In the summer when the plant life is in full force, certain parts of our property aren’t easily accessible. In the winter when the snow is deep and soft we tend to stick to trails. But this time of year we can get around. This morning it was clear and cold and the snow was perfect for walking on. When I went out to feed and water the chickens I didn’t intend on staying out for such a long time, but once I started walking around on top of the snow I didn’t want to stop. I didn’t have a particular mission in mind when I started meandering but soon I occupied myself with surveying the birch trees that grow around here.
Birch are the species of tree that have the longest life span in this area. We’re fortunate to have a few very old ones on our property, and a handful of younger ones that have grown tall in the protection of spruce where the ever-hungry moose have not been able to eat them. There are also dozens of small ones scattered around. Each summer these small birch trees put on new growth and each year they get munched back by the moose, but somehow they still manage to stay alive. They’re gnarly and tough and some of them are probably much older than their size would indicate. I imagine they have some sturdy roots beneath them.
In the book To Speak for the Trees, the author and botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger suggests that every person plant a tree a year for six years in order to bring the planet’s living systems back into balance. She also says that the trees that will offer the most in return for our efforts are those that are the longest living native species to an area. For us on the lower Kenai Peninsula that species is birch.
From my vantage point up on top of the snow I identified a few of those small moose-vulnerable birch trees that might be good ones to fence, then I checked on two that we transplanted a few years ago, one of which was only about three feet tall when I removed it from its less than ideal location just behind our house. It was small and spindly when I carefully extracted it for replanting, but it had a robust main root that ran horizontally in one direction for about seven feet alongside a cement barrier that’s part of our home’s foundation. That long horizontal root made both the digging it up and the transplanting tricky and I wasn’t sure if it would survive, but so far it has. Now it’s about seven feet tall, its main trunk is thick enough to withstand moose munching, and it has lots of new growth.
The other fenced birch tree had a precarious beginning. Three summers ago, after years of neglect, I finally got ambitious and cleaned the organic material out of our back rain gutter. Growing out of the muck was a small birch tree about four inches tall. I potted it in some soil and kept it tucked away from moose for that first winter, then the next spring we planted it in the ground, staked it with some old curtain rods, and protected it with chicken wire. Now it’s about four feet tall and in need of much more substantial fencing.
In addition to planting a native tree every year for six years, Diana Beresford-Kroeger says we should do everything we can to make sure they make it to old age. To her that means more than just taking care of their physical needs, it also means forming a relationship with them. Name them, tell their stories, she says, and I’m good with that.
There are plenty of trees around here besides the birch that have stories to go along with them. We’ve got a larch we planted on our son’s eighth birthday and the spruce tree we’ve buried our beloved pets beneath. We’ve got a mini-forest of spruce trees to the east of our garage that were knee high when we moved in but are now keeping us in fence posts and Christmas trees.
In our fenced-in back garden we’ve got four apple trees that popped up from seed in our compost pile five years ago and without any expectation of them producing fruit we transplanted them just to see what would happen. They grew to two feet tall that first summer and stalled out there until last summer when they shot up to about waist high.
We also have the cottonwood trees above our property that bald eagles roost in, and the elderberry forest down below the yurt with its fairyland hideaways. We’ve got a few mountain ash too, and a couple of willow trees that have grown tall. Alders are everywhere, fixing nitrogen and creating amazing soil.
I’m here with all of these trees. With their windbreaks and their shelter. With the habitat they create and texture they add to this landscape. I’m here with the grandmother birch and the rain gutter birch. I’m here with the ones that have grown straight and tall and the ones that have grown gnarled and twisted. I’m here with the ones that need to be trimmed back and the ones that need to be fenced. I’m here with all of these trees and they’re here with me.
Their presence is so quiet and constant and undemanding that it’s easy to take the simple way they give us what we need for granted. It’s easy to lose sight of the significance of our connection. But today I remembered to be in awe of trees for a little while.