Deadwood in winter

snow and fungus log

Sky and snowpack are two kinds of white, and the pale skin of arboreal fungi makes a third. Within a year or two after death, a log or snag has already become an extension of the ground in one respect: it is shot through with networks of fungal hyphae, the mycelium. This is not a root structure — remember that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Rather, it is like a skilled miner who has adapted to the job so well that he has become almost indistinguishable from the ore.

birch snag in snow

Wood so mined becomes lighter than paper: punk wood. It breaks easily, but does not yet crumble between the fingers. It makes an excellent tinder, burning with a green flame.

catacombs

Other miners of dead trees include ants and termites and the pale grubs of beetles: stag beetles, longhorn beetles, scarabs and more. Such xylophagous insects contribute at least as much to the decomposition of trees as the fungi — indeed, some species of the latter require the openings of the former before they can begin their own infiltrations.

Various species of bees and wasps and the maggots of flies, midges and mosquitoes also make their homes in the tunnels of beetle grubs, and feed on their dried-out excrement. Though there’s very little insect activity this time of year, a half-rotted snag preserves a record as visually rich and intriguing as a Dead Sea scroll. And of course the woodpeckers also come knocking, drilling doors into larder, shelter, and sounding board. The winter woods echoes with their stacatto taps and calls.

oak snag in snow

If after all this the dead still stand, it is often at odd angles. The sun is no longer of any interest to them. They alone try the embrace of other trees, and when the wind blows, they are vociferous in their complaint.
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Don’t forget to send tree-related links to Lorianne — zenmama at gmail dot com — by December 30 for inclusion on the next Festival of the Trees. And be sure to visit the Insecta issue of qarrtsiluni, which is still in progress with a number of posts yet to come.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

2 Comments


  1. Hi! Here in my “transitional oak savannah/douglas fir forest” oak trees of a certain size(roughly 9″ DBH), after they have been standing dead for awhile(theory not proven yet though, I haven’t been here long enough to observe this part), bow down, lose their canopy and form an arch(roughly the same bend/curve you would see when someone builds a stone wall, or those old roman bridges). I found three such trees on my 10 acres. Don’t know how this really happens, but it’s cool.

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  2. celeste – Granted that this is probably not a species of oak I have any experience with, I’d still be extremely surprised if this bowing down takes place after death. The wood would be much too brittle, I think. It seems to me much likelier that they were bowed over by something like an icestorm while they were still alive (and died as a result).

    One way or another, they do sound pretty cool-looking. Thanks for stopping by.

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