The Dead Tree

We lost a big tree in a storm last night (or last week, now that you’re reading this.)

It’s been dead for awhile–the crown came off in a similar storm two years ago–and has been standing there, about sixty feet of bare, almost polished looking wood. I never did figure out what species it was–by the time I was paying any attention to it, as more than one of a sea of identical trees, it was dead, and what with one thing and another, I never hiked around the back to check the bark. My rough guess is tulip poplar, but it could be an oak, too. I’m not great with trees, and they have a rather absurd number of oak varieties out here.

It was one of the dramatic views out of my studio window, though, and I’ll miss it.

My garden is carved out of a rather scruffy woodland, the mixed woods you get around here on abandoned pastureland. It supported almost no understory and looks bizarrely empty to my eyes (I imprinted early on the towering pines and thick fern beds of the Pacific Northwest.) So we are surrounded on all sides by trees, a number of which, at any given time, are dead as a doornail.

These are arguably the most useful trees in the entire place.

Over the years, I’ve seen three dead trees go from vertical to horizontal (or, in one specific case, diagonal) and I’ve winced every time. Not because of any property damage–none of them came near the house, and they tend to shatter when they hit the fences–but because those trees were working hard for wildlife.

While I know that living trees do all kinds of useful stuff–the small matter of oxygen and the food and homes they provide for uncounted legions of insects–dead trees have benefits that are obvious on a macroscopic scale. I’ve watched red-bellied woodpeckers hollow out homes in dead trees and raise a family. The instant those fledglings left the nest, tufted titmice moved in and raised another family.

The big dead tree we just lost was riddled with woodpecker holes, up and down its length–I counted twenty-three one day when I was trying to avoid working. Birds came and went from the holes like it was a condo.

My suspicion is that last year’s extraordinary bumper crop of fledglings (15+ young birds out and about) came about partly because of my late lamented tree. All kinds of cavity nesters used it, sometimes for multiple generations. (There were certainly other factors, like our immense inchworm glut early in the spring, and a generally insect-heavy year that meant nobody starved to death. But the tree helped.)

One of my favorite forms of procrastination was to pick up the binoculars and watch birds going in and out. I saw a whole array of birds on this particular tree, but it was a great favorite of the red-bellied woodpeckers, who have shockingly bright red mohawks and conservative herringbone suits, like a punk rocker with a respectable corporate job.

So I’m sorry to see it go. It wasn’t entirely unexpected, mind you–once the bark starts coming off in sheets, a dead tree seems to get about two years upright around here before it falls over. It was about time. Still, I was hoping for another year out of it, since it was so very good at what it did.

Now that it’s on the ground, of course, its afterlife is not quite over. Thousands of decomposers will be boring into it, a whole nearly invisible army of insects and nematodes, fungus and bacteria. Those, in turn, will feed other species and be turned into a whole host of things, from richer soil to baby birds.

We are very fortunate to live in a spot where, if a tree dies out back of the fence, we shrug and go “Yup, that tree is dead, all right,” and don’t have to worry about it falling on the neighbors or the power lines or the house. And once it’s down, we leave it there. Not everyone is so fortunate, which is a shame, because a dead tree can be quite a marvelous thing. (There’s a dead cedar juniper also visible, about which I am doing absolutely nothing, which I have pegged as the next one to go, though the cedars behave very differently when they’re dead and can stay upright for years.)

Ah, well. That’s life, or death as the case may be. Were I a more sentimental soul, I might try to plant a tree in remembrance of this one, except that nature has already planted approximately eleventy billion trees in the immediate vicinity, and it seems rather perverse to plant a balled and bagged sapling that will require coddling when I am constantly weeding red maples and baby cedar junipers out of the flowerbeds as it is.

So I’ll raise a toast to the tree–more useful, being dead, than plenty of other things are while alive–and wait for the next tree to come and take its place.


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  1. Jea Chapman says

    My OCD always wants to clean up all the dead trees. That’s how I discovered how alive they really are. Now I just smile at them knowing they are still full of life.

  2. says

    I think my neighbor’s Sugar Maple is dead. There’s a hole in it that I believe the Nuthatches are using. I worry about the largest branch falling into my garden on top of my young Red Maple or Pagoda Dogwood. I always felt sorry for that tree – no one ever took care of it. The dead wood was never removed. New clothes lines and dog runs were screwed into it. It makes me sad but a Pileated Woodpecker visited! I will be watching that hole come Spring – if Spring ever arrives. I’m hoping it will be a nest for someone other than a Starling or House Sparrow. It will be a great way to avoid working!
    Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern recently posted..What’s Blooming: Living in a Bubble

  3. Marilyn says

    Keep it up with the procrastination, Ursula!
    “like a punk rocker with a respectable corporate job.” That image will live on in my mind every time I see a red-bellied woodpecker.


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