Death of a Tree

 

(This 973rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 15, 2009.)

 

The stately tuliptree has been for many years queen of this remote forest glen. Easily the tallest tree here, her 150-foot height reaches far above neighboring oaks, beeches and maples.

 

Five long-armed people would have to stretch to meet fingertips and circle the tree at her base. Peering up from that base is like looking up a ship's mainmast. Branchless for over thirty feet, the perfectly aligned tree trunk points through the sails of its high foliage into the sky above.

 

The rough bark of this old tree is deeply and irregularly furrowed, giving it the appearance of dark vertical ropes twining over an underlining gray base. An extra rope is the stem of a wild grape that climbs high to share light with the tree's foliage.

 

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A tuliptree sapling

photo by Patricia Eckel

 

Before this nation's Civil War a winged samara dropped by a still older tree carried its seed down into the duff of the forest floor. From that spark of life this tree has grown. Only by great good fortune did she survive. A few years still earlier a fire had swept through the area killing older trees and allowing the sun to nurture this tiny twig though her early years. The twisted mass of fallen trees around her then protected her from browsing deer and the remoteness of this glen saved her from lumbermen.

 

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A tuliptree flower

photo by Carl Carbone

 

Spring after spring the tree produced large greenish-yellow, tulip-like flowers for, despite being widely known as the yellow poplar, she is a magnolia family member. Those flowers high in the canopy were enjoyed by squirrels and birds but visitors on the forest floor rarely saw them. In fall those ground level visitors did find around her base the tree's distinctive two-dimensional tulip-shaped leaves, now yellow after their summertime chlorophyll-induced green was lost. The seeds from those flowers have not produced offspring for those that made it past foraging red squirrels, white-footed mice and chickadees to sprout faced impossible challenges. The few aromatic sprouts not cropped by deer failed because the high foliage of this tree and its neighbors closed off the light they need.

 

Thus, in her majesty this tree stands alone of her kind.

 

The tuliptree has, however, lived well into her dotage and she is in trouble. Recent floods from the nearby creek have washed away some of the earth around her base. It has also produced interior rotting and the lower part of the tree is now hollow. Now in early winter the tree stands stark and leafless in the first snowfall of the season. A big black bear sow, pregnant with twins, has burrowed under that hollowed base to hibernate. A doe browsing on witch-hazel and dogwood shrubs nearby shies away when she smells the bear.

 

The wind increases to drive the snow horizontally through the forest. The tree begins to sway and above the sighing of the wind sharp cracks are to be heard, each like the sound of a bat hitting a baseball. They are caused by sudden shifts in the wood as it strains against itself. The metronome-like swaying of the tree increases with the wind speed until its roots can no longer hold her upright. They pull out on the windward side and the queen begins to topple.

 

Although tuliptree wood is lighter than that of the nearby oaks and maples, her sheer size gives her a weight of over forty tons. This great mass now crashes down, on the way splitting and driving into the ground two mid-sized maples. The tree hits the ground so hard she breaks into three sections, each of them bouncing. Most of the smaller branches are broken off by the force of the fall. The thump reverberates through the forest scaring into flight a group of crows a quarter mile away.

 

The fortunate bear, asleep on the side away from the fall, is uninjured. Jolted awake by the tree bole hitting the ground, she climbs out of the hole left by the tree roots and slumps off to find another bedroom.

 

The queen is dead but her rotting trunk, the canopy opening her fall has created and the vernal pool left by her roots will contribute to the ongoing life of the forest.-- Gerry Rising