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Trail Trees
April 13, 2007 7:46 AM   Subscribe

Say you live in a forest and have limited resources. You need to make signposts to point out trails, water sources, meeting places and the like, but your readers might speak a variety of languages. Also, you want the signposts to last a really long time. What do you do? Create trail trees! Now say you live in the 21st century. What do you do? Create a database! And blog about it!
posted by DU (20 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is pretty interesting; I have seen trees like this but had always assumed they were damaged by lightning or had some other natural explanation. There really doesn't seem to be a lot of information out there about them. I will definitely keep my eyes open for them and submit any I see to their database.
posted by TedW at 8:09 AM on April 13, 2007


Very clever! I love projects like this — turning what seems like a random quirk of our surroundings into a useful source of information.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:11 AM on April 13, 2007


Well that is seriously cool. Like TedW, I've seen trees like this in my travels around the Southeast, but never gave them any thought. All that is changed now! Great post, DU.
posted by saladin at 8:12 AM on April 13, 2007


Wow does that bring back memories. When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, in 1996, one of these trees is within a few steps of the Georgia / North Carolina line. I'd never seen anything like it, and I'm not sure I've seen one like it since. As the first big milestone on the AT, seeing pictures of these trees give me the same feeling of euphoria that hit me when I last saw one, the understanding that I'd walked the length of the AT in Georgia.

Climbing Mt. Katahdin was admittedly a better moment, but that's neither here nor there. :)
posted by waldo at 8:24 AM on April 13, 2007


This is amazing. Wonder if there are similar google mapping projects for other ancient features like the mound builders or the stone circles of Britain...
posted by ikahime at 8:35 AM on April 13, 2007


Come on!? Wouldn't you just cut a blaze into a tree with your axe, which would take seconds, rather than spend years or decades shaping a tree so it grew like this? I've grown bonsai - it ain't easy (I've marked hiking trails too).
I think these are just natural abberations. A tree falls over, bends a sapling which grows in that shape. Over time the original fallen tree rots and vanishes. That's one way this could happen.
posted by Flashman at 8:40 AM on April 13, 2007


Apparently there is some controversy over the reality of the phenomenon. But wouldn't a blaze disappear (more or less) eventually? In any case, I don't think it took years or decades: "American Indians would take a sapling, usually a white oak, and cut off the primary stem just above one of the branches so that the branch would become the new trunk."

Sounds like it would take about the same amount of time as a blaze but be way, way more visible.
posted by DU at 8:45 AM on April 13, 2007


I'm leaning towards siding with Flashman on this; if nothing else, the fact that these oddly shaped trees follow logical paths through forests and mountains may just mean that they got stepped on and broken as saplings and grew funny thereafter.
posted by hob at 8:47 AM on April 13, 2007


Yeah, I don't entirely buy this either. The first link at least suggests that maybe someone might have found an explanation and is investigating it, and then the second states it as absolute fact.

When you're marking a trail, you're marking it because you want to follow it the next day or month, not because you want people to find it fifty or 200 years later. Trying to prune trees to grow as trail markings would mean you wouldn't have any trail markings right then when you needed them.

(My completely evidence-free hypothesis: There are enough of these trees, bent by natural causes (lightning, other trees falling, etc), that the trails they seem to point out occur by chance.)
posted by mendel at 9:01 AM on April 13, 2007


When you're marking a trail, you're marking it because you want to follow it the next day or month, not because you want people to find it fifty or 200 years later.

One of those articles mentions they point to meeting places, water sources and so forth. That's not something you need "right then", that's something you want to be able to find again in a few years. I don't want to have to dedicate a corp of trailblazers to maintain these things. I want to do it once and be done.

...may just mean that they got stepped on and broken as saplings and grew funny thereafter.

That's a great hypothesis and pretty testable. If they were stepped on, the ages should be pretty random and we should see recent ones. If they were deliberate the ages may be grouped and there should be few recent ones.

...bent by natural causes (lightning, other trees falling, etc), that the trails they seem to point out...

