My dear friend looks askance at this mid-walk declaration of my affections, waiting out my eulogy for the fallen deciduous and coniferous trees and their branches along the trail of a local park.
“There is so much life in them!” I continued. “They’re fascinating and teeming with life! Can you imagine how much lives on and in them? And as they decay, returning themselves to the soil and giving themselves to other creatures, they bring new life! And their role in the carbon cycle…”
When I finally took a breath, he briefly mentioned that he preferred living trees, which held a good deal of life of their own and, by the weren’t, by the way, dead. Sure, sure. Living trees are fantastic. They give us shade, house countless organisms, also participate in the carbon cycle, hold the soil in place, cool our planet, and are wonders to behold. I know…
But the fallen tree or branch, the one that strikes the ground after a storm, raggedly and incompletely severed several feet from the forest floor. The trunk caught by a neighboring living tree, waiting for a strong wind or simply time to help it to ground. The tree felled to clear or protect a hiking path, stump on one side, trunk on the other. The limb lying across the creek, a foot above at the bank on one side and diving just below the surface on its most distal end. Heck, even the white pine base of our old climber, decade-old feet set in the often wet soil of our backyard. Wood with life leaving and coming all in the same lungless breath takes my breath away.
It’s a plant thing, the ability to age and die and bring life to others without stench (and the sweet smell of soil being born could never be considered a stench). Sure, animal life decays, participating in the never-ending cycles of the organic and inorganic. But animals, well, smell and are generally less a things of beauty in their return to the earth. It’s also faster for animals, thanks to the structural and energy storage mechanisms of plants and animals. And while I can appreciate the decay of the animal on the academic level, it’s, ahem, a bit harder to appreciate it aesthetically.
My appreciation isn’t wholly about the more graceful, gradual way plants return to the earth. It’s also a bit about how they live, photons stimulating chemical reactions between water and carbon dioxide, with nutrients from the soil (cannibalism, to be sure) providing their elemental needs beyond the miracle of photosynthesis. It’s simple and independent and peaceful. I have more than a small amount of envy of what seems to be the epitome of clean living.
But, oh, the wonder of the way they die! Planned giving of one’s estate has nothing on the generosity of fallen wood. Rather than the hasty disappearance of almost the animal following death, the tree takes its time. Depending on the type of tree and its environment, a tree may last up to a few hundred years, perhaps surviving longer in death than in life. In the process of decay, it gives itself to so many forms of life: the fungi on and within it, insects boring and breeding, bacteria returning nitrogen to the soil, not to mention the countless larger creatures that make their home in the crooks and crannies of the fallen tree. And as the wood decays, its inhabitants change. Hospitality, vitality, and variety. What an afterlife.
Of course there is wood’s utility for us humans when we don’t let it decay on its own terms and time. Combined with the oxygen it gives in life, it burns, bringing us heat and light and toasted marshmallows. Bookcases and the books they hold are perhaps my favorite uses for indoor dead wood, although I also appreciate our kitchen table of 15 years, scarred in its death by our living. And for many of us, wood frames our living, holding up our homes and keeping our feet out of the dirt. However we use it, though, it returns to the earth eventually, albeit with less simplicity and a larger impact on the planet.
Left to nature’s devices from the start, wood lives and dies and brings life again rhythmically, giving and taking while alive, and giving again in death. The fallen log is slowly taken over by what it gave life: low-lying plants, larger fungi, and even the fallen leaves of the very living trees it nourishes as it fades. Aside from the fall of the tree itself or the loss of a branch in a storm, the life and death of a tree lack the drama of a human life. Alive, they bend more than break, and dead, the return all they took in life. There’s much to be learned, watching the curve of a living tree in high wind; much to be admired about the gentle return to the soil, decay so slow it takes a winter away from the stump-turning-soil to see the change. Watch both, and be changed, too.