Fall/Winter 2020Non-Fiction

A Death Well Lived – Christina Devin Vojta

And I will show that whatever happens to anybody it may be turn’d to beautiful results,
And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death.

                                                                                                 —Walt Whitman

 

On a solo walk through the woods last fall, I stopped to admire a dead tree. The ancient fir had died on its feet, surrounded by offspring and peers, with limbs stretched outward in a gesture of a life well lived. Death had lingered for years, hidden within the roots and revealed in fungal growths along its knobby trunk. Over the span of nearly three centuries, billions of seeds had welled up within hundreds of thousands of cones, producing scores of trees that now flanked the ancient one as full-grown descendants. More impressive than the fir’s own reproduction, however, were the myriad gifts it had bestowed on its forest community. Every year, new needles had sprung from curled, red buds and hosted billions of insects that in turn fed millions of birds. Every year, new life had emerged from nests of all shapes and kinds tucked within its boughs. And every day, hidden from sight within the soil, the tree had nurtured not only its own young, but the saplings of other tree species, passing precious nutrients through threadlike mycelia extending from its roots. Now, though the long life of the gray-barked veteran had come to an end, a new form of community service had begun.

Perhaps due to my own advancing years, the dead tree inspired me to contemplate the meaning of life. Humans tend to place great value on productivity and creativity; we view our tools, arts, and ideas as achievements worthy of praise, and we celebrate the fruits of our labors with honors and awards. Those of us who become parents often view the births of our children as significant events—if not the most meaningful acts of our lives — and we applaud the reproduction of other humans with ebullient congratulations. Unfortunately, death puts an end to the creativity that defines us; our vitality, our essential life force, our ability to produce and reproduce, are forever gone.

Not so with trees. Long after their deaths, trees are still present, still vertical, and many of them—usually the largest and oldest—continue to be useful members of their community for decades. Their standing skeletons, known as snags, provide nest sites, lookout perches, and sources of insect food. Moreover, they become daytime or nighttime roosts, food storage sites, and shelter during winter storms. Indeed, the diversity of living things in any forest is largely due to the presence of dead trees.

 

 

I’ve made acquaintance with a cluster of ten snags near my home in Flagstaff, Arizona that were once living ponderosa pine trees. Each of these dead giants has a girth much larger than what my arms can encircle, and I suspect that a major drought took all of them within the span of a few years. When they start to collapse, the top of one will lie at the feet of another, so close is their association. For now, they continue to stand, year after year, their limbs curved downward in memory of the weight of green boughs, each snag tilted at a slightly different angle in obvious indifference to the prevailing winds.

Every April, when I sit at the feet of these patriarchs, I hear the active bustling of birds—purple martin, violet-green swallow, white-breasted nuthatch, western bluebird, and acorn woodpecker, all of them setting up house inside of the snags’ dead interiors. I count thirteen active nests one morning, each tucked deep inside the snags’ thick bellies. I have often wished to witness the process of new life forming within a snag, but the entire drama takes place deep within the wood to prevent predators—including humans—from bringing such life to an abrupt end. I must content myself with the comings and goings of the nest-building birds.

Two of the snags provide pantries as well as nest sites, since acorn woodpeckers have drilled tidy rows of holes, each the perfect size for a single acorn, into the upper third of the trunks. A kestrel is perched on the highest horizontal limb of the tallest snag. He cocks his head, in search of insects in the grass below.

I’m curious about the snags’ post-mortem fecundity, so I do the math. With thirteen active nests producing an average of three and a half offspring apiece, I estimate forty-five birds will fly out of the dead wood in front of me over the next month. This cohort of trees was already dead when I met them twenty years ago, so the total yield of new life from their trunks is possibly close to five hundred birds. How long will these stately corpses remain standing? If they last another twenty years, their seasoned wood might yield a thousand new lives. I marvel now at this contribution to other species, and it inspires me: Perhaps I, too, will last another twenty years, and maybe I can make a difference in my own, human way.

##

A decade ago, my husband Scott decided to hang seven bird nest boxes throughout our two acres of pinyon and juniper trees, a project that finally gave me the opportunity to see what goes on inside of a dead tree. The boxes were cast-offs that he salvaged from a completed bird research study. Each “box” is a cement cylinder with a diameter akin to a jumbo roll of paper towels, and each has a removable front panel, designed so researchers can collect data on the reproductive endeavors of cavity-nesting birds.

