Driving down a country road last week, I turned to gaze at a lone tree in the west that always stands so firmly, silhouetted against the evening sky. On this night, however, one half of the tree lay sprawled across a nearby farm field, toppled over by wind or age. “How sad,” I thought to myself, as I continued to drive home. The next day, I enjoyed a rare afternoon to myself, snowshoeing through the woods with my dog. Here again, I found a fallen tree, overturned by the whims of nature. This time, I thought, “How beautiful.” The dog and I crawled over and around the tree, her nose sniffing madly as we scrambled, and I wondered what mother could be resting underneath, sheltered safely from the winter wind. Could she be woodchuck, fox or hare?
We humans have a hard time accepting fallen trees where they lay. Their appearance is rather messy and pains our sensibilities, especially if the rotting log rests on the shore of a river or lake. We’d prefer if everything in nature remained living and trees stood upright, like they ought to.
When I worked at a nature center in Roseville 15 years ago, I treated fallen logs like treasure chests. We taught children from the nearby elementary school who walked over from the building to our center in a long squiggly line led by the teacher. Many were city kids who’d never hiked or camped in the woods. “Will there be bears?” they wondered loudly as they walked. “Are there crocodiles and tigers?” I’d lead them down the trail a ways until I found a dead log on the edge of the woods. Then I’d stop, crouch down, and turn it over to reveal a hidden and vibrantly living world beneath.
Within seconds, the kids would gather around chattering excitedly as we gazed at millipedes, slugs and beetles. Soon, the children would fan out across the area, turning over every rock and log in sight. Earthworms, ants and the occasional toad would spill out from beneath, while nurseries full of pure white larva wiggled beguilingly in sheltered cavities. Often a parent chaperone would turn to me and say, “Wow! I never knew there could be so many living things beneath a dead log in the woods.”
These elementary school students learned that there are three vital components to the nutrient cycle. Plant and trees are producers, which create food from sunlight, air and water. Consumers include the predators and prey that eat plants and one another, and decomposers — bacteria and fungi — break down dead plants and animals so that the cycle is continually renewed. Without the fallen log in the woods, there is no nourishment for the purple jellydisc mushrooms, sprouting like dark red ears out of the side of its crumbling bark. There are no colonies of ants, quietly marching across the soft brown soil, carrying bits of leaves in their mouths. There are no black and white badgers rooting about noisily, scooping pawfuls of larva into their mouths.
Along the edges of lakes and rivers, dead trees are equally life-giving. These snags create cover for wildlife and provide a safe space away from the currents for fish to spawn and lay eggs. Cavities in snags attract woodpeckers, nuthatches, brown creepers, wood ducks, mergansers, flycatchers and squirrels. Ospreys and eagles nest or perch on dead trees, as do herons and egrets. Downed logs in the water give turtles and ducks and place to bask in the summer sun, provide homes for salamanders and frogs, and are havens for insects and worms. Though the human eye scorns the messy shoreline, nature’s heart loves these places best.
In nature, there is life and death. As an old tree dies, birds carve nests in its side to lay eggs. Then finally one night, amidst falling snow and whipping wind, the tree falls to the ground. “How sad,” I think, as I drive by in my car. “How beautiful,” the mother fox sighs quietly, as she burrows beneath the old, dead log to nuzzle babies in her den.