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Monday, September 17, 2012

Wolf Trees of New England

White Oak Wolf Tree Beckons

Why do many of us have a fascination with "wolf" trees, those gnarly, hulking, silent, lone forest sentinels that seem to reach out to us with timber arms as we approach?

If you've spent much time at all wandering through the hardwoods of New England, chances are more than good you've come upon at least one of these remnant giants. They seem entirely out of place among the much smaller surrounding trees, trees that have little individual character of their own.

Maybe that's the answer to the question: a typical second-growth forest just tends to have a consistent look, all too often rather boring, where every tree has slim, vertical structure with most of its limbs high out of reach. There's little distinction among hundreds of trees that are a study in tall, parallel growth. Until, that is, you come upon a wolf tree, a tree with character.

Grown in the open... a future forest wolf tree ?

A "New" Wolf
White Oak Wolf among "pups"
A wolf tree, which could be most any species, is one that stands out in the crowd because it grew in open conditions (likely in a pasture), where there was little or no competition for light. In such a situation, a tree will develop low, spreading limbs to maximize its crown and leaf surface area, thereby optimizing its ability to photosynthesize.

When the forces that perpetuated the open space are gone (eg, the pasture is no longer maintained), New England quickly responds by growing a forest in its place.

The once-lone tree soon finds itself in a crowd--  its outstretched limbs are shaded by fast rising neighbors, and enter a period of decline. Low shade tolerance causes leaf-bearing twigs to die back; smaller branches drop; eventually only the bony remains of grand limbs remain. In time, those will go too. Any food-producing leaves that can be sustained by the tree are now pretty much to be found on the upper branches, which are now directed skyward, where sunlight can still be captured.
Gnarly Giant Among the young

If the tree had attained much girth before its new neighbors moved in and crowded it, it now has the qualities that give it stature the young don't have: a much larger diameter, and low, spreading limbs (at least for a while). You can't help but notice it. Its presence defines a scale and shape that separates it from the poles that engulf it.

White Oak Wolf with green toes
And that stature tends to speak of longevity and endurance. A wolf tree has dignity, even in its decline.  It beckons.

And we long to hear its story. Just as our elders have earned our respect through their long years and wisdom gained, an old wolf tree similarly gains our admiration just for still being there. It's of a generation that's passing, rapidly being overrun by the new. But it  has seen a lot in its day; if only it could tell us its tales.

Large White Ash Wolf Tree
White Ash Wolf Tree
In the Connecticut River Valley area where I live, the wolf tree species I encounter most are White Oak (by far), Sugar Maple, Red Oak, and White Ash.  New England forests are often stitched with stone walls that puzzle the newcomer. Very often, the trees will be found along those old rock fences, or along other boundary lines. The fences were themselves originally out in the open, they weren't built in the forest. An awful lot of sore backs must have been endured by folks working the bony New England soil, assembling rock after rock into fencerows to pen in sheep.

 Pasture trees were often left uncut to provide shade for livestock; and there's an old unwritten rule that you don't cut down trees along your property boundaries. With the wholesale abandonment of New England farms in the 1800's, those trees became old giants in a new forest.
A Granville, MA, White Oak in stone wall. Nearly 18' circumference!

Some of my fellow woodturners and I have been exploring the forests around us, in an effort to learn more about trees and the wood they supply. On each hike, we're sure to spend some time admiring the grandeur of at least one wolf.

In the photo below, Arnie Paye, Bill Leclerc, and Frank White take a few moments to rest on a warm September day... what better place than at a grand White Ash alongside the Deerfield River? Although this tree has already lost its lowest limbs (and a Black Birch has popped up next to it), it's still a welcomed sight, and at more than 4 feet in diameter, it's just grand.

White Ash, over 4-ft diameter
Bill Leclerc admires giant split Sugar Maple Wolf Tree

Bob Labrecque just has to climb it !

Michael Gaige, a conservation biologist in New York, studied the use of wolf trees by wildlife, and found that the trees are well used, and favored over more typical forest trees. Twenty-two species of foraging birds were drawn to them, compared to only seven species using typical forest trees. Birds also spent much more time singing from wolf tree perches than from non-wolf trees.

A number of mammal species were also found to be frequently using wolf trees. Gaige "concluded unequivocally that wolf trees are a boon to wildlife". You can read about his findings at Northern Woodlands magazine.

National Champion Sugar Maple, 18.7' circumference

For many of us, coming upon a wolf tree during a hike in the woods is a very satisfying part of the trek. We're immediately drawn to it. We feel compelled to run our hands over it, as if stroking a gentle old dog who's happy to see us.

Following old stone walls in the woods is a good way to locate wolf trees. People of the past relied on Sugar Maples to provide them with their year's supply of sugar. It's not uncommon to find the trees along walls.

It was a simple process to tap the trees in late winter, and boil the drawn sap down into syrup and candy, but it was back-breaking work nevertheless.

You can still find rows of these trees here and there. When you do, you can contemplate how valued these trees were.

This western Massachusetts Sugar Maple is the national champion at 18.7 feet in circumference, well over 100 feet tall, and an average crown spread of nearly 100 feet; it's found in a line of maples along a typical old stone wall.

Some species may develop thick and deeply furrowed bark as they age. Those are my personal favorites. The oaks and ashes, among others, come to mind.

Deb Silva finds a Chestnut Oak Wolf

Deeply Furrowed Bark

But if the best days of the old hulk have slipped away, it begins its slow decline. A lightning strike may have seared a scar down the bole to the roots, blowing a strip of bark off in a steam explosion, and opening up a wound. Maybe a fire did it in. Or, it just may not be able to thrive any longer among its competitors.

Best days are long gone
It may be tottering now, relying on a neighbor to keep it propped up for a few more years.

A Wolf on its last legs - - literally!

Downed Wolf Tree



Come a windy day, the wolf will go down with a final "whump !".  But even then, it will be a great attraction for me, an opportunity to examine its massive trunk and limbs more closely. The texture of weathered wood can be some of nature's finest art, something we simply couldn't artificially duplicate. The closeup of a weathered limb below is the area in the forks of the downed Oak just above Deb's right hand (below).

Weathered Limb of downed tree
A happy Deb, in the arms of a downed Oak Wolf
 When you're enjoying your time in our New England forests, and you spy a lone wolf tree reaching out to you, do take a few minutes to get to know it. You'll not regret it.

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