A few days after the derecho created havoc, we screwed up our courage and ventured into Faulkes Heritage Woods on the south edge of Marion.
It abuts our property and we have loved it for years. From the trailhead we spotted massive tree damage and briefly thought the word “former” should be inserted into the park’s name.
Before the storm we often enjoyed easy off trail Faulkes walks. Venerable oaks dating from the 1800s cast cool shade, preventing the growth of dense undergrowth. Walking had been easy. Each spring featured an awesome display of wildflowers hugging the ground while warblers, scarlet tanagers and other Neotropical birds sang from tree crowns high overhead.
Forty minutes of derecho wind caused startling change. Our first visit after the storm wasn’t a walk. It was more like scrambling through an obstacle course. We climbed over massive tree trunks, skirted enormous holes created when huge oaks uprooted and pushed through a phalanx of tangled branches.
Trees stir powerful emotions. Old and strong, they cast a humbling aura of spiritual strength and permanence. Inspecting their fallen corpses after the storm left us heartbroken and depressed. But as we clambered over a massive trunk a sunbeam focused our eyes on a tiny plant nestled within a triangle formed by three fallen wooden giants.
It was a six-inch-tall white oak sprout. Smiling, we congratulated the baby tree on its good fortune.
Faulkes Heritage Woods, like many old Iowa woodlands, is dominated by oaks, a group of many species with one thing in common. Oaks crave sunshine. Shade is toxic. Had the storm not toppled the canopy, the tiny oak would never have received enough solar energy for it to photosynthesize food. If it had hung on, a hungry deer likely would have snipped it off. Thanks to the storm, the baby tree now basks in sunshine, while fallen logs form a natural corral that may deter hungry deer.
The derecho gave this bitty tree a future.
Massive windstorms and fires don’t destroy forests. They reset them. For thousands of years weather and fires have been changing ecosystems, but nature is resilient. A diversity of life ensures that, no matter how conditions change, some species will thrive while others diminish.
For example, most of Iowa’s massive oak sprouted in the late 1800s on land that had been cleared for agriculture. Occasional remaining adult oaks produced acorns that their squirrel allies buried far and wide. Those saplings of the 1880s are now our huge oaks that tumbled during the derecho.
The storm left a heartbreaking pile of shattered trees but, reset the forest in a way that enables a new generation to reach for the sky. It will take a century for them to tower above Faulkes Woods walkers, so living humans won’t live long enough to marvel at their immensity. But the storm gave humans a grand opportunity to watch nature heal with vitality and resiliency.
The derecho didn’t limit its damage to forests. It roared into residential areas and city parks, toppling thousands of beloved oaks, ashes, cherries and maples. Many formerly shady yards became instantly sunny. The abrupt change in a yard’s appearance is disturbing, but it presents a rare opportunity. Nature automatically resets forests, but following a storm people can reset their yards.
During the next few years homeowners can make dramatic changes to their yards not possible if tall trees remained standing. Careful planning and planting will create new beautiful and diverse vegetation that could persist for a century or longer.
Acorns buried by last fall’s squirrels often sprout in yards and are routinely buzzed off by lawn mowers. Fortunate landowners spotting and sparing these infants will enjoy locally adapted native trees with no need to buy or plant them. Just keep the mower at bay and run a protective ring of wire mesh around them to deflect hungry deer.
Nurturing these sprouts is a joyful way to honor their parents who perished in the storm.
To help us mourn our lost trees we held a simple backyard ceremony and said “goodbye and thanks for a century of shading the world and sustaining wildlife.” Then, we blessed their children — the baby trees that appeared like magic this summer.
We wish them a long and healthy life.
Marion Patterson is an instructor at Kirkwood Community College. Rich Patterson is the former executive director of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids. They blog at windingpathways.com.