My Giant


Before the fall

I love everything about where we live. Our farm has woods and creeks and trails and wildlife. We have farm fields and small sections of native prairie and peace and quiet. We can look up at night and see the stars. And we can pee in the back yard.

Of all the natural features of our farm there was always one that stood out as symbolic of the place. It towered above the rest metaphorically and actually. It was royal in its dignity and bearing. It captured my imagination the day I first laid eyes on it because it encompassed the spirit and the history of this farm.

A giant cottonwood tree is a marvel to behold. If you are inclined to like trees and value them as I do you cannot stand under such a massive living thing and not be stunned by its magnificence. To me the cottonwood is all the more astounding because of where it comes from, a tiny seed only a millimeter wide and light enough to drift on the wind with the help of its namesake cotton. There can be no clearer definition of the word fecundity than to hold this tiny seed in your hand and then look up into the canopy of a tree one-hundred feet tall with a trunk six feet across and know that the one came from the other.

My pet tree was a giant, indeed. It stood on the highest point of the hill north of my house (a bit unusual for a cottonwood, which prefer to keep their roots in moist soil). It was, I estimated, 85 feet tall and it had two main trunks each about 55 inches in diameter. The two trunks joined near the ground forming a main trunk which was easily 20 feet around. It had a crown that shaded a circle 80-90 feet wide. By doing some rudimentary estimates and using the Missouri Department of Conservation tree age calculator I figured this tree was 110 – 120 years old. Compensating for the tendency of many little trees to get gnawed by rabbits and mice or be stepped on by cows or rubbed by deer it is possible that the tiny little seed which spawned my giant fell in this spot around 1890. Where its parents stood I do not know. They were not necessarily giants themselves and may easily have been made into firewood or simply served as fodder for fungi.

In most cases a tree becomes a giant not because of its genetic superiority, although that helps, but because of the winds of fate and where they lay down the little seed. Even a giant doesn’t start out as a giant and little trees die by the millions in a variety of ways. Natural enemies abound. If you are a tree the aforementioned rabbits and mice take a big toll on you, as does weather. Too much rain in a given spot spells doom just as certainly as too little does. The buck deer rubs his antlers on you and the cattle (and before them the buffalo) graze upon you. If you survive long enough to grow tall the thunderstorm becomes your nemesis with wind to blow your limbs off and lightning to zap you. Finally, as sure as death and taxes, it is the insects and fungi who administer the coup de grace.

As with most natural things, the surest path to destruction is to merely be in the way; in the way of man. You will not find big cottonwoods, or anything else for that matter, in cornfields or pastures. If you do find one it is sure to be in an area that was too inconvenient to farm or pave or build upon. In a three mile radius around our farm I know of three truly giant cottonwoods and a handful of big cottonwoods that may, in time, become giants. In addition to these I know of a grove of truly big burr oak trees (probably each 100+ years old) and a single massive monster oak even older (150+?). The common denominator of these ancient trees is that each grows in a very inconvenient and inaccessible place. The giant cottonwood survivors that I know about grow hard against a steep hillside or virtually in the edge of a creek. My burr oak grove (a second treasure of our farm) stands along the crest of an unfarmably steep hill overlooking a creek. These trees did not contrive to find an undisturbed spot to grow. They are simply the ones (or one) of millions which did survive. The others were lost because their tiny little seeds landed out in the middle of a cornfield, or in a lush green lawn, or on the hard-packed shoulder of the highway. Man still determines such things. But nature will find nooks and crannies; even nooks and crannies big enough for a 100 foot tree.


The David that ultimately took down a Goliath –  Bracket Fungi

It was the lethal combination of lightning and fungi that finally brought my giant down after 120 years of towering over this farm. It is testament to his strength that it took almost ten years after the fateful strike before my cottonwood lay prostrate in the ravine. I was home the night of the big storm and I heard the thunderclap as the bolt hit my tree. In the morning I went out to walk around the farm and assess the damage and I found bright, clean pieces of wood, some as much as two or three pounds, laying in the trail perhaps 100 feet from the big tree. When I looked up I could see a strip of wood about a foot wide and 50 feet long running from the base of the tree almost to the top of one of the larger west leaning branches. The strip of wood was six inches deep in places and appeared to have been exploded outward from the trunk of the tree. The exposed wood was clean and bright, not black or charred. The wound was enormous and deep. I figured that my pet tree would wilt and die in a short time. But it lived through that summer, and nine subsequent summers. The lightning had not killed it outright. It was very strong after 100+ years. But the ultimately fatal blow had been struck. What the lightning had done was to weaken the big tree and open its protective bark up which allowed the opportunistic insects and fungi to move in.

