Lessons learned in a blown-down woodlot

Lessons learned in a blown-down woodlot

Lately, in the course of my day job, I have been spending time on a site where crews have been clearing huge trees felled by the disastrous derecho of June 2022. The storm left a tightly interlocked tangle of trees in a deep ravine that serves as a critical drainage path for a fairly large area. This type of damage was widespread and typical of a storm that had worked a one-two punch of heavy rains followed by high, straight-line winds that tipped massive, leaf-covered trees straight over with their roots still attached.

I first walked this site last summer as the entire valley was working to heal by shooting sprouts from every acorn, walnut and maple seed that had fallen on forest floor over the past several years. Not only was new growth bursting from the seed bank below, but also the once-mighty fallen trees were leafing out, even while lying on their sides. There were lessons to be learned here.

First of all, we have the resiliency of nature. Those oaks, walnuts and maples produce countless thousands of seeds, not with a dream of producing countless thousands of offspring, but rather as a hedge against all of the creatures that gobble them up. They “flood the market” so that even when heavily grazed, some surviving seed will escape the banquet and end up taking hold.

Another lesson can be found in the soil seed bank. There are actual human-constructed and temperature- and humidity-controlled seed banks where seeds of all types are stored to preserve the unique genetic material of thousands of plant species. The soil beneath our feet, however, serves as nature’s own seed bank where the next generation rests waiting for its chance in the sun. Both recently shed seeds, and those that may have already spent years waiting just below the surface seize the opportunity to spring forth when conditions become favorable. Some types of seed may remain viable for decades in the soil seed bank.

A somewhat surprising observation came compliments of the root cluster of a 3-foot-diameter oak. This tree had risen every bit of 80 feet above the edge of the ravine while withstanding a lifetime of winds from every direction — all while perched atop little more than a foot of soil. The monster’s demise revealed the roots had worked their way into the cracks and crevices of a shale formation just below the surface, which offered not only a solid mechanical footing, but also a plentiful source of water.

Other trees along the ridge had followed the same plan, which had worked for hundreds and perhaps even thousands of years. The evidence could be found in the deep accumulation of highly organic soil downslope of where the trees had stood. The valley had been filled with layer after layer of duff — the rich organic detritus created by an endless annual cycling of fallen leaves, twigs and branches.

Fortunately, a handful of towering hardwoods still remain on the ridgeline, ready to watch the world below grow skyward. Nature, left to its own grand design, will make sure that happens.

If you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.

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