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Monday, October 28, 2013

Barking Up the Right Tree

Each year, I look forward to those first days of autumn, when the bell curve of annual temperatures and humidity is decidedly on its downslope side. That's New England at its best. Having had a long interest in trees and woodturning, I like to be in the woods at any time of year, but especially in the fall.
Sugar Maple in Autumn

In the last couple years or so, I've been helping fellow wood turners learn to identify the trees whose wood we all work with. A core group of us has developed, and we've been enjoying day hikes in the woods almost weekly for some time now. As a result of having to answer innumerable questions such as "what makes that a Sugar Maple and not a Red Maple?", or "how do you know that's a White Oak?", I've had to hone my own identification skills, and review the characteristics of dozens of species to be able to explain them to others. And that's been a very good exercise for me.

White Oak in Autumn
As an extension of sharpening my own tree identification skills, I've lately been taking the time to examine tree trunks more closely, paying particular attention to little details in the bark. That's led me to spend more time noticing the patterns in it, as well as the surfaces of dead wood, and the structures of other organisms growing on and in trees (fungi, mosses, lichens, etc). I like to call the pastime "barking".

This fall, the weather has been superb in western Massachusetts, and it's been a great pleasure to poke around in a forest for hours on end, camera in hand. There's an enormous world of tiny things to be found on and around trees. I'm fascinated by dead and decaying wood, especially the patterns to be seen in the weathered, eroding structure of it. So far, I've found some of the most interesting grain patterns in dead oak limbs, those whose bark has fallen off. 

One day, while reviewing a close-up photo of the grain structure of a dead oak limb I had taken with my cell phone camera, I was delighted to notice an animal caricature in the grain's pattern. Take a look at photo-1 and maybe you'll see it too. It helps if you look at it from a distance; on the small screen of my cell phone, it was best seen at arm's length, so you may need to be farther away than that from your larger computer monitor.
Do you see an animal's face? I see a terrier, others see a bear. The terrier is looking slightly downward and to the right; his right ear and eye, and nose, are prominent, and his left eye is not visible.

That photo was a closeup of the swirling grain on a dead oak limb, and the next photo (#2) is of the same limb; different area, and not such a closeup. What do you see in this one?


Photo 3 is a rather bizarre one. I don't know what caused this beech tree to look like this, but when I think of the old assurance that "his bark is worse than his bite", I have some doubts!  Have I just found my first alien??

Read on ...

Ambling along a section of the Appalachian Trail with my cronies recently, I happened to glance to my right, and spotted the character in photo 4 gawking at me. Love the hat.

5 - Peculiar Hemlock Growth
Not all that's interesting is so comical, of course. A lot of the little things to be seen, as well as many of the larger, are intriguing for any number of reasons. Some can be seen as "art", some are curiosities, and others are just plain cool!

Nature has a way of producing art of its own, and it exists on a continuum of scales, from microscopic to huge. You don't have to go far to find it. No matter where you live, it's all around you. For me, the most pleasing examples of it are in the forests around me. I can while away hours peeking under the shedding bark of dead trees, or clambering through the aftermath of the tornado that descended on our area a couple years ago.

6 - Old Barbed Wire in Oak

As fungi invade a tree through a wound, or after its death, they begin the decay process that will eventually return the tree's constituent elements to the soil. In the early stages of decay, different fungus species will send hair-like hyphae through the wood, like roots, to feed on the sugars. When hyphae of two different fungi meet in the wood, they create a boundary or zone line between them. The lines, called "spalting", can be stunning, like India-ink drawings. Such spalted wood is prized by woodworkers.  A rough-sawn piece of spalted Silver Maple is shown in photo 7.

You can find spalt lines on the surface of some dead trees just under the shedding bark, as in the sugar maple seen in photo 8.

7 - Spalted Silver Maple Wood

8 - Spalt Lines Under Sugar Maple Bark

Spalted Maple Bowl

When the fungus has matured, it develops fruiting bodies on the outside of the tree (or fallen log) to disperse spores, which may find another tree to repeat the cycle. We see those fruiting bodies as mushrooms. Anytime you see them growing on a tree, you know there's decay happening in its wood, and the decomposers are at work.
Uh-oh ... mushrooms at work!

