When Lightning Strikes
By Dave Anderson
It's late-afternoon and a dark armada of thunderheads descends from the rolling Green Mountains of Vermont to make landfall in New Hampshire. Birds grow silent. Leaves rustle ominously. The sky glows a weird metallic green.
A jagged bolt of lightning stabs a tall white pine.
Its top explodes as the bolt spirals down the trunk. The wood splinters violently as bark is blown-off and scattered like shrapnel. Exposed sapwood glows yellow in the newly-opened fissure. Where the lightning hit the ground, small stones and soil are thrown clear like exclamation points.
The mighty pine is smoked; struck dead in an instant. Typically the tallest trees in the woods, white pines make natural lightning rods.
An electrocuted pine will eventually shed the rest of its bark in large plates to reveal cooked sapwood beneath. Seared pine pitch seals the heartwood, like varnish, against moisture and beetles that specialize boring holes in wood. Unlike pines that die, fall and rot due to insects and moisture, heat-killed “snag trees” can remain standing for decades!
Snags provide durable wooden apartments for a variety of wildlife. Cavities inside these smooth, gray ghosts are used by woodpeckers, flycatchers and owls for nesting; and by bats as nursery colonies and day roosts. Squirrels, raccoons, porcupines and fishers use the lightning killed durable snags for dens.
In the woods, every ending is a new beginning. Standing dead trees are considered a “biological legacy” - an integral part of a healthy forest. Even in death, these lightning-killed trees live on.