Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When a tree falls in the forest..

As this past weekend’s nor’easter was letting up, I was out with the dogs when I suddenly heard a loud crack just up the hill from the cabin, and a medium-sized tree came crashing down, eventually coming to rest perhaps 30 feet away. The tree was already dead and rotten, so it broke into many pieces when it fell.

Perhaps 10 minutes later, the same thing happened. This time it was a large branch or perhaps half of a rotted tree that fell in the middle of the driveway. As it also broke into many pieces, it was easy to clean up the remains.

I figure that 3.5 days of a hard rain, though with little wind, soaked through both dead and rotted trees, weighed them down and eventually caused them to fall. That I was outside to see and hear it happen was unusual, but it got me to thinking about how old trees turn into new forest soil.

When I see fallen trees in the forest, most don’t look as though rotted before they fell. The wood typically seems to be in decent shape, and the cause for the tree’s demise isn’t immediately obvious. Likely, it’s something as simple as not being well-rooted in the stony soil or perhaps a windstorm. Fungus of one kind or several soon takes hold and begins years of work to disintegrate the tree.

Some rotted trees remain standing long after they are dead. I have several in my front forest. Each seems to get a bit smaller each year, the work of woodpeckers or fungus. The standing rotted trees appear to be less fungus-covered than the trees that fall with the wood still in good shape. I have no idea why. Every so often I’ll go out and push on one of the dead rotted trees, hoping I can convince it to fall somewhere other than my driveway (I don’t think I have any that threatens the cabin).

As to why a tree will die and then remain standing long enough to rot where it stands, I have no answers. Trees of the same species often thrive around the dead one, so I can’t blame it on a tree species that took root where it wouldn’t do well. I do know that it takes a long time for a tree to die and rot and then fall. The ones I keep an eye on in my front forest have been dead for over 10 years now, and I still can’t push them over.


The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

I really like this post, as it brings up so many points and thoughts.

Just this afternoon I was walking through a nearby upland woods with lots of maple and hickory, a few oaks, and a fair number of beech. This is an older woods, so some of the trees are pretty large. I got to noticing that a lot of the big beech were down—not recently, but within the last year…and then I remembered the aftermath winds which swept through with Hurricane Ike. Almost all the downed beech were big trees, three feet through and more—the old monarchs. A lot more had been topped at the same time. I was just thinking that well beyond my lifetime, an astute botanist could walk through this woods and still see evidence from that one particular Sunday's weather. Talk about living history! (Or still decaying, anyway.)

I've heard my share of trees falling lately, too. Spend enough time in the woods and you do indeed hear 'em…and sometimes they fall so close and suddenly they scare the daylights out of you!

Again, great post.

Cathy said...

You're lucky nothing hit the house or you. My favorite dead tree finally fell last week, I use to see it on my walks. I'll admit, I miss it.

Carolyn H said...

Griz: I've had trees fall close enough to give me a good scare. it's when you hear the crack overhead and don't know which way to move--now that's close!

Carolyn H.

Carolyn H said...

Cathy: there used to be a dead snag atop Hawk Mountain's North Lookout that was a magnet for flycatchers--especially olive-side flycatchers. I bet I could name 20 people who got their lifer o-s flycatcher there and no doubt hundreds more I didn't know. When that snag finally fell over, I felt as though I was losing an old friend.

Carolyn h.