owltalk 2000


4 April 2000


It felt good to again feel the crunch of snow under my feet. What didn't feel good was the snow stinging my face in a horizontal, wind-whipped assault. The good news is that the sandblasting has removed all of my blackheads. The bad news is that I now look like Ted Kennedy.


I am kind of wandering aimlessly at night now. The weather won't allow me to do much else. I have visited most of the old cavity trees that I can get to without Divine guidance, and with the male boreal owls as quiet as they've been the last two weeks, there is not much to occupy my free time. One can only watch the antics of snowshoe hares for so long. If night won't come to me, I go to it.


Last night I visited what has become my favorite old forest aspen stand in northeast Minnesota. It sits in a bowl beneath a vertical slab of the Laurentian Shield near Kawishiwi Lake. The soils are deep and moist. The trunks are bigger than my arms can encircle.  They are anachronisms in a young, manipulated forest . Their position beneath the bedrock has likely saved them from both man and nature over the years, but now, age is pulling them towards the forest floor.


The future of this stand can be seen in the trees that remain. Conks sit like crescent moons on the boles, and dark blotches of Hypoxylon tell the tale of a slow fungal death. The fungi have already exacted their toll, turning the hard, dense wood into a styrofoam-like byproduct of decomposition. Then came the insects, and the woodpeckers, and finally the owls - always waiting until the laborers had finished their work.


Even in the year since I last visited here, one of the trees has fallen. It now lays on the ground in angular 10-ft segments, its crown spread like tentacles, an old cavity staring at me from below, rather than from above. For these decadent aspen, the clock is winding down. When the next windstorm hits, more trees will topple and then, even brief gusts will return these giants to the nadir of life.


Old aspen still dominate the site, but there is not much reaching skyward to replace them. Balsam fir and spruce are slowly marching up the slope from below. Alder and hazel cover the soils. In adjacent stands, the trees are but teenagers. The fungi, woodpeckers, and owls will use the resources and then move elsewhere.


Bud Heinselman wrote that in northern Minnesota's forested history, aspen as old as 250 years old could be found in the landscape. Those trees sat on the very best soils with nourishment close to their roots. They survived fire and winds, and then, even they felt the tugs of gravity. Today, if you find an aspen that is 100 years old outside of the BWCAW it is a rare find. The big brothers of the stand near Kawishiwi Lake surely approach that. There just aren't many to follow in their footsteps.


W.H. Lane