Possible spalting under way?

Under the bark of many, many trees are the galleries and wanderings excavated by beetle larvae as they grow. Adult beetles lay their eggs in bark crevices; when the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the wood tissues under the bark, eventually chewing their way back out through the bark as adults. They leave behind their "engravings" (photo 9).  As the dead wood weathers, the galleries slowly fade away, but may still be an interesting picture (photo 10).

 10 - Weathered Engravings

9 - Beetle Larvae Engravings

A walk in the woods is almost always sure to reveal contorted and weird growth forms in some of the trees. Heavy snow and ice loads often bend small stems and limbs toward the ground; falling trees and branches may crush others nearby. Those burdened victims may survive to bend their way back up toward the light, eventually becoming strangely serpentine in form.
11 - Serpentine White Pine

12 - Snaky Red Maple

It's always amusing to see one tree "kissing" another, or otherwise making close contact. Sometimes, one tree's trunk or limb has happened to grow in a situation where it's pressed against some part of a neighbor tree, and proceeds to grow right around the other, engulfing it. Or, the two trees may just end up in an amusing coupling.
13 - Maple (L)  Meets Cedar (R)
14 - Beech, Stepping on Black Birch

15 - Yellow Birches, Streamside
16 - The Ball and Claw
Photo 16 shows a common sight in our northern hardwood forests... a Yellow Birch appears to be grappling a large rock in its talons. How did this happen??  Birches have tiny seeds that won't be able to grow if they fall in the leaf litter; they must contact bare soil, or something akin to it, to grow. When a forest tree is uprooted by wind or other causes, its root ball heaves up soil, providing a perfect place for birch seeds to germinate. In time, the tree will grow, and the bare soil is washed away, often leaving the tree looking like it's standing on tiptoes. Sometimes the seeds will take root in the thin soil atop a boulder and grow down around it; again, as soil is eroded, the boulder becomes exposed, and the tree appears to be grasping it, as in the photo. Could this sort of image be the original inspiration for the "ball and claw" feet on our traditional furniture? The design supposedly was based on the feet of animals, but I do wonder... what animal would be grasping a ball-shaped object or prey?

Then there are the curious growths known as burls (or "burrs" if you're across the pond). Some folks think of them as tumors or warts. They don't appear to be well understood, and there doesn't seem to be any one explanation for their formation, but they're an abnormal growth that isn't detrimental to the host tree. They may be caused by some kind of injury to the tree, by a virus, or maybe insects. Who knows. In some cases, they appear to be the result of unusual hormone activity, causing an uncontrolled, localized surge in bud formation.

Whatever the cause, the burls often contain attractive figure and grain, making them desirable for many woodworking applications. I use them often in my woodturning. Some species of tree produce fantastic looking tissue in the burls; others are rather ho-hum and not that interesting. There are exotic burl species from around the world that command high prices, but that's not true of many North American burls. In New England, Black Cherry generally produces the most attractive burl wood. Burls of other species, such as maples, oaks, birches, etc, may or may not be something to write home about.

Hophornbeam Burl
And not every wart-looking bump on a tree is a burl... when a limb is cut or broken off near its junction with the trunk, the trunk will eventually grow new tissue over the wound, forming what some may think is a burl, but is just a healed-over branch stub. Some examples of burls are shown here.
Black Birch Burl
White Birch Burl







Black Cherry Burl Bowl













So you see, there's a lot to be experienced and examined in the woods. This article has only scratched the surface. So much more could be said and shown.
When you're scampering down a trail, consider slowing the pace and leaving the trampled path for a few minutes to explore the trees close up. Seek out the details of any tree's bark. Especially pore over dead trees. Look in the crevices. If there's dead bark separating from the trunk, peek under it (but don't pull it off, it may be home to a variety of creatures). Look up into the trees. Watch for the curiosities you're bound to find. In other words ... go "barking" !

More Tree Oddities:


Which way is up??
A rare tree clam emerging in spring
Dog?  Bear??
Ash tree eats rock
Careful-- they're listening ....
Window into the woods

A mother-and-child moment?

Yellow birch diamond

Another tree clam

Bigfoot, at the beech

Mushroom doves on bark
Is that a bear ??
Better Stay on His Good Side...

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