Posted November 8, 2011 by Andrew Smith in The Last Page

Deadwood Dick carves deadwood in Deadwood

Actually, he doesn’t. Deadwood Dick I mean. He’s dead, so he hasn’t carved much of anything lately. But he was a real historical Old West personage of Deadwood and he may have, or likely did, carve deadwood in Deadwood back in the day. That day being before telephones, television and other modern distractions, when whittlin’ and whiskey were respectable ways to pass the time. So to be more accurate I should title this: Dead Deadwood Dick doesn’t carve deadwood in Deadwood anymore.

But I do. Carve deadwood in Deadwood I mean. That’s Deadwood, South Dakota, the former gold mining town in the beautiful Black Hills, where I live and sometimes work on bonsai.

Deadwood was named for, of all things, the dead trees that covered the mountain slopes when gold was discovered here in the 1870’s. The dead trees were the result of an infestation of mountain pine beetles, a nasty forest pest capable of wiping out vast areas of forest when conditions are right.

Conditions were apparently right then and they are right now as well. The Black Hills, the whole mountain west and most of Canada is currently under a massive beetle attack the likes of which have never yet been experienced in recorded history. Not in all of history, mind you, but just since we’ve been keeping notes.

Deadwood Dick carves deadwood in Deadwood By Andrew Smith

The reasons for this are many and complex. The results are an ugly mess. Whole mountainsides of green pine forest are turned brown. The forest is so full of dead and rotting trees that in many areas it’s no longer safe to take a walk in the woods on a breezy day. I sometimes wear a hardhat to work now, though all it would do is preserve my dental records if a 6,000 pound falling tree hit me.

And sometimes they just fall over, breeze or no breeze. In the last couple years I’ve probably seen ten or twelve dead trees just topple over without warning. I’ll be standing there working and hear something and by the time I’ve turned around it’s already, crash! on the ground. After the beetles kill the tree the wood begins to rot and then one day it just falls over. Studies have shown that the half-life of a fire-killed snag (another term for a standing dead tree) is about five years. That means half of them are on the ground within five years. The half-life of a beetle-killed tree is probably less than that because the beetles introduce fungi into the wood.

This is, of course, directly pertinent to bonsai, as we shall soon see.

In 1874 the Custer Expedition went through the Black Hills, taking many pictures along the way and eventually finding gold in French Creek in the southern Black Hills. Several of the 1874 photos show old dead trees. But these dead trees are not like the modern beetle or fire-killed trees that rot and fall over in a few years time. These old snags are beautiful grey wind-carved driftwoods, full of scented resins, heavy and hard as iron.

Such old snags can stand for hundreds of years and then last on the ground for hundreds of years more. In fact, in 2002 authors Paul Horsted and Ernest Grafe retook all of the Custer Black Hills photos from their original locations. Their work is documented in the book, Exploring With Custer. The amazing thing is that a couple of the photos show old gray weathered snags that are unchanged in the 1874 and 2002 photos, a period of nearly 130 years. The trees had obviously already been dead quite some time when the photos were taken in 1874. And they look no different today.

So why is that? And what, if anything, does it have to do with our art of bonsai?

The “why” may be easier to answer than the “what” in this case, even though I distinctly remember a college professor telling us repeatedly, “There is no ‘why’ in science!” His point being, I think, that the natural world was so deterministically self-contained that no outside reasons were needed for things to happen.

In any case, the answer lies in how trees die, how long they take doing it and what they do meantime.

The trunk of a tree, that is the wood, is mostly physiologically inactive. It does not grow or require energy to keep alive. It acts as the skeleton of the tree and its main function is to hold the tree up towards the sun and keep it from falling over in the wind. Any degradation to the wood of the trunk represents a life threat to the tree, because if the trunk is weakened the tree will eventually come down and surely be killed in the process.

And so the tree must treat its wood as the treasure it is. Mankind has always prized wood for its unending usefulness and beauty. And the tree also puts a high value on its wood.

But back to wood, and how trees die, and bonsai. Trees react at a much slower pace than we humans do. As we used to say in the Forest Service, “Let’s go home. Them trees ‘ll still be here in the morning. They ain’t going anywhere.” But trees do react appropriately to their environment. It’s just their time scale that’s hard for us to detect.

When a tree dies quickly, say due to bugs or fire, it has no time to prepare itself properly. And so the trunk quickly begins to rot and in a decade or so the tree is returning to the forest floor to be taken up by other forest creatures.

But when a tree dies slowly, say over a 50 or 100 year period, or even longer, due to aging or the combined toll of injury and disease; then the tree has time to prepare itself. The way it will prepare itself is to convert more of its energy into wood-preserving resins and less into new growth. The tree will slow down its growth and the rings will become tight. In the Black Hills a 30-year-old pine might grow 4 inches of new diameter in 10 years where a 300-year-old tree might not grow an inch of new diameter in 100 years.

As the growth slows the tree will begin producing more resins and saturating its trunk wood with them. This resin-saturated wood is extremely rot resistant and will make the trunk of the old pine, when it finally dies, a very different creature than that of a younger tree that died relatively quickly. These old resin-saturated snags are the gray ghosts of the forest, hard as concrete and sometimes lasting for hundreds of years.

This wood is carved by the wind and seasons, adorned with bright lichens and streaked with purple, red and yellow. It acquires character and personality with the passing years. Countless generations of nesting creatures can be born and die in such an old tree. Long after it has stopped growing it still fulfills an important role in the life of the forest.

This is exactly the kind of deadwood we should strive to create on our bonsai, but it’s not an easy task. For one, even if we were granted near-eternal youth, few of us would have the patience to spend a century or two creating a single jin. Even I would lose interest in bonsai if I had to go at that pace, the pace of trees.

I recently worked on a large ponderosa pine. Three years ago I cut off a large branch, approximately 4 inches in diameter, with plans to jin it later. I left about an eight inch branch stub with thick bark and no foliage. This fall I finally got around to peeling the bark and carving the jin. To my amazement not only did the bark not come off easily, but the cambium was still live and wet underneath. The tree was keeping the branch alive!

But what for? On a pine that old I have never seen new buds popping through old bark. The branch was not going to start growing again, so the tree should have let it die. But the tree couldn’t because if a branch that size died quickly it would rot in a few years and probably introduce rot into the trunk of the tree. So the tree kept the branch alive, I am assuming, so that it would have time to produce enough resins to saturate the wood of that branch, protecting it and the whole tree from rot.

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith, proprietor of Golden Arrow Bonsai, Deadwood, South Dakota. Mr. Smith first became interested in bonsai in 1993 while retrieving core samples from ancient pine trees for a climate history research project for the U.S. Forest Service. Prior to this he had been a professional tree planter for five years and had hand planted approximately 1.3 million bare-root tree seedlings. He immediately decided to try transplanting some of the contorted pines, spruces and junipers he frequently saw growing on rock ledges in the hopes of training them for bonsai. He has successfully transplante