Some months ago I wrote an essay about designing a landscape for a sculpture, but perhaps equally as sculptural were the tree trunks that played such a critical role in the realization of that design. I do not think I ever physically understood what a tree was all about until I was face to face with these stumps. Farmers need to clear land to plant their crops; this means digging out the stumps. The microorganisms that decompose wood work at a snail’s pace. In farm areas in Michigan it is common to see fences made from these stumps. For this project, I persuaded a farmer to part with 150 feet of his fence. The experience would provide me with a graphic understanding of what goes on inside the bark of a tree.
What arrived by flatbed was vastly more than I had bargained for. They stood eight feet tall and were much better than that in width. Though the fence had been in place for 10 years, handling the size and weight of them was a strain both for my crew, and my bobcat skid steer. The thick wiry roots were as unyielding as steel. It is so easy to stop truly seeing those things one sees every day. A lifetime of seeing these giant living things rising out of the ground to incredible heights had apparently dulled my sense of them.
I was so struck by how the heart of a tree lives on long after its green life has gone down. The heartwood is transformed by an internal chemical process into a material of great strength. The wood of a tree enables nutrients to travel from the roots to the leaves, its core function is to keep the plant upright. This exposure to wood is much different than looking at planks, or plywood, porch furniture, or fuel for my fireplace. Processed wood is obviously a material that few could do without, but these raw forms are incredibly beautiful.
Setting them in place took days. Placing them close to the final location was done by machine. This was just the beginning; as I wanted them to look as though they might had always been there, we dug them in. The forks on the skid steer held the stumps in place, as it would have taken an army to do that by hand. Though this group of trees was no longer living, the story of how the network of feeder and support roots broadly rise out of the ground and grow to support these very large plants is there to read.
Very large trees have extensive root systems; the rootball is shallow relative to its spread. The roots below ground repeats the size and structure of the branches above ground. Especially shallow rooting trees, such as maples and beeches, may make such dry and rooty conditions from the trunk to the dripline that planting beneath them may prove impossible.
It is a very good idea to consider what will need to go on below ground, and what will eventually be-before planting a large growing tree. I have had occasion to tell clients that their silver maples were an excellent example of God’s biggest weeds. Urban lots and tree lawns are poor locations for giant trees. They suffer from restricted space and rootzones. Given that it takes a long time to grow a tree, imagining the eventual size at the beginning only makes good sense.
This nine foot tall bronze bear seated on his beaver’s nest is getting some company of a similar scale. The rain to come will wash the stumps. The digging in will deposit soil in pockets, enabling plants to grow. A collection of dwarf conifers would cover the ground.
The softly draping branches of picea abies pendula soften the look of those raw stumps. A walk in the woods is very much about trees in all stages of growth. The forest floor is about a drama of a different sort-what is decomposing is providing a place for new tree seeds to successfully germinate and grow.
This landscape is very young yet. In another fifteen years, it will be barely hitting its stride.