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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

No Such thing as Waste

by John Stuart (First published January 1992, POET Newsletter)

This summer a Douglas fir standing next to the road to our house died after a short battle with at least one kind of root rot. It is about 90 feet tall and contains about ¾ of a cord of firewood. The access couldn’t be easier. Just drop it on the ground and back the truck up to it. When I mentioned this out loud, my kids instantly started jumping up and down saying, “No, no! Lets leave it for the animals, Dad.”

I didn’t have to wonder where they’d picked that up. So I didn’t argue with them. It will be as useful standing where it is as it would be stacked in our woodshed. In death, the tree is actually beginning a second stage of its life.

For at least the first five years, various insects will lay their eggs in the bark or just under the bark. The larvae emerging from these eggs will be woodborers. Some of them will live by eating the newest sapwood on the tree leaving various sizes and shapes of tunnels that can be seen when the bark is pulled away. Others will bore straight into the firmer heartwood, but the softer sapwood will be the main source of food for the insects. As the years go by and the red heartwood becomes slightly softer, it too will become populated with various insect life. The smaller top of the tree will rot faster than the larger base. After 5-10 years the wind will probably help blow out the top 20 feet or so. With no bark to shed rain, this broken uneven stub on top will soak up rain and snowmelt and become a boulevard for all manner of fungi to move in and begin the softening of the heartwood.

As the dead tree attracts all kinds of insects and spiders, these in turn will feed many species of birds. The most noticeable will be the woodpeckers. In our area, hairy, downy, pileated woodpeckers and flickers will make a newly dead tree like this a regular stop on their rounds. We might see a black-backed or three-toed woodpecker on occasion. All other manner of insectivorous birds will be seen on the snag as well. With the woodpeckers boring through the bark to find the bigger larvae, the smaller nuthatches, chickadees, brown creepers and a few warblers will be scouring every nook and cranny on the outside of trunk and limbs for the smaller insects and their eggs and larvae.

Over the years as limbs break off, fungi will move in to the wounds and begin softening these. Some will be excavated for cavity nests by the smaller woodpeckers, flickers, and red-naped sapsuckers. This tree will not be quite large enough for a pileated woodpecker nest. Nor is it probably the right species, because the tight bark tends to cause the rotting of the entire tree simultaneously. Large red cedar, ponderosa pine or cottonwood seems to work the best for the “log-hammers” because they will shed their bark after dying, and then rot from the inside out leaving many years of a hard shell surrounding easy-to-excavate rotten heartwood.

In the years that the holes are not nests for woodpeckers the secondary cavity-nesters will be there to step in. Chickadees, nuthatches, red squirrels, flying squirrels, pygmy or saw-whet owls, and in more open country, bluebirds. If a Doug fir is straight and plumb and somewhat protected from the wind it may stand for 20-30 years or more. Not nearly as long as a larch or red cedar, which can remain standing for many decades after shedding their bark. This particular tree however, has a slight lean so as the top section gets softer it is likely to fall within ten years. With the remaining 50-70 feet out of the wind now and 14-20 inches in diameter, its vertical life may easily extend another 20 years. When it falls to earth, either in sections or all at once, there is a third life for this now mostly rotten hulk. Lying on the ground, it will be invaded by all manner of fungi, since it will almost never dry out. Besides many of the same earlier-mentioned life forms working on it, we now have several species of shrews, mice and voles burrowing under it or using cavities and loose bark as shelters or travel-ways. All varieties of centipedes, millipedes, sow bugs, pill bugs, springtails, earwigs, and beetles will live out at lest part of their lives chewing up small parts of the softened log returning the tree mouthful by mouthful to where it began. Once colonies of ants invade the trunk we can then see the decomposition move in more noticeable leaps. The ants clean out large sections, dumping the sawdust (teethdust?, pincerdust?) in neat little piles on the ground. Flickers and pileated woodpeckers will gorge themselves on the ants (antypasto?). The latter will work for an hour at a time, perhaps, excavating milkjug-size holes to get at their favorite meal. Once the trunk is completely soft, a bear will occasionally pull apart an entire section to eat whatever is there, bears not being very particular about what’s on the menu. Ants, snakes, mice, insect larvae: it’s all bear-food.

If, after falling over, the trunk is somewhat sheltered by brush or small trees ruffed grouse may use it as a drumming and courting log. Large, downed logs are a basic element of good grouse habitat. On the ground the old trunk may last 50-100 years or more depending on its size. But its last signature will be present many years after all the obvious signs of the log are gone. Scraping away the litter and duff, one of our great, great, great grandchildren may still find a long, narrow band of red soil.

So the years that a tree stands green and growing are only a fraction of the time that it is an essential part of the forest. While it is still only partially decomposed, other plants and trees will sprout right next to the log and gradually absorb various elements from it with the help of fungi, bacteria, or after it passes through the intestines of any of a number of birds or mammals.

The tree is only dead in one sense and is continually being reborn. When the green life is over, it then begins transferring what it has stored to other life forms. Who can say where life begins or ends? Nothing is lost; there is no such thing as “waste” here in the forest.

Author’s postscript:

This article was first published in POET Newsletter, January 1992. The top 30 feet came out of the tree after seven years. I have seen many birds on it over the years, and once, in the middle of the night, watched a pair of flying squirrels playing tag (or whatever flying squirrels do) on its branches and in its cavities.

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