|Photo taken by Mattie Speece Villines|
When my parents first arrived at Owls' Knob in the early 80s, the property was covered with dogwoods. In springtime it looked like snow was falling as those white flowers opened. As a child, one of my best friends was an old dogwood tree I called the Horsey tree. Like many dogwoods, the Horsy tree had four trunks growing from the same base and branching off close to the ground in opposing directions. Each trunk grew out on an angle, parallel with the ground at some point before shooting up to the sky. To me the four trunks looked just like a horse, a phoenix, a serpent, and Falkor, the luck dragon from The Never Ending Story. I played out many fantasy games in the Horsy tree.
In the early 90s a fungus began creeping through the Ozark forests. It was the dogwood anthracnose fungus and it killed its victims quickly and silently. At first it was just a dead dogwood here or there along the road. But I began noticing the dying trees on Owls ' Knob in 1996. I left Owls Knob for many years and when I returned in 2006 dogwoods lay dead all over the property. I walked out to the place where the Horsey tree stood and found its four trunks splayed out in a cross. To most people it was nothing more than some hunks of decaying wood in the forest, but to me it was a grave site. I picked a bouquet of dandelions and left them there. That spring, and for many springs afterwards, the snowy effect just wasn't the same.
In February of 2009 the Ozarks experienced an epic ice storm. It wiped out power everywhere, blew transforms up all over town, and took out so many trees and tree limbs that it looked like God came out of the clouds with a whim-wham or weed eater to trim the forest. At the time, thought I gawked at the destruction, I didn't realized the a lasting impact it would have on the forests. Not only did it knock out entire groves, but it weakened the trees that survived. Nearly every tree had some broken limbs and many were missing significant portions of their canopy. After the ice storm, many trees became sick or infected with borers and have since died. My beloved oak tree died as well. The one that stood beside the house and gave our western windows shade in the summer. The tree I hung a swing from. I swung that tree all year. The death of the oak tree hit me harder than any other. We turned her stump into a chair and when I sit in it, I think of her and the ice storm that led to her death.
Five years after the ice storm you can still see where the ice hit hardest because the forest is completely different in those areas. There are gullies that were hit hard, huge trees lay dead over entire hillsides. There are deep forests were the canopy, which was once shading the undergrowth, is now open and exposed to the summer sunlight. Today those forests are completely different, where once huge old growth oaks, hickories, and walnuts stood, are now filling with understory growth like sumac, red buds, and (yes I have finally found my way back) dogwoods.
Nature has its mysterious ways. I pained seeing the dogwoods die and I pained seeing the oaks die. Each of those tragic events hit me as hard as loosing a friend. At the time I wanted to scream, "Why?" But I now see why. I recognize the need for an ebb and flow of life. There is a give and take that is necessary. Though it seemed tragic at the time, the death was an opening for new life. Nothing stays barren when it is dead in nature. Death equals new life, every time.
This year we shall morn the death of many a great oaks, but we can rejoice in the beauty of many a young flowering dogwood.