Insignificant Events In The Life Of A Tree

Sometimes, it is good to look at an ancient tree and think about all that has happened in its long life to understand what is significant in our own. Photo courtesy of Jeff Tome

Have you ever sat next to a tree and felt insignificant? There are trees in our area that are older than the country. They were growing when settlers moved in from afar and had been rooted in place as horses came in, were slowly replaced by steam engines, then cars. These ancient trees towered over the forest long before cell phone towers sprouted on the hillsides. The sheer volume of history contained in an ancient tree’s trunk makes everything in my life seem short and insignificant.

That is the premise behind the title of a book I have been reading with my daughter: “Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus.” The book features a heroine with no arms and her friends, who have a bunch of problems in typical pre-teen fashion. At one point, the girl sits by a cactus and thinks how this 250-year-old Saguaro Cactus must think of her problems as a temporary blimp in a long life. It puts things in perspective.

I wonder what an ancient tree would really care about? Would it wonder where the wolves that howled through the forest and occasionally peed on its bark went? Would it miss the cougars that occasionally rubbed its bark like a giant cat? Would it wonder where the passenger pigeon, which flew through the forest by the millions, disappeared to?

Perhaps the tree notices other things instead, like the slow death of other trees in the forest. American chestnut trees were virtually wiped off the map 100 years ago. Dutch elm disease came along and slowly wiped out elm trees across the country. Emerald ash borers are small insects that are currently destroying ash trees millions of times their size. Tiny hemlock adelgids are working their way into the forests to kill the deep cool green hemlock forests. All of this in one tree’s life!

One ancient tree has had wonders of nature pass beneath its branches that are beyond things I will ever know, unless some smart aleck finally builds that time machine. New plants and animals have moved into the forest too. City pigeons, house sparrows and whirling flocks of starlings have all appeared.

New plants have marched across the landscape as well. Many of the weeds in lawns were brought here from afar: plantain, ground mint and dandelions. Trees, like Norway maple, gingko and Japanese maple came along as well.

One tree has been through a lot. It watched the state mostly clear-cut and regrown. It’s seen populations of animals disappear and reappear. Otters, beavers and other animals were completely gone from the area before returning decades later. Other animals, like the eastern coyote, appeared from the north and stealthily crept into the forest.

The world is always changing, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. It can be hard to tell the difference. A biologist recently gave me a different outlook on a caterpillar infestation that was killing hundreds of trees in the Allegheny National Forest. It wasn’t a pest outbreak, but nature’s way of balancing the books. The caterpillars ate all the leaves off of one species of tree, killing them and littering the ground with caterpillar poop to fertilize a new, more diverse, forest. Perhaps that is sometimes needed, a natural event that kills off the old monoculture forest to allow something new to arise from the pooped out remains of the old forest.

So, what is significant in the life of an ancient tree? Truthfully, I don’t know. My time on this planet has been too short to fully realize the impacts of events to know how they will play out over time. Perhaps the tree knows.

Take a second and look at the world around you, just a second, and wonder what you see that affects the life of a tree as old as the country. Perhaps the events around us are more insignificant than we give them credit for.

Jeff Tome is a Senior Naturalist and Exhibits Coordinator at the Audubon Community Nature Center, a former CWC board director and a longtime CWC volunteer. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region.

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