(4.3) Watchers of the Woods

We thought Isabel was a fading memory. Instead, her visit that day put in motion a natural evolution of forest life that we could never have predicted.

Understanding began to dawn gradually after we had a hard (for us) snowfall on December 26, 2010. Eight inches of heavy wet snow fell, the most in one day since 1895. It was beautiful. It frosted trees and shrubs. We grabbed the camera.

We stopped in our tracks. The grandfather pine tree that we took for granted, sentinel on the north side of the property, spared by loggers forty years ago because it was too big to cut then, had lost its needles. Its crown was a boney set of branches bristling with pine cones, sharp contrast to blue sky and clean snow.

We had never thought much about the patriarch. (How many pines in our yard had it sired that were gone now?) It was simply the big old pine with a bushy bright green crown way up high and a dependable supply of pine cones and a massive trunk that swelled at the base and huge roots that lifted the land around its base.

Now it was dead. For how long? This kind of thing doesn’t happen in a day, a week, or even a month. Where were we while this was going on? When had the needles turned from green to gold to russet and then fallen? What kind of sentries were we, anyway?

Sentries that never looked up. All we had noticed, with our noses to the ground, were copious numbers of pine cones and a large puddle after rainy days where there had always been dry soil. Curiosity would never kill us, since all we did was step around the puddle and rake the pine cones.

In our defense, by the time we were noticing these signs, it was too late for the pine. And by the time we were processing them, the pine was ready to be taken down.

Hindsight is 20-20. Reproduction takes front and center stage in a dying plant: one great push to spread the genes. Instead of reading the signal correctly, we assumed the abundance indicated extraordinary health, despite several droughty years.

The large puddle signaled that roots had died and could no longer take up water, but we missed that sign, too.

Was it old age? Drought? Compacted soil? None of the above, it turns out.

Now, in death, we were seeing this pine–no we weren’t, we only thought we were–and it was very much on our minds. It was tall, more than a hundred feet tall, we would later learn. How long would this dead tree stand before it toppled? Would it some day smash our sun shed, our fences and possibly the house in a great fall?

Many years ago a mighty oak fell on Christmas eve. It was late on a cold night but the windows were open because we were airing the house after part of our dinner had burnt. We heard a great rumble, like some colossal truck revving up, then a loud cracking, then a thud that shook the ground.

We had no idea what happened. The flashlights we carried could only light up bits and pieces of the woods, so we didn’t get the full picture at once. When our torches finally ran the length of the ancient oak, headless, a hundred feet tall, three-foot diameter, we felt very small. Its crown would have hit the house. Today, covered with a layer of leaves, its well-preserved hulk looks like the casket of a giant on the forest floor.

We did not expect another reprieve. The old pine had to come down.

The local tree man who did the job had sharp eyes. He loved trees and he could read them. He showed us the holes in the bark all around the trunk up to the crown, multiplying in number as they reached the top. Neatly drilled. Pretty obvious after he pointed them out. We had never noticed them.

Pine bark beetles, he said. That’s what killed the tree. They had bored through the bark, laid eggs and multiplied. A tree in its prime might have beaten beetles back by spitting them out in a burst of sticky sap. Foresters call this “pitch-out.”

Our pine was not in its prime, so it did not have energy for spitting. It was old. It had survived high winds and storms and droughts. It was tired. It was a good candidate for boring beetles. Once a few beetles invaded, they signaled their kin with pheromones, and the party was on.

Females laid eggs in galleries and new larvae joined the fun. Party fare is phloem tissue, which is where new growth takes place. A big enough bash and the beetles eventually girdle a tree. That done, they leave. They do not hang around corpses when there are living trees to chew on.

Shortly after Isabel, a forest ranger told us that we should cut down all the dead pine trees, the living ones too, he suggested, for good measure. They were all stressed from the storm and any stressed tree was fair game for pine bark beetles. Bark beetles can eventually wipe out forests, he said.

With other things on our mind, we were not about to launch a pine-bark-beetle crusade. So we forgot about the pines and what the forester had said.

Now, while we waited for a playful early-morning breeze to be still, our woodsman schooled us in the ways of bark beetles and trees. Rusty nail holes we’d never noticed in the base of a beech tree were signs of the beech tree root borer.

There are so many different kinds of bark beetles that any tree is fair game. The very young, newly planted, or heavily pruned. The very old. The battered. The stressed. Those exposed to pollution. It’s nature’s way of weeding out the unfit and thinning a forest. Across the country, forests are being lost to these beetles.

Our tree man found several other pines that were beetle-bored but still alive. Repeatedly he urged us to try to save them. He recommended a certain pesticide. In awe, we looked around at the hundreds of pines in woods that still surrounded us.

This was clearly too big a job for us. It involved poison. It seemed a task for Don Quixote. Surely some beetles would survive—strong ones—who would sire new colonies. No, we thought, we would not become the pine-tree cavalry. This was interfering too drastically with the course of natural events. These beetles were felling tired old trees to make way for new forests. They were simply doing their job.

The breeze quit. Our tree man surveyed the site carefully. He cleared some leaners that could snap and ricochet if they were hit by the pine as it fell. He cut a V groove at the base to place the tree where he wanted it. He began to cut. The chain saw whined.

There was an explosion of sound, a great shudder, and a cracking and crashing through thickets. One cut and it was over.

Then profound silence. For a single moment life in the forest seemed to stand still. The briefest of respects paid for the mighty pine, moments later the usual woodland murmurings and chirrupings resumed.

We examined the tree. The first of the recyclers, termites, had already loosened much of the bark. This would have been a dangerous tree to climb if it had to be taken down in pieces.

Lying in the forest now, more recyclers will join the original crew and begin work to create velvet soil that will give life to the forest. Termites, sow bugs, pill bugs, millipedes, fungi and bacteria, a host of players, billions, will be choreographed to come in and perform on cue.

The innards of the tree were stained with blue ink the color of ink we used in our fountain pens in grade school back in the forties. Not ink, of course, but blue stain fungus that the beetle carries on its body. Once this fungus colonizes the sapwood, flow of water to the crown of the tree stops and the tree dies. It’s the second part of a one-two whammy that a tree can’t survive.

We tried to count the growth rings. They were tight on the north side of the tree, open on the south side. There were 140 maybe, maybe more. They were confusing to count. In the south, hot summers shut down growth, but mild rainy falls can promote a second, smaller spurt of growth after the first flush of spring, and a tree can produce two rings a year. The rings must be studied carefully to determine true annual growth.

When we looked more closely at slices of the tree, we found interior cracks. Some were old and had already healed. Some were new, and they extended throughout the internal structure, probably caused by Isabel’s strong gusts. Our tree man showed us a crack with a small T. Usually this type of fissure forms only when winds are very high, say, 130 miles an hour or higher.

The testimony to the power of Hurricane Isabel lay in this hundred-year-old tree we thought would never die.

There must be some kind of irony that two catastrophic events occurred on opposite ends of the country within a month of each other in 2003. Hurricane Isabel, the most intense storm ever measured in the Atlantic created conditions for bark beetles to initiate a decline of woodlands here in the southeast. The Firestorm of 2003, the largest firestorm ever in southern California, was fueled by standing dry timber. These trees had been killed by bark beetles.

Or maybe it’s not irony at all but simply a roll-around of the cycle of life, death and transformation, and we are but watchers of the woods.

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