Thunder roared in the distance, while the dog-day cicadas rejoiced in the afternoon heat on August 27th. Gradually, the sky grew darker, the wind picked up and it began to rain – it seemed like a typical summer thunderstorm, despite the tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service. After a while of this weather, the light rain ceased, and the wind suddenly became still, as if the storm was over. I watched a cloud slowly rotate over the house while the sky became tinted with teal blue, before a massive thundercloud rolled over the hill, enveloping all in a darkness that was like night, and bringing with it pounding rain that swirled in the wind, and tumbled off the roof like a waterfall. The sound of the wind grew to a constant roar so loud it nearly drowned out the sound of the falling trees. At this most intense moment of the storm, we headed to our basement for safety, but by the time we had descended the stairs, the wind was already dying down and the sky was growing lighter by the minute. It was over.
We headed out into the rain, expecting to see a much-changed world, but were surprised that the wind only took down a few old weeping willows and black locusts, and injuring a hickory tree near the house.
It poured for the rest of the day, and for much of the night, so I was unable to inspect much of the forest until the following day. The lower slopes of maple, birch, and black cherry near the house were missing merely a few large branches, but when I began to climb up the hill, I found huge trees down everywhere.
The narrow foot path I walked almost daily was not only blocked by several fallen trees, each three feet in diameter, but had been torn up entirely with a mound of soil when one of my favorite northern red oaks (Quercus rubra) toppled. This tree, along with several others nearby, were not only some of our largest and oldest red oaks but were copious fruit producers – they rained down thousands upon thousands of acorns last year. Here I gathered basket after basket of their fruits, often returning just a few hours later to find the path covered by as many acorns as it had been before. These trees not only held a special place in our hearts for their immense beauty, but for the nutritious food which they supplied us with.
Higher on the hill, not only were individual trees taken down by the wind, but swaths of forest covering several acres were quite nearly leveled. Due merely to the direction of the wind, the upper slopes and ridges bore the worst of the storm, resulting in red oak being disproportionately affected. Out of 107 trees over one foot in diameter, 42 of them were red oak. Also hard hit were red maple (15 trees), sugar maple (12 trees), and black birch (8 trees). Hundreds of saplings and sub-canopy trees, mostly maple and beech, were also lost when the larger trees crushed them.
One of our trails is now impassable because of the massive amount of woody debris on them, and it is no better off the trail; one cannot travel through several areas of our forest without climbing over and under fallen trees.
So what are we going to do now, with this awful mess on our hands? Salvage lumber? Harvest firewood from the fallen trees? Clear trails through the forest again? None of it. Some of you must think that this would surely be a waste of all this wood, to merely let it sit there and rot? But that is exactly what our forests have been doing for millennia; no one ever ‘cleaned up’ after the forest when trees died and fell over. Not even when microbursts, tornadoes and hurricanes leveled whole forests – such disturbances are indeed natural, and their absence would do little to maintain the biological diversity of the landscape.
Dead wood is arguably the most important component of any healthy forest, for when trees are not removed by humans when they die, they remain in the nutrient cycling of the forest, enriching the soil, storing carbon, creating habitat and biodiversity. Seemingly unthinkable numbers of species are dead wood specialists, they include tens of thousands of insects and other invertebrates, amphibians, and fungi so numerous that many species remain unknown to science. Many other organisms rely heavily on dead wood, these include many mammals, and even many birds, including woodpeckers, owls, ducks, chickadees, nuthatches and even the winter wren (Troglodytes hiemalis), who nests only in the cavities of tip-up mounds. These species do not merely live where trees grow, but contribute to ecological diversity, complexity and function – they make the woods a forest. I was reminded of this as I watched several species of ichneumon wasps (parasitoids of other insects), flying about in the new canopy gaps – some of the most striking of these creatures can only reproduce by parasitizing wood-boring insect larvae, and therefore must have sufficient amounts of dead wood to be able to survive as a species. I am certain we will see an increase of these beautiful insects in the coming years.
One of my favorite animals benefitting from dead wood is the red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus), an extremely abundant species that can be found almost exclusively under decaying logs. This little amphibian plays a big role in our forests, by preying on invertebrates who break down dead plant material, red-backed salamander helps to slow decomposition and build healthy soil. Several studies have shown that the abundance of these animals can alter how much carbon is sequestered into the soil, versus released back into the atmosphere.
Even many plants will benefit from this storm. The tangled, fallen crowns of the big trees now provide a refuge for many species where the mouths of overpopulated deer cannot reach; and as the trees return to the soil, they will become germination sites for mosses, ferns, wildflowers, and even small-seeded trees and shrubs who cannot establish themselves in the thick leaf layer.
Already I have found wild blueberries, serviceberries and flowering dogwoods – previously hidden in the understory – now with plentiful access to sunlight, who will in the coming years begin to produce significant amounts of fruit.
Soon it will be acorn season again, and though we are saddened to lose some of our favorite trees and best acorn-producers, we realize that this will be a positive thing for the forest, even for the red oaks, who need ample light to successfully regenerate. Without such disturbances, red oak (among many other species) would surely disappear from our forests. We will do our part to ensure that new red oaks are able to successfully regenerate, so that there may still be acorn crops here in when an entirely new generation of trees dominates the canopy.
The relationship between plant and animal, specifically regarding the fruit of the red oak, is more complicated than merely a predator-prey relationship, but one of cooperation: the plant provides animals with food, who then function as seed dispersers. This is not only limited to squirrels and blue jays but can extend to humans, too. As a way of thanking these trees, I planted some of the acorns I gathered last autumn, and now there are several new red oak trees growing in the forest, trees which now have a chance to become the forest giants of the future - the circle of life goes on.