If a tree falls in a forest……

A few weeks ago, I was minding my own business (hanging out the washing, since you ask), when a sequence of loud cracks made me turn around in time to see half of the large beech tree on the other side of the burn slowly collapse into ruin like a demolished factory chimney.P1010880

There was not a breath of wind. The weight of its summer foliage alone had become too much for it. A tiny number of extra cells built into a leaf or a developing fruit had tipped the scales and set off the chain of destruction.

Ancient beech trees have a habit of doing this. This is because the beech is an expert in spreading its canopy as widely as it can, and, given freedom to do so, will  push out branches at almost ninety degrees to the main trunk. As these develop into heavy limbs, they become massive cantilevers, depending on the huge strength in tension that wood has to stop them splitting under the weight. You can see this engineering in what remains on the right hand side.P1010885

Beech is a short-grained wood, so it has little of the springiness of spruce or willow, depending instead on the packed bundles of its cells to reinforce itself against gravity. But where water collects in the junctions of its limbs, and eventually penetrates the bark, it is fatally at risk.P1010882

The grey wood here has been penetrated by water over the years, and the bundles of cells have swollen, rotted in places, or have split apart. Each strand that can no longer support the tension places an added burden on the rest. Eventually, it all becomes too much…P1010886

A fallen tree disturbs. It is somehow wrong to find the vertical made horizontal; to be able to explore the canopy as if one were a bird. A fallen tree is a stranded fish – out of its element – all the wonderful fractals of its twigs, branches, and limbs lying with their balance destroyed and no longer a purpose to any of them.P1010888

In geological time, the life of a beech tree barely registers. But I am reminded of the mountain, split by frost, reduced by rain, crumbling slowly to mud.P1010887

But the mountain cannot reproduce. The beech tree can.

20 thoughts on “If a tree falls in a forest……

  1. Your sad beech tree reminds me of my fallen oak. I still miss it. The oaks fall in hot weather too, having taken up too much water I always supposed, and even without rotted joints although with rotted roots. It is indeed interesting to think of the ounce of weight that proved to finally be too much for a tree. (Since beginning a kitchen remodeling project I’ve developed a keen sense of that line beyond which one cannot take any more and one topples…) Sorry about the beech Kininvie. Perhaps you could cultivate some of its seeds, in its memory?

    • Curiously, oaks seem to be less vulnerable to this than beeches – at least in Scotland. You make a good point about the uptake of water perhaps being the final touch that can break a limb. I’m sure some clever person has worked out the weight of water in broad-leaved tree canopies in hot weather. It must be ,massive.

  2. This is a wonderful and thoughtful post. I love beech trees as they remind me of my childhood when we had several large ones in the garden. They accommodated rope swings and we used to spend ages in the autumn jumping in piles of leaves.

  3. Oh Kininvie, that is sad – I tend to think of big trees as being immortal. I have a similar big beech tree, which I should hate to lose (it is also perilously close to the house, but I have been relaxed about that until now). Will yours open up a previously shady place? Hope so.

    • Minety – I hope I haven’t worried you about your beech. It may be worth checking now and again in case cracks are developing at the junctions of limbs – especially if they are overhanging the house!

  4. Bugger me if the day after read this bit about tree if i don’t go for walk a back our place and have a very similar picture huge boken section off a huge tree and knew nothing about exept must have happen in last 3/4 days. I f i knew how to but pics on this reply would show you

    • Briony, you don’t seem to be able to embed pix directly into wordpress comments, but you could put in a link to photobucket or another photo-sharing site. I’d like to see your tree…

  5. So sorry to see your poor tree like that, when it has been tidied up, do you think it will sprout again. Will you be making something from the wood, It’s a lovely wood to carve!

    • I don’t have your wood-carving talent, Pauline. Maybe I should start? I did make some chopping boards from beech once, but I hadn’t seasoned the wood enoough, so they all split….

  6. Were I a silly, anorak-wearing pedant, I might say that mountains can reproduce where tectonic plates collide. But I’m not – so I won’t. Pleased you weren’t any closer to those branches, Mr K. Always scary when a tree branch comes down but plenty of good firewood for you. D

    • Someone was injured by a falling branch in a park a year or two ago, and ever since, local authorities have been rushing around sawing branches off beech trees, just in case. It’s a bit of an overreaction, as you usually get plenty of warning from a series of explosive cracks. But I certainly don’t hang around under ancient beech trees in a strong wind.

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