In the beginning, there was driftwood – or so the Norse myths tell us. When the gods Odin, Vili, and Vé found two tree trunks on the seashore, they breathed life into the gnarled whorls. An ash became Ask, the first man; an elm became Embla, the first woman, and humanity began.
Even today, from woodland dams to seaside dunes, fallen trees spark creation and new life across the natural world.
In the forests of North America and Eurasia, both male and female beavers craft homes out of wood, mud, and stones. The animals can topple an eight-foot tree in only five minutes, and they can carry their own body weight in timber. But a branch isn’t just construction material. It’s also lunch. Beavers’ iron-rich, self-sharpening teeth allow them to strip away bark and nibble on the soft tissue beneath, called cambium. As the leaves begin to change colors, beavers are at their busiest, repairing their dams against leaks and stocking food for the winter.
With every branch, beaver dams shape their ecosystems into healthy, varied habitats. They increase biodiversity by creating pools for other wildlife (including turtles, dragonflies, muskrats, and fish) to live and raise their young. Dams also act as natural filtration systems, straining silt and other toxic elements out of the water. By the time a branch breaks away to follow the river, it has helped nourish dozens of creatures.
While humans might think of floating trees as trash, a river’s creatures see a source of food and shelter. Bacteria, insects, and fungi all find a meal in floating wood, and caddis flies and mayflies settle on top as they undergo metamorphosis. Larger logs can even redirect the flow of the stream into back eddies and pools, creating spots for salmon to spawn and rest during their migration. Then they – like driftwood – head towards the sea.
Depending on its origin, driftwood can float in the ocean for up to seventeen months. The ocean’s gulls and cormorants claim the wood as a perch and diving board, a place to rest their wings before they swoop back into the water for fish. Other branches may become heavy and waterlogged, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and gaining a new name: woodfall. Thousands of tiny creatures, many smaller than pennies, colonize the space and devour this rich source of carbon.
When a branch lands on the seashore, it participates in one last ecosystem: the beach. Ants and other insects nestle in the decaying wood and consume its remaining nutrients. Birds carry driftwood into their nests. And other, larger driftwood logs form foundations for the sand dunes that stabilize coasts around the world.
For hundreds of years, picking up driftwood has sparked human creativity. While the Norse told stories of people formed from driftwood, native Aleutians sculpted driftwood into hunting kayaks (iqyax). Native Hawai’ians also shaped driftwood for their canoes, treasuring fir and cedar logs that had traveled all the way from the Pacific Northwest. Today many artists – including Deborah Butterfield, Alex Witcombe, and Heather Jansch – use driftwood as raw material, and beachcombers and hobbyists all over the world enjoy hunting the shore for new discoveries.
As a branch travels from dam, to river, to ocean, to shore, it becomes something new: a snack, a perch, a home. And even, with a little imagination, driftwood can become a story.