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Tree Fall

Bayou-Diversity (8 September 2019) Deep in the D’Arbonne Swamp just on the bayou side of Wolf Brake a giant, forked willow oak split at the confluence of the two trunks and crashed to the forest floor. Barring thunder and gunshot it was probably the loudest sound in that neck of the woods in many a year. The odds are good that no humans were around to hear it, but certainly nearby wildlife went to red alert at the first crack. A scenario in which a doe in an adjacent thicket snorted and headed for the hills, a fox squirrel bailed out of a leaf nest, and a barred owl flushed indignantly from a cavity in the doomed tree is not unrealistic.

When I found it, the tree had recently fallen, probably as a result of the fringe winds of a hurricane that destroyed entire forests 150 miles to the south. Here the impact was less dramatic but just as crucial to the survival of a forest. Where the tree once stood something absent for a hundred years suddenly appeared on the ground. This magic elixir spilled onto fallen leaves, splashed into once dark crevices, and kick-started a complex chemical reaction that would ensure that a bottomland hardwood forest would remain in D’Arbonne Swamp. This fertilizer of fertilization, this gatekeeper of reproduction was sunlight. For a century past the oak had shaded the ground underneath, enforcing a death sentence on the thousands of acorns that had fallen from its branches in the many autumns. The seedlings of oaks, like many swamp species, are shade intolerant and will never grow into mature trees while imprisoned in the depths of shade. Such forests reproduce naturally only in the sunlight-splattered gaps created when large trees fall to the earth. Then, long suppressed seedlings grow vigorously toward the source of light around which our planet orbits. The sound of the falling tree was the birthing cry of a forest. (adapted from Bayou-Diversity – Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country, LSU Press)


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