Well, the trees occur *along* trails, which lightning wouldn't seem to favor. But it might make them easier to find.
posted by DU at 9:14 AM on April 13, 2007


That's a great hypothesis and pretty testable. If they were stepped on, the ages should be pretty random and we should see recent ones. If they were deliberate the ages may be grouped and there should be few recent ones.

Only if the trails are stil in an equal level of use now as they were when the trees were bent; roads, airplanes and the like would tend to mean that less people walk through the forest now than at earlier times. Also, if there's a marked, well-used trail now, you're going to see next to none of the "stepped-on" trees since the trail was well-marked -- because people will walk on the trail, which will be kept clear of things like saplings.

If you see all these trees as of one age in the past -- all within 50 years of each other or so -- it could simply mark a largegroup of people walking through the forest; between a hundred and two hundred years ago we know that there were plenty of large groups of people wandering around the countryside... which would explain a bunch of bent trees about the same age. So, not a good test.

And... I don't know, this whole 'stepping on saplings' thing seems to call into question the wisdom of counting on said saplings to grow up and become trail markers.
posted by hob at 9:27 AM on April 13, 2007


Trying to prune trees to grow as trail markings would mean you wouldn't have any trail markings right then when you needed them.

But the chopped sapling is useful right then. The moment you prune it, you have a weird-looking tree that is pointing in a particular direction. Like DU says, it's more visible than a blaze. So they'd make pretty good short-term markings, also, I think. Seems easier and more intuitive than a blaze, honestly.
posted by whatnotever at 9:33 AM on April 13, 2007


Well, the trees occur *along* trails, which ... might make them easier to find.
Yeah, uh, sampling bias? There are a lot more folks walking trails than bushwhacking.
posted by exogenous at 9:40 AM on April 13, 2007


When you're marking a trail, you're marking it because you want to follow it the next day or month, not because you want people to find it fifty or 200 years later.

Depends on what kind of "marking a trail" you're talking about. If you're just interested in leaving some sort of breadcrumbs so you can find your way out, then yeah, pruning trees would be overkill. But if the trail in question is your village's primary connection to the outside world and you're marking it for future travelers, then something permanent is exactly what you need.

So I'm not saying it has to be a trail — you're right that this is just a theory and we shouldn't be getting carried away — but I think it's plausible. Hopefully these folks turn up better evidence that can help us verify or falsify it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:58 AM on April 13, 2007


I think it's aliens. If we find all the trees, it will spell out a message on google earth, probably how to build a hyperspace drive or a transporter.
posted by lastobelus at 10:44 AM on April 13, 2007


If we find all the trees, it will spell out a message on google earth, probably how to build a hyperspace drive or a transporter

Or more likely "Rest Stop : Nice place to take a crap".

And that's where the human race came from.
posted by CynicalKnight at 10:54 AM on April 13, 2007


...the trees occur *along* trails, which lightning wouldn't seem to favor...

Many trails go along the ridgelines in the mountains so they might well get struck more often by lightning. I am willing to listen to the skeptics but still think the concept is interesting.
posted by TedW at 11:17 AM on April 13, 2007


Here is another site about them with a little pro and con debate thrown in.
posted by TedW at 11:36 AM on April 13, 2007


Finally, they are also known as "thong trees" and goggling on that will get anyone interested a little more information.
posted by TedW at 11:52 AM on April 13, 2007


Here is a nice archived article from OzarksWatch magazine on thong trees that has a diagram on creating these trees.

I'm a believer in thong/trail/hoot-owl tree theory, but I think such trees are rare. Natural forces will create a similar looking growth pattern and I've seen hundreds of such trees of varying age (and even have a couple on my property). Almost all of the trees I've seen are simply too young to have been crafted by Native Americans.

I once received an email inquiry from a person who wanted to catalog thong trees in Missouri and she sent me some pictures-- which were of relatively small-diameter black oaks which were probably 60-80 years old. Her desire to believe was strong and could not persuade her that she had misidentified a naturally occurring tree.

I still keep a look out for thong trees on my trips through the woods. It's another source of wonder, whether real or imagined.
posted by F Mackenzie at 1:40 PM on April 13, 2007


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