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Outdoors: If a tree falls in the woods


If a tree falls in a forest at Interlochen, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It will.  Interlochen campers will soon be using the fallen tree, especially if it is hollow, as a drum, or better yet, as a xylophone.

One of our ancient stately pines fell last winter during what appears to have been a straight line wind event, and our campers quickly discovered that the dead branches produced recognizable pitches. Before long, they were tapping out simple melodies.  

Mature pine trees, especially in a dense forest, are usually “self-pruned.”  The canopies of tall trees often shade their own lower branches. Consequently, lower branches do not receive enough sunlight for photosynthesis, so they do not contribute to the energy of the tree. Rather than wasting resources like water and carbohydrates on the lower limbs, the trees deposit resins at the bases of the unproductive branches and they eventually die.

The healthy, thriving lateral branches of the crown canopies still receive full sunlight. But dead lower tree branches are attacked by fungi or insects or broken off by heavy snow or ice. In a dense forest, trunks of white and red pines are studded with short wooden stubs – usually of slightly different widths and lengths.

So on the trunk of a large white pine windfall, there is sort of a “mounted row of wooden bars of graduated lengths which, when struck by mallet, produce pitches.” In other words, a fallen tree is sort of a natural xylophone.

The word “xylophone” comes from Greek words meaning “wood” and “sound”.  And if a tree falls in an Interlochen forest, even in no one is around to hear it fall, wood sounds can be heard throughout the summer.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.