by Whit Gibbons

April 27, 2014

Every tree has a story, and sometimes you can figure out what it is. Story-telling trees can be seen in the wake of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fires. Humans and other animals can also leave messages. Like flipping through the pages of a book, walking through the woods can offer glimpses into the past.

The effect of long-ago floods or fires can often be seen on large trees years after the event. A forest fire will leave its mark at the base of trees in the form of charred bark. Careful scrutiny of surrounding trees, particularly older ones, can reveal that a fire came through, sometimes many years before. Likewise, watermarks indicate water levels during extreme flooding. Trees in a swamp forest or alongside a river may have a faintly darker base below lighter colored areas higher on the trunks. Watermarks tell of floods and standing water that might be beyond the memory of people in the area.

This summer my son noted that many of the taller trees on Kiawah Island, had grown with a bend toward the mainland several feet from their top. Trees continue to grow upward but the distinct curves in many tell the sharp-eyed observer that they survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989. In Tuscaloosa, Ala., oak trees in some areas are reminders of the devastation wrought by the April 27, 2011, tornado. Although their massive trunks remain, their upper parts tell the story of the powerful winds. Small branches stick straight up giving the trees the look of a punk-rocker with a particularly spikey haircut. The first leaves of spring promise renewal and the hope that the majesty of huge oaks will once again grace the landscape. Years from now, a keen observer will be able to read the story of the tornado in the shape and size of the trees' branches.

I recently drove down a country road in South Carolina where the ravages of a destructive ice storm in the winter of 2014 can be readily observed. Stands of tall pines are interspersed with topless trees that look like giant, broken toothpicks. Pines do not recover in the stately fashion of oaks when they lose their top branches, but while they last they will tell the ice storm's story. A future chapter may unfold when the dead limbs on the ground fuel forest fires that could be more devastating than the ice.

Some trees speak of man-made tragedy. In New Orleans I watched a car careen off another at a busy intersection and smash into a large live oak. The intersection was a hazardous one, the scene of many wrecks. After the drama of the accident subsided, I saw a large, fresh gash that had been cut into the tree by the car bumper. Looking more carefully, I noticed an old scar several inches from the first. Then a couple of inches higher up, another scar that was even older. Missing branches high above disclose that the tree survived Hurricane Katrina. The scars on the trunk tell of human tragedies from an earlier time.

Some natural phenomena not as devastating as extreme weather provide their own narratives. Old, scarred areas on large trees near a stream often indicate that beavers ate the bark off a young tree all the way to the ground, yet the tree survived. Years later the chewed-off area will go no higher, but as the tree grows in diameter, so will the scar tissue, leaving the history of what happened. Likewise, woodpeckers write their own story in the bark of trees. Sapsuckers leave a horizontal line of small holes whereas the pileated woodpecker cuts large rectangular openings. Myriad insects make tiny scribblings on trees both large and small. Fallen trees can offer numerous stories from woodpeckers and insects.

Take a walk through your neighborhood or local woods and see if you can decipher what the trees have to say. I promise you they all have a story to tell.

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