Sunday, March 2, 2014

Winter Bark 2014

In the gentle afternoon light on a day at least 15 degrees below freezing, it’s easy to track trees. During a hard winter with constant snows and unrelenting winds, trees are about the only thing you can invariably track. Of course the only track a tree leaves is its long shadow and I am not inclined to mar the smooth snow with the pancake tracks of my snowshoes. In a hard winter the snow is that deep.

Of course the classic winter scene is graced with conifers

But that redundant green is best seen from afar, and the essence of tracking is to go mano-a-mano, so to speak, with one organism. That said, after a snowfall obscures the green above, the trunks of large hemlocks and pines are well worth handling.

The white snow does wonders for the complexion of trunks dead and alive. It even turns the tables on birch trees that in all other seasons come across as the lightweights of the forest. But in the deep snow, the yellow birch looks venerable.

Its bark looks like it has recorded all the sounds of the surrounding forest in a Braille ticker tape.

After a snowfall the white birch is not white at all and at a time when there is not a insect in sight, you can get bug eyed at what appears to be a coded bark with half the code already cracked.

I blush to say that in my greenhorn days when I didn’t dress warmly enough for the winter woods, I tore off birch bark for insulation, so my feeling that birch trees always look cold is probably not fair to the birch. But there are trees not any bigger than the birch that give the impression of being quite toasty in the cold.

Indeed ironwoods can give their impression that they are shedding in the snow and I might go so far as to say they are the hot irons of the woods but what flame appears to be in the bark is so grayed over.

And the shag-bark hickory quite eclipses the ironwood in that regard, after it all it is one of the few trees named after its bark.

While the spring buds and fall nuts of the shag-bark are sights to see, the tree shines in the winter snows. Compared to the other large hardwoods, white oak, red oak, and sugar maple, the hickory has a modest crown. In the winter with its beckoning bark it’s hard to miss.

One of our winter chores is to look for dead and sickly trees worth cutting for firewood. As we wended our way through our valley in the so-called dead of winter, we kept seeing shag-barks everywhere. By the way, after 15 years not one has died on our land and none look sickly. We marked one for possible sacrifice and then quickly reconsidered. It was too close to one of the god-like trees in our woods.

The shag bark we want to cut was growing from the seeds or root of that Darth Vader, no sense raising its ire.

It always behooves a naturalist to try to say something half scientific and I can make one stab at that. The trees with expressive bark that are so notable in the winter avoid the lichens that can turns trees with predictable bark into unseasonable pastels. In our woods the bitternut hickory suffers most in that regard.

In the state park, the red oaks can be coated with a sickly green.

However, most flatter barked trees get by with just a lichen badge 

or more subdued gray lichens.

a fate the rougher barked trees seem to avoid.

(Many of my stabs at science have stood for years before I see something to prove me completely wrong. This stab lasted less than 24 hours after first writing it. On my hike the next day, I saw this shag-bark hickory

with a slight green blush of lichens on its bark.)

But eerie beauty of the winter woods argues against worrying about science. The trees after all seem quite cut off from their roots, one source of their life, and all the life giving foliage on top has fallen by the way side also unseen under the snow.

What is left is the only things solid in a world momentarily gone soft. And as the cold works on my brain I get this vision that these are pillars foraged of iron from the earth‘s hot core. Doesn’t their heat begin to melt even the ice ringed below?

Idle but warming thought for me, but other animals count on that melting.