After a year I started to see signs that the western trunk was trying to close up the wound. There was growth of “scar tissue” around the lightning blown channel down the side. A tree can recover from quite a bit. But the old cottonwood could not close over a foot wide fifty foot long wound fast enough. By year three I saw the first bracket fungi growing along the gap in the bark. I saw wood boring beetles and carpenter ants beginning to make forays against the base. Higher up the stricken branch had died and did not put on leaves during year two. Other branches on the western trunk showed signs of weakness. During a windstorm the third year the outer ten feet of the stricken branch fell to the ground, the impact driving parts of it a foot into the earth. By year four woodpeckers had generated numerous holes in the top of the western trunk up high. There were more bracket fungi and, ominously, some of these were now present near the base of the eastern trunk.

By year five the eastern trunk was showing signs of failing, too, and I think this was the first year that the western trunk failed to put on leaves. Fungi now climbed higher along the western trunk and did not restrict themselves to the gaping wound area but were to be found near the junction of the two trunks opposite the wound.

Year seven confirmed my fear that the eastern trunk was not going to survive without its comrade. And, for the first time, I became convinced that the western trunk was essentially dead. It began to shed its branches with regularity. I moved one of my bee hives from under its shade to prevent its destruction by falling branches.

The wildlife, which are not subject to nostalgia, looked upon the dying tree as a godsend. The woodpeckers feasted upon the burrowing insects and their larvae. They bored holes in the dead branches which were then taken over by squirrels and made nesting cavities for other birds. For a while the taller branches were frequented by a bald eagle who found the high perch and lack of leaf cover agreeable for spotting prey. The hawks also relished this perch and I was happy to know that if I had lost my pet tree I could at least appreciate the red-tailed hawk’s breathy whistle on a summer afternoon. At length it was the insects who benefitted most from the lightning’s work. Unbeknownst to me they had penetrated the cottonwood’s interior and, along with the bracket fungi, had begun to eat out a cavity in the main trunk where the two branch trunks met, creating a cozy home, while it lasted. It lasted until last month.


After the fall

I came home from a trip and made my usual tour of the property to check out my garden and my bee hive and my decaying and maintenance hungry house. Though I had known the big tree was failing I had not expected that it would fall down. I had thought that over many years the big trunks would die and the tree would shed its massive branches one by one until it was a ragged skeleton against the sky. But it was, in fact, the still living eastern trunk which finally gave up the ghost. While most of the dead western trunk was still standing the big eastern trunk with leaves still on it had crashed down into the ravine taking out several lesser trees in its fall. What I discovered was that the fungi and insects had hollowed out enough of the interior of the tree that, while it appeared strong and sturdy, the eastern trunk was standing by virtue of just a few inches of outer sapwood, the pith being dead and gone. It was not even a big storm that finally leveled my giant in heroic fashion. It was the slow but powerful effect of decay.

Cottonwoods generally live to an age of 70-100 years. There are reports of trees older than 200 years but this is rare. The cottonwood was never a commercially desirable tree. Though called a “hardwood” its timber is light and, one might say spongy. It does not burn satisfactorily like denser hardwoods and is not generally considered useful for carpentry or woodworking. They have been used for such crude purposes as the manufacture of transport pallets.

And cottonwoods have not always been welcome in polite company on farms and in the city. They are dioecious, like us, meaning that there are distinct male and female individuals that make up the population. The males produce catkins or flowers which release pollen in the spring. My giant tree was a male. But it is the female, whose catkins release huge quantities of seeds with their attached cotton, which often incurred the wrath of homeowners. A large adult female tree can release 48 million seeds in early summer. The resulting cotton can cover a yard, plug up gutters, and often blocked window screens in the days before air-conditioning.

Whatever their detractors might say cottonwoods have many superlatives. They have a remarkable growth rate like other poplar family members, nearly double that of oaks. Young cottonwoods often have a sustained growth of 5 feet per year, in some cases exceeding 10 feet. They were the perfect species to take advantage of the native prairies of the midwest and west, a dominant subspecies is even called the Plains Cottonwood. They possessed thick corky bark which was resistant to the prairie fires which kept the plains clear of other trees. They were adaptable to dry conditions and wet feet. When you drive through Nebraska or Kansas or Colorado you are likely to see cottonwoods, and only cottonwoods, in any low basin or dry creek bed. In fact, it is said that pioneers, used to the dense forests of the east, were cheered and relieved to see cottonwoods on the horizon since they indicated a source of fuel and shade and probably water in an otherwise vast expanse of sere empty space. That is probably why the cottonwood is the state tree of Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming.

