A Birch Falls in the Forest

A Birch Falls in the Forest


Saturday night the cold front came through Western Mass.  With it came some pretty strong winds and one tornado.  The earliest tornado to hit Massachusetts ever.  It slammed through Conway so we gave Tom Ricardi a call.  No damage to his property or the birds although he lost power for most of the week.

I was away that night, so when I returned on Sunday I was surprised to see a tree down in my backyard.  A big white birch had been tipped up by the winds.  As it came crashing down, yes, I believe that a falling tree does make a sound even if no one is there, it brought with it a small black birch.  Today I spent the day cutting and splitting the two trees.  As Henry David Thoreau would say, this was the first of the three ways that tree will warm me.  The next will be hauling the wood to the shed and the last will be burning it in my stove.

As I write this I am being warmed by some birch I cut and split two years ago.  I love birch, they are the iconic tree of the North Woods.  There white bark shines bright against the dark of hemlocks, spruce and firs in the summer.  And their golden leaves glisten in the fall.  But, they are a pioneering species which means that they grow fast and die young.  And so, they tend to come down at unexpected times. 

As a scout, I have also loved the tree for its bark which contains flammable oils.  But this has always confused me.  What advantage is there for a tree to have flammable bark?  Now I am going to personify for a bit, so please forgive me.  But maybe the tree is thinking of its progeny.  Birch trees will flower this spring and produce thousands of seeds, most of which will fall onto shaded forest floors.  To germinate, these seeds will need lots of sunshine.  This isn’t going to happen in a shady forest, so the seeds will wait.  They’ll wait for a fire.

But, how do you get a fire to open a canopy without burning up the forest floor?  You have to get the fire up into the trees and get it to move fast.  Fortunately, flammable bark will do just that.  Now, don’t worry too much about the parent trees, if you have every split fresh birch, you know the wood and inner ark is full of moisture.  He trees can take the fire right up with limited damage. 

Tom Condon

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