Trees Have Adventures, Too
Hot spots in the Atlantic Ocean have been popping up like weeds in a garden this year, and I can’t help reflecting on what kinds of mischief they could spill in the next two months. I stand at the window looking at our woods to the south, and I wonder what adventures they will have.
Thirty-four years ago the trees on our southern boundary were bumptious teenagers, leafy, skinny, unpretentious, a motley gang of pine, sweet gum, hickory, oak, red maple, cherry, hop hornbeam, musclewood, holly. In the past ten years pampered distant cousins have joined them: camellias we propagated and planted in their territory.
Today the trees look dour, ominous. Now about fifty years old, they look to be 80 feet tall. How did we miss this growth?
They are long and lanky, but sturdy, not round and chubby like solo trees fed on lawn-care diets. They crawled up from seeds cast casually by wind or birds on unyielding clay scraped barren by bulldozers fifty years ago. The would-be saplings scrabbled over bad hands dealt them, bickered over shares of sunlight and stingy ground, and stole nutrients from their aristocratic cousins.
Most of them lost to faster growers and stronger genes. As the game went on, winner and loser alike threw down their hands each fall and their meager morsels gave life to the clay, winners reaping desserts from losers. Their roots wandered, congenially crisscrossing into a tight, democratic weave that defies digging today, despite the silken quality of their soil.
Yet these trees can seem fragile. During Tropical Storm Isaias, whose eye raced west of us in early August, with winds clocked between 50 and 60 miles an hour here, they whipped and twisted and bucked in the gale and I did not see how they could ever stand up straight again. They did not break then.
But can they beat off longer battles with stronger wind power? This brief storm tore away countless twigs, branches and even limbs the size of small trees, piled them along paths, hid them among shrubs. Most of the cast offs were beneficial cullings, surgical removal of weakness, disease and death hidden by green canopies. What damages from a longer, more intense storm?
Interior damage from storms is stealthy. Sinews stretched and torn by high winds can invisibly weaken a tree over time. (Though ironically, gentle breezes that cause imperceptible creaking and swaying in the woods can strengthen a tree as it ages.
A little to the southwest of our house, there are three sweet gum trees with not a shred of bark around their bases from the ground up to about two feet.
Once upon a time a beaver had begun gnawing at one of the girdled trees, then apparently decided the monumental tasks of felling and hauling were not worth the effort when he could pursue more productive chewing elsewhere. Did he dream he was David felling Goliath? Never mind, it is amazing what beavers can do – and have done in our woods.
In fourth grade science we learned that girdled trees die because their pathways for nourishment are severed. How is it that these three trees with rotten-looking bases leaf out each spring?
(Just goes to show, you can’t always believe the books.) They seem ripe for toppling, but they are surviving. Their combined canopies thrust up into the sky are more feather dusters than mighty crowns, and for our purposes that is just fine. They’ll bow to high wind, instead of ceding. (Perhaps.)
So now I stand at the window figuring odds on games still unknown and to which I am not invited. How close are the trees to the house? How might they fall if we are on the west side of the storm? The east side? I invoke some hazy geometry, trying to figure storm paths, trajectories and angles.
Did I mention that there are two tall, business-like pines directly south of the house? Pines can uproot when ground is super-saturated. (Ignore this taproot business; pines here haven’t read the books either. Their tap roots skirt the water table, run parallel to the surface instead. Lots of illiteracy in the woods.)
Or, pines snap, bam, down they go. So I stand at the window figuring where they would land if they snapped at a certain height and what trees in between might soften their fall, or would they simply take down the dowdy dogwood and the bad-hair holly.
From where I stand, the crowns of these pines look skimpy for their age. Maybe they’ve lost pieces of limbs in the past few years. It’s sometimes hard to trace the origin of a downed limb.
That bit about less resistance to the wind gives me another idiotic sense of false comfort. One thing I’ve learned from thirty years in the woods is that trees are a lot bigger, a lot bigger, when they hit the ground than when they are standing straight. I should know better.
Never mind that an embedded tornado could come through and corkscrew these trees and hurl them across the property, utterly defying my shaky invocation of geometric puzzles.
You are probably wondering why in the world we have not cut down these and several other trees I haven’t mentioned. For, I guess the same reasons that people don’t move from river banks that flood during storms. These reasons resonate far more deeply than I can probe, so you and I will have to keep wondering.
You never really know about trees, except they get weak and die and fall eventually, and if they are ignored, over time, they become smooth as velvet and slip back into the forest.
It’s hard to say when a tree will fall, unless it is purposely taken by man. Often the tree gives up during a perfectly windless spell. Years ago, one still, cold winter night I forgot about a pot on a hot stove. We opened windows for a quick air-out.
As the chilly night air entered, we heard a cataclysmic boom. First thoughts a huge truck. On our back-woods road? On a dark night? Second thoughts, the noise did not come from the road. Next day we found an ancient, rotted, headless pine toppled not thirty feet from the house.
And then there is the mighty oak on the north side of the property, not at all slimline like the trees to the south. It’s got impressive height, but it has girth, too, a circumference of 12 feet. It is gnarly and looks pretty beat up. I guess a tree that is a couple hundred years old, has a right to look beat up.