On a chilly April day, when the snags near our home are alive with birds, Scott and I take Aubrey, our six-year-old granddaughter, on a walk to visit the nest boxes. Scott lifts the first box off the small stub that supports it and lowers it to Aubrey’s eye level. He shifts a metal tab at the bottom of the cylinder to slide the front door downward. When Aubrey and I peer inside, we see hundreds of tiny blades of grass and narrow strips of juniper bark, meticulously woven into a cup that presses against the rounded interior. Aubrey draws in her breath when she sees five turquoise-blue eggs the size of olives nestled within the cup.

“Western bluebird,” Scott says. He points upward. “There’s the mother—perched on that limb. She’s watching us. Let’s put the box back on the tree.”

Aubrey takes one last peek before Scott slides the door into place. “When will the eggs hatch?”

“Oh, in about two weeks. Would you like to come back and see the nestlings?” Aubrey bobs her entire body and slaps her palms together. I watch as they charge toward another pinyon, another nest box. I think of the ponderosa snags nearby, and now I can imagine the grass-lined nests that are hidden within their wooden bodies.

##

Similar to stages of life, snags pass through several stages of death. Unless the cause of death was fire, a “young” snag can often be told by the presence of dead needles or leaves still clinging to the drying branchlets. Over time, bark becomes loose as the wood beneath starts to shrink. A middle-aged snag has lost not only its needles, but patches of bark as well. Branchlets have broken away, leaving only major limbs jutting outward from the trunk. By the end of its golden years, the aging snag has shed nearly all its arboreal adornments and its wood has become soft or even crumbly. The branches are mere stubs, and much of the bark has sloughed to the ground. At any point in its afterlife, the top of a snag can snap off under the force of storms and wind. Such broken-topped snags are resistant to future wind shear and will easily last twenty years longer than snags that still have their tops intact. If the broken snag is less than six feet tall, it is considered a stump, and some of these can persist for a century. Usually within fifty years, though, snags fall and become logs.

Each stage of a snag’s decline has value to wildlife, and specific animals are attracted to different conditions. Wood boring beetles are drawn to the recently deceased—the young snags. They chisel out tunnels, lay eggs, and fly away, and the task of nurturing the larvae is left to the snag. When I add beetles to the roster of snag beneficiaries, the number of lives that emerge from dead wood is astounding. However, many of these beetles don’t get far from their natal home, for they are immediately snatched up by a beak and plopped down the open throat of a feathered nestling.

 

 

It’s Mother’s Day, and my daughter Heather has dropped by with snapdragons for my garden. Aubrey tugs at Scott’s hand, eager to see the baby birds. I haven’t peered into the boxes for several days, and Heather is curious about them too. We all head out into our little pine forest to make the rounds. A flash of indigo swoops across our path as a male bluebird zips toward his favorite lookout perch. When he lands, he plumps up his cinnamon-hued breast and peers at us with concerned, fatherly eyes. Under his watchful stare, Scott lowers the first box and we all gather close to see what it holds. We’re greeted by four tiny nestlings, eyes still closed and beaks wide open, with only a suggestion of down on their naked skin. Their open throats are a brilliant orange yellow, and from above, they resemble miniature goblets.

“Oh,” Aubrey coos. “They’re so tiny! And look—there’s still one egg in the nest.”

“It will probably hatch later today,” Scott says. “The other nestlings are only a day old.” He steps back and slides the front panel into place. “We need to put the box back up so the parents can feed them.” He carefully hangs the box on the branch stub.

We continue onward and find two more families of bluebird nestlings, slightly older in age than the first. The fourth box contains the recently completed nest of a violet-green swallow. The fifth and sixth boxes are still empty, and the seventh contains the pink-freckled eggs of a white-breasted nuthatch. As we bustle from box to box, I think of the ponderosa pine snags a couple miles away with bundles of nestlings tucked deep inside their cores.

 

 

Snags in their early phase of decline attract stout-beaked excavating birds, who prefer firm wood. In Arizona, these chiseling champions include northern flickers, Lewis’s woodpeckers, and hairy woodpeckers, although several other species are up to the task of tough drilling. Secondary cavity nesters, like the birds in our nest boxes, lack the equipment to drill a hole in sound wood. Instead, they use the nest holes of the excavators after the drillers move on.

An older snag with exfoliating bark can be as nurturing as the cradling arms of a new mother. As the bark separates from the tree, the crevice between bole and bark becomes wide enough to shelter small animals. The brown creeper, a tiny, cryptic bird, routinely tucks its nest into this cozy “underarm” space, using insect cocoons and spider egg cases to attach the nest so it won’t fall out.

