Gail and I were walking our favorite trail in the trillium woods (where it follows a bluff above Lake Michigan and is worn so deep that two- and four-footed critters must have been walking it for a thousand years) when we heard a sudden crack and saw a large beech tree crash across the trail ahead of us. Bad luck if we’d set out half a minute earlier.
Especially bad considering that it was a windless morning in May and the only apparent explanation was that the tree, after being stalwart for a century, had given up its fight against gravity. That’s the fate of many trees, but how often do we witness it? Philosophers rub their hands in glee.
The fallen beech made us more attentive to other trees along the way, especially the ones we don’t often notice. Most of us know maples, oaks, pines and other glory mongers, but our eyes slide across the dozens of species beneath them. Many are mid-story trees, less than 40 feet high, that tend to blend into the greenery. Timber cutters call them “weed trees” because they have little commercial value, which makes noticing them feel like a discovery.
The list includes mountain ash, Juneberry, box elder, pin cherry, crab apple, hawthorn, and much, much more. One of my favorites is striped maple, a dainty tree that is fairly rare in lower Michigan, though common across the Upper Peninsula. It’s usually only a few inches in diameter at the trunk, but not long ago I found a giant towering 30 feet high near Sleeping Bear Dunes with a trunk 10 inches across. It seemed as big as a sequoia.
The aptly named ironwood, with its scale-like bark, is also known as hornbeam–horn because the wood is so hard; beam because it makes good ones. When I was an energetic young buck cutting firewood to earn extra money, I learned to leave ironwood behind. It burns hot and makes a good bed of coals, but cutting it is too much work. Sparks fly and the blade goes dull.
It’s a bountiful world beneath the big trees and, as always, the closer you get the more you see. The day the beech fell, Gail and I left the trail to explore. At one point we crouched beside a sassafras and picked leaves to chew. Once you notice sassafras you’ll never forget that its leaves have prominent but unpredictable lobes — two, one or none, even on the same branch. Its roots inspired the original root beer. You can taste it in the leaf.
We glanced at the ground. Between us, sprouting from the litter of leafs, was a cluster of morel mushrooms. A few feet further was another. And a pebble-toss away, another.
After a day in the woods we always carry a little of the forest home with us, and leave a little of ourselves behind. It’s the bargain we make with the world.
That day, it was morels and memories. Not a bad deal.
BLUE Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City and has collaborated with fellow regional artist Glenn Wolff on many books including the national bestseller “It’s Raining Frogs and Fishes: Four Seasons of Natural Phenomena and Oddities of the Sky” (DCA, Inc.; jerrydennis.net).