Driftwood: Swimming Trunks

By Rebecca Ruger

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For many people, driftwood may be just pieces of wood that we step over on the beach while hunting for sea glass. To some, it may be a small part of the bigger picture of the scenic landscape of the coastline. For others, it’s the reason they venture to the beaches, to capture—whether by hand, or on film, or in spirit—the beauty and majesty of these great pieces of the past.

Like sea glass, driftwood speaks of other places and a past life, and has a story to tell. We wonder about its origins and appreciate that driftwood is symbolic of the action of water, wind, and sun. Yet, even those who so appreciate the aesthetic of a grand piece of driftwood on their favorite beach may not understand or have considered that there is so much to know and learn about these pieces, whether large or small, grand or otherwise.

Driftwood, of course, refers to any piece of wood that has been washed up onto a beach or shore. While most only consider weathered and worn pieces as driftwood, by definition driftwood includes all wood delivered to the beaches by the winds and tides.

And it serves a purpose, actually many necessary ecological purposes: driftwood might serve as the foundation of sand dunes; it provides shelter for wading birds and while still in the water, for some fish; when decomposed by gribbles (tiny marine isopods) shipworms or bacteria, the driftwood serves as nutrients for other aquatic species.

Laura Myers, Senior Park Interpreter of Neys Provincial Park, just west of Marathon, Ontario, Canada, says, “Ecologically speaking, driftwood is an essential component of beach ecosystems. From the skeleton of an entire tree to a piece of driftwood the size of a pebble, each piece of driftwood provides a benefit to the beach ecosystem.”

All that washed up driftwood offers permanency to the sandy coastline environment that the wind and waves continuously attempt to disrupt. Similar to mulch in a garden, driftwood holds moisture; it creates shade, however small, and adds nutrients to the otherwise dry and hot environment of the beach. Shorebirds use driftwood for nesting, feeding, shelter, and even camouflage.

Driftwood might be the remains of trees, or parts thereof, that somehow found their way into the water—via flooding, high winds, or even as the result of logging. Pieces of man-made or man-worked wood found as relics on the beach are called driftwood lumber. This can include any made wood objects, such as parts of buildings, homes, or their contents washed out to sea; lost cargo from ships, or the remains of wrecked wooden ships or boats. It may be nearly impossible to determine the origins of a driftwood lumber piece, unless specific information remains identifiable on the worn piece.

Fragments of driftwood may still show any features or abnormalities that beautified or plagued the tree while living. Any and all trees are subject to malformations, some natural, other caused by insects or fungi, and these may remain as the tree is uprooted and sent in to the water, and later washes back upon the shore.

Burls in a tree are growths in which the grain has grown in a deformed manner. It is commonly found in the form of a rounded outgrowth on a tree trunk or branch that is filled with small knots from dormant buds. A burl results from a tree undergoing some form of stress. It may be caused by an injury, virus or fungus, and even be caused by wasps laying their eggs and aggravating the tissue of a tree. Most burls grow beneath the ground, attached to the roots as a type of malignancy that is generally not discovered until the tree dies or falls over.

Cankers on trees appear as isolated dead areas on the bark, stems, branches or twigs. Cankers may appear as discolored areas or depressed places on the bark. A fungus that enters the tree and grows between the bark and the wood killing the bark generally causes cankers. Normally, cankers are neither treatable nor harmful to the health of a tree. However, they will create weak spots on trunks, limbs and branches, which can make them more susceptible to storm damage.

Galls are abnormal plant growth or swellings comprised of plant tissue, sometimes called tumors, in response to an injury to or an irritation of the plant, usually (but not always) caused by some living organism. Galls are usually found on foliage or twigs, and less frequently on trunks.

Regarding driftwood, even the malformations—the imperfections—are perfect. The wonderful thing about driftwood is that, like sea glass, no two pieces are exactly alike and similarly, no two pieces can tell the same story. Driftwood has such a timeless quality and never looks out of place, whether on the beach, in the front yard, or in the house.



The Great Raft

The Great Raft, sometimes called the Red River Raft, was a log jam which plagued the Red River, clogging the lower part in what is now Northwest Louisiana and Northeast Texas. Historians and researchers suggest the giant log jam, which at times might have been anywhere from 100-200 miles long, may have been around since the 12th or 13th century.

The Caddo Indians, who lived along the Red River, benefitted greatly from the nature-made raft. Each spring as flooding in the river uprooted trees and added to the raft, it left behind fertile, open fields where the Caddos grew crops. The log jam also ensured that the Caddos remain untouched by Europeans for 150 years longer than settlements on the other side of the log jam, before a Spanish expedition made contact with them in 1691.

Steamboat captain and inventor, Henry Shreve—appointed Superintendent of Western River Improvements in 1826— was charged with finding a solution to river log jams, and soon invented a ‘snagboat’ which would catch and chew up large trees, trunks, and driftwood. In 1833, Captain Henry Shreve began directing a federal program of raft removal from the Red River, and despite poor government funding, finished the project in 1939. Shreveport, Louisiana is named after him for his work on that area’s logjam problem.

However, the Red River and Mother Nature had other plans, and it wasn’t long after that a great raft of trees and logs began to form again. It wouldn’t be cleared completely and permanently until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tackled the problem successfully in the 1870s, using both boats and explosives.



Old Man of the Lake

Man atop Old Man of the LakeThe “Old Man of the Lake” in Crater Lake, Oregon is a full-size tree, believed to be a 450 year old hemlock, that has been bobbing vertically in the lake for more than 100 years. The cold water of the lake has kept the two foot wide by 30 foot long trunk well-preserved. It was first recorded in 1896, and has been known to travel dozens of miles, sometimes with surprising speed, around the lake. Because it can be found anywhere in the lake, boaters and boat captains regularly alert each other of its location for safety purposes. In 1988 during research of the lake, scientists decided to tie the Old Man off the eastern side of Wizard Island to defuse any navigational threat while they worked. It’s said that as soon as they restrained the driftwood trunk, the weather changed from clear to stormy. When it then started snowing in August, the scientists unchained the Old Man and soon after the weather cleared again.

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine September/October 2018 issue.

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