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History in the Stumps

December 8, 2016

The sound of the chainsaw reduces from a deafening roar to a rumbling idle. A periodic series of thuds join the continuous, deep-resonating sound of the idling chainsaw engine before both sounds are lost in a thunderous crash of such tremendous energy I can feel the earth tremor beneath my feet.

    

Another large Siberian elm tree is down, nicely sandwiched between the two young oak trees we want to save. I look at the chainsaw tracks, or cut patterns, on the stump’s surface and imagine what a future sawyer might read in the history and speculate about how & why each cut was made.

 

There’s the face cut, the hinge wood, the plunge cut, the holding wood and the felling wedges track marks. The shape of the hinge wood reveals the sawyer had to compensate for the heavy sweeping tree branches on one side of the tree. Deep track marks from two wedges indicate the sawyer compensated for both a side and back tree lean requiring many sledge hammer blows to the wedges before the tree’s center of mass shifted past the hinge allowing gravity to pull the massive tree to the ground in a thunderous crash. Yes, it’s all here on the stump’s surface. I momentarily push my musing aside and cut the stump off at ground level, erasing the cutting history forever.            

I few yards away, I see another stump, cut flush to the ground, next to a large oak. I know the history of this stump. I made it nearly 15 years ago in our first round of “daylighting oaks.” A few yards away, there’s another stump. It’s 18 inches tall, hollow in the center, and decaying rapidly. Maybe cut in the 1980s, I think, likely as part of a timber harvest. I guess this tree to be a red or black oak due to the nature of decay, and a good portion of its life was spent with cattle as neighbors.

 

I chance upon another stump. At first I think it’s a flat round rock covered in moss. But after inspection, I find it’s actually a tree stump. This one is really old, nearly fully decayed, and likely a bur or white oak based on examination of the punky wood. When was it cut and by whom? Is it possible that this oak was used for one of the old houses or barns in the area?

 

It’s interesting to think about the history of this land, the owners and the land use changes over time. Majestic white and bur oaks were likely numerous around the time the old white/bur oak stump was made. The strong rot-resistant wood of the white oak family made great structural timbers for buildings. Fast forward many decades to when the black/red oak stump was made. This tree likely had to deal with years of intense grazing, and the soil erosion and root compaction that came with it. When it was cut for timber in the 1980’s, the years of abuse were apparent by the hollowing insides revealed in the stump.

 

Enter the time of my reign in early 2000s, grazing had ended nearly two decades earlier and the onslaught of invasive species was well underway. Oaks, once the dominant tree, had been reduced to a minor and sickly presence from overharvesting, intense grazing, and crowding/overtopping from invasive trees.

 

But all was not lost. Fifteen years of careful saw work, prescribed fire, invasive species control, and the dominance of the oak is returning. Still a shadow of what it once was, but nonetheless this keystone species is driving the ecosystem again. Larger oaks, once sickly and suppressed from intense competition, are now producing hard mast (acorns). Most of the acorns feed a diverse set of animals, but many escape to produce the next generation of oak trees. The new oak seedlings and saplings, while browsed year-round by several mammalian herbivore species, provide critical sustenance during winter months. Succulent oak leaves are the host plants (food) for an amazing number of insect species. Dried oak leaves, nature’s perfect kindling, facilitates fire to carry over the ground floor enabling the plant community to transform to the fire-dependent community it once was. With the return of fire-dependent oak savanna and woodland plant communities, brings countless more species of animals and insects that depend on them.

 

Yes, much has changed with this land over the last 15 years, and I feel privileged to be a participant in the transformation. But what about the sawyer that comes after me? What will be the land use practices? What history will he or she read from the stumps made long ago by me?        

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