Sunday, March 16, 2008


Wolf, Drey, Chevron

Solon said, "I grow old ever learning many things" (Plutarch, Life of Solon 2.2). Although old age takes away some pleasures, the pleasure of learning remains, at least so long as the mind stays alert. I've recently had the pleasure of learning a word new to me (drey) and some unfamiliar meanings of familiar words (wolf, chevron).

Tom Wessels, Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (Woodstock: Countryman Press, 1997; rpt. 1999), p. 42, discusses an etching by Brian D. Cohen that illustrates the text:
The squat, wide-spreading growth form of the two large trees that abut the wall tell us something important—that they did not grow up to reach the canopy of a forest, but rather grew into open space. Trees growing in close proximity to other trees put their energy into racing toward the canopy to garner their share of limited sunlight. Trees growing in the open extend outward. This strategy accomplishes two things: It allows the tree to maximize the sunlight it can capture and to usurp space from future competitors. Only trees growing in the open have the wide-spreading form displayed in the etching. Some people refer to the large white pine on the right and the sugar maple on the left as wolf trees, for like a wolf, these open-grown trees often stand alone.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), recognizes this as one of the meanings of wolf (definition 4, "= wolf tree, sense 11e below") and gives the following citations:
1949 Q. Jrnl. Forestry XLIII. 127 Most props containing large knots have been prepared from quick-grown heavily branched trees such as wolves. 1966 Times 21 Apr. 16/7 Douglas fir plantations nearly always have some undesirable wolves which have to be cut out.
Under heading 11e the OED defines wolf tree as "a tree that is occupying more space than has been allowed for it, so restricting the growth of its neighbours."

Wessels (p. 47) says he prefers the term pasture tree, "as they were often left to provide shade for the animals" when land was cleared. Later, when farms were abandoned and reverted to woods, these wide-spreading shade trees survived as anomalies among their new, more upstanding neighbors.

A city park where I often walk used to be a farm (Crosby Farm Park), and I'll be on the lookout for wolf trees there from now on.

I first encountered the word drey in Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski, North American Tree Squirrels (Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2001), pp. 27-28:
Other, than food, few other resources are more important to squirrels than the nest. Leaf nests (or dreys) and natural hollows are especially critical for survival of nestlings (Barkalow and Soots 1965a; Burger 1969), protection against predators (J. Moore 1957), and shelter from adverse weather conditions (Baumgartner 1939b; Nixon, Havera, and Hansen 1984).
OED, s.v. dray, drey, cites among other users of the word Gilbert White, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne (1789): "A boy has taken three little young squirrels in their nest, or drey as it is called in these parts." Walter W. Skeat, Notes on English Etymology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901), p. 75, adds some examples from English poetry: Michael Drayton, The Quest of Cynthia ("The nimble Squirrell noting here / Her mossy Dray that makes"), William Browne, Britannia's Pastorals 1.5.715-716 ("Whilst he, from tree to tree, from spray to spray, / Gets to the wood, and hides him in his dray"), and William Cowper, A Fable ("Climbed like a squirrel to its dray").

In winter, when trees are bare, it's easy to see a drey, which looks like a ball of leaves. My next-door neighbor has one in the tree in front of her house.

Charles C. Abbott, Upland and Meadow: A Poaetquissings Chronicle (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), pp. 331-332, records some interesting observations on dreys, although he doesn't use the word:
The rapidity with which the gray squirrels make their nests of dead leaves and twigs is something marvellous. In a single night the work is often done, unless they subsequently add a little finer material for the lining. To-day I saw a large, globular leaf-nest near the top of a tall oak, which I know was not there yesterday. I was then examining every twig of this same tree for a little warbler, that eluded all my efforts, and I could not have overlooked so prominent a mass of leaves as this nest. No one squirrel could have done this work. It is the result of joint labors of three or four, and, unless they can work in darkness, must have been, even then, accomplished rapidly. How they secure these leaves against winter's winds is not clear, but they are always intact at the close of the season. To be sure, the twigs are not dead and brittle when gathered, but this does not explain altogether how they interweave them so that few, if any, become dislodged.

A chevron is something shaped like an upside-down V. The OED doesn't mention a specialized meaning of the word that I found in Charles Fergus, Trees of New England: A Natural History (Guilford: Globe Pequot Press, 2005), p. 46:
On the white trunks of paper birch, dark triangular markings, called chevrons, show where branches have died and fallen off. The closely related gray birch, B. populifolia, has whitish bark as well, but its bark is tight and nonpeeling and usually displays a greater number of large black chevrons at the bases of the self-pruned branches.
The word chevron in this sense also occurs in Richard M. DeGraaf and Paul E. Sendak, Native and Naturalized Trees of New England and Adjacent Canada: A Field Guide (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2006), pp. 95-96, in their description of the gray birch. Sue Sweeney, Great Americans: Birches (The Winter View), The Monday Garden 152 (Feb. 20, 2005), uses the term several times and has good photographs showing chevrons on birch trees in Stamford, Connecticut.

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