I have liked to imagine my giant tree shading herds of bison and providing a perching and nesting site for passenger pigeons. These are probably fantasies merely. The bison were mostly extirpated from Illinois by about 1820, the last confirmed kills happening around 1809. There is a slight chance that a passenger pigeon perched, at some point, in my pet tree. Passenger pigeons could still be found in small numbers in Illinois into the mid-1890’s. One of the last known passenger pigeons in Illinois was shot in 1901 in Menard County. If my giant tree did not “see” the last passenger pigeons in our state some of its still-living cohort may well have.

At the very least this magnificent tree saw the births and deaths of generations of our community. It stood on it’s hill, withstanding wind and snow and lightning and rain, bearing silent witness to the comings and goings of men. It lived through the Great War, and the other Great War, and a hundred lesser wars since. It saw the Great Depression and the Cold War and the Farm Crisis of the 1980’s. It saw the Wright brother’s first flight and a man on the moon and I just took its final picture with my IPhone. All this time it stood silently on its hill and watched the world go by. Old things and old people are worth respecting and worth contemplating. We all become old things if we are lucky and if we do not gain wisdom we at least witness a lot of history. My giant cottonwood witnessed a lot of history. This link to our past is important, I think, even if you are not willing to call yourself a tree hugger.


by: Dustin Joy

The Island

The visual approach, contrary to what you might imagine, is one of the more difficult maneuvers that a pilot is asked to accomplish. Using an instrument approach, even with low clouds, places the aircraft in a very stable and consistent position during the landing and is mostly a “straight-in” affair. It is the “visual”, where the aircraft is approaching the field from many possible directions and the pilot is judging his or her descent rate by eye instead of by instruments, which tests one’s art and skill.

At airports I fly into frequently I like to stake out landmarks which help me to judge the “letdown” and plan the diameter of my turn from downwind to final. In Cincinnati landing south I plan my base to final turn to fall just a little north of the Ohio river. In Roanoke, Virginia landing northwest I judge my turn based on a small mountain just left of the final which has a big illuminated star on its peak, a sort of advertisement for the city.

Lately I have been flying into Harrisburg, PA on a regular basis. Except in unusual wind conditions, we land to the northwest on runway 31. With good visibility we approach the field on what is called the “downwind” which is an imaginary track about 1,500 feet AGL (above ground level) paralleling the runway opposite the direction of landing. We usually begin our descent from the downwind “abeam the numbers” (which refers to the big white numbers painted on the threshold of the runway). Smaller aircraft make nearly square turns to the base leg (90 degrees from the runway heading) and then another square turn to the final. In our faster jet we tend to plan a smooth descending 180 degree turn to the final hopefully rolling out in line with the runway and at the appropriate altitude to be on the proper stabilized glide path for landing.

My reference landmark for runway 31 at Harrisburg is an island in the Susquehanna River. On the Island is a nuclear power plant with four 30 story cooling towers two of which are generally belching clouds of steam into the air. These towers make an excellent center point for my imaginary arc from the downwind to the final and my visual approaches here are better than they otherwise would be thanks to this reference.

The Susquehanna, and indeed the entire valley surrounding the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, is beautiful. The low forested mountains to the south run right along the river bank and upstream from Harrisburg the river seems to cut straight through the mountain range at a 90 degree angle in a phenomenon called a “water-gap” which you really should read about. The river itself, at least in low water, seems lazy and inviting as it winds past little islands and rock bars. It looks like it would be great fun to float down it in a canoe or even an inner tube. The airport lies along the river and the runway parallels it behind a small levee so that coming in to land from either direction one gets a stunning view up the valley and, coming from the southeast, a glance at dozens of small pastoral farms with crops planted in contour around the numberless hills. Just downstream from Harrisburg is Lancaster County, famous as the home of the “Pennsylvania Dutch” Amish community, where the tiny picturesque farms are tiny because they are still worked by horses. To know quickly how beautiful the Susquehanna is just look at its Wikipedia page. The photo below the header tells you exactly what I’m talking about.

Some of you, particularly those older than 40, might have had a dim memory awakened by my description of the scene above, particularly of my landmark for landing and the cryptic remark about “two of the four cooling towers belching steam.” Only two of the many FO’s who have accompanied me into Harrisburg had a glimmer of recognition when I mentioned the name of the place to them. None of them had a sense of the momentous events that happened there.

To look at Three-Mile Island now and the Susquehanna flowing past it is difficult to summon up the fear and apprehension that most American’s shared for several weeks in 1979. It is so pretty here. Even the power plant perversely seems to fit its surroundings. It seems benign. Within about 5 miles downstream, in fact, is a coal burning power plant which always has a dirty, yellowish plume of smoke trailing downwind. The cooling towers at Three-Mile Island just seem to have a happy white cloud over them much as Bob Ross might have added if he had ever painted a nuclear plant.

