Conifer Encounter

100_1758Not all forests are alike.  On this day I find myself wandering a dense black spruce forest where sunlight can only be experienced in its filtered form, except where trees have blown down and a shaft of white light seems to burn the ground with brightness.  Black spruce loves wet, sometimes very wet, soil, and this area is no exception.  Years of wind throws (shallow rooted trees toppled by wind) make traveling difficult.  I climb over tree trunks as often as I walk around them.  The woods are dark, but I find this quieting. At last I find a comfortable seat comprised of a wind thrown tree trunk covered with red sphagnum moss.  The contrast of the red peat moss underneath the dark green canopy of the black spruce forest is visually stunning. 


As I sit on this piece of paradise, I remember the forest gradually changing as I walked down slope to this boreal beauty.  The hardwoods, comprised primarily of yellow birch and cherry, began mixing with hemlock, white pine, and red spruce part way down the slope.  At the toe of the slope there were dense thickets of balsam fir that could be detected by their delectable odor at some distance.  The firs were rich with wildlife sign, mostly in the form of trails and scat.  Apparently this was a favorite haunt of snow- shoe hare, coyotes, and owls.


The black spruce forest followed a broad swath of wooded swamp that followed a shallow gradient stream channel.  Occasionally this stream channel widened suddenly into a one half to one acre beaver meadow, where, for the most part, the beavers had abandoned their habitat, no doubt in search for greater food supplies.  The wet meadows, mostly drained on the upgradient side of the failed beaver dams, were lush with sedges, wetland grasses, and other interesting forbs such as joe-pye weed, asters, and wetland goldenrods. The meadows were dotted with gray, dead skeletons of trees, drowned from the past beaver flooding.  Signs of moose browsing could be seen along the edge of the old beaver meadow in the form of bark torn from moosewood shrubs at an elevation of six feet off the ground.


As I sat on my perch I could remember the first time I walked through a wetland conifer forest like this one.  It seemed so remote even though there was a road not far off.  The dense forest created its own environment free of human noise and a surprise covey for wildlife and the occasional human observer.  I was about nine years old, alone, and the world was full of surprises.  There were issues I was trying to escape from, and this seemed just the place to hide.  It was a hot summer’s day, and the wet, cool peat moss was soothing to the touch.  Lost in my own thoughts for quite a while, I was surprised to spot an older gent through the woods.  He was wearing khaki clothes from head to foot and the first pair of Bean boots I had ever seen.  He was walking along with an old metal pail in his hand.  I could see that he had spotted me as he stopped and stared in my direction through a row of spruce trees.  At first I wanted to quietly retreat into the dark spruce forest, and then somehow I felt comfortable enough to raise my hand in a wave of hello.  He waved back, and headed straight in my direction.  He was a very pleasant chap, perhaps 70 years old, although this is difficult to say as I was a terrible judge of age at this early part of my life.  After making sure I was OK, he sat down beside me and started chatting as if he had known me for years.  He explained he was going to a part of the wetland where the tree canopy was thin, and where the blueberry bushes were 10 feet tall.  He asked me to join him, and finding him a fellow of such good nature I figured, what the heck, I might as well.


 We seemed to walk only a few steps at a time.  Our frequent stops were marked with observations of the natural world.  He was the first to explain to me that conifers were shaped like an arrow to shed snow, and their needles had a waxy coating that also helped to repel their white winter blanket.  He also explained that the conifers had a distinct advantage in the springtime because their dark green color stored heat that helped them to start the photosynthesis process immediately after the long winter’s sleep, a great advantage over the deciduous trees that had to bud out and grow leaves over a 6 to 8 week period before they could begin changing sunlight to carbohydrates and sugars.  He took time along the way to cut a spruce needle in cross section with his pen knife and through a hand lense that hung from his neck he showed me that it had four sides, and the fir trees, although similar in appearance, had a flat, two-sided needle in cross section.  When we encountered a pine, he explained that this conifer always had needles in clusters with two to five needles. He showed me a tamarack with its soft needles raised on a bark like bud and invited me to return in the winter to see that this conifer was actually deciduous, loosing all of its needles in the late autumn.  He picked up a hand of moss, squeezing out the water in his fist.  I was amazed at how much water dripped from his hand.  He explained that this plant was the lifeblood of wooded swamps, capable of holding moisture for months during drought periods. I remember being in awe of his knowledge, his presence, and the fact that he had somehow, mysteriously, found me in the woods.


 When we reached the opening in the woods were the blueberries were abundant, he took a pocket watch from his pocket.  With no regret, he declared that we had taken more time than expected to get to the blueberry swamp, and that it would be dark soon and therefore we should return to the road.  No need to worry about the blueberries, he declared, they would still be there next weekend.


On the way back I asked him, and this was one of the few times I had spoken, how he knew so much about the woods.  He answered that he was a biology professor at Springfield College, but had grown up in the pine barrens in New Jersey.  He surmised that most of his knowledge he had learned as a boy wandering those Mid-Atlantic swamps, coupled with reading a lot of books about nature.  And then he laughed out loud, almost in a boisterous way.  “And once I met an old man in the woods,” he declared, and he laughed again, this time even more loudly.


 When we got back to the road, my troubles were left far behind, deep in the woods.  He shook, my hand, and said with luck we would meet again.  He drove his old Volvo down the dusty road, and as it disappeared around the corner I felt as if I would never see him again, and although I returned to this place many times, and as fate would have it, I would never encounter him again.


And here it is, forty five years later, and this place where I sat helped me to remember such a wonderful episode, such a wonderful time, a time that would prove to be a once in a lifetime, a rich slice of life, a true breath of fresh air, and, perhaps, the beginning of the person  I was to become.


Originally written in November of 2006



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