Old is Not Ugly

A dead tree, or snag, growing in a remnant patch of old growth forest in Nova Scotia. Photo by Tim Skelly.

MANY PEOPLE ARE AFRAID of old age these days. They might feel better if they spent more time around old, dead, and dying trees.

In the Q&A section of this blog, which is on the right-hand side of the page, I answered a question from a reader who was wondering whether she should go to a lot of trouble to try to save a much-loved tree from mistletoe. My response was fairly long, but the short version is, Probably not.

Why not? Trees are no different from other life forms: Just like us, they eventually get old and/or diseased and die. This can be tragic, especially if the tree is an example of a species under threat from an introduced disease or insect pest. But it doesn't have to be. Old trees show us that there is dignity and grandeur in old age. Dying and dead trees also make a vital contribution to all the life forms around them. Allowing a tree to decline and die with dignity can be a gift to nature and to yourself.


Many species of birds and small mammals rely on the cavities that form naturally in dying and dead trees as places to raise young and shelter from harsh weather. The "nest boxes" and "roost boxes" we humans put up are an attempt to provide birds with the equivalent of cavities in dead trees, but most animals prefer the natural cavities if they can find them. Unfortunately, because humans often cut down dead and dying trees, these animals have a tough time finding natural homes.


Even a stump of a dead tree has value. As they rot, stumps, fallen logs, and other "deadwood" become natural sponges, soaking up water that they will later release slowly, during dry weather. This helps to prevent flooding. It also provides a perfect environment for the seeds of many species of plants, including new trees, to germinate and grow. This photograph was taken in a patch of old growth forest in the Seattle area.


This photo, taken in the Seattle area, shows the remains of an American chestnut. Once common in the eastern United States, this species was affected by an fungal disease that was introduced on imported Asiatic chestnut trees. The disease has killed billions of trees, as a result of which the tree is now extremely rare. The owner of this tree made every effort to save it -- an appropriate step given that the trees are now rare -- but was unsuccessful. It is now incorporated in her garden as a piece of natural sculpture reminding visitors of the dangers posed by introduced species.


More natural sculpture: a snag in old-growth forest in Nova Scotia.

If a big old tree falls in an area inhabited area, the result can be damage to life or property. (So it's important to get a consultation from a trusted arborist if you think a tree might present a hazard.) But these events are natural and beneficial in the forest. The roots of a fallen tree, along with soil and other vegetation that was attached to the roots, are known as the "rootwad" or "root plane." This big mass of soil and decaying plant matter is great habitat for many animals and a good location for new plants to germinate and grow. Photo by Tim Skelly.

When a root plane lifts up out of the soil, it often leaves a shallow depression behind. This small, sheltered pond is ideal habitat for amphibians. Photo by Tim Skelly.

This is the end: This photo shows the forest floor in an area of old-growth forest near to a lake. The open area over the lake exposes this part of the forest to high winds, so many trees have fallen down. As they decompose and are covered by mosses and other vegetation, the forest floor takes on what ecologists refer to as "pit and mound architecture." The uneven terrain creates a wide variety of habitats, referred to as "microhabitats," that can support different small creatures and plants. Photo by Tim Skelly.

17 comments:

Nell Jean said...

What came to mind, when I read the opening lines of this post, was a conversation I had in the opthalmologist's office with another woman. We were talking about the inconveniences of aging, and I mentioned that my own mother called them 'the infirmities of old age.' She replied that she had been raised (reared) by her grandmother and 'she never prepared me for this.' Perhaps being gardeners better prepares us.

Christine said...

Being in the West, of course my first question is what role do they play in forest fires? If they harbor moisture, do they not pose a great threat of feeding the fire? Gorgeous photos!

Wild Flora said...

Nell Jean -- As I enter my 60s, I'm counting on nature to help me reconcile myself to my advancing years, while gardening (I hope) will help me to stay strong and limber for as long as possible!

Christine -- Good question about fire hazard. I should do more research and write something longer about this, as it's quite a complicated topic. But in the meantime I can tell you that dead trees are by no means the only thing that could burn in a forest fire -- live trees can burn too, and in fact some species are highly inflammable. So removing dead or dying trees from a forest would not necessarily prevent fire.

Elephant's Eye said...

Our mountain fires have far less to do with dead wood or fallen trees, than invasive aliens like pine or eucalyptus which are full of volatile oils and blaze like torches!

Wild Flora said...

Another good point, this time from Elephant's Eye. The popularity of eucalyptus as a landscaping tree has been blamed for a lot of the problems Californians have had with wildfires, and in the southern United States, the kudzu vine has been blamed for helping fires to spread.

Incidentally, Elephant's Eye recently won best wildlife-friendly gardening blog in a poll conducted by Blotanical. Congratulations!

Lynne said...

no age is not ugly at all! i lve old trees and old (er) me!
happy new year lora! i'll be over more often this year!

Kate said...

To me, age is a box people put you in. Infinitely more fun to act the age I feel vs. the age I am!

That said, I cry copious amounts of tears at the loss of old trees...

Found you through Jodi at Bloomingwriter. I look forward to following your posts. :)

keewee said...

I love the beauty of old,especially on the Olympic peninsular. The roots of an old fallen tree are so interesting, as are fallen moss covered logs.

Adrian said...

I once watched a sour cherry tree in my backyard go through senescence, which took about ten years until a storm blew it down. But the things my children and I learned about nature while caring for that dying tree! So many other species moved in, from woodpeckers, to ants to curculios, yet it kept bravely blooming each spring.

Wild Flora said...

It's very encouraging to find fellow gardeners who appreciate the beauty of an old tree. Thanks Keewee, Adrian, and all the others.

Alia Ganaposki said...

Flora! I don't know if you remember me (and if you do, I don't know if it's with hazy goodwill or not), but I have been thinking of you a lot, lately, and did a search of your name and found this site! We live in New York City, now, but I have a plot in our local community garden. I hope you are well! And... I wondered if you still edited?

Wild Flora said...

Hi Alia,

I do remember you and would love to talk, but you didn't leave an email address. Why don't you email me ... wildflora at gmail dot com?

Flora

Salty Letters said...

Old is often more beautiful than new.. ;)

Bonnie said...

I love looking at the skeletons of dead trees and the moss covered forest floor. There's so much to see in the forest if you just sit quietly and look. Hopefully as I age, I will continue to be able to garden. I don't know what I would do without my garden therapy.

Flowering Trees Tennessee said...

I love the beauty of old. The roots of an old fallen tree are so interesting, as are fallen moss covered logs. I am very inspired from your blog..
Thanks for sharing with us..

Caroline said...

This looks like a neat blog! Natural landscaping is a major interest of mine.

wildflower said...

your choosing a blog that's not dressed up with flowers and beauty strikes me as a good blog to introduce some native plants. Its interesting why you've taken so many pics of these type things, but there again, your moving in a totally different direction and I think that's wonderful.