Sunday, March 8, 2009

The making of a "trail tree"...

Natural systems create bemusing natural phenomena. Trees, in their many wonderful forms, are beautiful natural sculptures, bemusing and inspiring us.

We find local "trail trees" among the mix of tree damage types in a wind-shear zone...

A small "trail tree" type. A wind damage survivor.

Here in central Ohio, where the glaciated flatlands meet the linear north--south river valleys formed by glacial drainage, we find zones of heavy wind damage among forest trees. These damage zones follow the upper slopes where the flatlands ramp downward along fairly steep flanks to the river valleys below. Frequent wind-shear along these slopes causes recurrent timber damage. Observers can see multiple episodes of shear damage preserved in trees of different age classes. Wintertime is the best time to look for damage patterns among forest trees.

We made another visit to Bent Tree Trail, Amy Clark/Bader Bird Sanctuary, Preservation Parks of Delaware County, to chase birds, check for signs of Spring, and ponder the bemusing shapes of the many damaged trees found along the trail.

We brought along our camera to shoot a sequence illustrating natural development of contorted trees into shapes known as "trail trees."

Stage one...

About a year ago, a windstorm felled a large dead tree over the trunk of a smaller living tree. The smaller tree was struck high, bending it over without uprooting the tree or snapping-off its trunk. A smaller tree to its right did not withstand the blow, its trunk snapped several feet above the ground. The surviving tree is pinned in a near-horizontal position, held between the felled tree and another larger tree.

Stage two...

A living small branch of the pinned tree re-oriented and grew toward the sunlight, against gravity, and shot upward with vigorous growth during one growing season. Growth inhibitors manufactured by canopy leaves had suppressing growth of low branches like this one until the crown was pushed down, away from sunlight. The new growth is now the dominate growth. The pinned crown has withered and is dying.

Stage three...

A nearby tree exhibits a later stage along the development path our pinned tree will likely follow as it survives future decades. This tree was pinned, I'm guessing, twenty years ago. A small branch originally well below the crown became its new dominate growth (apical dominance) as it recovered from the insult. The original crown, and the segment of tree trunk feeding the original crown, are now gone. A naval scar (ring-scar) is all that remains of the withered trunk and crown.

Stage three continued...

My lovely field assistant brightens the forest with her smile as she stands in for scale (my wife, Jackie). Maybe I'd better say that I'm HER field assistant...

Folklore suggests that Native Americans made "trail trees" (A.K.A. "signal trees," "warning trees," "compass trees," "boundary trees," and so on...) by tying down saplings so they would survive to grow pointing in the direction of a trail or toward an important resource, a spring or a landing for a portage trail, and so on.

Some enthusiasts suggest Native Americans had a secret method of creating the cubby-hole (the ring-scar seen in the photograph above) by inserting a piece of charcoal or some secret concoction that made the tree grow a hollow they would latter use to leave secret totems, messages, and the like. This young tree made its own cubby-hole without assistance from humans (unless some secret practitioner of the lost art of cubby-hole creation still prowls our forests--anything is possible).

Stage four...

Another nearby tree exhibits a much later stage along the development path our pinned tree will likely follow, if it survives many future decades. This old survivor is much too young to have been the project of a Native American trail-blazer. It too is a product of wind damage. Nevertheless, it illustrates the potential for survival after violent paroxysms mangle trees, whatever the origin of the damage. The open trunk of this tree suggests it may not survive another decade or two, but who knows.

Countless examples of all stages of "trail tree" development are scattered throughout our Eastern Deciduous Forest. I've seen hundreds of examples at all stages of development, far prettier than those pictured above (I'm going to have to start carrying a camera all the time). Some "trail trees" are so perfectly formed, they seem to approach artistic expression. At first, it seems these beautiful trees must surely result from intervention by human beings.

Through time, and broadening experience, I've encountered many trees exhibiting a complete continuum of development of these contorted shapes, all randomly distributed throughout the forests I've visited--though more frequently found in recurrent windfall areas such as wind-shear zones or along steep slopes with loose eroding soil. Nature makes "trail trees." You may label me skeptical, but my skepticism results from thousands of hours of work and recreation in our forests while pursuing professional and avocational projects.

The folklore of "trail trees" is fun, and it's very understandable. Check-out the many Internet sites offering pictures of these beautiful and bemusing trees. Large trees are inspiring regardless of personal beliefs.

