It had been a number of years since I’d walked on the other side of the river, the old logging bridge having been swept away in a flood. We had taken our young dog for a walk trying to encourage him to learn to swim and we walked across through the water in our Teva sandals. My first thought was of the “nurse” tree. I wondered if it was still standing or if I could find it tucked into the woods off of the old logging road. Would my mind remember natures’ sign posts? Surely they had changed with the growing forest.
We went downstream first, further down than I remembered the tree to be just to be sure we didn’t turn around too soon and not find it. Harry dog enjoying exploring the new terrain. We walked the west side of the river frequently. It was amazing how walking on the east side felt like an entirely different place. When we had clearly gone too far, we turned and walked upstream. I remembered years past walking across a fallen log at the bend in the river and using that bend as a landmark to find the tree. I remembered there being some sort of opening. Walking back along the fading road we could see the river bend through the trees. Then a short side road appeared. Could this be the opening? We walked in a bit and there it was.
The maple had changed significantly but was still standing. The modest green canopy on the right leader showed it was still alive. Of all my years walking through the woods, this tree was unique and captured my imagination. It looked like it may have once been hit by lightning. When we first met her, her “humusy” filled core supported a network of roots that began about ten feet up and reached down to the earth. She was both dying in the center and supporting new life at the same time.
It has been about 10 years since I first discovered her. Now, her center had hollowed out. The unusual root, much younger than the tree itself now hung in the air but still reached down into the earth for sustenance. There was little left to her trunk but the outside living cambium layer just beneath the bark. I wondered, was she as important to her nearby neighbor trees as she was to me? She lived in the midst of a closely growing grove of trees about half her age. She was sheltered by some younger nearby hemlock that must be protecting her from high winds. But were these closely-knit neighbors also actively helping her to survive? We now know, that plant communities interact and support each other, sending warnings of insect attacks and even passing along nutrients to stressed neighbors through the fungal network below the forest duff. Someday, when she falls, her composting remains will give support to the hemlocks’ future offspring. For today, I smile to see her and enjoy the mystery of her story.