One fine, calm spring day, it dropped a mighty limb that looked as big as an old tree. It squashed the hoop house where we propagated stem cuttings. We were glad we weren’t squashed, too.
When we tried to figure out where the limb had been attached, we spotted another large limb torn away and wedged against a neighbor. We’d better watch that, we said. That’s dangerous. That will fall any day now. For almost two decades and countless storms the hanging limb threatened. It is gone today.
High winds and storms bring the most dramatic changes to our woods. We happen to live in a kind of hurricane alley (not disclosed during real estate negotiations) that sounds a lot worse than it actually is. If a storm churns directly up the coast, its eye will often pass over us. Usually, by the time the storm reaches us the drag of the land has tamed it and we laugh with relief and say how lucky we are.
Hurricane Isabel was not tamed when she reached us in September 2003 with winds topping out at 100 miles per hour. From first tentative raindrops to the final huffs and puffs, she lingered for almost twenty-four hours.
She taught us the most about trees and hurricanes, though not enough. Naive about storms then, we got through by sheer good luck and good help.
But Isabel directly felled only about 40 or 50 of the 150 trees we eventually lost.
We assumed that if a tree was left standing it was a survivor. We were mistaken. Internal damage, tearing of sinews, and structural weakness can promote attack by insects.
Somehow, bark beetles, twig girdlers, and borers can home in on weakened trees with laser-like focus. They kill a tree or bring diseases that will kill a tree, and in our swampy paradise, fungus and rot regularly stay on the prowl.
Nutrition plays a role, too. During Isabel seven pines uprooted as a group and fell against the house. Sounds like a terrible catastrophe! But they were undernourished and skinny and there was so much crashing and howling going on we did not discover them until we tried to open the front door next day.
We’d intended to thin them, poor runty things confined to a postage stamp in our garden, but we never did. We called them the seven dwarfs. Sometimes procrastination works.
But it was the crabapple we loved that saved our roof from the pines. It blocked a direct hit to the house. We called it our Norman Rockwell tree because of its fine shape and the big scar on its trunk from an old limb and its spectacular blooms in spring. The crabapple never recovered from the hit and had to be taken down a decade later.
The real action during Isabel was taking place in the woods north of our house. Trees, mostly pines keeled one by one, oozing out of soil saturated by summer rains. Some of them snapped and fell against the house or crashed through fences. Young maples and gums collapsed or twisted, all rendered leafless by the high winds.
We couldn’t tell if the freight trains we heard were gusts of wind or embedded tornadoes. Next day, we found part of a sweet gum tree hurled across the yard and lanky trees corkscrewed together in close embrace, emboldened by tornadoes.
Hurricane chasers armed with chain saws arrived as the winds stopped blowing. They assembled crews and the saws screamed and whined.
We could never fully come to terms with how bizarre the destruction was and how it was physically possible.
We began to understand that each tree tells a story. Of wet years and dry years, of new limbs filled with hope and old limbs broken by rot, of invasion by insects and disease, of scars and healing and final repose.
During quiet times, when he was not in a tree, the Texas woodman taught us about trees and chain saws.
It was probably years of storms that caught up with Grandfather Pine, the oldest, tallest pine around. He watched over our property from the north, a grizzled guy who had survived summer storms and winter nor’easters. He was a fixture, though, frankly, we barely took note of him as we potted plants under the heights of his crown.
We never noticed the holes in the bark. Bark beetles, however, were far more alert than we were. Age and stresses from storms may have made him an attractive quarry.
When a deep pool collected at the base of the tree, we simply stepped around it and said How curious. One day, from way across the property I happened to spot the dead crown, its burnt orange bristles reflecting sunlight. When did that happen? we asked in dismay. We knew now that the deep pool had signaled the inability of the pine’s roots to drink up.
The woodman felled the pine cleanly and right where he wanted it. There was that time-stopping, breath-holding moment of anticipation as this majestic tree barely wavered, slowly tottered and toppled, picking up speed for a mighty landing, a reverberating jolt that bounced the ground.
All life in the woods stopped in that moment. No birds chattered. No beetles clicked. No squirrels scratched. Even the leaves on the trees seemed to stop rustling. Deep deep silence penetrated the woods. A moment later, the usual chatter of the forest that had barely pierced our senses, returned. In the collective silent gasp, had life in the woods instinctively stiffened with the same questions we would ask. “What just happened? And should I worry?”
And so it became Grandfather Pine’s turn to give back to the woods what the woods had given to him. As years went by, his wood gave life and homes to tiny organisms and shiny black beetles and white grubs coiled tight. Fine roots stole into dark corners and bound his trunk tight to the soil. Moss would cover his crusty bark and his insides would become hollow.
So, I stand by the window spinning my rickety conjectures and thinking about how much we have learned from living in the woods for thirty-four years. It’s a pastiche of the past that can’t help me predict when or how storms will threaten.
One thing I have learned is that our woodlands don’t need me. They may bow and break before storms, but they will recover and heal and regrow.
Life in our woods will sustain itself, perhaps not in ways that we think best, and there will always be losses, but there is a far grander hand playing out than we will ever understand. Still, I wish I knew how the next hurricane will treat the tall trees to the south.