A bolt knocked the crown off this tulip poplar, splitting the tree down to the roots in the process. A fire then started in the split trunk, hollowing it out. Now the trunk is a tube, entirely charred inside. In the mid-section of the tree the bark and remaining wood is no more than a few centimeters thick. Up top, several branches are still alive.
Trees are not the only witnesses to lightning strikes. NASA detects “flash rates” of lightning across the globe from sensors in orbiting satellites. The image below uses this NASA data to map lightning strikes (fromNOAA’s Science on a Sphere project; click on “view interactive sphere” on the right-hand side of the page to view your own part of the world). Map projection: from orbit, where North means nothing.
Above ground: fires run through here every other year. Below ground: glacier-dumped sand, long washed of its nutriment. Between the two, plants that survive in the sandplains only with the help of fungal partners whose skinny bodies worm through the acid, root-hostile soil, scavenging minerals.
We call the plants lowbush blueberries and little bluestem grass, growing ankle high between scorch-barked, straggly pitch pines. Other names, too: Little bluestem is “poverty grass” and blueberry fruit is harvested in poverty.
No leanness for migrant birds, though, who pluck at sun-puckered blueberries and wind-blown grass seed. Their bodies fatten here, storing plant-captured sunlight for migratory treks from Canada to the southern US and beyond. A dozen flickers flock like sparrows, feeding low to the ground, then scattering to shelter in pines. Field sparrows and cedar waxwings rise like dust in our wake as we traverse the fields. Palm warblers scurry rabbit-like among the blueberry plants. Above this tumble of small birds: merlins, sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels. Predators, too, need their autumnal fat and frost-edged nights make the hunters flesh-hungry. A merlin and hawk lance and twist in an aerial chase, then each wings to its own corner of the fields.
Once these sandplain communities covered large parts of coastal New England, but fire suppression has choked most with woodland. Housing development claims the rest. In a few places restoration efforts have pushed back the trees, opening habitat available nowhere else. These efforts involve controlled burns, land acquisitions, yearly mowing, signage, insurance, staffing: the poverty left by the retreat of glaciers is expensive to maintain.