beetles and various other insects will invade the spaces between the bark and the wood. Some will even bore into the wood and leave tunnels where moisture will invade the cellulose; fungi and other ancient plant life will soon follow. Perhaps a deer will use an uplifted root ball for cover from fierce northwest winds. Perhaps chipmunks will bury this year’s acorn crop under the bark of a tree that used to reach for the sky but now is on its side. Perhaps a fox will explore every nook and cranny of this grounded structure in pursuit prey.
These trees will slowly decompose over the next thirty or forty years placing carbon and other nutrients back into the soil at a rate that can be utilized by new growth. They will remain useful even after their tragic passing, maintaining the cycle of life as nature has intended.
As I pass slowly through this mysterious forest I come upon a huge trunk of a giant eastern hemlock. Generally the hemlocks did well in the ice storm. These trees have evolved to shed ice and snow. Everything from the shape of each individual needle covered with a slippery waxy substance to the tapering branches from top to bottom make this species well equipped to survive the harshest conditions winter can muster. This particular tree was on its last legs before the great ice storm. A long magnificent life was brought to a quick finish in the waning years of its existence.
I first sat under this enormous conifer in 1975. I was struck by its humungous trunk that was perhaps 45 inches in diameter. It sat overlooking a large bowl in the landscape that was carved out by centuries of erosion. I used to sit at the base of the tree, sometimes for hours at a time, and try to imagine what this tree had endured over the two to three hundred years it inhabited this spot. The tree was not particularly tall, in fact it was oddly shaped. The tree was rather stout for the large diameter of the trunk. It was perhaps 50 feet tall whereas I would have expected it to be 80 to 100 feet under normal circumstances. Although I spent hours and hours thinking about how its odd shape came about I never was able to rectify its unusual shape. The best theory I had was that it had been left standing and every other tree had been removed when land clearing for sheep pasture was prevalent more than 100 years ago. It no longer had to compete with other trees to gather sun light for energy and so it put its resources into growing out instead of up. When the hundreds of acres of pasture were abandoned early in the twentieth century the forest grew up around this giant tree. It took up so much space with its great girth that ample sunlight was able to reach its branches. Competition for sunlight was no longer part of the equation for the survival of this tree.
In the last decade or so the tree was showing real signs of advanced aging. Branches began to break off in large numbers. Large cracks could be seen running up and down its enormous trunk. Insects invaded the tree. Pileated woodpeckers made large excavations on the trunk, predominately on the southern side. By evidence of the claw marks black bears tore huge sections of the rotted wood away, presumably in search of grubs or some other nutritious meal.
I used to look away from the great amount of damage to this great tree. A sense of sadness would pass over me as I viewed its decline. I knew the bitter end was near. Perhaps it had another ten or twenty years left before it perished. I hoped I would not witness its passing.
But that was not to be. The massive weight of the accumulated ice last December 11th was too much for the weary old trunk to handle. It snapped off about ten feet above ground leaving a pointed trunk that aims into the sky. The main body of the tree toppled over the steep bank, crushing several full grown trees as it fell to earth. The hole in the forest canopy created by this missing monolith is staggering. Sun light rains into the gap once shaded by thick hemlock bows. Small hemlock saplings have already responded to this new found source of energy that reaches the forest floor. Competition will begin again. Someday one of these innocuous looking saplings may dominate this part of the landscape. Perhaps in three hundred years someone will sit hear marveling at the landscape that falls away to the north and wonder how this great tree that they sit next to came to be.
Not too far to the northwest there is another, larger, bowl in the landscape that is also evidence of thousands of years of erosion. This bowl is perhaps two hundred yards long, one hundred and fifty yards wide, and is 50 to 60 feet deep with steep forest slopes. Large trees now grow in the steep banks. Their large root systems anchor wet, dense soils stabilizing the slopes from immediate erosion. The ice storm toppled some of these trees. In many cases the entire tree was uprooted. Sizeable scars on the ground were created where these large root masses formerly held the soil in place.
In the spring I looked closely at these disturbed areas. I was afraid they would be beginning to new erosive forces that would expand this great bowl that cuts into the landscape. I imagined soil eroding back up the slope taking vegetation with it as groundwater and rain water moved soils down slope. I thought of elaborate plans to stabilize the scarred areas. The most practical seemed to cut the tree away from the root ball and push the root ball over to cover the earth that was exposed when the tree was uprooted. I soon realized that the heavy equipment that would be necessary to accomplish this would do more damage they leaving everything be.
Nearly a year later I took another close look at this precarious situation. Much to my surprise the disturbed earth was 100% vegetated. It looked like someone had spread seed. Grass and other herbaceous plants grew happily on these locations, once again the sun easily penetrated to the earth’s surface now devoid of branches and leaves overhead.
I lay down on this fresh bed of grass and herbs. The smell of freshly disturbed earth still permeates the air. I look at the blue skies filled with billowing white clouds above. I still cannot comprehend what happened last December when this small piece of the earth’s landscape was ravaged by heavy ice. This unprecedented event is beyond my powers of evaluation. I just want the earth to heal. I know that change always take time and can bring new discoveries and knowledge to the careful observer. I look forward to these.
I stop thinking for a moment and feel the warmth of the sun on my face. Imagine that. I am receiving warmth from a star 93 million miles away. I bask here in a new clearing in the forest created by an ice storm one year ago where I can lay and collect this solar radiation. This thought and the sun light from a star far, far away warms me completely to the cellular level. My spirit seems, for the moment, renewed. What could be better? Isn’t life grand?
Originally written for the Heath Herald in November 0f 2009.