Checking-out the natural mechanisms creating such beautiful mysteries is even more fun. Nature does not need our help to create beautiful mysteries.

10 comments:

ahgweb said...

Glad you can tell a "casualty tree" when you see one. All that means, however, is that there are no "Trail Trees" in that area. Too many "searchers" can't tell the difference.

There are now some nations who have come forward and explained their bending of the trees.

The Ute called them prayer trees. During a "vision quest" they were to bend 4 trees on their trip from Crystal Peak to Pikes Peak in Colorado. There are references to the trees in the Ute Bulletin newspaper from time to time. The young ones are taught their importance.

Just because there are none in your area doesn't mean they aren't real. There are marks to look for, and most of us who know about them can spot the real thing by looking for those marks.

Tom Bain said...

Thanks for you additional insight about trail trees. I've read of the tell-tale "marks" at several resources. I recognize these marks as bark wrinkles resulting from accidental bends and see them develop on limited species of trees which respond to natural bending events in that way.

Admittedly, I've never been in the field with someone widely recognized as an expert at recognizing culturally modified trees of this sort. I'm open to doing so, within reasonable travel time from central Ohio.

I'm excited by the potential of the tree project going on in the Southeast, but disappointed by the lack of detailed protocol ensuring uniform (scientific) sampling. They will no doubt get it figured out, at some point. Their project will deliver great insights eventually, if they use careful sampling methods (natural petterns of distribution rather than anthropogenic patterns).

I know there are growing traditions among native groups describing these "ancient" trail tree practices among there people. I'm certain these oral histories are told with a passion for acceptance by honest persons wishing to preserve what they perceive as their native cultural history, which they were told. And, there is a true and well-documented history of culturally modified trees, particularly in the west, which is a treasured cultural resource, and that resource is finally receiving some limited (overdue) protections.

With respect to trail trees in the east, I'm troubled by the total absence of 18th Century historical records in the many narratives by persons with direct real-time experience with native peoples. Even those living with them for years, or trading with them through long careers. Why do persons like George Croghan, George Washington, Michaux (both), Kenton, Jones, and all others fail to mention such an interesting cultural practice while going into such great detail about other trail appearance subjects (trail-width, surface condition, details of route, and so on)?

Trail knowledge was of highest value to early European visitors, yet none mention trail trees (even as they journaled trail details at the end of days on those very same trails), while many mention other practices such as stripping trees and painting them to indicate visits by bands, and such? We have a rich history of trail lore--but it includes no mention of trail trees.

We have a wonderful and detailed history of culturally modified trees which enriches our North American history immeasurably, yet no mention of this one type of tree, trail trees, in these early first-hand accounts. Why? We have the longest contact-period in the southeast where there is the most history written.

Please link us all to this early record. Like many, I long to discover there is a deep history behind these trees. So far, I've seen nothing credible to convince me they are culturally modified trees.

I think I've seen most everything on the internet, how about some early references I can search?

ahgweb said...

I appreciate your response to my posting. I am familiar with these trees, and I am experienced in recognizing the marks, although I do not claim to be an expert on them.

You can better know me by reading a thread on the First Nations. Look under "Questions and Answers" and then "Help Please". http://www.firstnations.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=957

Since starting that thread, I have communicated with some who were willing to educate me --- and quite a few who hoped to mislead me. Pay particular attention to the pictures of the "bear tree". Heck of a storm to create the illusion of a bear coming at you.

Also, consider the Kezia tree . . . a different kind of tree. You will find at least one picture of it in that thread.

The misconception, even among many who claim to have found trees, it that "wrinkles in the bark" prove or disprove that something is or isn't a trail tree. You and I both know that anything which causes a tree to bend unnaturally has the possibility, or maybe even the likelihood, to produce wrinkles in the bark where the bend occurs. So wrinkles cannot be used as a test of authenticity.

Different methods were used to bend the trees, including forked sticks, rawhide, crude ropes and even vines. The majority of the trees in my area appear to have been created using two forked sticks. In this process, not only are there the naturally occuring "wrinkles" but a telltale indentation on both sides of the trunk where there was an early constriction of growth. These indentations are parallel.

