Uprooted, Part Two: Trees Respond

In Part One, I wrote about the wind that blew through Northern New England two nights before Halloween, and how uneasy I felt seeing what I thought were strong trees ripped out of the ground or snapped like twigs. I wondered how this autumn storm could have resulted in a historic power outage in the State of Maine, surpassing even the often cited “Ice Storm of ’98.” I also wondered why seeing the landscape littered with downed trees made me question my own landscape of security so suddenly.  

Why were the trees more vulnerable than I thought?

A two-pronged investigation - in the field and in the “classroom” - offered some answers.

I got up close and personal with a bunch of upended root balls and broken trunks and pretended I could interview them. Starting with the open-ended questions like - what happened here? - better questions began forming as I looked closer for answers. Along a road in Crescent Beach State Park in Cape Elizabeth, I came upon a root “skirt” that was at least five feet taller than me. The diameter was so wide, I had to walk around it to see the tree that was attached to it. It was hard to tell how tall the tree had stood before the storm, because it lay fallen in a tangle of wooded brush and other trees. I guessed by its girth that it had been around for at least several decades, watching cars go by with beach-goers. 

As I walked back around the wall of earth and roots, wondering how the wind could have gotten underneath it, I noticed something. Sand.

This tree’s roots had grown wide in a 270 degree or so angle to find water and something to hold onto.  It didn’t have much of a foundation. It was “built” near the beach along a beach road. The wind had gained speed over the water came across the beach, the empty parking lot and across the road and walloped that tree and its shallow roots, exposing a peril of coastal living and the sand clues that tipped me off.

Further inland, I wondered about the big maple I drove by in Deering Oaks Park in Portland. The bottom of its trunk was still standing straight up out of the ground, but it looked like it was missing the rest of its “body.” It looked dismembered. Wondering how that could have happened, I noticed that this particular maple stood all by itself.  Remembering the adage, safety in numbers, I noticed that beyond this maple, deeper into the park, a group of trees standing together had fared a lot better. 

Back home, I opened up a book I bought last year by Peter Wohlleben called The Hidden Life of Trees. 

Its chapters helped me frame my understanding of a tree’s “vulnerabilities” with two common sense factors and themes:

1) Location

2) Health

A tree already compromised by disease, damage, drought or malnutrition stands less of a chance against the wind. From its roots to its protective “skin” (bark), overall health has a significant influence on how a tree contends with the force of wind. 

“Location location location” - It feels more obvious now that I’ve thought about it, but a tree’s susceptibility to wind is directly related to where it grows and what’s around it. 

As forester Peter Wohlleben describes in his book, dramas go on in nature all the time. There’s a “tidying” process that we humans don’t fully understand.  Trees are used to contending with wind and weather.  

Maybe I need to get used to contending with nature’s “tidying” and how it affects my undercurrent of vulnerability when it it feels more like a harsh cleanse!