Quoddy Nature Notes – A Tale of a Tree

Quoddy Nature Notes – A Tale of a Tree

                I cut down a spruce tree next to our house the other day.  I’m a tree hugger, and it was with a little sadness that I did it, but it was interesting to record the history of the tree in its growth rings, and correlate this information with information about the human history of the place.  This is not easily done, as deeds are confusing documents, and information passed down by word of mouth is conflicting and biased by personal feelings, but its fun to try. The stump of my cut tree was less than a foot high, and these were my reference rings.

My tree first reached the referenced height in 1920.  The property was then owned by Laura Leighton and was apparently just a woodlot with access by a logging road over the property of others.  The wood was piled on a ‘Two-sled’ (I found a cog from one) and gotten out by the access road and also barges that came in to the nearby shore of Cobscook Bay. The area must have been cut quite heavily, resulting in a lot of new competitive growth as my tree grew slowly and by 1924 was only .32 inches in diameter.  However at that time something favorable happened and the tree experienced good growth and was ½ inch in diameter by the end of 1925. Also by that time the property was owned by Laura Leighton’s daughter, Jessie Marshall, who was married to Fred Marshall.  Fred raised sheep on the property, and it was called locally, ‘Fred Marshall’s Point’.  My tree did well under the conditions, as the sheep must have limited the deciduous competition, until 1937, when slow growth again prevailed. (I’m sure my birthday had nothing to do with it.)

Black Spruce chisleded by a Pileated Woodpecker

Tree with some of the outer bark peeled by the Pileated woodpecker. Note the little hole drilled by the woodpecker on the lower left part of the tree.

Slow growth continued until the late 1940’s, when I think there was some clearing for fishing activity as Earle Ashby obtained the property in the 1950’s and installed a weir in Schooner cove.  Relatively good growth continued as the tree grew above its competition, and various owners of the property did little or no cutting, and we purchased the land in 1986 and built our log cabin in the woods.  The tree was about 45 feet from the East side of the house, and the heavy equipment used in building must have damaged some of the roots of the tree,  but the tree still looked pretty healthy in spite of the poor soil and shallow depth to bedrock, and gave me no cause for concern until recently.  My tree was a black spruce, with the characteristic broad but thin scales.

I watched a Pileated woodpecker work on the tree and flick off the pieces of outer bark and I wondered what he was doing.  He came back for several days, and the tree started to look blotchy brown instead of a continuous dark gray, and then I remembered some of my research into these birds when he drilled a little hole.  What the woodpecker was doing was checking the soundness of the tree.  Somehow he suspected that the tree was compromised with a rotted center, so probably full of ants, (his primary winter food supply) and he was analyzing and charting the best place to determine this for sure.  The woodpecker then drilled a test hole and found rot, but no ants.  He probably would have remembered the spot and would have returned next year to check, but I was left with a problem.  Here I had a nearby tree that probably would provide a neat opportunity for some future photographs of a Pileated woodpecker, but would that be before a strong easterly gale knocked the tree into our kitchen?  I took the road of caution, and cut down my tree.  There was some rot, but if the roots held I felt that the tree had at least 4-5 years of stability.  I marveled at the skill that the bird had in determining the closest place that the rot had come to the surface of the tree.

I dragged the tree off, processed some of the branches and the top into firewood and the bole into sawlogs, and put the small branches on the brushpile to burn this winter.  I’ll put leftover table scraps and bones on the stump and watch the crows and bluejays feast.  Goodbye  tree.  Sorry things didn’t work out.  Or maybe they did.

Black Spruce stump with Pileated chisel

Stump after I cut down the tree. Note the hole that the woodpecker had made, and how he picked out the spot that the rot is the closest to the surface.