The RoVing Naturalist: The life and death of a sentinel

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By Dennis Prichard
The chainsaw smoked, sputtered and jerked to a halt. The fallen log reclining across the nature trail might have been dead but it by no means had given up the fight. I was irresponsible to let the chainsaw get stuck in the huge trunk, and I had to sit down on it more to think than to rest.

As I thought about my dilemma I began to respect such wood that could grab a racing machine made from steel and technology and freeze it up tight. This cottonwood tree had been a fighter right up to the end and was reluctant to let go just yet. I tried to imagine what kind of life it had lived.

Its seed found moist, fertile soil near the creek in which to grow. Among thousands of other seeds that germinated that year, this particular seedling was lucky since most of its brethren perished within months. Rabbits browsed the young shoots mercilessly that year. But sunshine and water provided it the push needed to outgrow the surrounding grass and start its race to the sky.

As a sapling its veins pumped life to the actively growing tip which the deer relished. Its brothers that grew out of the reach of the rabbits now took a severe clipping from a taller herbivore. Whitetails diminished the crop of cottonwoods more, but luck was with this tree. Only a side branch was nibbled, causing the curious twist of that limb in later years.

Dangers were abundant even as a mature tree. Bugs and drought, disease and wind all tormented this sentinel, yet its resilience allowed it to shake off these attacks. Its allies, the thick undergrowth around its trunk, probably caused another herbivore threat, the beaver, to detour on to easier pickings. The tangle of poison ivy helped a sawyer decide against this potential firewood pile. My modern-day chainsaw would be the first scar made by a human.

At this age the tree supplied tenants with high-rise lodging. Warblers wove grass blades into a cup and lined it with the abundant “cotton” produced by the tree to nestle their eggs. Woodpeckers excavated cavities for similar purposes. Various insects marched up the trunk. It seemed the older it got the more animals relied on it to house and feed them. A family of squirrels enlarged the woodpecker hole which was enlarged even more five years later by a family of raccoons. With these present, the bobcat and coyote made this tree a regular stop on their nightly rounds. When it stood its tallest and proudest the old cottonwood tree could truly be called a living community.

It had prospered and provided for all the animals for nearly 75 years when the fatal night came. A fierce storm sent a lightning bolt down its trunk, splintering bark and shearing branches. Even then, the dead snag stood for quite a few years before it fell across the trail and into my life. Finally cutting through it, I saw innumerable insects beating well worn paths throughout its interior. The dead tree was alive with activity, its decomposing fibers still nourishing life. As I removed the section from the path, I placed it gently off the trail. I knew it still had a long way to go yet.

Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.

Read previous RoVing Naturalist articles here.

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Robert H
1 year ago

Great read! I really enjoy your articles!