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End of an old tree is just the beginning of another chapter in the forest

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By Jefferson Weaver, Staff Writer

Jefferson-WeaverThey fall by wind, lightning, disease or old age. Too often they have to fall, because man wants to do something else with that little piece of earth, and a chainsaw and bulldozer can accomplish in minutes what nature has failed to do for a century or more.

We take trees for granted, often commenting on the qualities of their beauty or shade while we plan their reduction into so much toilet paper, newsprint, lumber or charcoal.

 This particular tree was not as old as some, but much older than most. It lay gnarled and twisted across a path I was exploring near an abandoned homestead, a homesite that turned out to be far less interesting than the tree.

It was a blackjack oak, one of our most common hardwoods, and the kind cursed by so many people until they see how cleanly and efficiently it burns. Even more important is what it does to a barbecued pig.

While the long leaf pines get all the press, the commercial need for charcoal nearly wiped out the oft-hated blackjacks before anyone really made a dent in the pine forests.

This one had likely seen the transition from horse and mule to car and truck. It’s unlikely it was intentionally planted here, but like its brethren that still loomed beside the overgrown ghost of that old country lane, it was allowed to stay because it wasn’t in the way, or helped define the path to the old house.

Its roots weakened by the summer’s heavy rains, a limb snapped and burned from some forgotten lightning strike, the tree just finally gave up. It lay tiredly across the path, as if making one last effort to protect the old lane it had flanked for so many years.

It could no longer look down in disapproval, but at least it could deny easy access to hunters, lovebirds, and seekers of truth like myself.

The tree would soon be dead, its core rotten, its branches splintered, but all across its bark one found traces of the life.

A squirrel’s nest lay in the first crotch, its woven twigs still holding wisps of fur from the spring’s kits. Farther away, in limbs that once stood forty feet in the air, I looked down into the dried nests of songbirds which had long since learned to fly and would likely soon be building their own nests.

Even the very bark still held signs of life, with the empty husks of cicadas outside and the secret squirming of salamanders underneath the cambrium.

Where it once could have shaded a farmer, held a tire swing, or perhaps hosted a family on a picnic, the tree now served best as an awkward bench.

If it stays intact through hunting season, the tangle of limbs and twigs and branches will make an admirable hide for a rifleman waiting for a rut-dumb buck to blunder down the path, looking for love in all the wrong places.

But this tree will likely be dismembered by the local hunting club. Using chainsaws and all-terrain-vehicles, they will clear a path through the woods, where hounds will merrily chase their prey in the days before the first frost of autumn. Comfortable boxes have long since replaced the hunter’s simple, natural hide, and the old tree will just be in the way.

The wood will either be thrown to one side and discarded, or stacked at the club to feed the old pot belly stove while the hunters regale each other with stories of hunts that may or may not have happened. The wood may be hauled to the home of a family who enjoys a fire in the fireplace, and can afford to pay someone else to cut it for them. The old oak may end up being dropped off at the home of a family whose winter would be cold and hungry without it, since they enjoy no other heat.

If the stump hole isn’t filled in, the loam and leaves will form a sealant like that of a swimming pool, allowing insects and tiny bugs a nursery for the eggs and larvae.

The salamanders that examined the bark will move in as well, feeding with the tadpoles born of toads and peepers who also found the hole convenient. Opportunistic coons and other predators will reap a bounty of amphibian foodstuffs.

But some of those tadpoles will survive, and become frogs. As they sing their way through the spring and summer of next year, they will snack on the generations-removed descendants of those first bugs to find the stump hole.

Sharp-eyed birds and raccoons will return to hunt the toads, frogs, and salamanders, and they too, will help rebuild the soil around the hole, allowing the sprouting of an acorn forgotten by a squirrel, long since gone into a stew pot (or the happy acorn hunting grounds, if you prefer).

That acorn will produce a sapling, if it survives the cold and heat, the dry and the fires and the floods, and any number of other threats. That sapling will become yet another blackjack oak, not too different from the one that lay defiantly across the path. Squirrels and birds will make it into a home, and in the fall, a rut-dumb buck will polish his antlers against it, or browse for acorns.

Coons and possums will hide in its branches as hounds bay the night away. Once, a bear will stretch claws high and rake downward, enjoying his own strength as he scars the trunk.

Some day it too will fall victim to lightning, or poor soil, or a forest fire, or the howl of a hurricane. It will crash to the ground as its sire did, hard enough to drive stubs of broken limbs deep into the loam.

And someday, someone wondering if there was ever an old home-place back here in the woods will come across this tree, may wonder why it fell, and how long it stood, and look for the story in the fallen oak.