With a bit of luck, an oak can live through anything. They’re an amazing tree - shade-tolerant, drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant, at least one of their six hundred species can be found growing on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. An oak growing in good conditions can live for over two hundred years, surviving through anything the world cares to throw at it.
The one I sit on - a beautiful white oak, probably three feet across and closer to seventy years than two hundred - has survived a direct attack. The base of the tree bulges out, a large burl extending out half a foot from the trunk, where some insect infested it years ago. Usually, the insects will hollow out the burl, making themselves a home safe inside of the bark and wood. On this burl, however, it looks as if the freeloading bugs were kicked out by a squirrel, which made itself a tunnel through the wood into the root system under the oak, marking its trail with empty acorn shells and tufts of fur. For now, the squirrel has made a safe little home for itself, nestled into the roots and support structure under the tree. For now, it seems like the squirrel has gotten the best of the deal.
But then again, there is no way to tell what will happen tomorrow.
Months ago, at a camp in New Hampshire, I talk snake holes with a group of teenagers. One kid points a hole out and asks me how snakes dig their holes.
“With shovels,” I joke. No one laughs. I trudge on. “Actually, the real question to ask is how chipmunks dig holes, and then ask what eats chipmunks.”
The kid looks at me, confused. “You mean…”
“Yeah. If a snake comes across a hole that it happens to like, it just might move in. And if whatever small, furry thing that dug the hole decides to put up a fight, well, the snake gets dinner.”
The kid makes a face. “That seems like cheating.”
I shrug. “That's how nature likes to do things.”
Watching an ecosystem for a long enough period is a lot like watching a board game that you don’t fully understand. Everyone is working off the same fundamental rules - the same sun comes up in the morning for every organism, the same rain falls across the same area at the same time - and playing as creatively as possible to try and win in the end. It quickly becomes clear that there is no overarching plan, just a group of players working in their own self-interest. The oak didn’t intend to house a rotating group of freeloading tenants. But, then again, they didn’t ask. The chipmunk didn’t dig its hole for a snake. But at the end of the day, it’s the snake who's living there.
If you look at it from the right angle, there’s a sort of beauty in this chaos. Every organism on this planet has to be constantly fighting, constantly competing to keep itself at the top of the pack. Every organism always has to be on its A-game. After all, if the players look away for even a second, the board will have changed by the time they come back.
This game, this beautiful, ever-shifting dance, is the magic of ecology. And, if you can find an area that humans haven’t been paying much attention for some time now, you can see for yourself how the natural world has begun to advance once again.
And that's no surprise. After all, this is nature’s game we’re playing.
It’s no wonder that sometimes it wins.