Monday, March 30, 2009

AN OLD SNAG SUCCUMBS…

Late yesterday afternoon I heard a loud bang. I first thought it might have been a firecracker or large-caliber pistol shot—though the noise sounded too close to have come from any of the rather distant neighbors. As the day was rainy, dark, and cold, I doubted it came from someone float-tripping the river. An exploding electrical transformer was another possibility, though the nearest box also seemed too far away for the sound I’d heard. The answer turned out to be directly across the river from the cottage. A familiar snag now lay parallel along the edge of the bank, its tip almost touching the water. Oddly, only a day or two before, I’d looked at the old snag—its bark long since fallen off, with not a single limb left to protrude from its smooth gray bole—and wondered how much longer the aging giant could remain upright. So I can’t say the snag’s demise was unexpected. Yet neither can I explain why it fell on this particular late-March afternoon. In spite of the steady rain, the day hadn’t been windy. Perhaps the porous wood absorbed too much moisture and the added weight brought it crashing down. Or maybe ever-increasing rot caught up with the structural integrity. Doubtless the unrelenting pull of gravity had a hand it its collapse. In the end, it was most likely a combination of factors—or you could just say a tired old tree’s vertical ghost simply gave up. Nevertheless, I hated to see the dead snag succumb. The standing stub—perhaps 25 feet tall and 30 inches in diameter—was a favorite woodpecker meal-spot. Downies, red-bellieds, and hairies worked the decaying trunk from sunup to sundown. The big pileateds found it especially appealing, stopping by on their foraging rounds several times daily to give the venerable snag a thorough going-over. This often provided me with an unobstructed and fairly close view of these magnificent birds, as the stump stood at the edge of the island’s wooded cover, 60 feet from my great room window. Regularly throughout the winter, I’ve sat in the rocker beside the fireplace, warmed by a crackling blaze, with binoculars in my left hand, meal tray on my lap, and enjoyed a leisurely lunch while watching one of the pileateds hammer about the trunk, busily seeking their own meal. The old snag also served as a sleeping den for the island’s fox squirrels. Several holes could be seen around the stub’s upper section. Often, as dusk gathered, I’ve watched a portly fox squirrel return to the tree and disappear into one of the openings. The depths of the interior cavity would provide a safe and comfortable refuge for a night’s snooze. Last spring, a pair of flickers decided the snag offered a good nesting site. And the spring before that, the tree hosted a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers. I’d been hoping the pileateds might one day find it suitable. Alas, the old snag has fallen. What’s left of its massive trunk now lies on the ground. I don’t even know what kind of tree it was—though a reasonable guess would be sycamore. There are hundreds of big sycamores along this portion of the river. And yet…somehow the snag never quite looked like a sycamore to me, at least not during the cursory examinations I made through binoculars from this side of the stream. Something about the shape and proportions seem wrong, and there’s the lack of swelling or bulging where the stump enters the ground. No, I really should wade over to the island for a closer look before it’s too late, because there’s a good chance the first high water will sweep the fallen snag away forever. Not that it really matters—except to me. I’d like to know how old the tree was, too. How long has it stood on the island? How many spring floods swirled around its roots? Was it here when the nearby feeder had a grain mill at it’s mouth? Did it stand while the squeak of the turning wheel and harsh grinding of the stones blended with the sweet song of orioles in their hanging-basket nests? I wish I knew. The old snag has fallen. There’s an unfamiliar gap in the bankside cover. An emptiness in the landscape above, and the new clutter of a massive log below. Change happens; life and landscape are all process, ongoing, never static. Rivers run and trees tumble. Still, I wonder where the woodpeckers will go for lunch…?

12 comments:

Rowan said...

It's always sad to see an old friend go but this snag has lived a long and useful life by the sound of it providing food and shelter for countless birds and animals. I wish it well on its final journey down the river - and I'm sure that others of its kin will try to fill the gap it has left.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

You are right, of course. And as I said, I've been expecting the old snag to come down. But I will miss the handy wildlife viewing opportunities it afforded—and I'll miss looking across the stream and seeing its familiar upright bulk.

Thank you for writing. I hope you liked the piece.

Rowan said...

Yes, I did enjoy reading this piece,you write so that I can 'see' what you are describing. How marvellous to be able to sit and eat your lunch with the river and all those birds and animals right outside your window.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

I'm always glad, in whatever I write, to have successfully shared the essence of place and time. I try and describe whatever it is about the scene or mood that moves me, and hope it has the same effect on a reader.

I know this place sounds fancy, almost idyllic, but it is really just a modest stone cottage (with plenty that needs fixing) situated beside a typical Ohio stream. Which makes it no less lovely, of course.