A broken-topped snag is a coveted commodity for any species that prefers the penthouse. The osprey, a fish-eating raptor, seeks out broken-topped snags near lakes and uses the somewhat-flat top as the foundation for a large stick nest. The American marten—a relative of the ferret—will often rest within the crown of a broken-topped snag and peer down at passers-by from his lofty throne. Down below, a fox, marten, raccoon, or bear might find refuge within the deteriorating base, especially if the snag is thick bellied.

Even stumps are useful, in spite of their reduced stature. On more than one occasion, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find a pair of mountain chickadees or white-breasted nuthatches nesting within a squat stump. Chickadees seem to prefer holes that are higher than stump height, so a nest in the “basement” might indicate that these diminutive birds were outcompeted by larger birds or chipmunks for the high-rise suite they preferred.

When a forest contains all stages of snag decay, myriads of living creatures are able to find homes, and the result is a community of impressive diversity. When I reflect on this, I’m reminded of our own cities. If homes were available for everyone, regardless of economic background or ability, creativity of all kinds could flourish.

##

It’s the last day of May, and Aubrey is eager to check the nest boxes. She grasps Scott’s hand and tugs him forward with six-year-old impatience. When they reach the first box, Scott signals silence with his finger over his lips. “We have to be very, very quiet. The babies are almost ready to fledge, and we don’t want to frighten them out of the nest early.” Aubrey’s eyes darken, and she acknowledges her grandfather’s advice with a serious nod. Scott removes the cylinder from the tree and gently lowers it. When he slides the front panel down, we see a pile of bluebirds stacked on top of each other. They’re as motionless as figurines with bright black eyes and full-grown beaks and lots of fresh, blue feathers. Aubrey gasps and claps her hand over her mouth. Scott grins. He knows the nestlings will stay put unless they are unduly disturbed. He slides the panel in place and rehangs the cylinder. We step away from the tree before talking.

“That was so cool!” Aubrey says. “I thought they were going to fly right at me.”

Scott nods. “They’ll probably fledge tomorrow. Come on, let’s check the other nests.” As we trudge onward, we notice several juvenile bluebirds with spotted breasts chasing after their parents in the nearby trees. They have recently fledged, so we aren’t surprised to find the next two boxes empty. Further on, the violet-green swallow nest now contains five white eggs, hidden under mourning dove feathers that the swallows have repurposed. The sixth box, previously empty, now holds the eggs of an ash-throated flycatcher. We linger to admire the plum-colored streaks that resemble brush strokes on the eggs’ oval surfaces.  The seventh box is occupied by a family of bluebirds that has yet to lay eggs.

As we finish our rounds, Aubrey skips over to me and grabs my hand. “This is so cool, Oma. I feel like the baby birds are part of our family. I can hardly wait for the rest of the eggs to hatch.”

 

 

 

My friend, Carol Chambers, leads the way uphill through a stand of large ponderosa pines. I’m right behind her on this hot June day, carrying a pack of warm clothes and snacks for the evening that lies ahead. My interest in snag productivity extends to many species of bats that use snags for nurseries, but unlike bird nests, it’s difficult to find the roosts of these flying mammals. I’ve enlisted Carol, a wildlife professor and bat specialist at Northern Arizona University, to aid in my quest.

The late afternoon sun slants across the trunks of the ponderosas and turns them gold, bringing to mind their nickname— yellow pine. We pass by a large snag, broken at the top, with huge plates of bark still clinging precariously to the trunk. I expect Carol will stop here, but she continues on, barely glancing at the snag as we pass it. Because of her research, she knows exactly which dead tree holds the treasure we are seeking.

A few minutes later, she signals me to walk softly—and presumably, to pant less loudly. I obey. She points upslope to a snag with the girth of a Sumo wrestler and with bark that hangs in large, loose slabs. The sun, seemingly perched atop the hill to the west, casts amber light on the snag’s naked wood and magnifies the texture of the remnant bark. We slip off our daypacks and move quietly toward the snag. I can feel the power of its two-hundred-year life and ten-year death as I stand at its base, and I am swept with reverence. Then, I hear the sound of life stirring within the snag—the scratchy, rustling sound of biotic energy a few feet above our heads. It’s the sound of an unknown number of Arizona myotis, a small species of bat, preparing for a night on the wing.

