The wild and wonderful valley of Embercombe has felt the force of the recent storms! People often feel sad about trees being blown down as it can look so destructive. But the storm is part of a wild natural process which brings regeneration and the next phase of life…
Trees can live for several hundred years. This can be hard for us to conceptualise just how long one tree may be part of the landscape. What changes it will witness in its long lifetime is so different from our own time on earth.
Starting with the obvious – a tree begins life as a seed, and if it falls in the right place, with the right environmental conditions and a supportive mycelial network it will germinate and grow from seedling to sapling and on to a tree. Over time, if the tree survives, it will become larger and more dominant in the canopy, possibly even one of the biggest in its patch.
At some point, along comes another set of environmental conditions that can change all that. In our case over the last few days we have had a powerful storm. Apart of disease, beavers and human tools this is one thing that can topple these giants of trees and we see the majestic beauties crash to the ground.
But do not think of this as the death of the tree. This is just the next stage of its life. There are 4 reasons why this is the case:
- If the root plate of the tree is still connected to the ground, the tree will continue to grow. Its roots are long and intertwined with the other trees of the area. The other trees actually send nutrients to support it as they know it is part of their family. The mycelial network is key in this process of exchange. It will sprout new branches along its length and start again. This is called Phoenix regeneration (see photo to right). There are a few old trees in the woods at Embercombe where we can see this has happened.
- If the tree has lost its connection to the forest floor and is no longer connected by its roots then it takes on a whole new function in the ecosystem. The tree now starts the deadwood cycle of its life. Deadwood is one of the most important, and crucially in our case – missing – parts of the landscape. Humans have spent
the last hundred years, and more, clearing up fallen trees and tidying the timber away. As soon as that tree or large branch is broken, the mycelial network and fungi present get to work and offers opportunities for literally thousands of other organisms to access the tree for their own lifecycle. The ‘dead’ tree springs back into life as fungi, lichen, bugs, slugs, beetles, flies, mice, voles, ants and, and, and… will make use of it in their lifecycle. Dead trees can survive for another hundred years if left to be part of the ecosystem in this way.
- Dead trees are important in the nutrient cycle of our landscape. They decay slowly, releasing nitrogen but still holding on to the carbon they have stored as they’ve grown over their whole life. If we cut them up and burn them, this carbon is lost back into the atmosphere rather than stored to be used by all the other life around it.
- Then a large tree falls, look up! Look at all the light that is suddenly flooding to the floor. Gaps in the canopy offer an opportunity for new plants to germinate on the ground and the cycle of the forest starts all over again. Flowers, new saplings and ferns all take advantage of this supply of sunlight and begin to emerge. Butterflies particularly benefit from sunny gaps in the canopy as they feed on the nectar of the plants that come through as a result.
We talk about rewilding Embercombe. This doesn’t just mean letting nature lead the way when it looks pretty and tidy – it also means embracing all of the natural processes that we see, even if they feel threatening and destructive.
A storm like this is rare opportunity for us to experience how a natural process can be an agent of change in our wild land. We have lost so many natural processes from our world – beavers hunted out, forest fires are extinguished to save roads and houses, large wild grazing animals are extinct…. So here we have one force that humans can not control and I feel we should embrace the change it brings and wait eagerly to see what life will spring forth as a result of it.
Let the deadwood lie where it falls, and let the ‘other than human’ life show us what that can become.
A brief post script caveat – I absolutely understand that people will have to clear up parts of the trees if they are putting people or property at risk or are blocking facilities that we need. But I would strongly urge you to consider leaving as much of the fallen trees in place. It is genuinely part of rewilding our land (and ourselves).
Some links if you want to know more