cr, Cra. CRACK. CRASH!
It could have been lightning. It could have been rot. It could have been time and the weight of a thousand seasons had finally bent what seemed unbreakable. Maybe a steady stream had been plucking away at roots and it really couldn’t handle the weight anymore. It doesn’t really matter though.
The Oak tree crashes to the ground. The Caroline Wren cuts its song short. The open cavity, perhaps the sign of rot, where it made its home, is no longer safe. This is still his territory. And as he flees, he cries out, letting mates know where he is and telling his rivals they are unwelcome. But really it doesn’t matter.
Up above for the first time in centuries, light spills into a corner of the old growth, that has remained mostly shrouded. The hole in the canopy is begging to be filled.
A race has begun. A scattering of young trees and offshoots seize their moment. Only one can fully fill the space but buoyed by a steady stream of light they are all contenders. The deep roots of the Old Oak no longer drink as quickly or as deeply. There is potential in this new clearing.
And on the forest floor? A feast. A feast fit for a king, or kingdom. Fungi, latch onto the trunk of the fallen Red Oak.
They don't need the sunlight, but the cellulose and lignin housed in the wood is now easy prey. They'd started eating long before the first crack ripped through trunk. Was that why it fell? It doesn't matter.
They'll take what they can. Alongside the bugs and the moss, they'll break down the trunk until all that's left is a powder that makes a fine fertilizer. It enriches the soil, providing nutrients for the undergrowth and fresh fuel for the race it started when it fell.
But it all truly doesn't matter. Because while the old oak stood vigilant, and the young saplings stood by waiting for their moment, a new contestant had snuck in.
Ailanthus Altissima. The Tree of Heaven.
It has been as patient and as steady as the others. It is not from here; it was flung into this space from who knows how far. The shade from the canopy nearly killed it, but it gathered what it could from the small breaks in the canopy. It needed little water and little soil and was fine sharing—for a time. But it competes in the race, like the others and it aims to win.
It brought something new, something novel, to secure its victory. Into this race for the top, the tree of heaven has come. Weapons that its competitors are ill equipped to fight against.
The tree of heaven is poisonous. It spreads its sickness to its neighbors felling them one by one. The poison stunts their growth. So, while the gap in the canopy that they’d long waited for has finally arrived they can not reach for it. Nor can they grow tall enough to overshadow their new rival, blocking off the sunlight it so desperately needs to complete its plan.
Truthfully, it is safe from all attacks here. Even the animals steer clear. If the poison wasn’t enough scare away predators, then the noxious smell is.
The wren cannot make its home here. It will find some other space to call home. The food is abundant. Insects flock to the tree as it grows, ready to act as pollinators. Even if it could find an alcove among the branches of the tree of heaven the smell is too much for it. It ceases its cries, until it can find another home for itself. Deer, birds, squirrels, they all steer clear of the tree of heaven.
The fungi cease their feeding. The poison of the tree interrupts even their moment of glory. The poison of the tree of heaven, reaches even the microbes in the soil. The fungi find it hard to spread, to pollinate. The bugs the tree of heaven has called will finish the work of devouring their meal. When they’re done only the tree of heaven will truly benefit from what’s left. The fungi are not foolish enough to latch onto the living tree of heaven. It has no place here either.
Taking its place in the canopy, the trees work is not done. It has secured its place in the hagiarchy, but what of its successors. Seeds hang in great clusters waiting for their forbear to find a mate. There’s no need to worry though, the tree of heaven’s reach is far.
It sends clonal roots shooting up as far as fifty meters away. Those roots will bear their own seeds and send out pollen. But it’s the same plant; So, it pumps out the same poison. Even if it doesn’t grow to the heights of its scion it will interfere with the growth of plants around it. In time it creates more clearings.
It will still emit a noxious smell that animals can’t stand to be nearby. The wren cannot live here or the fungus. The tree of heaven has claimed more territory for itself, and it will push further with only the canopy shade of trees that have been there far longer holding it back.
Even if something were to hurt it. If something were to fight back against the growing invasion the tree of heaven, decide that its noxious fumes are no roadblock to a good meal, it would simply send up more roots. Roots as far from danger as the tree of heaven can push them.
It must find a mate of course. Because when it does there are three hundred-thousand seeds waiting to germinate. They’re waiting to turn into saplings, lying beneath the understory. Sitting with their poison and waiting for a break in the canopy.
Soon the wren won’t live anywhere, and neither will the fungus. That matters. That matters a whole lot.
Espenschied-Reilly, Amanda L., and James R. Runkle. “Distribution and Changes in Abundance of Ailanthus Altissima (Miller) Swingle in a Southwest Ohio Woodlot.” Ohio Journal of Science, vol. 108, no. 2, Apr. 2008, pp. 17–22. EBSCOhost, https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.libraries.wright.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=34133553&site=eds-live.
Cornell University “Carolina Wren” Cornell University. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Carolina_Wren/overview
Callaway, R.M., Cipollini, D., Barto, K., Thelen, G.C., Hallett, S.G., Prati, D., Stinson, K. and Klironomos, J. (2008), NOVEL WEAPONS: INVASIVE PLANT SUPPRESSES FUNGAL MUTUALISTS IN AMERICA BUT NOT IN ITS NATIVE EUROPE. Ecology, 89: 1043-1055. https://doi-org.ezproxy.libraries.wright.edu/10.1890/07-0370.1
Jackson David R. Gover, Art, Wurzbacher Sarah“Tree of Heaven” Penn State Extension. Pennsylvania State University. Nov. 2 2020 https://extension.psu.edu/tree-of-heaven