The secret life of trees

She was such a beauty, her many arms curved gracefully to the sky like a dancer. The loveliest tree in the yard at our cabin.

Unlike some of the older, taller trees, our scarlet oak seemed very healthy: straight of trunk, and with no fungus or weak spots. I looked forward to many more years of watching her sway in the breeze.

Last winter, a strong wind came and took her down.

When I saw her, my heart broke. She sprawled across the yard like a fallen monument, covering it with her limbs, her trunk chainsawed into vertebrae.

fallen scarlet oak branches

Only then, when she was in pieces, did we see the rot at her core.

Sometimes the illness of trees is visible. We can see the fungus consume a small dogwood that’s growing in the shade. We watch the maple bending at the spot where it has an old wound. We monitor our hemlock carefully for the white fuzz of wooly adelgid, which has infested so many of the hemlocks down at the creek.

But you can’t always tell.

When we first bought the cabin, I asked a friend who is a forester to come and have a look, ask him to diagnose the health of our little chunk of woods.

We had a white oak, and he pointed out the large, dark splotches on its trunk. I hadn’t noticed them. “Do we need to take it down right away?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said. “It’ll probably be good for a few more years.”

I was surprised. “Isn’t it rotted at the base? How can it stand?”

“Oaks invest in their infrastructure,” he explained. “They grow slowly, maybe a foot a year. They build. When one part gets diseased, they can isolate it and continue living just fine.

“You take that tulip poplar,” he added, pointing to the tree next to it, “it’ll shoot up three, four, five feet in a year. But, no investment in infrastructure. The least thing’ll take it down.”

If you ask at a nursery, they’ll tell you that no one wants to buy a white oak because they grow too slowly. People want the fast-growing trees, they want fast shade and ornamentation, so they buy trees like the hybrid poplar that grows as much as eight feet in a single year.

They’re trading expediency for integrity.

One spring at the cabin I found a huge pile of germinated acorns buried in a pile of leaves. I took those acorns, 100 of them, and planted them around on the property. I don’t know if I can make the forest healthier, but it seemed worth the investment of time to try.

Day 104’s penny is a 2013, the year of the acorn planting.

Day 103 2013