By Inez Castor
For the Triplicate
All of life is a journey, dynamic and changing. As we age, the wise ones among us learn that the only thing we can count on is change. Children will grow up and have children of their own. Marriages will begin and end. Parents die, friends move away, and suddenly, apparently without warning, we are the old ones.
The same journey of aging and change happens to the Earth on a longer time line. Tectonic plates shift, continents move, oceans rise or fall and the world is changed. On stable mountains and plains, those changes can take centuries and be nearly invisible to us. But here on the north coast, where were surrounded by the ocean, rivers, lakes and lagoons, change comes quickly.
Grasses grow at the edge of ponds where their seeds are eaten by birds and deposited on shifting sanddunes. The stabilized dunes provide an anchor for blackberry bushes, also obligingly seeded by birds. Small rodents running through the grass, dodging hawks, deposit pine and spruce seeds and a forest is born.
Along comes change in the form of rising or lowering water levels, fire, volcanic eruption, or just age, and the forest appears to die. But it isnt really dying, and that which appears to be a dying forest may be the most lively area around.
When the curtain of green material drops to decay and enrich the soil, were given unparalleled views into the workings of the forest community as it plays out on the stage for anyone willing to sit quietly and watch.
Come with me on a recent morning, to sit on a grassy knoll near an area of dying trees and dead snags. Lets watch as the sun comes up behind us and lights the stage.
Not long ago, this knoll was a sanddune. The roots of the short dry grass grow, not in the rich, dark soil found under trees, but in dry sandy dirt. Swallows skimming a breakfast of gnats and midges from just above the misty grass nearly touch our shoulders, unaware that the world is changing around them as they eat.
Clearly visible, small birds like chickadees work industriously to excavate homes in rotting snags, and woodpeckers jackhammer bugs from other snags at a great rate. Black phoebes hunt in their characteristic manner, leaping from naked branches to grab tiny flying things and light once more on their perches.
All is not peaceful, and theres suspenseful drama on the stage of the dying forest. Ravens cruise the area, hoping to find a nest where they can bully the parents away and snatch eggs or chicks. The dogfight tactics of the defenders were perhaps the pattern for fighter pilots during the wars of the last century.
Turkey vultures, important members of Natures cleanup crew, lift heavily from the bloated body of a doe who died giving birth.
Redtailed hawks and snowy kites with huge red eyes swoop from high, dead limbs over the tiny meadow between forest and knoll. The hawk circles and the kite hovers, neither paying much attention to seated watchers and vultures. They watch the ground with eyes that can see a mouses ear twitch at half a mile.
Beneath the dwindling forest canopy, grass and small bushes have begun to grow, thanks to increased sunlight. Here a more fortunate doe steps delicately, leading her twin fawns on a morning browse through tender new growth of salal brush, huckleberry and waterladen spring grass. Shes much more alert to her surroundings than her spotted babies. They leap into the air exuberantly, then land on long, spindly legs and hooves the size of a dime. Only the doe notices the chickaree that keeps watch on the area from above.
Chickarees are small, noisy squirrels, with soft belly fur that ranges from cream to bright orange. Quick to alarm, the chickaree is a rodent version of Chicken Little, crying that the sky is falling with its sharp, repetitious squeak when anything unusual happens nearby. This one has taken up housekeeping in a box mounted on a pine tree, one originally intended as a home for small falcons.
In the darkest part of the forest, where the limbs of aging conifers droop, a great horned owl coaxes her fledglings from branch to branch. Nearly as big as their mother, their heads are still soft and downy, their eyes huge and curious. Unlike most birds, who cock their heads to look with one eye at a time, the owl swivels her head to stare at intruders with a disconcerting, level gaze.
In the dying forest, the moss known as old mans beard hangs from the naked limbs like stiff, dry hair on an ancient head, blowing in every errant breeze, harboring a microscopic world of insects. Busily, bacteria and fungi break down the dead and dying plants and animals, fertilizing the soil where new plants will grow.
Just as humans journey through life from birth to age to death, forests are born, age and die. They just do it on a longer time line. And where the forest dies, a meadow is born and a new forest springs up nearby.
Next time you happen upon a dying forest, stop to celebrate life as it plays out on the stage before you. Youll be treated to Oscar-winning performances by a cast of thousands in delightful comedies, riveting suspense thrillers and heartrending dramas.