I came across an interesting ancient tree recently, by a disused old path through a part of the forest that gets few people passing through. Let’s visit it…..
So, here it is, a wonderful burry trunk, covered in lichen, moss, and with so many things going on that it’s almost impossible to take it all in without really slowing down into ‘tree time’. It’s one of those trees where you need to pull up a chair and sit a while and really look.
After looking a while, you realise that the trunk in the middle is in fact dead, completely dead, and has been dead for some time. Bark is there in places, but most of the trunk is bare wood with the various greens of the moss and lichen on its bumpy surface. Definitely not a smooth straight trunk. The tree is dead, yes, but it’s also still alive and doing very well indeed. The living part of the tree is what was once part of the overall bark. At some point in the distant past the tree got to a point where it couldn’t sustain the bark all the way round. The tree decided, or life decided, to carry on as a tree in one section of the bark with healthy vitality and healthy roots. This strip of bark is now about 1.2m wide, and it has been living like this for so long that the edges of the bark are rounded and well healed over – something often seen in many Sherwood trees. You have to look closely for this, in a way, as the living bark is also covered in the greens of lichen and moss.
On the ground near the tree are pieces of what looks like the top of the trunk. They’ve been there for some time. There are also ferns growing – these tend to grown on wood, rather than directly in soil, so perhaps there are other, well decayed pieces of fallen tree on the ground beneath these ferns.
Walking around the tree, you can easily see how different the living bark is, and the dead trunk wood surface. In the photo on the left you see that the living tree only goes up the trunk a certain way before the branches start. By the time the central trunk truly decays away and falls, this (living) tree will hopefully be balanced and stable enough to continue on well into future years.
If you look closely at the photo on the right, there’s a bizarre surprise. There’s a sort of ‘gob cut’ like you’d typically see when a tree is being felled. A flat horizontal cut part way into the trunk, and a 45 degree cut coming in to meet it from above. Normally this is made to assist the direction of fall of a trunk. This is strange though – the cut is at chest height, and in fact there is a second one only slightly lower! The tree wasn’t cut down at all so what’s this about?
Here’s a close-up. Yes, it happened a huge amount of time ago. Also what’s really interesting is that it seems the cut was made by a two-handled saw. You can see where the cut of the saw blade grazes the trunk in an upward set of marks at the right side of the cut. This is strange as well – was it a really tall person on this side of the saw? Why cut the tree at this height? Why cut it at all if the tree was not going to be felled? A mystery without an answer.
So let’s walk around the other side of the tree for another surprise – the trunk is hollow. Well, not really a surprise. You’d kind of expect this really. Interesting to see the thickness of the walls of the trunk at the top. This hollowing must have been in place for some time, rather than being a new thing. So, inside the tree there will probably be leaves, debris and wood mould – a huge and vital habitat for many specialised small creatures. The environment inside the trunk will be fairly stable – mostly dry, slightly wet at times with the little rain that falls in the top opening. But stable, and held there by the walls of the trunk.
You can also see the branches of the living tree on the other side of the trunk. Because there are some young trees around about – the oak is not too overshaded though – it’s tricky to get a sense of the overall shape of the tree. But, stepping back a little and looking through other branches, then yes, here it is, the shape of the living tree that’s there.
You can see that one branch goes straight up! The tree is going for the light, but it’s also the tree acting in a vital way, being strong, alive, quite fine and healthy, behaving like a normal tree with normal branches.
I think it’s a really successful tree. A tree with some mysteries, a tree with many life stories to tell, and one which has a safe future ahead. Now that it has been ‘discovered’, some of the surrounding birches will be cleared and cut back, so that the tree has access to more light at the sides. It will still be a tree that sees few visitors, but I think that’s ok.