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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Tunneling ants, marauding birds and chiseling cavity nesters vie for food and shelter in the confines of dead trees. © Robert Queen
Tunneling ants, marauding birds and chiseling cavity nesters vie for food and shelter in the confines of dead trees.
© Robert Queen

December 2004

The pleasure of dead trees

For natural drama and entertainment, there's nothing quite as good as dead wood.

Justin Isherwood

The woods where I dwell is of oak, these to the high ground; maple do poke away here and there. It is well known a maple will out-race an oak for the new hold in the canopy but suffer for this the same disadvantage as wide receivers whose quarterback throws high out of fear of interception. No more terrible moment is there for wide receivers than going after a high pass knowing their knees are at the same height above ground as the tackling dummy.

New maples in a determined oak woods also seem almost to teeter, standing on tiptoe to reach for sun. They are easily dismembered for daring to keep the company of black and humorless oak; cut off at the knees by the next hard westerly wind.

A few years ago a hard blow toppled numerous oaks in my woods. It was mid-summer when this happened; I had other chores. The following winter my brother divorced causing a hemorrhage of epic proportions to our shared farm; we manned the bilge pump at the lawyer's office most of that winter. The winter after was spent in another woods, pine saw logs mostly. By the time I got around to the downed oak in my own lot, the wood was punky, not to mention that a bramble of cane and new maple had grown up. It was easy to find better places to cut firewood.

Wasting oak, even if a little punky, is a gawd-awful sin in the eyes of the farmhouse. No wood kept back the tide of winter better than oak 'cept hickory, and we are too far north for hickory. We're even lucky to have oak at 45 north latitude. God help those who must fight off winter using no better sticks than popple and white pine.

Two years ago a catch of oak wilt killed off a nice group of trees standing along the trail as it went around the car barn. It took out the swing tree and a couple others. I have, consequently around my biggins, an array of dead trees, which to some suburban patriots look disheveled, if not third-worldly.

Ever notice how as soon as someone moves into what was a nice patch of woods and builds there a house that the very reason they moved to the woods in the first act is displaced by a passion for lawn? Soon after every vagrant bush, every elderberry and thornapple, every dead tree is removed, with tulips planted where once were Indian pipe and anemone. Dead trees are not often countenanced in gardening magazines; landscapers do not coolly advise of the benefits of dead oak. Instead they are cut down, the stumps ground out by noise, and what is left given to grass and those damnable tulips.

Nature is otherwise. Nature done well, done devotedly with unfettered charity, is messy. And no temple is worshipped more devotedly or so earnestly as is the fervent adoration given to a dead tree. The oak in my yard as died four years ago has been hollowed out by deer mice and the cavities enlarged by generations of squirrels. Summer ants stream in and out as if from franchises, who in turn attract nuthatches and downies. Yesterday morning a pileated woodpecker danced around the dead stem pursued by a squirrel who thought it alone held the deed. There is nothing so alive and abundant in nature as a dead tree. It reminds me of a frat house overcrowded, unkempt and prone to late night parties, not to mention the local cops who know the address by heart.

Carpenter ants make quick work of dead wood. © Don Blegen
Carpenter ants make quick
work of dead wood.

© Don Blegen

In the cause of nature, it has been a major accomplishment of the environmental movement to convince the body public that wetlands are a true womb of life, both mantelpiece and cornerstone, despite the fact that wetlands are not so beautiful as woods and running rivers. Everybody now knows the ore's real worth is in wetlands; industry, suburbs and road builders now know this well enough to go around, not over them.

Dead trees hold a similar reservoir and yet-unknown worth. I once lived, as most farmkids did, under the edict of the woodpile that a tree belongs to the hearth as soon as it dies. This was the supreme rite of winter. Hard was it to bypass a dead tree and not reduce it to stove wood and kindling.

The maple on the corner of the house trail is dying. Truth is I notched it a time or two with the tractor axle. The top died ten years ago. Trees it seems die the same as we, inch by inch, length by length. Ichneumon flies laid it with eggs several summers ago; ants have happily turned the exposed wood into a Hindu temple complete with shrines and niches. Woodpeckers see this as an invitation for their tourism.

I will not tell you that I have pulled my La-Z-Boy into the driveway on Sunday afternoon to watch this tree die, though I am tempted. It is a vivid spectacle, though I suppose Broadway isn't particularly interested, and neither is Spielberg. Never mind that a universe or two is collapsing and colliding in that tree, a hundred Attilas are at the ramparts, the crown jewels are hidden away in dungeons, the eggs of the princess are guarded by mailed gladiators, a nation is at war, and it is terrible and wonderful to watch.

A dead tree I have learned it is better to watch than a live tree. If you want art and drama in the front yard, all the passion and the pathos of ruined civilizations, tend a dead tree. As for firewood, cut something green.

Justin Isherwood farms and crafts essays in Plover.