Death of an oak tree

split 1

The storm came in quickly over the ridge, bringing rain and lightning and strong gusts of wind.

split 2

Nine miles above, the sun shone. Below that, darkness and chaos: hurricane-force winds, temperatures a hundred degrees below zero. We are fortunate that most of the drama in a thunderstorm is over our heads; what we see is mostly the violence of catharsis.*

split 3

A couple days later, I found a big old red oak, a property-line tree, reduced to a tall, jagged stump. Even from a distance, I could tell this wasn’t the storm’s fault. Wind-thrown red oaks tend to go over roots and all — and it’s a good thing, too. Over the course of millennia, such regular uprooting is one of the few ways a forest soil gets turned, and many native species of plants and animals have come to depend upon the complex, pit-and-mound microtopography that results. Bole snap, as it’s called, is more typical of other species, such as the chestnut oaks that dominate these ridgetops. This, too, serves its purpose: standing dead oak snags are havens and cornucopias for wildlife.

carpenter ant damage

A glance inside the stump confirmed my suspicion: carpenter ants were the true culprits here. Odd, isn’t it, that we refer to such masters of demolition as carpenters? Then again, their homes are no more destructive of forests than our own. And we are no less heedless of coming storms…

*See “Fly Me to the Clouds,” by Paul VanDevelder, in the July-August issue of Audubon magazine.

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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).


  1. I look forward to reading this blog every day. Thanks.


  2. Hey! My first visit!

    I just love coming across sights like that! Great pictures!


  3. I got a kick out of seeing that my friend and renter Ava stopped by here!

    Really nice oak photos, Dave. I’ve long been fascinated by such scenes of forest trauma.


  4. Hey all – Thanks for stopping by! It’s always nice to hear from new or quiet readers. Welcome.

    Larry – Thanks for sending readers my way. I did think of you, and Pablo the Roundrocker, when I posted this.


  5. Those are beautiful shots of the oak tree. I really like your line when you say “Then again, their homes are no more destructive of forests than our own”. It’s interesting to compare the way we tear down forests to build homes to carpenter ants. It’s so easy to romanticize nature – but there are destructive parts of nature too.


  6. Hi, Avery. I’m glad that resonated with you. I try hard not to romanticize nature, though when thinking about natural ecosystems, human judgments of usefulness vs. destructiveness are pretty much beside the point. On the other hand, mega-tsunamis and giant asteroids colliding with the earth are natural, too! So destructiveness is always relative to scale in time and space – and relative to one’s emotional attachment to what’s being destroyed.


  7. Interesting to learn what destruction carpenter ants can do.


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