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Conversation with a Log

Bill Meredith

"Natureís silence is its one remark,
and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block." Ö
           Annie Dillard, 1983. Teaching a Stone to Talk.

(Dec)  "Natureís silence is its one remark, and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block." ÖAnnie Dillard, 1983. Teaching a Stone to Talk.

I get the impression sometimes that my wife thinks Iím weird. The reason I suspect this is that she says "Youíre weird!" fairly often. Of course everyone has said that as a joke to someone, some time or other, but she sounds like she really means it. For example, the other day when I came in for lunch she asked what I had been doing, and I replied that I had been talking to the log down by the basement door. She didnít even ask what we were talking about; she just said I was weird. I assume she thought the log was weird too, though she wasnít specific on that point.

The log in question is a piece of black walnut from a tree that was being cut down one day last year when I was walking home from the post office. I asked the men cutting it what they planned to do with it, and they said it would be split for firewood. I nearly cried on the spot; a black walnut tree of that size would have produced several hundred board feet of beautiful lumber ($ 5.00 per board foot from internet sources), or many sheets of veneer for cabinet work. I asked if I could have a piece of it, and they kindly agreed. The log is 33 inches long and 18 inches thick; I donít know how much it weighed, but it took all four of them to lift it onto my truck. It doesnít speak in English to me, of courseÖ it follows Annie Dillardís observation about the silence of natureÖ but it does tell me a lot about itself and its place in the ecological scheme of things.

The first thing it told me was that it was 55 years old and in good health. Its growth rings were clearly defined, and showed that it had grown rapidly in its first few years and then slowed down, as trees normally do. The rings varied in width, showing when there were droughts or wet years. It had escaped damage from storms, lawnmowers and car bumpers. I got a crowbar and rolled it off the truck and onto the concrete entryway of the basement, and left it there to dry.

I wanted the log to dry slowly to minimize cracking, so I left the bark on it for the first year. Last week I noticed that it was coming loose, so I got an axe and started peeling it off. It was over an inch thick and came off easily. Under the surface where the live bark had been was a layer of soft, crumbly black material with the texture of fine forest soil; it proved to be a miniature ecosystem, crawling with life. There were beetle larvae, centipedes, infant earthworms, fungi, and countless other things too small to see. They reminded me of an Irish proverb that says we should appreciate the little things in life because there are so many of them, so I started counting the larger ones, but gave up when I got to 200. It was a busy place; some of them had already started chewing holes into the wood. They would have converted the entire log into soil in a couple of decades

"Wormholes" are different things to different people. To the younger generation, raised on science fiction and computer games, they bring to mind Einsteinís theory that wormholes are thin tubes in the space-time continuum which might enable space-men to travel to distant galaxies. Ecologists of my generation are limited to a more prosaic world, where wormholes are tunnels made by beetle larvae in logs; but when you look closely, these holes are every bit as fantastic as the ones in space. It is one of natureís oddities that wood-boring insects cannot digest wood. They chew their way into the log, creating winding tunnels as they go and grinding the wood into sawdust, which they swallow. The sawdust passes through their gut and is deposited behind them, filling up the tunnels. It is then attacked by fungi, which digest it; and the beetle larvae then turn around and eat it for the second time. This process had started in my log; a few tunnels were a quarter of an inch deep. I had got there just in time.

My memory is declining at a worrisome rate, but the log was able to rejuvenate it for a while. Under the decaying remnants of the bark were places where the wood had changed color from deep chocolate brown to a bright carrot-orange. I knew instantly what had caused it: Phycomyces blakesleeanus. I hadnít seen it for 55 years, but by some neural magic its name came to me, along with a vivid memory, like watching an old movie. In my first semester in graduate school I heard a talk by Dr. Virgil Lilly, who was a specialist in wood-decay by fungi. He had discovered that this fungus was capable of synthesizing carotene, which is the source of vitamin A. He was a striking figure of a man, tall and stooped by arthritis, wearing round horn-rimmed glasses and a goatee and mustache in a time when men were all clean-shaven. He began by writing the chemical formula for carotene on the blackboard; it stretched clear across the room. Then he proceeded to tell how the fungus made it. Standing there by my log, I could see Dr. Lilly holding a piece of rotting orange wood in his hand and pronouncing every syllable of that amazing name as he lectured.

Science is a process of the mind, and the best scientists use imagination as much as logic. A friend recently told me he had read that within the next century all of the questions about nature will be answered, and he asked me what scientists will do then. Personally, I doubt if all of the questions will ever be answered; the record shows that new discoveries always lead to new questions. But even if we solve them all, I think our imaginations will stay busy; there are things to be learned from talking to logs. Annie Dillard knew a man who had a stone which he was trying to teach to talk. He had been working at it for several years without success, and some of the neighbors thought he was weird, but Annie was rooting for him; she had no idea how, but she believed he could succeed.

I have had better luck with my walnut log. Of course, it may not be fair to compare it to a stone, because the log at least was once alive; also, it might have help. 1,000 years ago my Welsh and Irish ancestors believed that woodland spirits lived in trees, and their attitudes toward the people who cut the trees determined whether the wood remained sturdy or rotted. It was said that a man should have a blank mind when he began to carve a piece of wood; the spirit would determine what the carving would turn out to be. Of course I donít believe such myths, but I cannot prove that they were wrong. After all, my log did make my mind dredge up ideas I could not have thought of otherwise. Perhaps that qualifies as communication. And perhaps when I bring it into the shop this winter and begin to work on it, something beautiful will come out of the wood. If it does, my wife may decide that a bit of weirdness can be a good thing.

To read past editions of the Retired Ecologist, visit the Authorsí section of Emmitsburg.net

Read other articles by Bill Meredith