A Cape Cod Notebook 9/4/07

listenTwo Oaks

By Robert Finch

One evening earlier this summer, I was walking along an old wood road when I came upon two oak trees that had been felled, from opposite sides, across the road. They'd been cut, apparently, by the landowner to form a barrier to cars, mini-bikes, and other motorized intruders. The cutting had been done in March or early April, and this was now June. One of the oaks was as dead as an old bone, its gray branches completely bare. But the other was in full leaf and gushing pendant red catkins everywhere.

Somewhat mystified, I went around to the base of the living tree and found that the six-inch trunk had been sawn through about two feet from the ground - all except the last inch. As the tree had swayed and fallen, this last remaining inch of wood and bark had been pared away from the stump down nearly to the ground. It was from this clinging shred of connecting tissue that the severed tree continued to draw enough life to bud, flower, and leaf out with a full and healthy crop of foliage, as though it still stood straight and solidly keeled in the earth.

What made this seem even stranger was that the other oak, the same species and of similar size, had been cut in the same way and also remained connected by a thin strip of outer wood and bark - yet it was dead. What had caused one tree to so vigorously maintain its hold on life while the other had succumbed? Probably in both cases the cuts had come close to some invisible line of viability, and, in the case of the second tree, had just passed over it. But I like to think that there were some constitutional differences between the two trees, that one had a greater "will to live" than the other.

In a physical sense, this is quite possible. In trees as in humans, genetic differences do exist within the same species. Some individual trees, for instance, seem more resistant to disease than others. Some maples turn color and lose their leaves weeks before their neighbors. Some pines will survive flooding or frost, where others won't, and some oaks will withstand successive defoliation by insects, while others die.

Most of the time, though, trees, like any other foreign race, all look alike to our glancing eyes. It usually takes some dramatic happening, like these two felled oaks, to make us suspect individuality in a plant. Still, despite the obvious anatomical and biological differences, trees and people aren't all that dissimilar. Although we tout ourselves for our consummate brains, most of our vital functions - breathing, blood circulation, energy production, waste disposal - still take place, like a tree's, involuntarily and unconsciously. Some of our chemical affinities are remarkable, too. Take one molecule of chlorophyll - a complicated organic structure - replace its one atom of magnesium with one atom of iron, and - presto! - you have a molecule of red blood. In other words, when we look at a leaf we might say, There but for an atom of iron go you and I.

Oh, and just in case you're wondering, I revisited the two felled oaks the other day and, yes, one of them is still alive and bearing a healthy crop of acorns. I took a few and shoved them in my pocket, and later planted them in the yard. My own lot is already overpopulated with oaks, but I can always use another strong neighbor or two, and these, I know, have good connections.