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When Dead Wood Contributes To The Bottom Line

Nurse logs like this one in a red wood forest near Mendocino, California, provide nutrients for life on the forest floor.
Tema Kaiser Silk
Nurse logs like this one in a red wood forest near Mendocino, California, provide nutrients for life on the forest floor.

Walking in a forest on a gusty day, I see lots of dead wood — branches snapping off trees, trees snapping in two — and I think of how productive these trees are. 

Inside one fallen trunk, the sapwood has already eaten by bacteria, which have been eaten by insects, which have been eaten by woodpeckers. One tree has so many holes drilled in it by a pileated, it looks like a flute for someone with giant hands.

The wind acts like giant invisible hands pushing at trees so they sway like ships’ masts.

Some topple over and will soon become homes to chipmunks and mice. They’ll blossom with bright fungus so they resemble a coral reef. Others will harbor beetles and ants, bears and bats, moss and lichen.

All will contribute to the forest’s bottom line as the rotting pulp becomes soil, giving rise to a whole new generation of saplings.

And it’s not just wind falls. Sitting on an old stump, I’m aware of how trees age at a different rate than us.

The stump may appear dead, but its 100-year-old root system is connected to neighboring trees, which are connected to vast networks stretching for miles, for decades.

And it’s not just woods. Canoeing, we paddle around downed trees whose branches provide shade for fish. The same log can be lunch for a beaver, a bridge for a mink, a bench for roosting ducks, and a platform for a hungry heron.

As the tree rots, it will feed mayflies that feed trout that feed the osprey circling above us.

Walking one summer day, I hear a squeaking noise, and turn to see three baby raccoons making their way down a tree. Soon, an adult fetches each, and carries them back up into the hollow trunk of an old sugar maple I've walked past a hundred times, assuming its productive days were over.

Dead wood, indeed.

Susan Johnson teaches writing at the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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