Willem Lange: A Tree That Grows Where It’s Wet and Cold
“Larix laricina,” commonly known as the tamarack, hackmatack eastern larch, black larch, red larch, or American larch, is a species of larch native to Canada, from eastern Yukon and Inuvik, Northwest Territories east to Newfoundland, and also south into the northeastern United States from Minnesota to Cranesville Swamp, Maryland; there is also a disjunct population in central Alaska . — Wikipedia
The Leaf River runs east across almost the entire width of the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec at about 58º North. It’s a lovely river — mile after mile of lively rapids with few rocks and no portages — and its course follows, coincidentally, the northern limit of trees. The black flies there were the worst any of us in our group had ever seen. They were in our soup and coffee, in our pasta, in our faces and our mouths, inside our head nets and clothes. When I took off my pants to climb into my sleeping bag one evening, I found my undershorts soaked in blood squished from dead flies. My physician tentmate soberly diagnosed ebola. So it was almost a relief when we were blown off the river on a day too cold and windy for flies and took shelter up a little side stream with a bit of a beach.
My buddy Dudley and I put on all our warm clothes and windproofs and lay down on the sand with our life jackets for pillows, hands shoved deep into our pockets, and just our eyes and the tips of our noses sticking out of our parka hoods. About 8 feet above our heads, the tops of small tamaracks, our shelter from the breeze, waved wildly in the wind. Half-asleep, we carried on a desultory discussion about how much the thrashing would quiet down before it might be all right to go again. And we marveled at the unusual fruit on these tamaracks. We were used to tiny cones, less than an inch long, on the New England variety; but these had purple ones the size and color of ripe plums. Dopey with drowsiness, we ended our observation with a mutual, “Hmm ...,” and as far as I can recall, never mentioned it again. So much for the march of natural science.
The tamarack, along with its constant companion, the black spruce, is a symbol of the North. There’s a healthy grove along the north side of Route 2 between Marshfield and West Danbury, reminding me whenever I pass that the Northeast Kingdom lies not far beyond. Beyond that, there’s the Canadian bush of the Cree, who named the tamarack (“snowshoe wood”); and farther north, the taiga, tapering off into the Barren Grounds, where, in the words of the Canadian poet F.R. Scott, “(the) land stares at the sun in a huge silence, endlessly repeating something we cannot hear.” More mundanely, one of the tamarack’s other names, American larch, reminds me that Canadians often say to me, “Hey, we’re Americans, you know. You’re Yanks.”
It’s a primitive tree and, like the pine, a predecessor of the hardwoods. But it must be more primitive even than the pine, which loses about a third of its needles each fall; the tamarack loses all its needles. But first they turn a brilliant mustard yellow that stands out among the spruces like a flag. Now and then a brown blob among the yellow needles betrays a spruce grouse feeding on the cones.
The Cree, who’ve lived with the tamarack for thousands of years, no doubt learned its virtues by watching its behavior in the wind. The black spruce, that strange, club-topped evergreen, sways back and forth in a breeze like the mast of a moored sailboat; it’s perfect for poles — tent poles, canoe poles, anywhere you need lightweight stiffness. The tamarack, on the other hand, sways in the wind and tosses its top like a long-haired modern dancer. It’s nearly perfect for bending into snowshoe frames; and split and shaved into boards, with one end steamed and bent around a log, for building narrow toboggans for midwinter treks. Early loggers used it for corduroy roads, farmers for fence posts, and boat builders for knees because it resists rot. The Cree use its splits to make baskets and, more spectacularly, goose decoys. Nowadays, though they’re using inflatable decoys from sporting goods suppliers, and they sell the tamarack decoys online.
The tree loves wet, swampy ground and lots of sunlight; so going into the woods to get it in the summertime means you’d better wear your Bean boots, at least. Black flies love swamp ground, too — the nearest rocky streams nurture their larvae by the quadrillions — so you need protection for the rest of you, too. Wintertime in the swamp, though, is nice level walking in deep snow through open woods. Cree snowshoes are thus much longer than our dinky New England bear paws.
When we first moved here and built our house a few years ago, I noticed quite a bit of water moving past in swales and underground veins, and found an old beaver dam uphill from us. It was a perfect spot for tamaracks. But there were none, and when I asked the nurseries for the bog-loving American species, nobody had it — except for one guy in the Kingdom who said he had a bunch. The price was fine, so I had him bring a dozen or so. I don’t think he had them growing in a nursery; they looked pretty wild and unsorted to me. But he chopped away at our stone-hard yard and planted an arc of little ones behind our beloved dog’s grave, another line on the edge of the leach field, and three more on the south-facing slope at the foot of the driveway.
It’s easy to see some are struggling. The ones around the grave don’t get enough direct sun, and the line by the leach field got hammered by the deer. But the ones at the foot of the drive, in the bright sun, are thriving. (Mother confessed to slipping down there one day to prune a few wayward branches and feed them coniferous plant food.) When I pull into the driveway in winter, they’re invisible; in summer, the most delicate shade of olive; and right now, in November, a blaze of yellow — a reminder of past happy days on the northern rim of the world.
Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.