Right now the sun is sparkling off the water. The sky is vast and blue, the river is clear and greenish. Sycamores with white trunks lean over the dark pools. There are purple and white crocus blooming under the hackberry tree near the front door, yellow daffodils in the yard and along the fenceline. Birds are singing with vernal enthusiasm from the evergreen hedges. A kingfisher is diving for lunch downstream. Squirrels are chasing one another through the trees. And the new grass is electric green.

I am lucky to be here, to be so blessed.

Gail said...

Hey Griz-

Well, homes are destroyed, feeding grounds erupted, and it is sad - nature has a way though of rearranging itself - especially when it is a natural order of decay - making room somehow for new growth..

for some reason I thought immediately of Fargo, North Dakota - quite an unnatural order of things - and nature none-the-less.

I will wait with baited breath for the post you write describing the woodpeckers new lunch spot or the squirrels new home and what the rest of the surrounding trees and such become as they rearrange to fill in the void.

Change is never easy, necessary but not easy.

Love Gail
peace.....

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

I would have never thought of a tie-in with my fallen snag and the terrible flooding in North Dakota—but you're right. They are both examples of nature's capacity for displacement.

I wouldn't wait too eagerly for an update report. The squirrels have plenty of den holes in the dozens of sycamores—many with hollow interiors—within a hundred foot radius of the now downed snag. The woodpeckers may continue working the fallen log—though like I said, I have an idea it will go floating merrily off come the first spring flood. The woodpeckers, too, have ample other trees nearby to investigate…just none I can as easily watch year around. The old snag was right at the edge of the water and thus the woods, visible not only in winter, but also in midsummer when dense leaf-cover hides the island's interior. I'm sure there are similar standing snags on the island, just none I can see smack at the edge—or none I can view from the comfort of my fireside rocker. Now that's surely the complaint of a lazy man.

Carolyn H said...

Griz: My guess is that the pileateds will stop, nose (or beak)around for a few minutes and then somehow, immediately find another snag to munch on. One of the things that is amazing about nature is that it doesn't seem to worry overmuch about what is no longer. It just moves on.

Carolyn h.

Gail said...

in your mind - the rearranging is already happening. :-) your knowledge of nature and it's complex simplicity is quite evident in your "view" and your photos and written insights which are a force in of themself.

And it is truly a gift' that your complaint is one of wonder about your 'view' - a greater gift? your confidence that it will yield as it should.

In case you didn't notice - your photos and words inspire me. :-)


Love Gail
peace.....

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Carolyn…

I'd bet you're right re. the pileateds. I wasn't worried for them , really, just my ringside view. The male pileated was hanging off my feeder yesterday afternoon, whacking away at the suet block. They have plenty of feed trees throughout the islands across from the cottage—just none so hand to a lazy birdwatcher.

Nature is resilient. And therein lies the best hope for the future—give most plants and animals even half a chance and they will survive. The retrospective view is purely human. (Unless you include how Moon the Dog keeps returning to her food bowl even though she knows she just scarfed up the last of scraps; though this is probably more like in hope the Food Fairy dribbled a few additional bits and bites out which now await.)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Gail…

Seeing as how I've spent—or more accurately, misspent—much of my like wandering streams and trails, camping in tents and the back of the pickup for weeks on end (I used to average more than 250 days on the road, which were mostly off the road) even an Irish setter ought to be able to grasp a bit about the workings of nature. And honestly, both my parents were passionate and knowledgeable outdoor folks, and they believed and practiced that verse from Proverbs that says, "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." I'm getting old, but I still love the outdoors—and always will.

I hope, in the end, it is this enduring love—more than scientific minutiae or fancy phrases—that illuminates my writing.

Thank you for your comments.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Now that it has fallen it will hopefully become host to a new lot of creatures - woodmice, voles, beetles, all kinds of things and that may well attract different birds who relish a juicy beetle for breakfast. The loss of a tree is always sad - the gap it leaves seems enormousbut after a few weeks we tend to forget it. Sorry - I wonder why it fell when it did - one of nature's mysteries.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

I'm sure the fallen snag will, if it doesn't float off with the first high water, provide food and home to myriad creatures. That's nature's way. It will be fun to hie myself over to the island every so often and see what I find in the rotting log.

As to why it fell…beats me. But I've been in the woods on a few occasions when I heard or saw a tree fall for no apparent reason.

Some years ago, I knew a young angling guide who was killed by a tree which simply toppled onto his canoe as he and a client floated a trout stream. The client was unhurt and said there was no wind or warning—the tree just suddenly fell.