An ode to an old forest friend

I shuddered a mite as I sloshed to the woodpile in a strong first-of-March northeaster ranting with 30 mph gusts and sheets of heavy, wet snow.

It was nearly dark and it took me a moment at the woodstack to realize, that almost at my feet, a friend had fallen in the storm. No, not an old, faithful dog that somehow knew it was time and wandered out for a last look. Rather, it was an old, dead Austrian pine, an inhabitant of my creek bottom for 40-plus years. The northeaster had snapped off the trunk, jaggedly, about three feet above the roots.

I could not help but feel a special tug for this particular tree, among the hundreds I have planted over the years, for this one had a certain history. I had hauled it from a nursery to Froggy Bottom on a trailer with about 40 of its companions, three-footers, balled and burlapped, ready to transplant and translate into a windbreak against the winter westerlies.

This one pine I initially had planted down by the creek. But after just a couple of winters, just as its roots were taking and getting used to the bottomland soils, a nasty end-of-winter ice-out sheared off its five-foot top. Finding it so-maimed, I endeavored to conserve it, nurture it, give it another chance.

I dug it up and moved it to higher ground nearer the house. It survived, but it did not thrive. But it ultimately threw up a new candle, a new trunk, straight and tall, though offset from the ice damage. The tree couldn’t compete with its healthy brethren for girth, but it grew nearly  as tall, just leaner.

It survived Diplodia tip blight and Zimmerman pine moth infestations. It stayed alive, contributing as it could to the breaking of winter winds. Then one summer about 15 years ago, while I was away, a violent storm snapped off the top 20 feet of a tall Norway spruce over by the barn, and inexplicably, also the top 10 feet of this survivor pine 100 feet away. Other trees in between were untouched. The broken top, still attached by tough shreds of trunk, hung at a crazy angle.

I reached up with a long pole-saw and pruned off some of the broken top, just to relieve the weight. But the final three feet of it hung like a limp surrender flag to the elements.

In a few more years, the tree finally gave up the ghost and died completely. All the needles turned brown, started to shed one by one, a few at a time. Odd limbs dried and fell. It became more and more a skeleton. But I would not succumb to urgings and sideways glances that said “clean it up. Chop it down and make firewood.” No, I wanted to leave this old friend with some dignity in death, to fade slowly. In turn, its deadwood trunk became home to larvae and caterpillars and insects that fed countless woodpeckers and many songbirds.

So my old, friend, the Survivor Pine, carried on, even in death – till this recent March gale. Now, once the spring-soaked soil dries out, I will make wood of the snapped trunk, cutting logs to burn at next December’s Winter Solstice bonfire, an annual “Druid” observance I enjoy in remembrance of Ancients who lived by the turn of seasons and wheeling of stars. It will be a fitting end as I watch the old pine’s glowing orange sparks drift upward and wink out among the stars.

Perhaps I also will square up the stump, use it as a pedestal for a bird-feeder or birdhouse. One day, in a few more years, even that stump-post will rot and fall. Others already have. But by then the old pine’s decaying roots will have begun feeding new life – fungi, bacteria, wildflowers, maybe even other seedling trees.

And so, an old tree-friend really need not die in the ultimate sense. In one form or another, it will live. It depends on how you look at it – whether a tree is just a utility or commodity to be grown, used, then disposed of when it no longer brings a profit. Or whether it is something more.

Categories: Ohio – Steve Pollick