The Return of the Birds
This last week we heard our first robins, geese, and sandhill cranes of the season, sure signs of spring following on the heels of the return of the red-wing blackbirds. In our neck of the woods over the last decade or so, the red-winged blackbirds appear to be among the very first of spring’s returnees. Their trilling calls are pure delight to hear in of themselves as well as for the return of the plethora of other birds they portend. All of early spring is alive with the chattering of the returning bird communities, reuniting with old friends and loved ones, “You’ll never guess what happened since we saw you last.” “Really? What?” “Wait until you hear this!” “How have you been? And the fam?”
Amidst all this spring clamor, yesterday we took a tromp through the woods around our Wildwood office to re-discover the snowmelt creeks that usually flow this time of year. As usual, the further from the small human settlement we went, the quieter grew the woods. This, I think, is a welcome comfort in an era when human communities unsettle so much. In our area, however, the scattered homes are sprinkled into a mixture of woods and meadows creating an edge effect that many birds love. It also speaks well of our Wildwood neighbors that the birds feel comfortable around them.
While the creeks were flowing only sporadically, at least until some of spring’s first rain deluges, many interesting discoveries were made. For example, although we thought we were walking on frozen ground when we made our way across the creek beds, we found we were only walking on a layer of leaves and needles that lay across a thick layer of ice. But this ice was something I hadn’t encountered before. From the top, it looked like stalagmites rising from the forest floor, creating interesting ice canyons (that our Wildwood sprites would have loved to wander 🙂 ). I’m not sure what caused this. At first we thought ice had formed around blades of grass or needles of some sort, but this wasn’t the case. As we found this ice everywhere there were snowmelt streambeds, I’m assuming its formation has something to do with the freezing and thawing of running water under the snow, but I don’t know.
We ended up traveling as far back as Mishomis Tree Creek, yet another snowmelt waterway. The creek is named after the Mishomis Tree, meaning Grandfather Tree, after a very old basswood that towers above the rest of the young forest of skinny maple, spruce and hemlock that has grown up over the last 30 years or so. Yes, admittedly, I’m a bit bitter at the smallness of our trees as this should be a region full of mature wild leek maple forests, trilliums, partridge berry, oak, spring beauty, basswood, hemlock and so much more. Here and there are scattered the remnants of the ancient forest that once grew here.
The Mother Tree and Forest Communication
We named the Mishomis Tree years ago before learning of Suzanne Simard’s concept of “The Mother Tree.” In fact, her research well suppports the concepts of the forest that are found in Indigenous cultures throughout the world: there are elder trees who take care of the younger trees. Indigenous ecology points out that this extends to other plants as well, so much so that when you harvest, say, blueberries, you offer something (up here it’s usually tobacco) to the elder plant. This is to give thanks, show respect to the plants, and offer something in exchange for the gift, their berries, that they are giving you. Indigenous ecology tells us that the elder plant will communicate your intentions to the other plants so that they will know you come in a good way.
For many Americans outside of Indigenous cultures and Western botany, this concept sounds far-out and even ridiculous. But Western botany is coming to back up much of Indigenous ecology, including in terms of plant communication and the connections between at least elder trees and the rest of the forest. PBS offers an excellent documentary on the “discoveries” Western botany is making when it comes to plants. You can view it online: What Plants Talk About.
What Indigenous nations have always told us and what Western botanists are finding out is that forests depend on the ability of their community members to grow old in order to thrive.
The Age of Trees
Many people don’t realize how old trees can grow. Once trees reach 70-120 years of age (40 years if they’re being managed for pulp), they are considered harvestable by the timber industry and are subsequently logged. But trees can live for centuries. At 70-120 years old, trees in general have only barely emerged from adolescence. Sadly, these days we rarely see what a true old-growth forest looks like.
That’s why, in part, finding the yellow birch with its large roots arching over the Mishomis Creek like a golden bridge was such a thrill. At first we thought it was a delightfully old birch, with its beauty and age wondrous in itself, its roots creating a magical cavern wherein the creek flowed in one side and out the other. But as we looked we saw that the tree growing there was actually growing at a ninety-degree angle at the bottom of another yellow birch log that was almost entirely decayed into the forest floor with skinny sapling balsam and other trees growing from it. On closer inspection, it appeared that the decaying birch had been blown over or otherwise toppled from its roots and that the living birch was growing from the roots of this toppled tree.
If so, this birch was an ancient tree with thick arching roots to support it.
Trees Want to Live
Foresters who have left the commercial logging industry, such as Peter Wohlleben (author of The Hidden Life of Trees), will tell you that even stumps may survive in the forest, living for centuries as their neighboring trees keep them supplied with the necessary nutrients via their root networks and friendly underground fungal networks.
Although I haven’t heard before of birch growing new growth from their roots, there are other trees that do similar growths. Spruce and cedar, for example, will grow new growth from low-hanging branches that take root in the ground and eventually separate into individual trees. Cedar, too, if they fall, will sprout new growth from the branches that run the length of the trunk.
In fact, trees have an amazing range of adaptive survival strategies.
So while I do not know if yellow birch are known for growing “new” trees from their roots after something catastrophic like being uprooted by a windfall, that is certainly what this appeared to be. If that was the case, the decaying birch already looked old, I’d estimate it at 150-200 years. The “new” tree looked at least that old, if not more. If that were the case, this would certainly be an old tree, a rare creature in these parts. Given that, we named her “Gichi-Nokomis,” Great-Grandmother Tree. The Mishomis Tree grows only a hundred feet beyond, just a few curves down the Mishomis Creek.
It was a beautiful way to begin spring. As life renews itself in the North Country, the elders who make it possible remind us of who we are and from where we come.