The Pioneering Spirit

It is March 7th, about 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and the sun is high in the sky and downright giddy. Dazzling shafts of sunlight pierce through the naked tree canopy above my head in this snow covered hardwood forest. The deep snow is frozen and is a perfect environment for snowshoeing. I expect the temperatures to rise later today; it is predicted that they will exceed the freezing mark. Those who have years of experience on snowshoes will testify to the fact that varying conditions in the snow cover can be down right difficult. Having one snowshoe perched on top of a frozen crust in the shade of a patch of conifers and the other sinking in the unfrozen snow in the open sun can be troublesome. Yes, to be expected this time of year but troublesome none the less. Therefore I am limiting my time in this terrain covered with about 2 feet of snow to the morning hours. I will be out of the woods by the time conditions change.

Wnite Birch Bark

These woods are my chapel. I come to them when I need inspiration. And these days that is quite often. After a few minutes in this forest, no matter the time of year, I easily enter a state of relaxation. Anything that has been bothering me disappears from my mind. I feel happy. And after an hour or so I fall into a deeply spiritual place. It is as if I’ve entered a new dimension where I can see everything, especially the natural world, differently. And the best part is that it is right out my back door.

On this day I wander along the edge of a dense grove of hemlocks. The edge of this dense overstory leads to the top of the mountain. Snowshoes are very efficient when it comes to climbing a steep, frozen, snow covered hillside if they have crampons. The snowshoes that keep me on top of the snow have non-detachable crampons and so the journey up this very steep incline is strictly about aerobic conditioning and balance. Balance is always an issue on snowshoes. Because they are giant extensions of your feet that your brain has not been hard wired to they can prove to be a bit tricky in underbrush, varying snow conditions, and when climbing over deadwood.

At the top of the mountain there is a mixed hardwood forest. It contains red oak, sugar maple, white ash, black cherry, yellow birch, black birch, and white birch. White birch is one of my favorite trees. Many refer to this tree as paper birch. This name comes from its paper like bark which is one of the primary ways it can be distinguished from gray birch. The white birch is not particularly long lived as are some of the other “hardwoods” but they have both an aesthetic and ecological quality that makes them stand out in the forest. It’s hard not to notice a stately white birch tree.

About half way up the mountain in this hardwood forest I stop. In hopes of getting a view of the mountains to the north in Vermont I turn around 180 degrees. Turning around on snowshoes for the average sized person is not particularly difficult. However, due to my large 250 pound frame my snowshoes have to be about thirty-six inches long to keep me on top of the snow. Maneuvering what feels like two canoes attached to your feet in a half circle so that I can face in the opposite direction is much easier said than done. All in all, these difficulties pale in comparison to life in the woods without snowshoes where with every step I would be struggling with the more than knee depth crusty snow. The sheer effort required to navigate such conditions without snowshoes would render the situation much too hard to be worthwhile.

As I look north I notice the view of the distant mountains is still pretty obliterated by taller and fully foliated hemlock trees. Within that view I can see an interesting sinuous trail, essentially a long line of depressions in the crust that marks not only my trail but the short history of this little trek. The light is just right to see my wanderings over a fairly large distance and appears like art work in the snow. It is strikingly symmetric.

Turning around on my snowshoes puts me back in an uphill direction on track to my destination. Another twenty minutes of exertion will bring me to the top. The effort required will be well worth the reward.

As I move up the steep slope I wonder if the sap is rising today. It is that time of year when people are setting their taps in maple trees. Soon we will be able to see steam rising from the tops of sugar houses throughout the region. And speaking of syrup many people don’t know that a truly delicious syrup can be made from birches. Alaska and Minnesota both have a birch syrup industry although it is much smaller than the maple syrup industry found in the northeast. Birch syrup has its own distinct flavor and is quite expensive due to its rarity and the longer hours it takes to produce the product. It takes beaucoup buckets of birch sap to make a gallon of syrup at a ration of about 100 to 1. In fact, the total worldwide production of commercially available birch syrup last year was less than 2000 gallons; hence its great expense. Syrup can also be made from walnut and butternut sap which is even more rare. I’ve yet to try either black walnut or butternut syrup.

Sap sucker drillings in white birch.

