Moss at the base of a tree may indicate an underlying illness.

Moss at the base of a tree may indicate an underlying illness.

“How dear the woods are! You beautiful trees! I love every one of you as a friend.”

— Lucy Maud Montgomery, “Anne of Avonlea”

L ike we humans and most other living creatures, trees get sick. To the untrained eye, a vast forest may appear to be comprised of thousands of healthy trees all vying for the sunlight and moisture they need to thrive. But to someone who knows what to look for, chances are that many of them are, in reality, suffering from one form of tree disease or other and that means that their days among their healthier woodland mates are numbered. A tree can live for many years in a diseased state, but that is no indication that whatever it is infected with isn’t doing its work slowly and insidiously beneath its bark or deep in its roots.

Again like us, some trees can be treated and returned to their healthy existences. Others, however, aren’t so lucky, and eventually succumb to their illnesses. Some continue to stand in mute testimony to their former grandeur, shells of what they once were, hollow trunks that, in many cases, serve new purposes as homes for woodpeckers and flying squirrels. The weakest and most depleted eventually topple over where they lie, sometimes for years, until they are reclaimed by the actions of weather, insects and other living organisms that feast on decaying tissues. Storms and high winds act as woodland weeders, as does lightning during electrical storms, all ways that nature employs to impart balance to the mix. So, for all intents and purposes, our forests rebound again and again, though the tree that is now just a memory will never again know what it is like to feel the rain in its hair or the sun on its face.

On my end, it’s been a learning process as I take a closer look at what I once thought was a healthy tree and realize that it is anything but. As lovely as moss is creeping up the base of an oak, for example, or a mushroom clinging to its side, both suggest that the tree could be suffering from a disease called root and butt rot. Deep in the soil or in the tree’s lower tissues, the decay going on creates a welcome environment for other life forms to take hold, thereby weakening the tree itself and making it vulnerable to the elements. In the case of mushrooms, the rot produces enough decomposed material for them to feed from, while the moss’ roots are able to easily penetrate its decaying lower bark to establish residency. It’s not unusual along a woods walk to see such a tree completely topped over, with its roots totally up out of the soil and dangling with desiccated fibers still supporting the tiny pebbles between which they once traveled in search of sustenance.

A sick tree almost always shows some outward signs that things are not quite right with it. This can manifest in the form of black fungus on the bark or bark that is missing altogether. Its canopy may thin out over time, producing fewer and smaller leaves or leaves with spots or dead dried areas. The thicker the forest, the more likely it is that some trees will get sick simply for having to struggle so hard to avail themselves of moisture and sunlight. Like us, if a tree lacks nutrients, it cannot thrive, and it’s easy for illness to sneak in and wreak havoc. In many cases, the only thing to do with a sick tree is to cut it down. This can prevent the illness from spreading to other healthy trees, and also removes an unsightly specimen from the landscape. In the deep woods, aesthetics aren’t of vital importance. But on a front lawn, no one wants a dead or dying tree.

As silly as it might sound, I’ve been able to store the memory of certain trees away in my mind. I can to this day close my eyes and still recall many with which I shared temporarily a small piece of land, be it a small lawn on the outskirts of Biddeford, a wooded hillside or pond edge in Lyman, or a communal backyard in Springvale. In all those places, certain trees made such an impression on me that I’ve not forgotten them and probably never will until time and age rob me of that ability. I have considered these trees friends and companions along my life’s journey, and have always felt sadness at parting with them. I have, however, always consoled myself with the fact that, no matter where I go, more of their ilk will be there to welcome me. And again, silly as it sounds, I feel that I owe it to them to be more aware of their plight and that all is not always as it seems in their otherwise glorified world, where sickness and suffering are no less strangers than they are in mine.

— Rachel Lovejoy can be reached via email at [email protected]

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