Aging Unexpectedly

Journal entry for 2/21/2021

As far as foresters go, Peter Wohlleben is a rockstar, both in terms of renown and controversy. Some (especially those in the hard sciences, of course) find his teaching of forestry concepts through whimsical anthropomorphization childish. Like many of the 2 million-plus people who bought his breakout hit The Hidden Life of Trees, his prose was deeply affecting to me and has certainly altered my engagement with the sylvan world.

Trees, more than nearly any other organism, are marked by their longevity. According to Wohlleben, “One reason that many of us fail to understand trees is that they live on a different time scale than us.” (The Hidden Life of Trees vii) The oldest tree on the planet is well over 9,500 years old. Bristlecone pines that anchor the ridges of the Sierra Nevada regularly reach 5,000 years. Oaks and Beeches average ages in the 300’s and coppicing can extend their lives into the low thousands. (UCSB Science Line) In the Guilford woods, a well-known Tulip Poplar has gracefully aged into its late 200’s. 

“Creatures with such a luxury of time on their hands can afford to take things at a leisurely pace,” remarks Wohlleben. (The Hidden Life of Trees vii) But what happens when trees aren’t allowed to move and grow at their usual incremental crawl? How does the forest, the land, the air–the walk through the woods–change when the trees have had an unorthodox upbringing? 

The Loblolly that reside on the 10 acres that serve as my habitation spot have had a markedly different relationship with aging than their neighbors in the mesic mixed hardwood and dry Oak-Hickory communities that compose the rest of the Guilford woods. (Guilford College Woods Assessment 27) Most of the Guilford woods were farm fields until the 1940’s, save for a few small stands and select trees that avoided felling through the late 1800’s and early to mid 1900’s. Just as many of the trees that now make up the Guilford woods were beginning to take root in the mid-1900’s a large tract in the northeast began to be used as a pine plantation. The Loblolly stand that exists today is the remnants of that plantation. 

While the trees outside of that stand have been allowed to grow unencumbered since Guilford’s fields yielded to forest, the pine stand was grown with the sole intent of being harvested. The rest of the woods is, more or less, a natural forest that has developed through the standard stages of forest succession. The pine stand was planted and saw no competition from other species. It has progressed as humans intended, not as the Loblolly, or any of the other trees would’ve had it. 

Recently, this has led me to wonder about the effect this history has on the sense of place of the pine stand. Are forests that never would’ve existed without human interference lesser than those that progressed naturally? I can’t help but think of the pine stand as akin to a hog escaped from a slaughterhouse. What are you to do after you’ve avoided the saw? Are the Loblolly’s seeking purpose they never had? 

At first, I wondered if the pines might’ve missed the companionship of other tree species. As I’ve looked into Loblolly behavior, though, I’ve learned that, especially in open fields, fast-growing softwoods tend to group together. The Guilford Loblolly are a particularly interesting bunch because, unlike most forests, nearly all of them are the same age. Having been planted in the 1940’s, the trees are reaching 80-some years of age. If they were still plantation trees, now would be an ideal time to harvest. They aren’t and they won’t be, though, and, if economic or environmental factors don’t drop them, they’ll likely stand at least another 40 years. Their lives and lifespans are radically different from the course set for them in the early 1940’s. 

I have written in my first entry of how the pine forest is distinct from the other parts of the woods. It’s quietness is enchanting to me. For the first month or so of the semester, I visited every time I walked in the woods, usually two or three times a week. After I first learned that the pine stand is not naturally occurring, I didn’t return for several days. My feeling in response to that knowledge bordered on disappointment. If the pine stand wasn’t natural in its origins, I wasn’t sure I could expect it to hold the power I had previously felt there. 

That was a misguided notion, I’m sure. I have a bad habit of pretentious idealism when it comes to land relationships. My more reasoned mind loves that the Loblolly were never intended to live long enough that I could see them. The intention with which they were planted is not the intention they hold today. Now that the Loblolly are growing and swaying into their 80’s, I wonder if there is some slow-moving realization crawling up trunks and through the overstory that the burden of production has been lifted, the intention has changed, and this stand will live another 40 years yet.

This is one of the few stumps I could find in the Loblolly stand that looks like it was felled intentionally. Considering the size of the stump, I wonder if this was some other tree felled before (or in preperation for) the planting of the Loblolly stand. I was struck by the cross that has appeared out of the cracks in the wood. For such a simple and widespread symbol, I feel like crosses don’t often show up in nature.

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