HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

Dead Inside


Surprisingly, when you look into the crown of this tree, it is perfectly alive.

To describe a feeling of just not caring any more, or as sometimes it’s stated, running clean out of fucks to give, someone may describe themselves as dead inside.

Someone who is dead inside is completing the basic life functions – eating, breathing – but cannot muster caring, empathy, compassion, drive, pleasure, excitement, creativity, appreciation, lust, love.

When I hear this term I think of trees.

While working for a municipal county park system I acted as the liaison between the public and the parks department, fielding questions and complaints, translating public concerns into the language of bureaucracy and back again with the hopes of making progress and finding common ground. One of the tougher parts of this job, as the horticulturist for the park system, was discussing with people the fate of large old trees. These folks may have known this tree since they were little, they may be the third generation to celebrate milestones within its shadow, they may have shared moments with loved ones under the shady canopy, perhaps they watched with their own little ones as birds raised families in the crown. Whatever the reason they are attached to the tree, and the bigger and older the tree gets, the more affinity they have for it.

Often it was my duty to let people know the trees must come down. Under the best circumstances trees do not live forever. But under the best circumstances trees can live longer than us which makes it feel like they can, and should, live forever making it more difficult to accept that we may have to witness the end of its life.

These old trees in question were usually in full leaf, looking as magnificent and stately as ever, when I had to share the news of the pending demise. They looked healthy and strong, stable and durable as old trees do. Arborists had done resistograph testing which indicated decay inside the tree. In a park system, along roads or sidewalks, we could not let these trees stand.

These trees were, in fact, dead inside.

A beaver has exposed the heartwood of this tree. The light color wood in this photo is heartwood. Sapwood is a thin bit of wood between the bark and the heartwood.

Throughout a tree’s long life an injury may occur and while the tree may heal with little to show from the initial injury, there may be permanent ongoing damage inside that cannot be seen from the outside. People, too, can have this happen to them, physically and emotionally.

The tree does have natural biological functions that can compartmentalize the damage from this injury with varying degrees of success. Eventually the injuries add up.

The wood at the center of the tree is called heartwood. It is the structure and support for the tree. It is formed as the living, growing part of the tree ages and is replaced by new cells of living growing tissue as the tree grows wider. This wood becomes stronger than the tender wood at the outside of the tree (sapwood) just under the protective layer of bark. The heartwood no longer transports or stores water or food for the tree and it becomes disease and rot resistant.

This process occurs because as the tree grows larger it needs more mechanical support, it needs strength. The heartwood of a tree is what gives it strength. This heartwood, which once was soft sapwood, now buffers the tree against strong winds and ice loads as well as injury and disease.

My little sister hanging out in the hollow of a large American Beech tree.

Heartwood is not impenetrable. We know even the toughest people have their vulnerabilities and so it is with trees. A woodpecker may damage the tree in just the right place allowing moisture or disease or insects inside putting a chink in that tree’s interior armor.

When this happens over a long period of time the heartwood rots. The sapwood, the cambium layer, which is the thin layer of a tree that actually grows each year, can survive and thrive without heartwood. The sapwood will continue to grow, adding girth to a tree that now has less support.

Me and a very hollow but very much alive Coastal Redwood.

A tree can live like this, dead inside, for decades or even centuries. The sapwood continues to move water and nutrients up and down the tree, leaves continue to form and shed and regrow, the cycle of its life carries on.

Then a large storm hits and the seemingly healthy tree shatters to the ground revealing only a thin outer circle of life.

The tree is dead inside. It has the equipment to sustain life, but not the equipment to sustain struggle or challenge. It does not have the support it needs or the systems required to “weather the storm.” Unlike these trees, people have the ability to regrow that heartwood, to strengthen from within, to reestablish their support system.

This is what I think of when people talk of being dead inside.

2 thoughts on “Dead Inside

  1. Pingback: Callous & Callus | HORT travels

  2. When I need to give permission for home owners to take down a street tree I have to remind them that trees have a life expectancy and theirs is way past its prime. Then I share with them that the borough will replace it with a new proper specie of street tree.

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