by John Zasada
On a late spring walk with my dogs I stopped to listen to the early
morning sounds in the mixed aspen/birch/maple forest that the Alder Pond
trail winds through. The bird sounds dominated all others—the calls and
songs of common birds that are here year around, and those of the much
appreciated summer visitors and the rat-a-tat-tat of woodpeckers and
drumbeating of the ruffed grouse.
But as I listened with my eyes closed there was a squeak here, a
scratch there, and a deep-throated groan to name just a few of the
quieter, occasional sounds in the woods that morning. Some I thought
might be a bird’s off-key voice or an interruption in the middle of a
song. But there was no familiar repeat of the song or answer from afar
as often seems to occur when birds are talking. The quantity and quality
of the occasional moans, groans, creeks, squeaks and squawks rose then
fell in volume. They were there for a moment and gone as quickly.
I opened my eyes and searched to identify the source and location of the
sounds. The hardwood forest around me was the only possible source of
the sounds. The tree crowns waving in the light wind, aspen leaves
trembling, and tree boles swaying. But these living trees with new
leaves ready to soak up the suns energy were not the source of the
squeaks and groans.
Then I spotted a dead tree clinging to a living neighbor. As the live
tree swayed in the wind, it rubbed against the branches and trunk of the
dead tree creating a deep groan. When the wind died the sound stopped
and when a strong gust moved through the forest the sound returned.
I thought “the dead trees are speaking to me”. What were they saying? It
was definitely a one way conversation that I had to interpret. Most
simply they told when the wind was blowing. But there was more to the
message. “Don’t forget us! We are an important part of the forest.
Though we no longer capture the sun’s energy, that which we captured and
turned to physical structure is the home for creatures large and small
and the source of energy to valuable lives. We are a critical part of the
diverse life of this northern forest! Don’t forget us!”
A question sometimes asked in jest “if a trees falls in the forest and
there is no one there does it still make a sound?” Still standing dead
trees are always speaking—we just have to take time to listen and
understand their message.
John Zasada is a retired forester and birch bark artist from Grand Rapids
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