From Bog to Bough: Reflecting on Wetland Trees in Winter

Scrub

If I grow bitterly,
Like a gnarled and stunted tree,
Bearing harshly of my youth
Puckered fruit that sears the mouth;
If I make of my drawn boughs
An Inhospitable House,
Out of which I never pry
Towards the water and the sky,
Under which I stand and hide
And hear the day go by outside;
It is that a wind too strong
Bent my back when I was young,
It is that I fear the rain
Lest it blister me again.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay


Today’s my birthday, so I am feeling nostalgic. I turned 18 on Kaua’i, where I drew this illustration of Norfolk pine.  Lately I’ve been thinking about trees…especially those that grow in my black ash swamp, lean over my clothesline and sway in winter storms. Sometimes they remind me of the trees of my youth, both of us growing stronger along the riverbank. I’m not the only one reflecting on old trees.  In the latest issue of Orion Magazine, Dan Shepherd shows (and tells) a story about how people’s memories of trees connect them to their lives in Draw Me a Tree. In thinking about that exercise, I pictured the trees I have drawn in pastel, Norfolk pine trees of Hawai’i—so exotic, so different from the pine trees I knew in Maine; the Norfolk pine stood out to me as symbolic of a personal milestone, the week I turned 18 (in February) on Kaua’i. Since I turn 35 today, another milestone, I thought it was a good time to reflect on trees and their impact on us as environmental professionals and as human beings.

In my high school biology class at Gould Academy, the biology teacher assigned our class to go climb a tree, then to remain sitting in its branches for an hour, recording our observations—up close. I had learned an appreciation for this kind of “close-up” observation with trees from reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which eloquently balanced a trilogy of poetry, science and spirituality. There is something fascinating about trees, the kind of power that compelled conquistadors to search for the mythological Tree of Life in the Amazon during Ponce de Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth, and many others before and since. Trees stand as symbols in many religions—such as Celtic Trees, used in divination and the Celtic alphabet, as well as mythology, science, philosophical doctrines, genealogical (family trees) and financial illustrations.

We know that the age of a tree can be counted among its inner rings, or estimated by its diameter.  In a recent blog post on Brainpickings, writer Rachel Sussman tells the story of the Senator, the oldest Cypress tree in the world, which died last month after a fire, at 3,500 years old. Sussman compares it to some other very old trees—though not quite as old as the Senator, throughout the world. Most of the trees in her blog post are not wetland-dependent species, however, the Senator was an example of a very old wetland-dependent tree, and there are slightly younger comparisons throughout the U.S. In certain forested wetlands, where it’s a logistically-challenged area, whether inaccessible because of water and dense vegetation,  it is harder for people to access some trees—and in some cases, the trees have a chance to grow larger, causing the forest to grow even more inaccessible. I suppose it’s a kind of self-preservation tactic that protects the trees. The Pinelands, also known as the Pine Barrens, a heavily forested coastal plain in New Jersey is an example of such a forested wetland. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission serves to protect the wetlands and forest of the Pinelands.  Heavily forested wetlands among the Great Lakes are another example.Forested wetlands are the most common type of wetland in North America. For an in-depth explanation of forested wetland types in the Northeast, see ASWM’s report on restoration and mitigation practices in forested wetlands of the Northeast. (Developing Performance Standards for the Mitigation and Restoration of Northern Forested Wetlands)

In winter, I find my 1970 edition of a Winter Tree Finder handbook (Nature Study Guild) useful to identify trees and shrubs. It covers most of North America and includes all deciduous trees. The guide begins by outlining possible habitats, for example streambanks, lowlands/wetlands, high altitudes, bogs, sandy soils, edge of the forest, disturbed areas.  Then it breaks it down by climate—where winters are cold or mild, and whether there are houses, parks or cities nearby. It depicts the scars found on a twig, which offers clues as to the kind of tree.  Reading through the small guide feels like a “choose your own adventure” storybook, in which the naturalist may advance to this or that section depending on the traits of a tree, based on what’s visible in winter. There are a number of good guides available (online and in print) on identifying winter trees, but many of them are specific to a region. All you need to identify winter trees is a nose, hands, brain, seasonally-appropriate clothing, a camera or a sketch/note pad. Have fun!

A Beginning Guide to Winter Tree Identification

Michigan: Winter Tree Identification

Army Corps of Engineers Guide to Winter Tree Identification in Wetlands

Winter Tree Identification Exercise (Includes assignment to sketch a winter tree)

How to Identify Trees in Winter (wiki)

USGS: Island Trees:
http://sofia.usgs.gov/sfrsf/rooms/wild_wet_eco/tree_islands/

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