The Life and Death of an Old Tree Commentator Julie Zickefoose remembers an old beech tree in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio.
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The Life and Death of an Old Tree

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The Life and Death of an Old Tree

The Life and Death of an Old Tree

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From one force of nature to another.

How can you tell when a tree well over a century old is truly dead? Commentator Julie Zickefoose has been wondering about that, and about the people who have worked and walked on her property over the past 100 years.

JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: My father said a tree is 50 years growing, 50 years living and 50 years dying. I'm glad he didn't say anything like that about people. It would have been too depressing. When we first moved to our Appalachian home 14 years ago, my husband found a huge beech tree down in the hollow. He stopped to marvel at it and look for owls in the many cavities that perforated it when he saw something carved on the trunk.

People like to carve on beech trees because the bark is so smooth, and because their messages are still legible as much as a century later. Because they've grown with the girth of the tree, they're stretchy like comic balloon letters, but you can still read them. OK 1902. It said, we'll never know what OK meant, but it makes sense that the message was carved in 1902. It must have been big enough then to carve on, big enough to rest the heel of the carver's hand, a hand long gone.

Was it a farm boy? A logger? A Civil War veteran near the end of his life? Bill rushed home to get me, to bring me down into the woods and show me this ancient tree, this trace of a person long gone. Our land has been cut over and grazed, cut over and grazed. Around here, most people cut their timber and sell it as soon as they can get decent money for it. We've decided to break that cycle and we're watching our forest return. It's recovering. And it will be recovering from this intense use for as long as we live.

It's in young deciduous growth, unrelieved gray and winter with a hazy understory of pink redbud painting it in the spring. It's studded with the stumps of now virtually extinct American chestnut, the marks of hand-powered crosscut saws still visible on their tops. And among the stumps in the young trees and the brush stand decrepit but lovely old beeches. They're there because nobody wanted their wood. Beeches get hollow as they get older, and you can't cut boards from a hollow tree.

And so they've been left to live, grow and die. The beech tree has become a destination for us, something to hang and walk on. I decided to visit it not long ago, slugging down a muddy slope, and crossing and re-crossing a stream to get there. And it was in pieces on the ground, no longer okay. Its fresh wood was pale pink against the muddy ground, a jumble of bits where there once stood a relic. This is how you find things in the forest.

It had snapped in half below the last living branch, a branch that had big filmy green leaves last spring, that have buds fat with promise all this winter. Is it dead now? Will its roots go on living into spring and summer, waiting for food from leaves that will never unfold? Where trees are concerned, the exact time of death is hard to figure. Perhaps it is the point at which they can't grow back.

SIEGEL: Commentator Julie Zickefoose lives on an 80-acre sanctuary in Whipple, Ohio. She's the author of the book "Letters from Eden."

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