Whether by bug, bolt, or brutal conditions, large trees die from time to time, and our first impulse is to solve the problem by chainsaw. But if the tree is situated somewhere where its gradual decay will not cause injury or property damage, and it’s not one of many adding tinder to a fire-prone landscape, leaving it in situ can actually add, not detract, from our enjoyment of our garden and the creatures that call it home.
I’ve got to admit, I’m a new and vocal believer in The Beauty of The Snag. And it’s a full-on epiphany, for I never would have thought I could find joy in, much less love, a dead tree standing on my property, smack in the middle of otherwise pastoral views, cluttering up the scenery with inconvenient reminders of death. In the past I’ve seen them in other gardens — some even painted in an effort to remediate and perhaps own the situation — but I wasn’t convinced.
Turns out the convincing takes time with one of your own. A bit like children. Now I not only love a dead tree, I’m distressed by the fact that it’s only mostly dead, which is to say, somewhat alive, and has begun a process of regeneration with a strong and upright leader.
I should cheer that leader – and the part of me fascinated by nature’s ability to recover and thrive should rejoice. Instead I feel like renting a cherry picker and cutting off the top of it just to slow it down. Harsh I know, but like most good love stories, this one built slowly. I hate to see it ended.
A Snag Is Born
It started unexpectedly. Three years ago, the loudest thundercrack I have ever experienced made us sit bolt upright in bed. A quick sock-footed pad around the house put minds at rest that an ash tree had not fallen through the roof [again], and we went back to sleep.
The next morning, on my way to feed chickens, my attention was caught by something not quite right – one of the 90+ foot tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) was shimmering in the early morning sunlight and the reflection had caught my eyes.
Trees don’t shimmer, and I approached the tree a little confused. Gradually I realized that I was staring at the unnervingly muscle-like cambium layer of the tree, completely and utterly naked, and glistening with the nutrients and water that only 12 hours before had been racing to its canopy. From a height of about 15 feet all the way to the top, the bark had literally been blown off the tree. There was no other damage beyond a few stray branches on the ground.
At first my reaction was one of sadness. To see the sinews of the tree stripped of protection and to know that it was not dead but still struggling hit a chord. We have lost untold ash trees in the last nine years to the ash borer – some expensively removed, some we have removed ourselves, other more inaccessible skeletons threatening to fall when you least expect it during a woodland walk. A dead ash killed by borer is a very dangerous tree — as we and our home insurance company found out five years ago to the tune of $84K.
With all those dangerous trees to be felled, of course the lightening had hit a healthy tulip poplar. And there were no funds left to fell it.
To add insult to injury, the tree held a very strategic bit of river bank against the erosive powers of a natural swale that forms during high rains. And to make things even just a little worse, it was the tree that centered the view when I looked out from the deck. We needed that tree. We wanted that tree. With leaves on.
A Snag Comes Into Its Own
Over the next year the tulip poplar lost most of its branches as windstorms came and went. Far away from the house or driveway, they were in little danger of hurting someone, and so it became a study in decay that I would stare at with my coffee in the morning, interested by the birds that were starting to take advantage of the clear perch – and the clearer view of the stream where they fished for crawdads and tiny fish.
Herons and kingfishers took turns – the kingfishers chasing each other from preferred perches, the herons regally weighing down a branch until a choice space was found in the stream below. There was a barred owl one evening at dusk, hawks in the morning, and of course, the chattering and chasing of squirrels.
Gradually I began to warm to the place of the snag in the life of our property, seeing it not only as a touchstone for so many species in the surrounding woodland, but as garden art in the midst of so much spring and summer green. By last year, its whitened, weathered form was as wished for and wanted as if I had aimed the lightning bolt at it myself.
But as I came to this surprising epiphany, I noticed a gradual (and ironically troubling) rejuvenation – whips sprouting from a healthy lateral branch very low on the trunk, one strong shoot in particular racing vertically along the ghostly silhouette of its mother.
The eroding bank will be saved no doubt, but at a price.
Soon that guiding structure will disappear, lost in a rustle of foliage. The clear perch will be gone — my window into the secret ways and wars of wildlife darkened, but the lessons imparted to this gardener will remain: a little decay is a good thing – a necessary and miraculous event in the life of a garden. – MW