Carol originally discovered this roosting spot by following a female bat equipped with a radio transmitter. She captured the female, along with several other female and male bats, using a lightweight net propped over a pond of water at dusk. The next day, she followed the signal of the female’s transmitter until it ended at this particular snag, over a mile from the capture site. Tonight, our objective is to learn whether the snag might shelter an entire colony of females raising pups together. If so, we will estimate how many bats comprise the colony by conducting what is known as an exit count. Using handheld counters, we will tally the total number of females that we see emerge at dusk and, since every female gives birth to one pup, double our number to obtain the estimated total size of the maternity roost. The infants—too young to fly— stay beneath the bark until their mothers return to nurse them.

With the antenna and its cable detached from the receiver box, Carol gradually moves around the base of the tree, listening carefully to the receiver’s clicks to assess which side of the tree holds the most bats. During the day, bats tend to shift their roosting positions under the bark to take advantage of the most favorable temperature and to avoid overheating. At the moment, the restless susurrations reveal that the bats are clustered on the northeast side, most likely under the loose bark that juts out twelve feet above us. Through hand gestures and whispers, Carol indicates we will position ourselves slightly to the east of their location, so that the emerging bats will be backlit against the fading light of the western sky. We gather our daypacks, move to the east, and settle our backs against the golden-plated trunk of a large ponderosa pine, blending into the forest as best we can. I’m suddenly aware of the tree’s perfume, the sweet aroma of vanilla emanating from its bark.

We sit in silence for an hour as the evening unfolds, not wanting to disturb the bats as they prepare for their departure. The forest around us goes quiet, save for the sneeze of a western wood-pewee. A slight breeze brings a sudden coolness, and I quietly don a thin parka. I glance skyward and see Jupiter, and soon thereafter, Arcturus. Other stars become visible, and I touch the night vision goggles that hang around my neck, knowing I will need them soon. I cradle a clicker in my palm, ready for action.

Then it happens. Three shadows drop out of the bark and swoop upward without a sound. I clearly see the flying creatures against the sky—they’re bats. My thumb presses on the counter’s button—one-two-three. We wait for several minutes, and I wonder if those three are all that will emerge. Then comes another burst of flight—four-five-six-seven. Another pause, and five more bats swoop skyward. A gaggle of eight bats puts my thumb into rapid action, and I hope I haven’t missed any. My adrenalin is racing now. Another shadow drops out of the bark, and I fear there was a companion that I didn’t count. I pull the night vision goggles over my eyes and adjust the strap. Immediately the world turns fuzzy green and I see details in the grass blades around me that I didn’t notice in the daylight. I focus on the patch of loose bark again, and I’m rewarded with five more bats.

We tally bats for over forty minutes, and Carol waits even longer in case more bats emerge. My eyes widen when I glance at the final number on my counter—one hundred and eighty-nine. Carol has recorded two hundred and ten. Our combined average is nearly two hundred bats, but about half of these females have a pup. That means around three hundred Arizona myotis are in this colony. I glance up at the small slit between the trunk and bark of the old snag, and I struggle to comprehend how three hundred bats could possibly fit in such a space. I feel I’ve witnessed a trick of some sort, like an endless stream of handkerchiefs pulled from a hat by a clever magician.

As I contemplate the enormous snag before me, now silhouetted against the stars, I think of all that must transpire before a ponderosa pine snag can host hundreds of bats. First, it must germinate from a seed, then grow in both height and diameter for two hundred years or more. It might take another decade for the tree to slowly slip into death. And, even after death, more aging is required to attain the perfect state of bark exfoliation for a colony of bats. As the snag fades into darkness, it occurs to me that the bats are living in a sanctuary that took longer to construct than the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

 

 

We humans place high value on many things that improve with age, like whiskey after twelve years in a cask, or a violin after a century of use. If age is a meaningful metric, then a large-diameter snag should be a valuable thing indeed. Yet sadly, the English language reflects little esteem for dead trees. For starters, the word “snag” has the negative connotation of an obstacle or stumbling block. Dead trees are also called “hazard trees,” especially when they are leaning precariously over campsites or walkways. Forests with too many snags are deemed “decadent.” After wildfires, we remove snags through “salvage logging.” The holes that are carefully excavated by woodpeckers are called “cavities,” a term more appropriate for rotten teeth than for the birth place of offspring.

My own appreciation for dead trees has taken years to come into being. In my youth, I was more easily drawn to the symmetrical beauty of a potential Christmas tree than to the misshapen form of a barren snag. Later on, I sought out forests of stately trees, laden with cones—the kinds of trees that offered shade and a sense of protection when I walked beneath them. Now, with my advancing years, I see something else in living trees besides their current beauty—I see the potential of what is to come.

