I see from the photo that it was snowing when I snapped this. I was intent on the flayed tree, this black locust savaged by a horny buck who must’ve bent it halfway to the ground to reach so far up its trunk. It’s O.K. with me; the tree isn’t one we necessarily want to survive. It’s one of the advance scouts for the forest’s never-ending attempt to take back the ground it lost 150 years ago to field and orchard.
Black locusts are good at that: rhizomatic, nitrogen-fixing, fast growing… the perfect native colonizer. As fast as we prune them out of the old meadow, they reappear, new sprouts capable of growing five feet in a year. The tree in the photo looks like a three-year-old to me. Armed for combat of a sort with its short thorns (nothing like those on a wild honey locust), a black locust sapling seems like good match for a deer’s antlers, which must be flayed themselves and then polished and honed: trees that live a single season and never sprout a leaf.
In the black cherry woods near the Far Field, time and rot have stripped all the bark from a tree brought down by ice five winters ago. Now its bare trunk burns with new life, albeit not the kind typically featured in parables about self-transformation. I look around for saplings in the openings the storm made, and spot a few, but almost none of them are hickories or oaks.
I have seen this forest devastated again and again: by gypsy moth caterpillars 30 years ago and by ever-more-frequent ice storms, the result no doubt of the changing global climate. Will stands like this ever revert to closed-canopy forest, or will they continue to thin until half the mountain is covered by savanna and dominated by fast-growing colonist species such as black locusts, black cherries, striped and red maples, and the alien tree-of-heaven?
It’s easy to get depressed and forget that whatever happens, however stark a desert we make, it will still be beautiful. On a cloudy late afternoon in the monotone winter woods, this allegedly dead tree was by far the most colorful thing.
2011 is the International Year of Forests. For the New Year’s edition of the Festival of the Trees, which will be hosted at the British blog Nature’s Whispers, we’re asking bloggers to share tree-related plans or resolutions, or simply to reflect on their relationship with forests. As for me, I hope to see our family’s 640 acres of mountaintop land given long-term protection through a conservation easement by next year’s end. Uncertain as the future of the forest may be, we need to give it at least a fighting chance.