by Liz Brownlee
The roots stretch high into the sky – ten feet, maybe fifteen. Soil hangs midair, clinging to the roots. A tiny white pine sits in the depression, reaches for the warm, gaping hole in the forest canopy.
The red maple once towered ninety feet tall, spreading its arms wide into the canopy. Screech owls made their home in the tree. Woodpeckers searched for dinner. Black Rat Snakes lounged in its branches.
Its leaves were the first to turn each Fall, and their brilliant red told of cool nights to come. Its seeds – little helicopters – spun down on the Spring breeze.
Now that giant lies on the ground, another victim of Hurricane Irene’s powerful winds. This forest, at Mud Pond Conservation Area in Williston, is littered with downed trees, thrown on top of each other like so many pick-up sticks.
Downed trees could seem like a tragedy to a passerby. But the white pine seedling, small as it may be, knows a more complete story: falling trees create new life in Vermont’s mature forests.
Forests of tall, old trees are cool, dark, moist places. The leaves from full-grown trees absorb almost every bit of sunlight before it can reach the ground. Seedlings starve for warmth and light. They cannot grow, and they can wait years – even decades – for a tree to fall.
A storm, then, allows new life. Wind is the most common way Vermont trees come toppling to the forest floor. The downed red maple is a “wind-throw,” because it fell in a powerful storm.
The suddenly sunny forest floor is a very happening place. White pine and birch seedlings shoot up practically overnight. Deer munch on young plants. Fungi break down the tree’s trunk, and worms, beetles, and salamanders move in.
The forest could not grow anew without downed trees. Just ask the white pine seedling.
For hiking in Mud Pond, and other locations in the Town of Williston: http://town.williston.vt.us/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC=%7BE8A7EC77-4332-4BA8-BBEF-6B1AB2B4F06C%7D&DE=%7BCF447A7E-7514-4078-9910-933255CB6967%7D