What I have learned is this: As long as there are trees, there will be snags—but not all snags are created equal. Slender trees become spindly snags, and although one of these might yield a meal of insects to a foraging bird, none is sufficiently large for a nest hole. Most animals need at least a foot and a half of trunk thickness for a den, roost, or nest. Most grown men, if rounded into a perfect cylinder, would scarcely meet the size specifications of a useful snag.

Unfortunately, we lack the economic incentive to grow large-diameter trees. Depending on the desired use of the wood, the size of most commercial timber lies between a Christmas tree and a telephone pole, and the maximum age at harvest is only seventy years. Although trees grown for human use can benefit wildlife in some ways, they don’t have the girth needed for nest holes. The future of snag-dependent wildlife therefore rests on the purposeful nurturing of large-diameter trees and the subsequent protection of their upright, dead remains.

When grand old trees become grand old snags, the human urge is to cut them down. We fear that their massive trunks or heavy branches might bring harm to those that walk beneath them. We remove dead trees from parks, roadways, and the green strips of our suburban neighborhoods—the very places where nest sites and shelter for wildlife are most lacking. Inadvertently, we deny these snags the full spectrum of a productive afterlife, and, in doing so, we reduce the diversity of species near our own homes. I sometimes wonder if the human urge to prune old wood is manifest within our own populations. Through early retirements and senior living centers, we offer ways for our elders to leave us long before they are dead. Ideas and opinions that took decades to develop can drop away as easily as old limbs on a tree. Like a forest without snags, a community without elders might seem young and vigorous at first glance, but it’s missing something vital and special—a wisdom that can only be distilled after sufficient time has passed through muscles and bones.

 

 

Scott and I sit on our porch, enjoying some chilled microbrews and catching up on old times with Tom and Rosanne, our friends from California. Tom turns toward Scott and asks how he spends his time these days. “I raise bluebirds,” Scott says.  Tom cocks his head as if this is a joke. Scott leans forward and places his elbows on his knees. He begins to describe the other species that have hatched under his care. His voice is animated, and his beer is forgotten. These nestlings are his babies.

I’m curious about the fruits of Scott’s labor, so I do the math. This year, his seven boxes have produced forty-four birds, a count made possible because several pairs of birds “double-clutched”—they produced two sets of offspring in one season. I think back on the day when Scott rescued the cement cylinders, repaired the ones that were broken, and hung each one among our pines. That was eleven years ago. It’s easily possible that Scott’s efforts have yielded over four hundred fledglings since that time. If the boxes last another fifteen years, their cement cores might yield a thousand new lives.

After a home-cooked dinner, Aubrey crawls up on my lap. As she settles in for some cuddles, her eyes meet my aging hands. She places a curious finger on the knobby growths that have begun to appear at my finger joints, and suddenly, I feel like an old, twisted snag. My skin is furrowed like bark, my limbs feel ready to break, and I detect a certain softness to my core. I watch Aubrey trace the veins on the backs of my hands with her finger. My instinct is to pull away, but I don’t. After all, what’s wrong with looking like a snag? Perhaps Aubrey sees the same kind of aged beauty in my skin that I see in the gnarled wood of a dead tree. Perhaps she likes the bumpy fingers, the blue veins, the liver spots. They all add up to a super grandma in her eyes.

I suddenly wish I could emulate the magical, post-mortem existence of a snag and stay by Aubrey’s side as she continues to grow. That’s not possible, of course, but another, more compelling aspect of snag-ishness is well within my reach: the ability to contribute to the lives of others after I die. This, I realize, it what I truly love about snags—their continued connection with the living world and the gifts they are able to bestow on other species after death.

And what’s wrong with feeling like a snag?  The way I see it, having a snag-like outlook on death will enable me to leave a legacy of nest sites and shelter for other living beings, although in ways that are distinctly human. One way is through land stewardship—through the support of public lands and through the nurturing of wildlife habitat on our own property. The other way is through the examples that Scott and I set for our granddaughter and other members of the next generation, especially regarding respect for other species and actions we can take on their behalf. I lean my cheek against the top of Aubrey’s head and give her a hug—something a snag can’t do. When I go out to the cluster of ponderosas on Saturday, I’ll take her with me and we’ll look for bluebirds together.


 

 

The author: John Carter

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