There will be indentations on underside of the "hip" (the bend which turns the trunk horizontal) which is usually a bit harder to discern, and one where the tree turns back skyward. This mark is usually more defined and (trees in my area) will include a flat spot in alignment with the two indentations. While not a scientist or historian, I can only speculate that the fork had another object inserted under it above the trunk. There are other possibilities, but until I can know for a certainty which tribes inhabited this area at what time, it is only guesswork.

As to why the trees were not recorded, perhaps that is a question that needs to be pondered by those wiser than I.

I do know that the Cherokee practice "preservation by obscurity". They denied the bending of the trees, and would not disclose the location of known trees. I also know, because I have corresponded with many of the old ones, that when they know of the location of one of the trees they will "watch" that tree. Some of them have many trees that they "watch". These may include bent trees, witness trees, and other items which were not clearly explained to me.

In Native American culture, the trees are a link between the earth and the Creator. Those that are bent are sometimes known as "sacred trees" as they have a specific meaning.

Among the Ute, trees bent this way were called "Prayer Trees." These Ponderosa Pines were bent in a special ceremony which included a prayer circle. It was believed that once the tree was bent and the ceremony complete that, for the next 800 years, every time the wind blew their prayers would be carried anew to Creator. I have seen evidence of similar bends everywhere from the east coast to the west coast.

Thank you for allowing me to comment.

ospreys@clearwire.net said...

Most of these alleged trail trees are nothing more then trees that were once saplings that were damaged when young and then matured. As long as there is an adequate cambium layer, the top will continue to grow towards the sun, while the lower portion shows the past damage. As the tree grows, new growth covers up the the once visible injuries.

Sad to say, most of these so called trail trees are simply natural phenomenon. Finding them along ridges is equally coincidental, as this is where the most extreme weather conditions occur, be it snow or ice loading, or wind storms. I find these configurations all the time up here in the PNW, they have nothing to do with marking trails.

GrrBrown said...

Yeah, the term trail tree refers to the fact that they were specifically designed to mark a trail. Most of these trees are NOT just natural occurrences. In fact in Alabama and Georgia, you can still see the lashing points on some of them. Pretty funny that someone created a blog about it with absolutely no idea as to how they were actually created.

Anonymous said...

Just a heads up that "trail trees" are staring to be claimed for the Underground Railroad, with no period, first-person, or primary source evidence.

Even this city girl has seen big trees topple onto smaller ones in the woods.

Tom Bain said...

Thanks, "city girl". I'm not surprised that the Underground Railroad has been drawn into this lore. The more I research it, the more I'm disappointed by the obvious evolution of lore as facts fail to come to light.

Anonymous said...

so obviously the age of the tree would have to come into play; is the tree old enough to have been around during the era when these practices were going on? If the tree is old enough and you are still assuming weather damage, why wouldn't there be multiple trees in close proximity that had the same type of damage and in return the same type of growth? I've seen the damage of tornados and severe winds and there are always multiple trees damaged.

Tom Bain said...

I agree. The trail tree types I've found, a great many of them, are found in wind shear zones, slope breaks at crests of ridges, along slumping slopes, and the like. Damage in these areas is often clustered. The location of the images in the post is one such place. Ridge line linear clusters follow and mark the ridge lines, the ridge line trails (origin of the term "highway") found along ridges are not correlated beyond terrain association. Here's the thing, very few trees survive to very large size, most trailtree forms are smaller sized to sapling size. There is a continuum of tree sizes exhibiting all stages of development--if you look for them. Most people I discuss this with accept trail trees as given knowledge and then seek only "classic" type trees and no not see all the ones less well developed at all stages. This a priori search criteria drives confirmation bias. If trail trees are to be believed without analysis, all this is irrelevant, but if you wish to determine whether or not people had anything to dowith them, you must accept that natural causes cmay cause them all. I've repeatedly tested the notion that thong marks are demonstrable on true trail trees, but every time I look at a convincing tree I see bark growth expansion wrinkles that are identical to those on all forms of trees recovering from bole-bending damage (casualty trees). Some species and sizes and recovery times result in more exaggerated wrinkles.

Tom Bain said...

To complete the answer to the question above, classic trail tree forms are not clustered by the time a surviving tree reaches monumental size suggesting great age. It's the only really big deformed tree around that fits the description because it outlived the others. The key to understanding is that if you just look around, you find younger versions of trail tree forms developing that resulted from later natural processes.