Dead Trees and Downy Woodpeckers
I have a thing about dead trees.
As someone who owns five chain saws, two of which I bought myself, the third was a gift from the Grove Park Inn (that’s a story for another time), the fourth was left behind by a renter who skipped out in the middle of the night, and the last came as part of Leigh Ann’s dowry, there was a time when a dead tree didn’t stand a chance in my yard.
Today, however, I down more trees with my printer than I do with any of my five chainsaws.
Some might attribute my hesitancy to pick up my Stihl chainsaw to a friend who a few years ago was cutting a limb above his head when the churning chain, hitting a knot, bounced back directly into his face, but it actually has more to do with a woodpecker.
Eleven years ago, soon after I had moved into my 1970s rancher nestled into the western crest of a wooded knoll seven miles southeast of Asheville, I discovered an ancient, towering pine tree near the north side of my house. It had evaded the swath cut by loggers decades earlier simply because of the steepness of the slope, but had died of old age many years before my arrival. The remaining twisted, sculpted trunk had long since been stripped of all but the largest of its appendage of limbs, yet stood as proud as any statue in Rodin’s garden in Paris.
Unsure what to do with my towering roommate, I called in an arborist who gave me a choice: for $300 he could take it down, or for $300 he could gingerly climb and secure it with two steel cables lashed around its top and stretched to the trunks of a pair of nearby stalwart poplar trees.
The choice was somewhat complicated by a few other factors, namely a family of raccoons who had made the hollow trunk their home, a pair of squirrels nesting in the top, and a number of woodpeckers who feasted on the colony of ants and insects steadily perforating the once stately trunk.
The decision was actually quite easy, and for another ten years the towering, sculpted pine stood just a few feet from my deck, until not even the twisted steel cables could prevent the trunk from literally disintegrating beneath its own weight. One day I came home to a hole in the sky.
And yesterday I found myself standing not far from where the once proud pine still lay on the forest floor, now nearly covered by a shroud of rhododendron and honeysuckle, and still home to yet another family of raccoons. I was staring skyward at yet another dead tree, this one an oak struck down in the prime of its youth by some nameless malady.
Practicality argued for taking it down before it fell on its own accord, possibly toward our deck, and I was prepared to make that decision. As I stood there, staring upward, judging the depth of the cut of my wedge that would bring it down precisely between two healthy pines a few yards away, a mother woodpecker glided down from the overhead canopy of pine boughs and lit on the peeling bark. As she began flinging pieces of bark to the ground, exposing a line of beetles boring into the oak beneath it, a young fledgling awkwardly fluttered down beside her and eagerly began devouring the tasty beetles. Obvious to me and my pending decision, the mother and daughter enjoyed their Sunday brunch together.
And so it was that at the end of the day the dead oak still stood, and will remain there indefinitely.
Some risks you just have to be willing to take.
Even if just for a downy woodpecker and her daughter.
Until next Monday,
Have a great week!