Becoming more tree-like.
During my weekly garlic mustard scout / pull at Kurtz Woods I noticed something was a little off from when I had last been there. The trilliums were still in full bloom along the forest floor, but there were a lot more withered tree leaves, and large limbs laying about the trails. There was a rather large storm that blew through the area over the Memorial Day weekend, and it looks like our little State Natural Area was hit hard.
One of the benefits to working with the Land Trust is having the free reign to walk wherever I please throughout the protected lands. How else am I supposed to properly scout for Garlic Mustard? I didn’t have to stray far though from the trails it would seem to see what had happened. A limb here, a branch there, clearing away the felled wood from the main trails was a nice way to spend the morning to be honest – and the garlic mustard IS getting harder to find, which is quite encouraging indeed. It was with a bit of surprise when I saw a couple American Ash trees that had half of their canopy missing, lying there on the forest floor. It didn’t look like lightning, so I could only imagine extremely strong winds returned the lofty branches back to the ground from where they grew. One tree just absolutely splintered itself on it’s way to breaking. It’s a shame, it was a beech tree … one of my favorite species. Sadly, this wouldn’t be the only one.
As I walked I saw a what appeared to be a tree limb on the ground, which wasn’t a big deal, I expected to see a lot of these. As I got closer I noticed the silver bark. American Beech. When I got really close I realized just what had occurred. One of my favorite trees in the woods had been literally broken in half by the wind. The picture doesn’t convey the size too well, I cannot hug this tree. It’s probably around 8 feet in circumference. It’s height must’ve been 60-70 feet fall. Like many old trees, the heartwood in the middle has rotted out, and at the base of the tree you could probably fit a very small child into the cave that has formed. Above the picture is about another 3-4 feet of trunk, and then … nothing. I will not lie when I say I was a little devastated. Old trees are one of my favorite things in this world; to see one in this state definitely put a downer on my morning.
The picture to the right is the same picture posted above of the splintered tree. I wasn’t able to photograph the larger tree’s stump since it was so tall / laying on the ground. What I can tell you, though, was it was probably double the size of the one you see there. Attempting to count the rings to see each year’s growth is hard, Beech trees are slow growing, the rings are really close together. It makes for a real dense, strong wood though – which makes seeing these trees felled that much more surprising. These trees have been around for hundreds of years … I would imagine that this one tree has been around longer than Wisconsin has been a state. There are other trees this size in this forest – it’s one of the things that make these state natural areas so precious. They are what’s left. Once they are gone, they are gone forever and all the diversity and years upon years of life that has added to these areas is nothing more but a memory or a photo. What would these trees have to say about their lives? 100 years is a long time, but somewhat reachable within our own minds. Try thinking about being alive for 200 years … everything that has happened since 1808. Sure, these trees weren’t quite as mobile as some other living things out there, but perhaps that would give them a unique and somewhat eccentric personality. Their roots run deep, through the very depths of the earth itself. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to think that the trees could speak to each other through Gaia. There aren’t any tree herders in this particular story, so in reality there’s no one to speak for the trees. All we can do is sit near one, and think about all that has gone on.
I wonder what a tree would think about the future. Having been around for so long, I imagine this Beech would have quite a patient look on things, but really consider things well. We humans, we are short-sighted by nature. Impatient, needy, scrambling to find things as soon as we can, without looking towards the future to see what our actions really might do 10, 15 … 100 years from now. I don’t think a tree would have that problem. We should strive to be more tree-like in our lives, realize what we are doing today has a much greater effect on the world around us than our own little bubble that we live in at the current moment. Aldo Leopold had a similar way of thinking, although he called it “Thinking like a mountain.”
Old trees always make me think, they always elicit strong emotions from me. When I hear about a 150 year old tree that’s been slated chopping because it poses a safety hazard to children because it has “sharp needles” it almost makes me sick to my stomach. Seeing a couple of these old beech trees fallen in Kurtz is a sad thing, but it’s only the next step in the long life of the forest. Their particular voices have been silenced, but now those years of nutrients are ready to be released back into the understory. The multitude of life that is going to use this tree for the next 40-50+ years as it slowly decomposes is simply astounding. It’s all part of a cycle, it would seem – and even though it hurts now to see this happen, sometime when I’m long gone there will (hopefully) be a extremely large tree in its place. Perhaps it’ll even hear about some guy who walked by one Tuesday morning a couple hundred years ago who seemed to have a rather great affinity for the spot.
I did cut some of the thinner branches from the tree to take home with me. A memento of sorts. I have a couple small building projects planned that’ll use them nicely. I’ve also been without a proper walking stick for a long time, hopefully I can let the years of this Beech guide me in my future adventures.