Saturday, August 13, 2011

the stoic conifers

The summer is almost over; in the north autumn comes early. We all are grateful for the relatively lenient weather recently, but the evenings are feeling colder and the twilight darkens earlier every night. The trees remain green despite the changing seasons; few are as stoic as the conifers. Despite their consistent exterior, I know they suffer through the winter freezes and excite in the spring sun. I am grateful I can more fully express my range of conditions than the conifers.

The past two and a half weeks based in Ford Arm were our most challenging, both in the amount of work we had to complete and our personal capacities to handle the rigors of a strenuous field season. We had a few particularly hard days, certainly in my opinion, about a week into it. Paul Hennon and his coworker Robyn and intern Megan arrived at a crucial point, bringing valuable cargo of enthusiasm, work power, and extra food. I marveled at their clean-smelling clothes. With their help we completed all 19 of the plots we needed to measure – almost half of all the plots we will do all summer, and more than the previous two trips combined. As with meeting all challenges, success feels wonderful.

Despite the challenges, I enjoyed this trip. Our island campsite was closer to the open ocean than our other sites deeper in Slocum Arm and allowed us more sea mammal sightings; both sea lions and sea otters became regular companions. Sea lions seem to congregate in groups (pods? prides?) and raise their large bodies partially out of the water to get a better view of us in our kayaks. The first time we encountered sea lions I watched from shore with angst as four large lions rose above the surface and rapidly approached Lauren and Kate’s kayak. The lions soon submerged and returned to the others, huffing and slapping the water. Sea otters hold their babies to their chests as the float on their backs and eat crustaceans and other creatures from the sea bottom. Our boat captain Charlie blames the return of otters (after they were decimated by Russian fur trappers) for the decline of the Dungeness crab, abalone, and other dwellers of the ocean floor in the area.

While I enjoy the wildlife, I am beginning to intimately know the trees. After Odin and I flag out the plot boundaries, I don a worn but dapper yellow forester’s vest with lots of pockets and meet every tree in the plot. I measure the tree’s diameter, pound a nail bearing a metal tag with a number into its wood, and inspect its base for damage. I look into its crown and help pass judgment on its quality. Each species of tree has sharply different characteristics, many of which I could not begin to identify at the start of the summer.

Yellow cedars (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, in the cypress family) are distinct in many ways. Their bark is stringy and thin, unlike any other tree in the area. Its canopy is deep green, droopy, and oily-looking when healthy; yellow, grey, and thin when stressed. Most unique is the sharp smell of the wood, which remains pungent for decades after the tree dies and corresponds to the incredible decay resistance of the species. I chop into old snags with a hatchet to identify a tree that has shed its bark; only cedars show creamy yellow and that distinguished scent.

Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) are quite similar; I cannot distinguish them by bark or wood scent or color, only by needles. Western hemlock’s shorter needles have two white lines on the under side, formed by little pores called stomata that allow air to come and go from the leaf. The soft needles on a mountain hemlock swirl around the branch, making a bottle-brush look. Westerns tend to out-compete mountains on well drained, fertile sites while mountains look vibrant on boggy and more marginal sights. Both species have flaky, soft gray bark and pinkish wood that smells faintly of vanilla and citrus, and turns reddish as it decomposes. They rot much more quickly than cedars. The biggest trees often have hooked, gnarled branches and tops, as if the burden of canopy dominance was too great a challenge to bear. After cedar, hemlocks are our most common tree.

Less frequently we find Sitka spruce (Picea sitkensis) and shore pine (Pinus contorta, variation contorta). The former dominate the productive, sunny coast as giants of the post-glaciated era. We have measured Sitkas over five feet in diameter; Lauren has been told of a site in Slocum with nine-foot diameter Sitkas. Siktas need sun and soil nutrients. When they get it they are huge, when they don’t they persist as yellowed stalks fighting for life among the shade tolerant hemlocks and cedars. Its bark forms hard, brown potato-chip shaped scales. Sharp needles swirl around the branches and leave little posts on the twig when they eventually shed. The wood smells like shore pine and I have a hard time telling the two species apart when dealing with very old dead trees.

Shore pine, conversely, is the stunted, twisted dominator of nitrogen starved peat soils in muskegs. Able to tolerate saturated roots, we see the lollipop crowns of the shore pines at our least productive sites. Rarely, we see shore pines towering above other trees, reminding us of its other variant called the lodgepole pine (latifolia variation). Shore pine has tuffs of paired needles and grey bark in alligator-skin scales. Its wood, like the Sitka spruce, smells the most like a typical pine.

Coring trees is among my favorite activities. I feel a hint of what a surgeon must feel as she plunges a knife into a patient; I pierce the heart of a live tree and extract a cylinder of its substance. Its growth rings reveal its trials and tribulations in life – many have rapid growth when young but slow as other trees begin to compete for light and soil resources. Others persist suppressed for decades, hardly growing, until an adjacent tree perishes and floods the tree with light and easier access to nutrients. Some trees have stories I can only begin to guess.

Cedar trees are the most damned stubborn trees I have ever witnessed. Cedars have the ability to die and live in linear strips. Often bears will chew at the inner bark of a cedar for the mildly sweet sap. The tree above that portion of the base will die, but the parts of the tree that are undamaged continue to support branches. At the extreme, one narrow strip of living wood supports a branch or two, deceiving the uncareful observer into thinking it dead. In the words of Miracle Max from The Princess Bride, the trees are “mostly dead; slightly alive.”

Miracle MaxSee, there's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Now, mostly dead, he's slightly alive. All dead, well, with all dead, there's usually only one thing that you can do.

Inigo: What's that?

Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

I hope we can post some pictures; mostly dead cedars are a case study in perseverance. Unfortunately, their ability to persist is only strong against physical damage to the bark, the reduced snowpack and freezing that damages cedar roots causes the widespread mortality we are studying the summer.

With the hardest work out of the way, I hope for relatively straight-forward and relaxed progress through the remaining four sites on our next and last trip to the Outer Coast. Inevitably, our thoughts turn towards the next phases in our lives. Odin will go to dark Fairbanks for his first term of graduate school, Kate returns to sunny Berkeley for her final term of her undergrad degrees, Lauren is guiding a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon on the 28thbefore settling in for a long semester of data analysis, and I have my ticket booked to Seattle for the 25th; my schedule is the most forgiving with some volunteer commitments on the 29th and my last year of grad school starting the end of September. We each think about what is important to us this summer, what we don’t want to leave behind. The hard times seem less difficult in retrospect. We look forward to one last week in the wilderness, in the comfort of a cabin and the company of a group of friends that might never be in the same room again. We each think about what is important to us beyond this summer, our loved ones and upcoming challenges, the uncertainties of our lives. I hope for some of the conifers' strength as we complete this project and move on through winter freezes and summer sun. - Paul

I admire each of my teammates, as strong as the conifers in many ways.

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