He plants the tree to serve another age. — Cicero
Although there is nothing that I must do with the trunks of the trees in my garden or with those of the maples just outside, except be careful not to injure them, I am reminded while pruning the branches each year that it is the trunk of a tree that has in so many ways influenced humankind. The trunk, in this sense, is the main ascending axis of a tree, a stalk or stem. To me, however, a tree’s trunk has always been more than simply the stem of a plant, especially one trunk, that of a giant noble fir on Marys Peak, the highest mountain in the Coast Range of western Oregon, whose campground near the summit is only 25 miles from my hometown of Corvallis.
The campground was at the end of a narrow gravel road that made a short loop through blue-tinted grandparent noble firs that ringed the lower edge of the grassy meadow atop the peak. And it was here, near the last picnic table at the meadow’s edge, that in 1943 at age four I discovered the huge trunk of a fallen noble fir.
The trunk, which had already lain on the ground for some decades, was so large that I had a difficult time climbing on top of it. Nevertheless, I never got enough of climbing on it, exploring its nooks and crannies and examining the mosses, lichens, mushrooms, and various insects and centipedes that lived in, on, and around it. And sometimes, if I managed to lie quiet long enough, a squirrel or Townsend chipmunk would scamper over the top of me as though I was part of the trunk.
I visited the old trunk as the years passed. While I matured in stature, the old trunk became smaller and smaller as it gradually rotted away, returning to the soil from whence it had grown in times before my birth, when it had stood for centuries as a sentinel along the edge of the ancient, powdery-blue forest. In the summer of 1964, when I was 25 years old, I visited the old trunk, sat on it while enjoying the warmth of the sun, and stepped over the top of it as though it were now the child.
I felt sadness in so doing, however, because the old trunk, now mostly collapsed in on itself, had given me as a child a measure of stability that I could not find in my family. As a child, I could talk to it, confide in it, and be safe with it. I wonder if the sadness I felt was in part a premonition that this was to be my last visit to the old trunk. In any case, it was; a severe early-winter storm blew down that whole portion of the forest and the old trunk all but disappeared under the impact of neighboring trees as they fell on it.
Thinking back to the trunk of that ancient noble fir, I wonder how the first humans might have begun a purposeful relationship with the trunks of trees. Was it the discovery of hollow trunks as shelter or drums? Was it the leaping flames, far-flung light, and long-lasting heat of a trunk burning? Or was it when the first human hollowed a tree’s trunk with fire and the canoe was born, and so might have begun the purposeful exploration of the world’s waterways?
Consider that without the large trunks of trees, there would have been no cedar bark from which indigenous peoples of the north Pacific coast of North America could make their waterproof capes and hats, no birch bark from which indigenous peoples of northern and eastern Canada could make bowls and canoes, no cork from the cork oak with which to seal bottles of vintage wine, no tannin from the tan oak with which to prepare leather, and no taxol from the Pacific yew with which to treat or cure breast or ovarian cancer in women.
Without the large trunks of trees, there would have been no wood for drums, wheels, ox yokes, houses, ships of olden days, or the first airplanes. And what about one of humanity’s greatest triumphs, music?
Over the centuries, music has been committed to paper by great composers and translated into sound through orchestras. An orchestra, in turn, is composed of musical instruments and musicians that together give voice to the mute beauty on paper. A musician’s ability to play a musical instrument is dependent not only on human skill but also on the quality of the instrument.
Over the last two centuries, the violins made by Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) have given to the human ear some of the world’s most exquisite melodies. To build a violin of the quality of a Stradivarius, however, one must not only be an expert violinmaker but also have available fine-grained wood from the trunk of an ancient tree, such as a Sitka spruce.
Without trees, the peoples of the great continents would still be separated from one another; the oceanic islands, such as Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia, would be barren of people; and the oceans and the skies of the world would still be unknown. The world and human culture would be very different without the sounds of the Stradivarius and all other musical instruments crafted from the trunks of trees. Without heat from wood, there could be no metal, and the face of the moon would still be without the footprints of humanity. And I, as a boy, would not have had my ancient Douglas-fir to climb on windy days, where near its top, reveling in its supple strength, I could ride with the wind as it blew the ancient tree hither and yon.
But the influence of a tree’s trunk reaches far beyond human history into the eons of life’s web as it grows, matures, declines, dies, falls, and recycles into the soil. An old Douglas-fir tree in its 810th year dies in the mountains of western Oregon and falls to the floor of the forest. For 525 years, the forest grows up around the decomposing giant until its last vestige is incorporated into the soil. Over the decades and centuries, the tree’s atoms become parts of bacteria, fungi, earthworms, insects, birds, mammals, and green plants as each in turn has borrowed, used, and given up the atoms of its being to the next in line. Some atoms may go from insect to mother bird, to her offspring and be carried away on wings and wind to a distant land, there to enter a different strand in life’s web.
Suppose, for instance, that a young warbler matures and dies while over-wintering in South America, where it falls into a jungle stream and is eaten by a scavenging fish. The fish is caught by the son of a poor slash-and-burn farmer, who builds a small fire and cooks and eats the fish. A year later, the boy leaves the jungle and goes into a city to attend school. After some years of wandering, he goes to sea as a merchant seaman and dies an old man on a far distant shore where the atom of the ancient tree that became part of the insect that became part of the warbler that became part of the fish that became part of the boy now enters yet another stand of life’s web.
Thus from seed to soil, the old fir’s trunk influenced the site on which it grew and fell for 1,335 years, but its atoms will travel the world forever. As I mentioned earlier, I know of a bristlecone pine in Great Basin National Park that was finally cut down at an age of more than 5,000 years. How long would its trunk have influenced the site on which it grew had it been allowed to fulfill its entire ecological role? Where might its atoms travel could we but follow them through the corridors of time—to the root of another tree?
Speaking of roots, one of the maples just outside my fence has at least one root close enough to the surface of the ground under the concrete walk alongside my house that is large enough to both split the walk and elevate part of it at least an inch. Such is the power of roots.
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser, 2006. All rights reserved.