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In the Midst of Death …

The Lively World of Dead Trees

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

June 26, 2007

The first time I rounded a bend in a swift river only to find a sweeper dead ahead, I was plenty scared, and with good reason: the current was hustling me right into the lethal embrace of a downed sycamore. Of course, this was one invitation I was determined to reject. And I lost no time in doing so. A quick back ferry to the inside of the bend did the trick. Still, it was a narrow escape. The little mountain stream I was floating was so skinny that my canoe's stern grated over the gravel in the shallows while the bow rasped against the tips of the sycamore's quivering branches. I soon slipped back into safer waters, but it was an eye-opening moment, and I left the river a wiser (and a better) boater for it.

No experienced paddler needs to be reminded to give dead and downed trees a wide berth on moving water, I'm sure. Sweepers and strainers can be lethal. And dead trees aren't the best of neighbors in camp, either — windfalls have claimed their share of lives over the years. That's the downside of dead trees, and it's a big one. But there's an upside, too, even if it isn't always easy to see. I've hung with trees since I was a girl, yet it took me a while to appreciate this. The clincher was a fledgling tree swallow I came to think of as Scruffy, so named because a scraggly ruff of pin feathers graced his chin like an unkempt goatee on a would-be rapper. "His" chin? Well, I really couldn't tell if Scruffy was a he or a she, but he had a sort of swagger about him that made me think of him as a he. I could have been wrong, of course. In any case, Scruffy was the smallest of five siblings born in a nest hole in the stub of a dead white birch, just a few yards from our home on the 'Flow. The five young swallows couldn't have had a better place to grow up. A large bracket fungus sheltered the entrance to their nursery from sun and shower, and they had a truly spectacular view out over the water, where their parents hunted tirelessly in a vain attempt to collect enough insects to silence the chicks' never-ending cries.

Home, Sweet Home

Scenes From a Bird's Life

But baby birds have to grow up fast. So it wasn't long before the young tree swallows were ready to leave the nest. And when that day came, it was a surprisingly matter-of-fact affair. The fledglings didn't do elaborate stretching routines or make a series of false starts. Instead, as their parents churred and chattered encouragement, the young swallows simply hopped up onto the threshold of the nursery one by one, each shrugging his or her shoulders a couple of times as if to say, "Can't see what all the fuss is about." Then, without further preliminaries, they launched themselves into the air, one right after the other. Scruffy was the last to go, and when he left I thought I'd never see him again.

I was wrong. Fall came and went. Ice sheathed the 'Flow, and snow softened the contours of the surrounding hills. But the wheel of the year never stops turning, and winter finally yielded to spring. Then, one fine May morning, I looked out of our big west window to see a swallow exploring the nest cavity in the tottering birch. And I thought I recognized him. I grabbed my binoculars to make sure I wasn't mistaken. I wasn't. Scruffy had returned. He was bigger than when I'd last seen him, but there was no mistaking the untidy goatee that set him apart. He didn't stay long, however. After spending a few minutes revisiting his old home, he moved on with as little ceremony as before. I didn't see again him after that, and just a couple of weeks later a summer storm toppled the birch into the water.

End of story? Nope. The old tree continued to serve as a nursery, sheltering generations of fish fry, not to mention the crayfish whose eyes glowed eerily in the light of my flashlight when I explored the 'Flow's shoreline late at night. Nor was that all. At the other end of each day, long-legged herons prospected for their breakfast from perches on the rotting remains of the trunk. There were mysteries to be solved, too. For years I puzzled over jelly-like masses that clung to the birch's submerged branches, rising and falling in the wakes raised by passing boats. I later learned that these were colonies of pectinatellid bryozoans, tiny invertebrate "moss animals," with a life history that was as complicated as it was fascinating. One thing was certain: That waterlogged birch was far from dead. In fact, it was the heart and soul of a pretty lively scene.

