Barefoot Notes: Wood-watching

Every time I go on a walk – anywhere I go on a walk – if I happen upon a dead or a decaying tree – standing or fallen – I pause a minute or two and look. I look for the peeling bark revealing patterns underneath it, at burrows and pinholes into the sapwood, and pathways carved unto the cambium. I look at the texture of the trunk, the hardened sinewy cellulose-muscles running the length of the heartwood. Trick is to not just see but peer into the tree; at the mineshafts and alleyways carved by dwarvish insects and unassuming fungi.

Wood-watching is not exactly like tree-spotting where you observe a living tree. It, too, whether the tree is small or big, takes its own time; the colours and the warts, the creases and crevasses on the cork, gashes on boles, and natural protrusions, all represent a visible record of the tree, after all, leaves are only temporary, and roots invisible. Loggers have their own way of identifying a tree fit to be felled. Botanists often look at the trunk as they look at leaves and flowers to put a name on the tree. On the other hand, wood-watching is quite difficult to describe. Roughly speaking, it is akin to map reading, but it is also like deciphering a historic record.

Dead trees intrigue me. Not that I rejoice in the death of a tree. But the death of a tree, if it is natural, is a rare example of a beautiful death. Just as it lived its life, wholesome and complete, so it does in its death. And if you, too, take a moment of your time to wood-watch, you will be stumped as I first was.

Trees die in many, many ways. Every tree expires differently as does every species. As their time wanes, some become more susceptible for diseases and invasions by insects and fungi. Some silently shed their leaves which never sprout again. Some strip their bark to reveal their sapwood or hardwood. Some collapse, some rot away quickly or extremely slowly, while some stand as tombstones in their death, just as gracefully as they did in leaf.

Every tree that dies deserves lamentation. And to spend a few minutes gazing at a dead tree is nothing short of a tribute to a life that only gave. Look closer, and you will see in death the tree is still giving. Giving aplenty. To the microscopic fungi that spurt wooden mushrooms, to the cellulose-digesting termites that nibble away at its phloem, to the industrious woodpeckers that make colonies in its heartwood. In its death, it lives on.

Yet not every tree, once it assumes its post-life identity, retains the exact same quality. You may see a dead tree stump full of bracket or wood-ear mushroom, while another in the same grove to be absent of any traces of surface fungus. You may see one with an active ant colony – which rely on the wood purely for dwelling – and another with termites that chew away at the wood. Sometimes, you may see engraver beetle (popularly called ghoon in India) galleries right under the cork, or a colony of millipedes, woodlice, and springtails turning cork into pulp, or spiders and geckos camouflaged against the bark, preying on unsuspecting wood-munchers. Sometimes you may notice sword-wielding wasps surgically inserting their ovipositors deep inside the tree, targeting wood-boring beetle grubs, or, even more rarely, xylophagous – or wood-eating – flies sparring upon its surface. If that happens, two minutes multiply into twenty.

All these organisms are on the tree for a reason. All of them linked to one another in more ways than just being in the same place, making it an ecosystem in itself. A Scolytine beetle (like Ambrosia) makes galleries in the wood to encourage the growth of a particular symbiotic fungus (in case of Ambrosia, the ambrosia fungus) that, in turn, slowly decomposes the wood as it grows while the beetle consumes it. Some termites abandon the tree once the cambium is depleted, leaving behind tunnels which are then occupied by ants, also allowing fungi to get to the insides of the tree to accelerate degradation. Some wasps specifically target wood-boring beetle grubs in their wooden lairs, setting the fungus free to spread even faster. On the outside, it gives back the canopy it once occupied, creating a niche estate for the saplings that race to capture the new property; in its grave the growth is rich in biomass as the former resident gives away the nutrients it obtained from its ancestors, thanks to the very many wood artisans it recruits in its death.

You will, however, never see all these things together. It largely depends upon the properties of the wood – particularly sapwood and especially heartwood that requires special qualities to be broken down. It also depends on the time of the year, the age of the tree, the time since it has been dead, the moisture in the air, even on the tree’s immediate surrounding. And this makes wood-watching as interesting as any other form of indulgence in nature. Like birdwatching, it is a life-long activity. It is a form of remembering the dead that are barely noticed, if at all.


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