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The Dead tree

Austin Senske
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"The Skeleton Nests"

Amelia House

If a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? This question, in one form or another, has been contemplated for at least one hundred years. The self-evident response is yes; the falling of a tree always makes sounds. Other individuals of varying backgrounds have found rationalizations for other options, saying that sound is the brain’s interpretation of airwaves or that things that are not perceived cannot be proven to exist. I have, like many, thought about this question a fair bit and changed my answer over time. The answer I have settled on is one less discussed; I believe the question’s premise to be impossible. Even when seemingly alone, the effects of the tree’s falling can be felt. 

I decided on this answer after having found precisely that which the question inquires about — a tree that, due to its location and the evident time of its falling, would not have been heard by any person. The surrounding flora, however, did. The fallen tree had snapped the branches of its neighbors during its falling, accumulating on the forest floor. It had also hit two smaller, lither trees directly, causing them to bend out from underneath the tree at odd angles. The sound of wood creaking, bending, and splintering fills my mind. Though it wasn’t immediately visible, it was evident that the tree had killed smaller underbrush upon impact. A young cluster of pokeweed stalks lay cracked, inches from the fallen trunk. Did these trees, branches, and pokeweeds not hear the falling of this seemingly isolated tree?

While the flora mostly felt detriment from the tree’s falling, other types of life benefited from it. Papery fungal growths in shades of brown covered most of the tree’s bark. On the log’s sunside, these fungi grew outward in the shape of agate slivers and rustic wooden shelves, while the underside produced patches of off-white texturing, like little patches of short fur. The mushrooms aren’t the only ones feasting; the wood traps moisture, attracting microfauna and allowing invertebrate cultures to flourish. Spiderwebs in myriad forms — tunnelesque, wide and frail, and everything in between — surround the log, hinting at the entire microcosmic ecosystem. A single tree can take years or sometimes decades to rot away to nothing, all the while feeding and housing generations of isopods, spiders, worms, and beetles. These, in turn, become food for mice, birds, and toads, connecting this log to the entirety of the area’s food chain. Did the fungus, bugs, birds, and entire forest not hear the falling of this tree? 

My observation of this singular and multiplicitous tree is cut short by the sounds of tires on dirt; a cyclist passes behind me on a nearby trail. This interruption brings a question to my mind: how many people will walk or bike past this tree within five, ten, or fifteen years? The paths nearby are some of the most heavily traveled in the park, only about fifteen minutes of walking from the entrance. Though they were not present for or aware of the tree as it fell, hundreds of people might walk by and notice this fallen tree, the cracked pokeweed, and the spiderwebs. Anyone might see what I saw throughout its extended death-after-life. As I heard it falling by observing those that did, will these joggers, cyclists, and observers not hear the falling of this vastly connected tree?

Though this tree was unheard by humans when it fell, the act of its falling resonates far louder than just the sounds it produced. For every single tree in history, this has been true, and so the question of it making a sound is not only pointless but impossible. Everything is connected, and everything affects everything else. From the smallest microfauna to the grandest oak in the park, to me, even to you, the person who reads this, a multitude of individuals and collectives have been affected by this single tree. Did we not all hear the falling of this tree? Will we not all hear the falling of every tree, regardless of how isolated or how faint? When we fall, will we not be heard by the trees, the spiders, and the cyclists?

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