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When Ecesis is Over, Life Goes On

Bill Meredith

"When a tree falls in a forest you may not hear it, but it still leaves a mess to be cleaned up." …Marquis deLafayette Meredith, 1839-1921.

(December, 2015) My grandchildren named the wooded area behind our house "The Great Forest" when they were small, and I suppose they probably thought it had been there forever. Truth is, though, that area was a hay field when we bought the place 47 years ago. I had already been studying ecology for 20 years then, but even I was surprised at the speed with which the area changed. The rate has slowed a bit lately, but change is still going on.

Ecologists use the term "ecesis" (pronounced "e-KEY-sis) for the process by which a new community of plants establishes itself. It comes from an ancient Greek word, oikos, which meant "to inhabit" or "to establish a dwelling," and that is exactly what happened in my field. It was a meadow, but when it was no longer mowed annually, it changed from a habitat of grass, which supported field mice, rabbits, weasels and pheasants to a woodlot that now supports trees, deer, raccoons, possums, skunks, foxes and hawks. I didn’t literally see the beginning of it, but I know what happened.

One day a bird… probably a robin… had a large serving of mulberries for breakfast, and as it flew over my field a few hours later, it dropped a load of mulberry seeds in the grass. Most of the seeds were eaten by field mice and sparrows, but by chance one was missed. It germinated and produced a seedling which likewise escaped being eaten by rabbits and groundhogs, and a within the next two years grew to a height that became visible above the surrounding grass. Once above the grass, since there were no larger trees to shade it out, it grew faster; and by 1984 when my first grandson was born it was 25 or 30 feet tall, and was surrounded by other saplings of various species but similar age and size. Ecesis was successfully achieved, and the Great Forest was on its way.

So far, so good. But at that point, the geologic history of the area began to exert its effect. The soil in the area is red clay that was formed by weathering of a shale deposit formed about 200 million years ago. The actual soil is only a few feet thick; below it is the hard shale bedrock. In wet weather the bedrock prevents water from soaking deeper; it is absorbed by the clay, which becomes a soft mud. In dry weather it becomes very hard. So as my juvenile mulberry tree grew, it found it could not develop a deep supporting root system. Instead, its roots spread out laterally, absorbing the nearby moisture and minerals, and crowding out any smaller trees within its reach. For a while, it flourished, but each year it grew taller, and as it passed 40 feet it began to be top-heavy. Eventually its root system couldn’t support it. So it came to pass that on June 27 this summer we had over 3 inches of rain in 24 hours, the soil softened, a gust of wind came through from the west… and the tree fell over.

If it had been further down in the field, I would not have cared, and even might not have noticed it. But from where it was, it fell into my back yard, and sadly mangled an apple tree that I had been nursing along for the past 15 years. I went and surveyed the damage, and decided that the apple tree could survive for a while; so, since the garden was consuming all of my available energy just then, I went back to the house and took a nap. By the time I finally got around to dealing with the tree, November was half gone.

When you reach a certain age you become aware that you can’t lift as much or work as long as you used to, and you adjust your work schedule accordingly. However, in my case I did not realize that the tools I had accumulated over the years were also ageing and not able to work as they once had done. My chainsaw has been used less frequently each year since I retired, and in its old age it has become temperamental. It refuses to start until I take it apart and re-set the carburetor screw; then, it starts grudgingly, after at least 30 or 40 pulls on the cord. Once started, it refuses to idle; it goes full blast or not at all. The last time I used it was a year ago when a locust tree fell on our yard fence; then, it was working fine until it stopped, half-way through the trunk, and refused to go on. I re-set the carburetor, cleaned the air filter, checked the oil, cleaned the spark plug, and pulled the cord until I could no longer lift my arm… and finally realized that the reason it wouldn’t start was that it was out of gas. Sic semper incompetens!

The mulberry tree, of course, is just one example of the effects of ecesis. I have found at least 15 other species of trees growing in my five-acre lot; most of them are about the same size, and they got started in much the same way. There were a lot more of them 20 years ago; they grew so close together that you couldn’t see through the area. But as their crowns grew together they blocked the sunlight, making it hard for new ones to grow; and as their roots spread through the shallow soil, they had to compete for nutrients. So now the smaller, weaker ones have died, and the forest has become more open. Change goes on, unchangingly.

Before the mulberry tree fell over, it was 43 feet high and 13 inches in diameter at the base of its trunk. To date, I have got the main limbs off the trunk and away from the apple tree without losing any body parts in the process; I expect to get the rest cut up and moved out of the lawn before spring. The apple tree is leaning over at an angle of 60 degrees or so, and has several broken branches; but that can be corrected when I get around to it. In the meantime, as I write this, Thanksgiving is approaching, and I can be thankful that the tree was not close enough to fall on our house. And then Christmas will be here, and when my grandchildren come to visit I will burn some of the dead branches from the mulberry tree in the fireplace. And when things quiet down I will sit by the fire and think of my Dad, who taught me to be careful when cutting trees, and the stories he told about his grandfather, Marquis deLafayette Meredith, who taught him. Between the three of us, we have spent the last 176 years learning from trees. In a world as messy as the one we now live in, it’s good to have things like that to remember.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith