Across the world, hospital nurses are putting their lives on the line for people suffering and dying from Covid-19. They go far beyond providing critical medical assistance–serving as advocates, consolers, educators, and so much more. We celebrate them as superheroes in scrubs, and yet we do not do enough to keep them safe.

Slipping into a shadowy myrtlewood grove on the southern Oregon coast, I encounter another kind of nurse–one that is often overlooked, under-championed, and in danger.

myrtlewood nurse log-2
Myrtlewood nurse log–superhero of the forest.

Why are vigorous myrtlewoods growing like columns placed in a row? Who is the planter within a tangle of lean, tilt, layers, moss, ferns, and downfall? The trees are growing from a nurse log, the name for a fallen tree that nourishes the next generation of forests.

Let the forests be wild! Let trees grow and become old, stand tall as woodpecker snags, and fall to decay and nurture seedlings, moss, mushrooms, ferns, and to feed and fertilize the soil.

ferns on myrtlewood
Ferns and moss on fallen myrtlewood-before the tree settles upon the soil.

Within shadowy tall forests of the rainy Pacific Northwest forests, seedlings sprouting from logs tap into more sunlight than they would on the ground. The fallen tree protects them from diseases and pathogens, and serves them food and water. As the new trees grow, their roots hug the mother tree and tap into the wood wide web below ground. The saplings strengthen, anchor, and rise up. Not all will grow straight. Some will tilt. Others will cluster, where seedlings sprouted from a burst of seeds.

myrtlewood clump growing on nurse log
Young myrtlewoods grow in a surprising  clump, all thriving from nurse log sustenance.

The light in the myrtlewood grove is green. The scents are the spice of wild ginger underfoot. I touch a nurse log gentled in moss and mushrooms and wonder at all I cannot see. After the tree’s death, fungi and bacteria break down the lignin (polymers that help form the wood and bark structure). Soil, moss, mushrooms and tiny plants fill in the holes and spaces in bark. The soil is not any dirt, but humus–rich in nitrogen from plant and animal decay.

Within this same grove, I study an immense Sitka spruce that forks the sky with three trunks in defiance of any forester’s prescription for evenly spaced crop-like plantations. Long ago, perhaps a squirrel ate cones on a nurse log, and seed triplets took root, or cones simply opened and the seeds drifted down to find the perfect planting spot. Left alone, the trees may live to be more than 800 years old, their trunks widening to a girth of five feet, and their tops tousling the clouds at heights of more than 150 feet high. As they grow, they do something more–storing more and more carbon.

Sitka Spruce

Leaving the grove, my eyes blink in bright sunshine. I shed my jacket in the sudden warmth. The forest is its own microclimate. I pick a myrtlewood leaf, rub my fingers on the oval, leathery surface, and inhale a pungent, bay-like aroma. Looking back, I’m the wistful child leaving a playground, and note another sensation–rejuvenation.

Why would nurse logs ever be in danger? The answer may lie deep within the human psyche’s desire for order. Why do people pick up branches, twigs, logs, and prune, thin, straighten, edge, spray, and pluck dead blooms? Forestry, too, has a history of applying farming and crop principles–destroying the natural integrity of wild tree ecosystems. There’s also that adage of “Waste not. Want not.” A dead tree? Tssssk. That’s going to waste. Better cut it down and pick up that wood.

Mess is best!
Messy! And wonderful–a child’s playground in the myrtlewood grove.

There’s another threat, too. Fear of wildfire. In drier forests like Central Oregon’s pines where I live, downed trees are subtle in their nursing roles. While slower to decay, they enrich soils and invite trees to flourish. The logs tend to be a low fire risk– soft, moist, and hard to burn (if you’ve ever tried to light a fire with an old log and no kindling).

Returning to the latest Covid-19 news and the plight of our healthcare workers, I write the word “nurse” with extra tenderness. Of course, the forest nurse I describe is far different, a role that begins at the end of a tree’s life. Yet, I am struck by the similarities of essential healing and being overlooked.

What can I do for both? For nurses, I join others insisting that we must provide PPE (personal protective equipment). All our healthcare workers on the front line need to be safe, to find rest, and to know they are cared for.

For nurse logs? I advocate for wild forestry that honors trees in every stage of their cycle, and especially for ancient forests. Let the trees soar skyward, store carbon, filter air, harbor biodiversity, and let them fall to nurse the future.