Joyce Kilmer said he would never see a poem as lovely as a tree, and he was right. Did he ever consider the value of a tree beyond its beauty? A tree’s beauty is much more than bark deep.
Sitting on my deer stand on the ridge overlooking Buck Creek, I am near a huge whiteoak farther along the ridge. I often look at that tree as it goes through changes from early fall to winter and consider what the tree has seen over its lifetime.
The big whiteoak is about 40 inches in diameter, giving it an estimated age of 300 years. And whiteoaks can live to be 600 years old, so it is just middle aged! It was standing full-grown on that hillside long before I was born and could be standing there long after I am gone.
In the way back time machine of my mind, I imagine a squirrel burying an acorn on that ridge in the fall 300 years ago, then not being able to find it during the winter. That spring, a small twig pokes out if the ground and two tiny leaves sprout from it. It is dwarfed by the grown oaks and other trees living there.
The twig slowly grows, getting taller with the passing years. When about 20 feet high, a bluejay builds its nest in the fork of a limb. Many more bird and squirrel nests will decorate the limbs of this tree as it becomes the giant old man of the area over the next 200 years.
During that time, the strong limbs and trunk protect the nests in storms that the tree weathers. Although other trees on the ridge get hit by lightning and killed, somehow the big one avoids this fate. And its spreading roots hold it in the wind and bring in enough water that it survives droughts that kill others nearby. It lives by taking water they need, but that is nature.
When the whiteoak is 20 years old and 25 feet tall something wonderous happens in May. Small knots appear at the ends of last year’s branches while others grow at the tips of new branches. Those knots on old branches grow into green two-inch-long fuzzy stings that produce pollen. The female ones on the new branches become tiny eight of an inch-long greenish red flowers.
After pollination, a bud starts to grow. By fall it is an acorn an inch long. The tree has only a few dozen this year, but by the time it is fifty years old it is producing thousands of acorns every year. The acorns come in three to five-year cycles, with best years producing up to 10,000 from our tree but only a few hundred at the bottom of the cycle.
Those acorns control wildlife numbers. In abundant years whitetails store up plenty of fat to survive the winter. Squirrels bury many more than they will need during the winter, and other animals and birds find and eat them. In lean years deer starve during the winter without their fat reserves and many birds and animals do not survive. Whiteoak acorns are the manna of the woods and many depend on it.
When the tree was young, I imagine a Native American sitting on the big rock a few feet from the tree, patiently knapping a piece of flint. I have found some of his failed efforts by the rock. The females of his tribe gather the acorns, grind them up and boil them, making a kind of acorn meal that sustains the group.
Based on the size of the trees growing on the flat areas, about 100 years ago a farmer cleared and terraced this hillside. The remains of his small house sit at the top of the hill, up the long gentle slope from the sharp drop on ridge at the creek.
He and his family slowly and painstakingly cut trees, dug up stumps, move rocks and flattened areas to create bands on the hillside to grow crops. The rocks were moved to the terraces he created between the flat areas, the remains of them are piled ever fifty feet or so. This ground was very rocky and not very fertile.
Based on that and the size of the house remains, he was probably a poor farmer with a family that did all the work. They managed to scratch out a living, growing most of the food they ate and a small cash crop to buy the necessities.
And they depended on wildlife from the woods and fish from Buck Creek for much of their protein. I imagine one of them sitting under the big oak, hoping to “bark” a squirrel with his muzzleloader or, even better, shoot one of the rare whitetails.
The big oak survived their axes, probably because of its size and location. Smaller trees up the slope were easier to get to the fireplace, and the big one right on the ridge did not interfere with their crops.
The whiteoak continues its life cycle, taking in water, carbon dioxide and sunlight during the day to produce oxygen, acorns, leaves and wood. The falling leaves decay and fertilize the ground around the tree for other plants. And its roots hold the soil, preventing erosion.
At some point the mighty tree will fall, its life ended by lightning, drought or old age. Its trunk lying on the ground will provide hiding places for all kinds of bugs, as well as food for them. It will slowly rot away, leaving its final nutrients in the ground where it fell.
In the way forward time machine in my mind, I see a squirrel burying an acorn from a nearby oak, probably the offspring of the fallen giant, in the rich soil where the big oak died, starting the cycle all over again.