Long live the forest in all its glory of young and old, of dying and dead, of burned and blackened, of broken tops, peeling off bark, mistletoe clumps, conks and softening heartwood. Long stand the towering, mighty snags carved by woodpeckers and inhabited by nature’s totem pole of life. May they be protected from all who would cut them down.
“Snag.” It’s an unfortunate word that in dictionaries clearly means a problem. Look up synonyms of snag and they read like this: “complication, difficulty, catch, hitch, hiccup, obstacle, stumbling block, pitfall, problem, impediment, hindrance, inconvenience, setback, hurdle, disadvantage, downside, drawback.”
In my ecological dictionary of my mind, a snag is the opposite of a problem. A snag is a holy gift essential for forest life. My synonyms read “vital, dynamic, life-filled, shelter, refuge, harbor, haven, sanctuary, temple, and holy place.”
Consider this. East of the Cascade mountains of Oregon and Washington, 39 species of birds and 23 species of mammals rely on tree cavities for survival. Those cavities? They lie within the dying and the dead. They’re chiseled by pileated woodpeckers and other smaller woodpeckers too.
A snag is filled with food in the form of insects and beetles and ants that are essential to a living, breathing forest. Vaux’s swifts swoop into a hollow top tree at night in a whirl of astonishing flight. Black bears curl up inside at the base. Pine martens peer from holes. Snags are homes to owls, bluebirds, chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, kestrels, merlins, tree and violet green swallows, wood ducks, buffleheads, goldeneyes, mergansers, flycatchers and wrens–to name a few of the birds. (For a snag bird list for Oregon and Washington, scroll down when you open this link. )
Lately, I’m snagged by this snag theme. I’m rallying to their defense after seeing the demise of ancient wildlife ponderosa pine snags (see this guest blog for Hells Canyon Preservation Council). Everywhere I walk, hike, cycle or drive I’m drawn to the life-yielding dead trees of all shapes and sizes and species. My friends are catching on, too, and sending me photos that show the great wildlife snags still standing along the roads of Crater Lake National Park (hooray for the Park Service for protecting and honoring them!):
On a walk up the two-track road at the end of 12th street here in La Grande, a kestrel perched on a snag and likely above a nesting hole, sculpted by woodpeckers. When cycling along the Grande Ronde River, I swerved to a stop to marvel at a dead tree leaning out over the waters. On a trail called Bird Track Springs, I lingered on the winding pathway that led right past great old cottonwoods dignified and brimming with birds.
A few nights ago, I stopped in to see longtime friends in Baker City and witnessed the poignancy of loss of a historic, stunning nine-foot diameter cottonwood that once stood in the front of their yard by the street. As we sat in their backyard, we listened at dusk to the click-click-click sounds of a barn owl circling overhead. That’s what my friends hear regularly now, the lost barn owls looking for their old cottonwood home that harbored generations of families. The owls do not give up. They return for a for a tree the city cut down last November as “too dangerous.” The birds are homeless. They mourn in flight. We mourn below them.
This is not how it should be. Here is what should be. Let’s speak up for the right of all creatures to have a home. Today, I raise my glass to the snags of the world, for trees with dead limbs (kingfisher perches too), decay, scars, burns, beaver girdles and insect gnaws, and all that makes them our wise elders. May they stand and fall and provide as nature intended.