And the people I meet in Harrisburg, or Middletown where our hotel is, don’t seem to think about 1979 either. I have asked numerous residents about it and the result is the same; the young one’s have never heard of it and the old ones don’t really want to talk about it. I guess I don’t blame them. We are all whistling past the graveyard in one way or another whether we be Angelinos living atop the San Andreas Fault, Oklahomans watching the skies in May, or you and I knowing we shouldn’t have that Five Guys Cheeseburger, but having it anyway.

It is probably a good idea to remember, once in awhile, that things are not as bad as they could be. The mistakes of 1979 were big mistakes. They encompassed all manner of human failing and frailty from inattention to denial to tunnel vision to misleading optimism to outright deceit. They commanded the nation’s attention for good reason. They made us step back and take stock of our unquestioning embrace of nuclear power. The lessons learned were ultimately applied to making power plants safer and machines more dependable. And the worst did not happen here. This lovely valley was not laid waste to like the dead zone surrounding the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine. Thousands of people were not killed in a devastating explosion or in the hopeless effort to stop the radiation from spreading. Southeast Pennsylvania and Harrisburg and the Amish country and the Chesapeake Bay were not poisoned and rendered uninhabitable for hundreds of years. And, though there is still some argument about the long term effects of the radiation that was released, there were not thousands of cancer deaths and birth defects in the major cities of the east coast.

But it could have been that way. Some things went right here that did not go right at Chernobyl or Fukushima. Were our people smarter than theirs? Probably not. Was Three-Mile Island better designed than these? Probably better, for that time, than Chernobyl for its time, but probably not better than Fukushima. So could the disaster have happened in this lovely valley? It seems likely that it could have if a few things that went right had gone wrong instead. 50% of Three Mile Island’s uranium fuel melted down. That is 20 tons. Chemical reactions generated a huge hydrogen gas bubble in the reactor containment building which could have exploded releasing radiation and radioactive elements into the air over the east coast much as happened at Chernobyl. It might have been worse, much worse.

There were not exactly villains in the drama at Three Mile Island, just flawed humans who made mistakes, some poor designs, and, as we always see in such circumstances, a tendency to “cover your own ass.” The utility running the plant and its contractors paid over $100 million in compensation to various plaintiffs and spent about $1 billion dollars cleaning up the site. Hundreds of tons of radioactive fuel and wreckage from the site were shipped to a Department of Energy facility in Idaho. Radioactive coolant which had seeped into the concrete of the containment building could not easily be recovered and its removal has been deferred likely until the other reactor at Three-Mile Island is decommissioned.

The fact that the infamous Three-Mile Island nuclear plant continues to generate power and a white cloud of steam above two of its four cooling towers is what surprises me most. Despite heavy local opposition reactor #1 was allowed to resume operation in 1985 and, in 2009 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission extended Three-Mile Island’s license to allow reactor #1 to continue operations until 2034. Money is money, after all. When I do my circle to land around the ominously quiet cooling towers of reactor #2 I think about what still lies inside that building and reflect on the huge concrete sarcophagus the Russians had to build over the wreckage of Chernobyl at great personal cost to those who did it.

What happened at Three-Mile Island in 1979 has largely been forgotten and perhaps that is as it should be. Our “collective memories” are already filled up with worries and, in some cases, manias. Kids today don’t think about the possibility of the Russians blowing us up like I did when I was a kid. Parents today don’t obsess about their kids getting Polio, as our grandparents did. And apparently people in Harrisburg today don’t fret about nuclear meltdowns like they did in 1979. Today kids worry about terrorism (which they statistically shouldn’t have to) and parents worry about vaccines (when they should be worrying about the renewed specter of Polio and the diseases that these vaccines nearly eradicated) and the loonies give us a thousand other things to worry about if we listen to them.

Worry is something we all live with and it is hard not to. It harms us in many ways and it seems, often enough, that the things we worry about, terrorism, illegal immigration, other people’s morality, are not the things which we really should statistically worry about. If you look at the data we should be concerned with heart disease, auto accidents, suicide, and the overuse of antibiotics. From Three-Mile Island to 9/11 to saturated fat the challenge has always been to worry about the things that matter, to learn from our mistakes, and, finally, to ignore those boogeymen who pose us no real threat. Only by doing this do we make progress without hurting ourselves in the process.

When I look at the steam plume at Three-Mile Island I still can’t decide if it represents a victory or a defeat. Did we learn from our mistakes and advance our search for clean energy or did a bunch of people with money find a way to overcome a PR nightmare to keep on making more money? I’m still not sure. But I do still feel lucky when I look around this pretty valley and reflect on what might have been.

by: Dustin Joy