When we first bought our 44 acres, our friends asked when we would build a house on it.  They were surprised to here us say at least 5 years.  It’s now going on 7, and we are planning to build in 2012.

This time frame is being a great chance to learn the land.  It is a much bigger book than I ever imagined.  Or maybe it’s more like a website with endless links.  One of those links is oak wilt.

..Our wooded hill B.O. W. (before oak wilt)

Near our proposed building site on the edge of woods, a fine young red oak was one of the first things that caught our eye.  It stood 25 feet tall and with a sturdy, foot-wide trunk.  It opened into a lovely globe of deep green leaves that turned umber in autumn. We imagined watching it from our living room window through seasons and years.

The next summer, every new, green leaf on that oak shriveled and died.  Other oaks nearby did the same.  A tree expert from Madison diagnosed oak wilt.

This fungal pathogen made its mark in the 1980s, and has really got a toe hold throughout eastern United States because of increased tree wounding primarily due to home construction in oak woods.

..Oak wilt map

(Yes, I see that finger pointing at me.  We were learning when to cut and when not to safely cut oak just as the problem flared and could well have been part of the problem.)

We might be able to contain it, he said, by trenching around the outside of the infected pocket of trees.  Oak wilt spreads through a tree’s vascular system and can slip into a neighboring tree through the grafts that form between roots.  We had to break those connections. We had to calculate which trees were probably already infected and would die the next summer after passing wilt to their neighbors.

..6 years later. Oaks much fewer, but pines much taller.

All those gorgeous trees!  Sentencing sturdy, vibrant trees to death because they had a slight chance of being infected was very hard for novices like us, and we may not have drawn our circle large enough.  Or perhaps the fungus would have made the jump no matter what.

Not surprisingly, the circle of oak death leaped our trench.  It certainly has settled the question about how many trees to remove from the house site.  So this winter we decided to take the bull by the horns and try once again to stop oak wilt’s march.

No more Mr. Nice Guy!

All winter Doug and I have been hand cutting out all the small trees, brambles and weedy invasives so that we could approach the dead and dying giants with chain saws.  Last Saturday we worked with a neighbor and his teen son to cut down every tree that had or might have oak wilt in a larger perimeter.


Will oak wilt continue to stalk through our wooded hill?

Probably so.

I am more accepting of our oak wilt fate now.  As the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources webpage on oak wilt in Wisconsin concludes,

Dead oak trees can serve as excellent den trees for wildlife. Oaks do not decay as quickly as aspen, birch and red maple, thus will provide shelter for wildlife for many years. Also, as oaks die, the site often becomes brushy for about 10 years. Warblers, grosbeaks, cuckoos, cardinals, grouse, rabbits, deer and shrews will be attracted to the brushy area. Brown creepers may nest under the sloughing bark on dead trees. Dead trees will also furnish insects for birds, and large specimens may provide perches for raptors.

...Oak wilt outpost beyond our current reach.

We are starting to consider what trees we will replant the hill with.  Perhaps it will become  savanna instead of  woods.  That would bring our hill back to its state before  European settlement.  I’m not about to thank the oak wilt, but I’m not railing at it anymore either.

Are you dealing with oak wilt?  How are you handling it?

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