Notes from Windward: #71


Stories of Wind

January 18th 2011


     The other night I slept quite restlessly. The wind howled continuously through the trees, the windows rattled and their plastic insulation flapped against the sides of the building. Occasionally a gust would build to such an intensity that the whole building seemed to shake, and in my half woken state I feared that me and my bed would be given flight and I could not figure out where we would land. Trees shed their weakly attached limbs and I worried that those surrounding where I lay sleeping would give up on much more. Such is life in the woods during wind storms and waking up to find most of the trees still standing intact gave me a deep gratitude for the resilience of these forest makers. Yet such wind storms are a reminder that the forest is a process in motion and that trees too are governed by the laws of physics--and I just hope that I am not in the path when the wind and gravity ultimately pull one of the forest giants down.

a less fortunate old truck

     Even though I have spent many, many hours of my life in the woods, much of my understanding of the dynamics that govern forest functioning is still theoretical. Theoretical in contrast to experiential. I can look at a tree, a clump of vegetation, or a contour in the land and guess as to what caused the tree to grow into its current form, the factors that contributed to the species composition and distribution of the vegetation, and the forces that created the slope and aspect of the forest floor, but I rarely know for certain. Why any given tree has its shape is a story told over decades; and it is these stories that comprise a forest. Yet to know these stories intimately, to not just see a forest in one moment in time and guess at the details that created it or revert to averages, you have to spend a lot of time in one place. To see the forest for the trees, as they say, means coming back to the same spot, time and time again and watching how it changes and why; witnessing with the understanding that what you are watching is not an average, over space nor time, but a detailed story unfolding right in front of you, with specific characters and plot lines and outcomes.

one of my favorite trees‒the parent tree holding up its two children

     The reports trickled in throughout the following day of the wind damage observed within walking distance: the live broken tops of trees down on Power Lane (where the power lines cut through the forest), the uprooted dead oak that fell near the kitchen, the multiple trees down in the campground, the dead Ponderosa that Andrew witnessed break and fall to the ground. Wind storms are one mechanism that fertilizes the forest floor with organic matter, that creates standing dead trees favored by raptors for perches, that inspires shapes and forms in trees more like characters imagined by Dr. Seuss than any "realistic" depiction of a forest. When the conditions are right, wind storms can also reshape the topography of the forest floor, creating microclimates with varying moisture and sunlight availability--the climatic diversity that enables species diversity to take root.

     That afternoon while walking along the road that forms the eastern property line, I looked over to what we call the pasture--where young Ponderosa pines are doing their best to reclaim the land as a forest. More than 10 years ago, a fire burned its way through this part of the property, killing most of the trees that were growing there. This was before my time here, but over the past two years I have spent many hours down there cleaning up all the dead and fallen trees and limbing the young Ponderosas that have grown up since the fire.

young Ponderosas growing up in the pasture

     A few large trees survived the blaze, including a Ponderosa with a diameter of almost three feet and multiple tops. This is the tree that when I looked to the pasture that afternoon caught my eye; for it was not there, or rather it was not where it usually is. Instead of towering above the rest of the landscape with its vibrant and perky needles filling the space between earth and sky, it lay on the ground, still completely in tact, roots and rootball exposed to the air, as if all the wind had made it tired and it just needed to take a nap.

a forest survivor falls to the ground

     The sadness of seeing this tree having succumbed to the wind was brief, and soon I stood by its side, enraptured. Something moved in me to see this tree lying on the ground, with its trunk and branches where its afternoon shadow should have been, its roots exposed to light and air, the gaping hole in the ground that just hours before had been filled with roots and rocks that now I had to look up to see.

the rootball‒still holding onto rocks and soil

     My body is becoming better acquainted with the cycles that bring life into this world in one form and then let it pass, allowing it to then transform into different shapes with different functions. And with each passing, my own mortality becomes ever more evident; I too am just flesh and bones and am vulnerable. Even though part of me can see the forest and any given tree as a dynamic process in motion, forever changing, there is something constant and stable about the presence of one of these large trees. It's as though amidst all the chaos and movement of our daily lives, such forest giants put my life in perspective, they reassure me that whatever it is that is challenging in the moment, in the grand scheme it is nothing. Life still goes on, it must. Just like I may see the blooming and fading of thousands of spring wildflowers and have watched the life fade from the eyes of many chickens and rabbits only to have their life nourish mine, such trees watch us come and go, come and go. Yet, there is nothing that ensures that the child outlives the parent, and if there is anything that is reliable in this world, it is that it is constantly changing. So it was with a strong sense of my own mortality and of feeling honored to witness such a moment, that I stood staring at this grounded tree.

     I climbed through its branches, inspecting the tree top lichen that I rarely see, wondering at the events that caused it to form so many leaders (I counted at least five); I took pictures of the sap beading on the grain of wood exposed from the force of the fall, pulled myself up to the top of its rootball and looked down into the hole in the earth where its roots used to be. I felt like a child on a magical playground that only appears once in a very long while. I soaked it in.

a few of the tree's multiple leaders

     Now this piece of ground has a story, with afternoon lighting and beads of sap. I know not yet what will come of the tree-- its wood will become part of our home maybe as furniture or even part of a cabin, its multiple leaders will likely warm us next winter, and the branches may become woodchip bedding for the chickens to only then find their way into the garden as compost or the base of a nut trees as mulch. This is what happens when you stay in one place, everything eventually has a story to tell. And, here the story of a windstorm does not end with a fallen tree or even a pit and mound, it continues to weave itself into the tales told of a bedroom bookshelf or of mucking out the chicken coop, the bounty of the garden or the shade of a walnut tree.

pinesap beading on one of the broken tops

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 71