Lime Hollow Nature Center
Covered Bridge at the Lime Hollow Visitor Center

From My Sit Spot

by Pete Angie

Deer in WoodsA flock of wild turkey and a herd of deer, groups of familiar individuals, visit our yard almost daily for periods during the fall, scouring the ground. The same is not true of my friend's yard, a short distance from here. The difference is not found in the amount of forest cover at his house or mine, but in a certain tree that makes up the forest. The animals have found something valuable on the acre I call my own: acorns. Looming oaks overhang our lawn, and form a stately vanguard to the woods out back. It is against the thick trunk of one of these oaks that I lean my back, its girth acting as a type of blind for my silhouette. They are remarkable trees, stubbornly holding onto their dead foliage long after most others have dropped theirs. The winds of hurricane Sandy could not blow off their leaves. The oaks remain towers of burnt red, maybe a hundred feet tall, while the graceful naked fingers of maples, walnuts and cherry scratch at the clouds.

When the leaves finally let go, they may reveal a squirrel's round dray, the flaky, conical home of the paper wasp, or maybe the twiggy nest of a red tailed hawk or owl. Under the trunk, in the spaces between thick roots, creatures such as chipmunks and skunks could burrow. Last summer I found a hive of bees within the massive trunk of an oak. The yellow and black insects buzzed in and out of the low, small dark hole at a rapid pace, unconcerned with my presence, their golden honey tucked safely within the walls of a natural Fort Knox. This winter, to survive, they will huddle inside the tree as a quivering mass. Higher up in such a tree raccoons may spend the winter curled together in a larger cavity. And in the grooves of the bark spider eggs will wait out freezing temperatures and howling winds, held tightly to the stalwart tree.

Were I to find myself like the animals, in need of shelter, the oak leaves on the forest floor would make a good sleeping bag when heaped up beneath and on top of me. Applied thickly enough to a makeshift frame—constructed, perhaps, with fallen branches from the same tree—the leaves can form a waterproof, insulating roof and walls. Were I to get lost on a cold, wet night, I could emerge from such a shelter in the morning owing my life to an oak.

The Haudenosaunee people native to this region knew the sheltering power of this tree. They peeled away sheets of its bark, along with that of other species, to form the walls of their longhouses. The oaks in my woods are too young to have ever been considered for use by Native Americans, but they are old none-the-less. At one point they were spared the ax while the adjacent forest was cleared. It is likely that horses pulled the timber away, or that a steam powered saw mill was wheeled to the spot. The cleared land has become forest again, tall and beautiful, but clearly younger than the line of aged oaks.

They are like grandmothers, living testaments to whence we have come, peaceful reminders that the Earth is older than the latest trend, its processes eternal. Underground millions of root tips slowly ply the soil. Through spring, summer and early fall they brought massive amounts of water, called sap, up to the trunk, to the limbs, to the growing twigs, to the leaves to transpire back into the air. Shortening days slowed that flow of sap, and the leaves—those constant leakers of water vapor—changed color and were slowly sealed off from the branch at the stem, in preparation for the relative drought of winter. When the sap stopped, so did the season's growth. Now and through winter the oak will sleep. Returning to my warm house, my den, I throw a log in the wood stove and feel thankful to the oaks in many ways.

References:

Morrison, G. 2000. Oak Tree. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Yue, C. and D. 2000. The Wigwam and the Longhouse. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.