Is a "Dead" Tree Really Dead?
by Lakshmi Sundaram
Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness.
- Kahlil Gibran
The fall winter cleanup -- it never seems to end. This morning when I woke up to an empty water trough and a frozen hose, I realized just how far behind I was with my chores. So much to do and so little time was the theme for the day.
When a friend had the audacity to mention the dead and fallen trees surrounding the house, "why don't you clean up all the dead and fallen trees surrounding your house?" I launched into an environmental spiel which I will now deliver to you.
Leave the trees alone. Unless they are in position to do some damage if they fall, many dead trees can stay standing for up to 50 years and can provide essential habitat for over 1200 species!
The proper name for a standing dead tree is a snag, and snags, as well as their fallen counterparts, are indispensable elements of a healthy forest. Dead, decaying wood becomes weaker and softer and starts to break down. Almost all parts of the tree are utilized during this degradation.
Snags not only provide shelter, habitat and nutrition for a plethora of flora, fungi and fauna, but they release nutrients, promote soil fertility, store moisture and prevent erosion. These are all vital elements of the forest ecosystem--interacting components which contribute to the healthy breakdown and subsequent regeneration of the forest.
Woodpeckers adore dead trees. They relish the softer wood of the dearly departed. As primary excavators, woodpeckers make lots of holes which are eventually used by others. Pileated woodpeckers create holes that are used by over 50 other species. Squirrels, chipmunks, owls, bats and many birds use previously excavated or natural tree holes to stash food, for shelter in bad weather or for nesting. The branches of dead trees are favourite show-off areas for birds during the breeding season and raptors love the leafless vantage points and excellent visibility to hunt the surrounding area.
Many insects live their entire life in dead trees, contributing to the tree's natural degradation and providing essential food for a variety of insectivores.
Lichens, mosses and fungi flourish on rotting wood and amphibians thrive in the humid environment, gobbling up mosquito larvae and anything else they can get their tongues on. And a rotting log at a distance from the house or cottage is also a delicious diversion for detrimental insects, keeping them away from the wood pile and the house itself!
The replenishment of the forest floor depends on this natural recycling of forest materials. Recent studies have shown that in the presence of dead trees, living trees remain healthier. It is estimated that removing snags from forest can mean a loss of habitat for over 20% of the animals in the ecosystem.
There is life after death.
Lakshmi Sundaram appreciates natural processes.
The PERC thanks the above organizations for their support.
Thank you to Sustainable Eastern Ontario, the Community Foundation of Ottawa, and the Ontario Trillium Foundation for sponsoring the Winter 2015-2016 edition of the PEN.