After some strong effort I arrive at my destination. At the top of this tall hill is a large, almost flat, area. I can tell from the tree species composition and the size of the trees that it is a young forest. When I use the term “young” as it applies to forests it can’t be related to “young” as it applies to a human life span. A young forest could be anywhere from 30 years to 150 years. I like to think that if I lived to be 150 years young I’ll be a pretty happy fellow although I must admit the odds are heavily stacked against this idea. Typically a young forest of 100 years old may still hold some of the pioneer trees. Pioneer trees are the first tree species to grow in an old field. Poplar and white birch are two such species. The poplars will get weaned out by larger, stronger trees first but the white birch can hang on for quite a while. White birch can grow fairly tall, perhaps 70 feet under ideal circumstances, and so can keep up to the competition for quite a while. It is usually the overall strength of white birch branches that are its downfall. They are not terribly sturdy and over the course of 100 years or so some very epic weather events are likely to be encountered. Winds of greater than 70 mph, ice storms that leave more than an inch of ice, early snowfall before the leaves have left the branches, can all prove fatal for the white birch. We had one such killer event in the great ice storm of 2008 in these northern hills of Massachusetts.

The notion of a tree being a “pioneer” is inspirational. The first tree to recreate a forest. The first tree to put roots into deep soils just waiting to correspond with a forest. The first tree in an area long covered with view sheds of open fields is simply epic. It is as glorious in the world of forests as humans migrating to the new world. With each field that succeeds into a forest we have a new beginning; a fresh start for trees, plants that inhabit the understory of the forest, and for wildlife. These transformations border on the miraculous. They are simply wonderful.

The white birches that are found in our area reside in the southern most parts of their range. This species, typically found from southern New England to the boreal edge of the tundra of Canada, is extremely hardy and aggressively takes over and stabilizes large areas of the boreal forest after forest fires kill huge acreage of the conifer forest. The white bark is full of oils and so weather resistant that when a small white birch dies and falls to the ground the wood inside of the bark will often rot leaving a hollow core of paper birch bark surrounding a very large air space. This weather resistance puts the white birch at a decided advantage over many other deciduous species found in the far north.

At this summit I am immediately attracted to some large white birches that seem to call to me. The bright white bark contrasts sharply with the raised areas of mottled black. Patterns resembling a multitude of Rorschach ink blots speckle the white background along the entire trunk. Thin curled edges of paper thin bark flitter in the breeze making a quiet chattering noise. I stand at the base of the trunk with my chest against the tree and look up. The tree is tall, very straight, and somewhat unassuming. The contrast of the white trunk against the blue sky is breath taking.

About 4/5ths of the way up the tree I can see the remnants of quite a few broken branches. These are, without a doubt, victims of the heavy ice storm of more than five years ago. New growth can be seen growing out of the broken branch stubs. Some of these new branches are getting large now and capable of carrying the significant weight of many green leaves in the summer. This older white birch has struggled valiantly to live. It has grown many new branches so that they could hold enough leaves so that adequate photosynthesis could occur to convert sunlight to sugars necessary for the tree’s survival. Growing new branches takes large amounts of reserves and the balance between energy expended to have the capability of producing enough energy to thrive is a delicate balance. This tree appears to be over the proverbial hump meaning that it looks like it will be here for some time to come. I marvel at its will to survive. Trees have evolved to take on life with a complicated system of chemical reactions, some of which we now know are modes of communication from one tree to another. I find this to be humbling. That trees can communicate without thought is simply amazing. It seems to leave little room for misinterpretation. Compare that to human communication where misinterpretation seems to be one of the primary and often fatal flaws.

As I step back from the tree I get a glimpse of a changing forest. The age of this forest is about 130 years. The forest is becoming dominated by red oaks, a few white pines, red maple, and yellow birch. There are still a few remnant poplars. The heavy overstory and lack of sunlight on the ground’s surface can no longer support white birch seedlings but the mature ones may last for another 40 years. Their eventual fate lies in the hands of weather and climate patterns. Eventually they will yield to a storm of some kind. The carbon sequestered will slowly be released back into the soil along with other nutrients and the rest of the maturing forest will be healthier from these newly added nutrients to the soil.

I feel the snow softening under my snow shoes. The sun is getting high in the southern sky. It is time to return home. As I tread downhill in the deep white cover wafts of cool air emanating from the melting snow cools me as it blows over my sweaty brow.

I’m a little older now. I no longer move with the speed of a much younger person. I know that I will keep wandering the woods, both here and afar, until my last dying breath. Like these great white birch my appearance on this landscape is temporary. Perhaps we have both lived up to whatever meager purpose this planet has asked us to.

I can only hope that this is true.

Yellow Birch Bark.

Originally written for the Heath Herald in March of 2014.

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