Magazine article American Forests

Tough Little Trees on the Fringe

Magazine article American Forests

Tough Little Trees on the Fringe

Article excerpt

You can't help but love these gnomic creatures striving to survive at the limits of their natural range.

The last place I expected to meet a yellow birch that August afternoon was near the windy summit of Picket-on-a-Reef, a cusp of ancient gray rock jutting 1,750 feet above Bonne Bay in western Newfoundland. Yet there it was, miles north of where it should be, anchored to an unstable talus slope at the treeline and overlooking a glacial rockyard where only cinquefoil flourished.

Years later, the encounter still resonates in memory. For one thing, that little birch saved me from a broken leg or worse. And it taught me something we never learned in forestry school--that forests are as mobile as clouds. Conventional textbook dendrology was too preoccupied with tidy range maps, useful products, and "normal" dimensions to teach us about the little trees of the fringe.

Now, whenever I think of that birch--or of Monterey pine bending to Pacific gales at Big Sur, dwarf aspen gilding the high Sierra, or a crabbed tamarack silhouetted against a Labrador sunset--I see the tough little outriders of forests to come. The great trees of the heartland I admire; the gnomic trees of the hinterland I love.

For weeks Bill Whiffen and I had been working our way up Newfoundland island's 300-mile-long Great Northern Peninsula by pickup, by canoe, and on foot. Our job was to collect data for the provincial government's western region before heading back to university.

At 49 degrees 25 minutes North, Bonne Bay isn't exactly arctic. Yet its 2,000-foot hills look decidedly boreal. The Labrador Current can clog the nearby Strait of Belle Isle with polar ice any June, and snow lingers in the high ravines of the Tablelands all summer. No wonder we hadn't seen a temperate species since leaving Bay of Islands weeks before.

Bill and I climbed Picket-on-a-Reef partly out of youthful curiosity, partly from Sunday boredom. The reef did indeed have a surveyor's picket, its red pennant long since reduced to a pink tatter. After a mug-up, we rested in pale sunlight on crowberry mats that smelled of resin. Around us spread the burly mountains, blue fjords, and matchbox villages of Canada's future Gros Morne National Park.

The sky clouded over. A gust of wind rattled the picket in its cairn. We took the hint and started down. Descending the steeper west face, I turned for a last look at the Tablelands--and lost my footing.

A curious thing, the brain of a keen university student fresh from Dendrology 200--it works automatically. While loose rock clattered down, my mind scanned the sturdy bush I'd instinctively grabbed onto, noted its curly bronze bark and fine-toothed, ovate leaves, and announced, "Betula alleghaniensis Britton." I paid myself no heed. "Yellow birch, alias bronze, curly, or swamp birch," the inner voice went on, "geographic range centered on Lake Ontario, reaching south to Alabama and west to Minnesota with northern outlyers on Anticosti Island and southern Newfoundland; at maturity averaging 70 feet tall by two feet in diameter. . . ."

By the time my feet hit solid rock I was taste-testing a twig for telltale wintergreen: ID confirmed. But how could such a big species grow so small?

For many heartland forest species, my part of Canada is the northeastern rim of the world. Here--long before they reach the ocean and quite apart from human interference--they falter in their post-glacial expansion. Butternut and silver maple, accustomed to softer air and richer soils, drop out in southwestern New Brunswick. Black cherry, its blossoms repeatedly nipped by frost, gets only as far as eastern Nova Scotia. Beech, sugar maple, and eastern hemlock have invaded all three Maritime provinces, but apparently arrived too late to cross the newly formed Cabot Strait into Newfoundland. Red and white pine, red maple, and yellow birch did so; white elm and black ash got only a toehold in the southwest corner. …

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