Titans of the Forest

This essay is from Two Farms: Essays on a Maine Country Life by Janet Galle.
2006. It is available at Gulf of Maine Books, Brunswick or from Apple Creek Farm.

          Winter quiet often inspires reflection and this winter is no different. These thoughts arrive during our daily work– feeding the animals, preparing meals or as we plan for the upcoming season.

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Titans of the Forest
January, 1996

        Trees are like the dinosaurs of the plant world but not in the sense of being extinct. It is the size that counts. They easily top Tyrannosaurus Rex — in sound, as well as height. I never look up enough when I am outside to truly appreciate the dinosaur-like plants that tower over me. Rather, my view is usually straight on, about six feet above ground level. In spring, in autumn, after a snowstorm, I see this picture: lacy, delicate trees, etched and painted by Mother Nature. I forget there is another — the view of giants.

img_3374         In the middle of a snow-sleet storm this past week, Nell, our new pup, and I went for a walk with the wind swirling around us, tugging at her fur and my scarf, bringing tears to our eyes. There were no other distractions in this storm, only the elements and us. Near the ice pond we stopped for a while, stood still. Nell leaned against my leg as we were engulfed by the rage of the wind. Twigs and small branches flew through the air in a fury. Detritus from last autumn’s leaf fall was scooped up and hurled back to earth. Wind howled, and the trees above us answered in kind. They were not taking this beating like lambs.

        Ice-covered branches and the slender tip tops of trees clinked together, jostling each other like fans at a football game. They pushed and shoved under the wind’s influence, always returning to their original position and then moving quickly in the opposite direction, all the while chattering and clanging. Ice in a glass. Tap dancers on stage. Horses on parade with their clattering shoes hitting asphalt. All of those sounds rained down upon Nell and me as we stood under the bare ash tree towering 50 feet above us. I crouched beside her, held onto her for comfort. The forest was filled with passions in a storm, and nowhere was it more violent than under the trees.

         The more the wind pushed, the more the trunks swayed, groaning as if sick or injured, left to die along a path. Unlike their distant branches that reach the sky and greet the sun on brighter days, the trunks sustain the weight of the entire tree, limb to branch to stem to leaf. Theirs is the task of transporting food, minerals, and water. Here the sap swells, rises, freezes, and then slowly melts. Here the transportation system — switching terminals, platforms, and connections — carries out its work. It is a life of burden and responsibility — and endurance.

        On the first farm by the ocean where we once lived, when my children were young and I was frequently awake in the dark, bewitching hours of night with a baby on my shoulder, I would watch the white pine and northern red oak along the shore. Throughout winter those trees moved like tyrannosaurs stalking along the ocean’s edge. Their entire bodies seemed in action except for their feet which were rooted and solid, the support that kept them from tumbling. Groaning, not from illness, but from exertion in the battle, the trees struggled to remain upright.

        I am fascinated when trees have lost that battle, when I come upon the newly-split wood, splintered into daggers, of a fallen pine deep in a forest. The intricate web of roots and rootlets that have provided water and minerals, sustained a tree for a lifetime, are exposed. Death of a titan is dramatic. Sixty feet of fallen tree is not to be scoffed at.
At the university in Ohio where I went to school, an old red oak that once defined the center of the campus, now over 200 years old, was taken down this year. It did not lose a battle to a wind storm as the trees in my woods may, but fear of the consequences of such a defeat drove the campus officials to “remove” the tree first. Their comment, “It was only a matter of time before a storm blew it over…”

        But just imagine. Sprouted about 1795, that red oak grew up in a forest which stretched from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. It watched over the birth of the university and the comings and goings of countless students who strolled beneath its branches. People do not take kindly to the loss of such a tree.

img_3378         I wonder, then, about the lesser-known trees that tower over Nell and me, the ones complaining loudly about the strength of this particular storm. They will survive. They are still young in tree years and have flexible trunks and tenacious roots. Long after we have gone on our way, these ash and maple, hemlock and fir, pine and beech which inhabit our woods will have withstood the sting of sleet, the weight of snow, the pelting of rain. The titans of this forest may wail in response to the wind, but they will win the battle. From the viewpoint of giants there is no room for whimperers. Nell and I will do best to weather this storm under the protection of a roof.

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