Windblown trees

Wind blown trees near the California coast.

“Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world. The forces change, yet the essence remains the same.”  —Rumi

We all recognize the survival instinct in the animal kingdom. This year, I discovered that the will to live is just as strong in trees. On July 19th 2019, Northern Bliss, our lake home in Wisconsin, was struck by an F2 tornado. We lost 21 trees on our acre of land and hired a tree service to clean up the mess.

One of the most painful moments during the week that followed the tornadoes of 2019 was making the decision to cut down our wise old oak. She stood beside our sidewalk, proud and tall, flanked by two other oaks. Her limbs held multiple feeders: a corn cob holder for squirrels, a small feeder for chickadees and goldfinch, and another for hummingbirds. The tree service was nearing the end of cutting down a dozen or so storm-damaged trees. One worker pointed to the wise old oak. “No, not that one too!” I cried. From my vantage point on the sidewalk, she appeared to be okay, but on the other side, her trunk had twisted so much that one could see right through. “Another storm—less powerful than a tornado—could take ‘er down. He pointed again: “She’d fall against your roof there.” My heart sank; objections would be futile.  “How far down?” the worker asked, chainsaw in hand. “We could cut ‘er right below the twist.”  

I consented. The canopy on that tree was so high that it took a crane to bring workers to the top. It was so wide that they were forced to chop it down branch by branch so that it would not disturb the surrounding buildings and gardens.

Chainsaws buzzed across White Ash Lake for the remainder of that Wisconsin summer and on into fall. No one talked further about the fate of Wise Old Oak—a dying stump three feet in diameter and thrice my height. During the spring of 2020, the tree service returned with their cranes to yank out the remaining root balls along the lakeshore.  After shoring up the bank, I focused on planting a row of young river birch there. 

It took most of the summer to get Northern Bliss back in shape, but during the dog days of August, Gunter and I finally got around to aesthetics: what should we mount on top of that massive stump? A life-size eagle would be too puny. Any mammal would have to be huge enough to honor Wise Old Oak. An animal native to Wisconsin? Aha! How about a carving of White Ash Bear, the one who frequents feeders and garbage cans all along White Ash Lane? 

Wise Old Oak must have welcomed all the attention because guess what? She decided to grow! She wasn’t dead after all.

Tree stump

The oak stump decides to grow.

How can a stump live? I went inside to search for our copy of tree-whisperer Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. I re-read the sections that might apply to Wise Old Oak. His book convinced me that trees are social, sophisticated, and even intelligent. They cooperate with each other and maintain relationships by sending out chemical, hormonal, and electrical signals. They communicate underground but also send phenomes and other scent signals through the air. 

But Wise Old Oak was now a stump. She could not communicate through the air anymore because she had no branches or leaves. I guessed that she could communicate like most trees do: through networks of symbiotic fungi—a wood wide web—to share nutrients, carbon and other information. But doesn’t a tree need leaves to sustain itself? Wise Old Oak had no leaves for almost a year. 

During photosynthesis, the experts say, plants open pores on their leaves to allow carbon dioxide to enter. Open pores also allow water the plant has not used to be released into the atmosphere. This process, called transpiration, draws water up from the roots so the plant doesn’t wilt. But a leafless stump needs another way to circulate water. During a study conducted in New Zealand, researchers reported that kauri stumps lived by sharing water with neighboring trees. They were connected through an underground plumbing system formed when their roots naturally fused, or grafted, together. 

Wise Old Oak had a neighboring oak on either side. But why would a tree support a stump that can’t reproduce or make its own food? Did she knock on the doors of the trees next door and say: “Hey, Oakey, I’m dying. Can I get a little of your carbon?” Not likely. She probably had that underground connection before she became a stump. 

It turns out that natural root grafts have been reported in some 150 tree species. Exactly how those roots fuse are buried mysteries. One tree communication expert from Tennessee thinks that trees support stumps to maintain symbiotic relationships with helpful fungi. That makes sense, because I recently read that the coveted king bolete mushroom of Russia (known as Porcini by the Italians) grow in complex symbiotic relationships with the surrounding forest trees. But I’m way off track here—back to the bear.

Mounting the Bear.  Wise Old Oak grew a branch straight out of her bark near the top, complete with tiny oak leaves.  At first, she looked weird with that small, single branch. But as it grew, the branch turned upward toward the sun and spread wide so that it resembled the back of a chair. We had been imagining a standing bear but decided that the legs of the statue might not be strong enough to hold its weight. Now we envisioned the bear sitting on that stump, embraced by that branch, her feet pointing toward the lake. During a trip to Cornucopia on Lake Superior, we stopped to chat with an expert woodcarver in Shell Lake.  He set us straight. “A life-size bear made of wood would be too heavy, quite expensive, and would rot anyway within a few years. You should be able to find one made of resin with a hollow center.” After a few hours of internet searches and calls to customer services, I found what I was looking for: a sitting big black bear.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When that bear statue arrived this fall, we were flummoxed. We had to open the box by cutting it around the bear, leaving it in place. Even at 60 pounds, it would be difficult to put atop that high stump. Our son-in-law Mike came to the rescue. First, he took Big Bear home to his workshop to build a wooden platform attached to his rump. Second, he added hinges to attach it to the stump. Third, he stood on the roof of his ATV to align with the stump so he could slide the bear onto his new home. This is one bear that won’t be hibernating this winter! 

What will happen this spring? Will the branch continue to grow? This one thing I know. Wise Old Oak will find a way to live—somehow. 

Wisconsin

The Oak Tree

A mighty wind blew night and day
It stole the oak tree’s leaves away
Then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark
Until the oak was tired and stark

But still the oak tree held its ground
While other trees fell all around
The weary wind gave up and spoke.
How can you still be standing Oak?

The oak tree said, I know that you
Can break each branch of mine in two
Carry every leaf away
Shake my limbs, and make me sway

But I have roots stretched in the earth
Growing stronger since my birth
You’ll never touch them, for you see
They are the deepest part of me

Until today, I wasn’t sure
Of just how much I could endure
But now I’ve found, with thanks to you
I’m stronger than I ever knew

–Johnny Ray Ryder Jr.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.