 

OK. I'm sometimes a little slow on the uptake. But there's a lesson to be learned here, and I can thank Scruffy for teaching it to me:

In the Midst of Death We Are in Life

That's turning the once-familiar words from the English Book of Common Prayer on their head, I know, but it's no less true for all that. My photo collection contains hundreds of examples of dying and dead trees that support and nourish new life. Every picture tells a story. Insect grubs grow fat on rotten wood. The fat grubs lure foraging woodpeckers, and the cavities made by these big birds then become homes to other birds. Swallows, flickers, chickadees, wood ducks, owls, and — yes — woodpeckers are but a few of the birds who nest in tree holes. So do bees, on whose activities the reproductive success of so many wild and cultivated plants depends. Of course tree holes aren't just for the birds and the bees. Squirrels, mice, and raccoons all like a room with a view, as does the occasional venturesome chipmunk. And that's just the beginning. The bare limbs of standing dead trees support the straggling nests of eagles, ospreys, owls, ravens, and great blue herons, to name only a few, while also providing vantage points from which these keen-eyed (or keen-eared) predators can survey the passing scene. Down below, hollow tree trunks shelter foxes, porcupines, and slumbering bears. Dead trees do double duty as pantries, too, where the autumn harvest of seeds and nuts is wedged into crevices or deposited in cavities as insurance against the leaner times to come.

Location, Location, Location

Rooms With a View

To many powerboat drivers, any tree that topples into the water is simply a hazard to navigation, to be removed immediately. And waterfront property owners often regard dead trees as eyesores that serve only to the reduce the value of their investment. Both reactions are understandable, I suppose, but they're also a bit shortsighted. Windfalls and downed trees are prominent features of natural shorelines, convenient access ramps and vantage points for racoons, mink, and weasels, not to mention herons and shorebirds and numberless thirsty creatures. Turtles sun themselves on waterlogged limbs, while submerged trees provide shelter ("structure" in angling jargon) for fish, amphibians, and a host of invertebrate life-forms.

Hanging Out

At the Water's Edge

 

But downed trees do even more. They're critical elements in the geology of shorelines and soils, as well, providing…

Stability, Support, and Self-Renewal

When a tree falls on a riverbank or lakeside, the tangle of limbs and branches traps windblown leaves and eroded soil right at the water's edge, armoring the shoreline and limiting the damage done by waves and wakes and the runoff from summer storms. Further inland, downed trees protect steep slopes from erosion by wind and water, while decaying wood nourishes the soils of the forest floor, recycling nutrients that would otherwise be forever lost to the local environment. In a healthy forest, a springy duff supports a varied and diverse (if largely invisible) community of life, ranging from slime molds to scarab beetles, and from salamanders to shrews. Duff also serves as a water reservoir, retaining critical moisture through all but the longest droughts. And the rotten wood of dead and downed trees is essential to the well-being of this life-giving organic matrix.

Hanging Tough

Hanging Tough and Holding On

 

In the midst of death we are in life. The evidence is all around us. The next time you stop for a breather on a portage trail, take a few minutes to look closely at any fallen trees. Note the new growth springing from the prostrate trunks and exposed roots of the dead: mushrooms, ferns, wildflowers, and saplings. Then smell the sweet perfume of decay. And walk on refreshed.

You wouldn't pitch your tent under a dead limb, I know, and a sweeper can spoil any heedless paddler's day. But would any of us really want to live in a world without dead trees? No way! Nature may not be a tidy housekeeper, but she's an expert at making ends meet, and dead trees are like money in the bank to her. So the next time you're tempted to curse a deadfall on the portage trail, or damn a sweeper blocking your favorite line though a bend, step back and chill out. Take a minute to imagine a forest without dead trees. A forest without woodpeckers, or tree swallows, or ospreys. Or a shoreline without deadfalls, coffined in a sterile seawall, where no turtles bask and no shorebirds forage. And then look around you and ask yourself what your home waters will be like in fifty years' time.

Are you happy with the answer?

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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