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The Monday Garden
A Tree Story

Issue No. 50 - March 9, 2003
by Sue Sweeney

Thursday's snow's melting; the sparrows say good days are coming.  So, here's a late winter treat: the tree chronicles, "plain as day", when the trees are bare and it's warm enough to be outside long enough to read them.  It's not surprising that the lives of trees, the largest and longest-living organisms on earth, resemble multi-generational soap operas, played in extreme slow motion.  Tramping in the snow with a friend, I came upon this remarkable tale by a stream in a local park.
  

  
On the left, is a smooth-barked American beech.  American Beeches can grow to mammoth size: 90' high and 60' wide.  It takes almost a human century for a beech to reach adult size.  Then they live for hundreds of years.  This beech is not yet half-grown.

The huge, rough-barked tree on the right is another American titan: a red oak.  These oaks are as tall as American beech but grow faster. They also live a very long time -- 300 to 500 years, sometimes.  As any squirrel can tell you, red oak acorns are the high-tannic kind that have to be buried for a while to leach out some of the tannin before they're edible. 

The little tree highlighted by the sun that you can glimpse between the beech and oak is our "mystery guest".

The story: A hundred, perhaps two hundred, years ago, a squirrel buried a red acorn beside the stream and left it there.  Why?  Who knows the mind of a squirrel?  In any case, while humans were converting from horses to cars, the oak grew to be the largest tree along the stream.

Then just decades ago, possibly near the beginning of the Cold War, a tiny beech sprouted in the sun at the base of the oak.  Most likely, a far-distant, and equally forgetful, descendent of the oak-planter cashed some beechnuts between the oak's roots. The little beech prospered by the stream, protected from wind and tramping feet by its tall neighbor. 

Being a tree, the young beech couldn't help but to continue to grow.  Unfortunately, the beech became too big to live so close to the oak.  Since trees can't move, these once good neighbors were now struggling for survival.

  

  
The taller oak shaded out the beech.  The young beech is now slowly dying, from the top down.  But it's not "the end".  Our mystery guest is a baby beech, spawned from the roots of its dying parent.   

And still to come: Will this beech child also die prematurely?  Probably not.  The oak is also slowly dying, probably from age.  However, if the beech-child dies as its parent did, it'll leave behind another root-baby, yet a little farther away from the oak.  Some day, unless the stream changes course or humans intervene, a beech beside this stream could very well grow to be its huge adult self and dominate the site for the next hundred years as the oak does today.  

Meanwhile, the furry-faced, gray-tailed instigators are furiously burying acorns all over the park, ensuring themselves plenty of future lunches.. Did you know that it takes over 10,000 acorns to produce one mature oak tree?

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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