August 7, 2011

A Walk in the Woods: The Cycle of Death and Life

After storms and heavy winds I sometimes find my woodland path blocked by a newly downed tree. A few days ago this large tree toppled from its base and scattered needles and broken branches, with still attached branches spinning from the trunk like so many agitated arms. I might have a twinge of unhappiness at seeing a tree lying on the ground like this, but it is part of a healthy process of renewal.

Throughout the woods there are bases of trees upended, sometimes with entire root systems brought up into the air. Trunks lie here and there, scattered on the ground in varying stages of decomposition. .

Dead trees or partial trunks still stand, where they provide food and shelter for various creatures and organisms, which in turn help the process of decay. The insects living in this dead tree attracted Pileated woodpeckers, which dug deep holes in the bark hunting for them, scattering woodchips as they hammered.

Over the past couple of years I've watched this grand tree stump break apart and sink further onto the forest floor where unseen organisms are busy at work helping to return the nutrients from what had been the living tree to the soil beneath the layer of organic matter. It's a beautiful, rich system and a lesson for us in how to maintain the health of our soil and our earth.


  1. this long decay is what we don't get in the city, this evidence of natural rather than human-made history... and that first photo in the post is esp a knock out. it's so integrated I thought it was a painting by someone like -neil welliver's name came to mind but maybe someone else.

  2. rappel, a lot of nature is missing in the city, but it has its own type of renewal. I'm constantly amazed, in nyc, by the rapid changes that occur.
    I'm glad you like that photo; it does seem like something Welliver might have painted in his Maine woods.

  3. Some of our tree species just don't live very long (balsam, white birch, popple).
    Eventually, all evidence disappears except the "cradle and pillow" -- the hole and hump left by an uprooted tree -- and the faint soft outlines of mossy logs. I'm glad you have such a holistic point of view of these things!

  4. well yes, we do get plenty of renewal but a lot less decay - and decay is what I was thinking of. well, there was a lot of decay available in the sixties & seventies, the moldering piers along the Hudson for example - I have to say they were visually more interesting than the park that's there now...

  5. We've left snags at different periods in our garden until they were dangerous just because it is so rare to have that kind of decay in city gardens. We kept a big log and the stump of the last tree that died and they are wonderful science projects — so much stuff eating them and unusual molds growing on them. We have a couple of dying spruces that will come out when their replacements get bigger and I am hoping to find a place for their trunks too.

  6. Amazing, it seems this pictures was taken in my area, the same thing is happening in the forest behind my house. Especially this year because of the crazy weather many trees have fallen either uprooted or broken down. I have taken several pictures that look like yours. I am always in awe by the force of mother nature and its beauty even in the dying or decaying of trees. Everyday I walk with my dogs on the snowshoeing trails, and everyday it is a new experience. Today, I saw the first sign of fall lurking around the corner and I captured it with my cell phone's camera.

  7. Susan, it's hard not to have a holistic view of decay and renewal when its evidence is so clear in the woods; there's always new growth from old. I love that "cradle and pillow" phrase.

    rappel, I guess urban decay is not a thing of renewal but evidence of rot. The decaying piers may have been beautiful to see, but not decaying neighborhoods.

    Ms.Wis., I think that's great that you leave some decaying trees and trunks in your town garden. They must add a lot of interest, never mind feeding all those organisms.

    Carole, it is beautiful isn't it? I guess northern deciduous forests are similar all over. I haven't yet seen any signs of fall, though.