Standing Tall is Never Permanent
September 25, 2021, I bushwhacked through a rich bottomland hardwood stand on the eastern end of the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Huntsville, Alabama. The photos of the magnificent cherrybark oak immediately below came from a visit to the same riparian forest last winter. I present this cherrybark oak as emblematic of a forest monarch in preface to the images of three other large oaks, not now standing so tall and permanent in the same bottomland forest.
I want to share with you the three treefall discoveries that I made September 25, prompting me to develop this Post to demonstrate and reflect upon the forces of physics, the ravages of time, the implications of place, and the consequences of chance and fate for life in our forests.
A Tree Hits the Mark
I’ll set the stage for the first discovery by presenting this winter season yellow poplar in a nearby stand, forked at some 25-30 feet above ground.
Now let’s switch to this 30-inch-diameter red oak from my recent wanderings on the Refuge. The toppled oak’s root and lifted soil mass lie about 35 feet from where I am standing. The tree, down 2-3 years, appears to have been healthy, its wood solid, its trunk unblemished, and its top (behind me) full. I stood at a position where the bucket sits in the next photo.
Just beyond the bucket, the then falling oak, with a fork much like the poplar pictured above, encountered a neighboring 24-inch-diameter oak, the point of impact being the fork, dead-center. The falling tree had tremendous, likely maximum, momentum (definition: the quantity of motion of a moving body, measured as a product of its mass and velocity) when it slammed into the stalwart neighbor. Like a sledge hammer pounding an iron wedge into a round of firewood, the falling tree split neatly apart, the split extending at least fifteen feet down the bole. The bucket rests in the split.
These two images show the standing tree and the split it forced.
The two trees stood 35 feet apart. Were we to swing a 35-foot arc from the base of the fallen tree, the perimeter would be 220 feet. What are the chances that a 30-inch-diameter mighty oak, standing tall, somewhat isolated from other domiant canopy trees, and seeming permanent, would fall… and, in exactly the one direction at precisely the right distance to have the fork impact at the intersection of peak momentum and maximum fork-vulnerability?
Across my retirement wanderings I have seen many examples of two alternative results from the one above. So often, the falling giant compels the standing neighbor to absorb the full impact and momentum, bringing it, too, crashing to the ground. I could not find a good photo depicting such a tree-domino outcome in my archive. In the other common outcome, the falling tree, because of distance or relative mass, remains leaning against the neighbor for a day, a week, a year, or many years. Physics rule the forest. I ventured upon this 24-inch red oak at Wheeler national Wildlife Refuge October 22, 2021.
The oak’s crown still carries its green foliage, kept alive by that portion of the root mass not wrenched from the ground. Who knows how long the tree will live…or remain leaning.
I draw two lessons to this point: No one person or thing remains forever. Nature operates by her own laws (applied physics) within a context of random occurences and chaotic pulses of time, place, and force. I ponder, why these two trees and these results? Right place right time; wrong place wrong time? Why any of us, whenever…and wherever?
Weakness Yields to Force
Other results seem less random…more predictable, within limits. Nearby I came across yet another 30-inch oak, this one snapped at 10-feet above its base. Hollow to the core, this oak felt the ravages of inexorable internal decay for decades, until the thinning rind of solid wood could no longer withstand the forces (physics) of crown and bole mass acting in response to wind, surpassing an inevitable threshold.
The tree’s time had come. And so, the time comes for all of us. The fallen mass of the tree extends 100 feet beyond the standing ten-foot trunk snag. Although one could say with certainty that eventually the rind would fail, who could say when, under what force combination, or in what direction?
As Leonadro da Vinci said 500 years ago, Nature never breaks her own laws.
Strength Yields to Force
And another nearby example of a mighty oak falling. This one fought mightily, clinging with all of its strength to the soil that nourished it and provided anchorage to its roos. Its trunk did not break at some point of weakness; its roots did not sever, releasing the oak’s incredible mass in a thundering instant. Instead, every root maintained its strength as the tree’s bulk pulled all roots through the wet and shallow surface soil, slowing losing purchase, allowing the tree to slip to the ground. I envision this tree falling in slow motion, contray to the earth-shattering force of the first and second oaks.
We will all reach a conclusion, as will every tree in the forest. When and under what circustances? In a crushing crescendo, or a gentle transition? I suppose that none of us can know…or should know.
Dylan Thomas, in Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Thoughts and Reflections
I offer these observations:
- Nature operates by her own laws within a context of random occurrences and chaotic pulses of time, place, and force.
- Nothing in Nature is static or permanent; life is fragile and fleeting.
- Wherever I roam, Nature inspires and rewards my heart, mind, body, soul, and spirit.
Inhale and absorb Nature’s elixir. May Nature Inspire, Inform, and Reward you!
Note: All blog post images created & photographed by Stephen B. Jones unless otherwise noted. Please circulate images with photo credit: “©2021 Steve Jones, Great Blue Heron LLC. All Rights Reserved.”
Another Note: If you came to this post via a Facebook posting or by an another route, please sign up now (no cost… no obligation) to receive my Blog Post email alerts: http://eepurl.com/cKLJdL
And a Third: I am available for Nature-Inspired Speaking, Writing, and Consulting — contact me at email@example.com
Reminder of my Personal and Professional Purpose, Passion, and Cause
If only more of us viewed our precious environment through the filters I employ. If only my mission and vision could be multiplied untold orders of magnitude:
Mission: Employ writing and speaking to educate, inspire, and enable readers and listeners to understand, appreciate, and enjoy Nature… and accept and practice Earth Stewardship.
- People of all ages will pay greater attention to and engage more regularly with Nature… and will accept and practice informed and responsible Earth Stewardship.
- They will see their relationship to our natural world with new eyes… and will understand more clearly their Earth home.
Tagline/Motto: Steve (Great Blue Heron) encourages and seeks a better tomorrow through Nature-Inspired Living!
Steve’s Three Books
I wrote my books Nature Based Leadership (2016), Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading (2017), and Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits: Stories of Passion for Place and Everyday Nature (2019; co-authored with Dr. Jennifer Wilhoit) to encourage all citizens to recognize and appreciate that every lesson for living, learning, serving, and leading is either written indelibly in or is powerfully inspired by Nature.
I began writing books and Posts for several reasons:
- I love hiking and exploring in Nature
- I see images I want to (and do) capture with my trusty iPhone camera
- I enjoy explaining those images — an educator at heart
- I don’t play golf!
- I actually do love writing — it’s the hobby I never needed when my career consumed me
- Judy suggested my writing is in large measure my legacy to our two kids, our five grand kids, and all the unborn generations beyond
- And finally, perhaps my books and Blogs could reach beyond family and touch a few other lives… sow some seeds for the future
All three of my books (Nature Based Leadership; Nature-Inspired Learning and Leading; Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits) present compilations of personal experiences expressing my (and co-author Dr. Wilhoit for Weaned Seals and Snowy Summits) deep passion for Nature. All three books offer observations and reflections on my relationship to the natural world… and the broader implications for society. Order any and all from your local indie bookstore, or find them on IndieBound or other online sources such as Amazon and LifeRich.