The living trees

American Beech, Fagus grandifolia

This is my 200th post. That second hundred felt like it passed more quickly than the first hundred (which I commemorated here, and also commented on how quickly it arrived). It did, actually; the first hundred took 6 months to write, while the second hundred only took me five. Part of the reason for that is the Today at Kingsfords that I’ve been including, and as a result I’ve been writing more often, simply because there’s so much to write about in the summer months. I expect I’ll be scaling back a bit now that winter is upon us again, to maybe posting every couple of days or so. Probably that third hundred will be a full 6 months again.

In my 100th post I wrote about the things I was seeing by the hundreds. It was easier to do at that time of year. In the Canadian November one might write about hundreds of snowflakes, or fallen leaves, possibly (if you have an active feeding station) hundreds of feeder birds (or at least dozens). Hundreds of trees in the forest? Wavelets on the lake? At some point you just start reaching. Summer is better for multitudes.

American Beech, Fagus grandifolia

So I couldn’t do anything quite as catchy to tie into the milestone theme. I considered doing a post on a 200-year-old (or approximately) tree in the area, but I don’t think there are any trees that old around here. At least not massively monstrous trees, with thick girths that you need three people to form a ring around, and spreading crowns that shelter the surrounding forest. Instead I settled on writing about a tree that could get that old, if given good growing conditions and a decent chance. Okay, okay, it’s a bit of a stretch for a tie-in. Really I had the subject already picked out and the photos edited when I realized it was my 200th post.

The tree that inspired the post was a moderately large American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) that I came across while hiking in the forest. What caught my eye about this particular beech wasn’t its thick trunk or the unusually stocky side branch (see photo above), which I figured will probably be a casualty of a strong wind or ice storm some years down the road, when the strength of the wood isn’t enough to maintain support of the giant weighty limb. You don’t often see horizontal limbs that are the same circumference as the main trunk.

American Beech, Fagus grandifolia

As interesting as this was, it was actually the texture of the bark that grabbed my attention. The lower limbs, where they had broken off, had been grown over by new bark and resembled amputated limbs, similar to the arbutus of the west coast, which I mentioned in a post back in February. The bark was wrinkled like it was beginning to sag a bit with age, giving it an almost skin-like appearance. Above each stub was a rift in the bark, a scar, arching in an inverted U shape, circling nearly half the trunk. The reason for the scars wasn’t clear, but I assume it to be the same process that created the amputated limbs, and the wrinkles in the bark.

Beech trees have beautifully cool, smooth outer bark. In my opinion, they’re the closest thing the east has to the arbutus. Although not quite the same sort of silky-smooth as the arbutus, laying a hand on the trunk of a mature beech evokes similar emotions in me. A sort of calm serenity, bordering, perhaps, on melancholy. I don’t generally tend to anthropomorphize other organisms, but unlike many other trees, when you lay your hand on their trunk mature beech trees feel alive, they feel like they have a soul. I walked home after a few introspective moments with my hand on the tree’s cool trunk, humming the main refrain of The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond:

Oh, you’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye
For me and my true love will ne’er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

American Beech, Fagus grandifolia

Okay, sappy spiritual moment is finished. Aside from the evergreens, beech trees lend one of the few spots of colour in the woods at this time of year. The leaves of young beech are marcescent, meaning they wither and die, but remain attached to the plant until the spring when the growth of the new leaf buds finally pushes them off. A few species do this, including oak and hornbeam, but it’s the beech that are most common and catch one’s eye in the woods.

Beech nearly always grows in deciduous or lightly-mixed woods, and is not found further north where forests begin to become more strongly coniferous. It tends to be associated with Sugar Maple, Yellow Birch and Eastern Hemlock. Although it doesn’t tend to grow unusually tall, not usually exceeding 80 feet (24 m), old individuals may eventually develop thick trunks up to 4 feet (1.2 m) in diameter.

There are ten species of beech, Fagus spp., but only one is native to North America. The species has popped up now and again in the history of the early settlers; for instance, beech leaves were used in favour of straw in early mattresses, as they had a springiness that the latter material lacked. Also, the smooth bark of the beech makes them ideal trees for carving one’s initials into, and the resulting engraving can persist, legibly, for a long time. A beech in Louisville, Kentucky, bore the engraving “D. Boon kilt a bar 1803”. Although the engraving may or may not be a fake, the particular section of beech trunk has been preserved in the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.

American Beech, Fagus grandifolia

Aside from providing food and shelter to animals, the trees have many uses for humans, too. Many beeches are used in making quality furnitures, and can also be used to make the shells of drums (the instrument). The wood burns slowly but strongly, making an excellent firewood. This quality is also exploited by beer-makers as several, including Budweiser, use the wood in their production process. Beech pulp is used in making the textile fibre Modal, a type of rayon. Of course, the tree itself is often used as an ornamental, and several European species are found in North America in this application.

Like many deciduous trees, the fruit of the beech is a nut known (unsurprisingly) as beechnuts. They’re contained in a burr-like outer shell, are sweet-tasting (or so I read; I haven’t tried them myself), and are very nutritious, as nuts go, being about 20% protein and 20% fatty oil. They also contain a substance that can be slightly toxic, and eating large quantities of the nuts (a few dozen) can make you ill. Beechnuts used to be pressed for their oil, in tough times such as following WWII, when people would be willing to collect the nuts from the forest and bring them to a local mill. It’s time-consuming compared to many mass-produced oils, however, and so it’s not commonly made anymore.

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Walker’s Woods in winter

Pine plantation

I am not, and never will be, a city girl. I’m here currently mostly because of circumstances, rather than choice. I grew up in the countryside, and find myself going a little stir-crazy if I’m stuck in the city too long, or if several of the city’s inconveniences pile on me at once. The problem with being in the city is that in order to get anywhere to go for a hike in a natural setting to relax and calm your mind generally requires a bit of an undertaking. It becomes a concerted effort, instead of a quick pop outside to hike through the woods at your backdoor, as it was as a kid, and any outing usually kills half your day, rather than being a short hour-long hike. As a result, I don’t get out nearly as much as I might like.

Today we decided to visit a TRCA property northeast of Toronto. It’s called Walker Woods, and it, along with the neighbouring Glen Major Forest, are sites in consideration for possible future expansion projects of the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station (a project of TRCA). The outing had the dual purpose of getting outdoors, and having a first look at the general area to assess the landscape.

Deep snow on hiking trail

The snow was deep, and we kept to the trails, which had been flattened by many cross-country skiers. The footing was still slippery, though, as the snow wasn’t hard-packed and your toe would dig into it as you walked, a little like walking on a sandy beach. After walking a little distance we decided to loop back along a trail branch that would take us back to the road and try driving some sideroads to look for open-field birds or, if we were lucky, perhaps a flock of berry-eating Pine Grosbeaks or Bohemian Waxwings. We found neither, though I did think as we were starting to head home, along a busier street, that I caught a glimpse of a Northern Shrike perched atop a spindly little tree in a field.

Pine plantation

Much of the area we walked was these pine plantations. Likely planted either as windbreaks, back when this landscape was still mostly used for farming, or for commercial harvesting, they have very characteristic, obvious linear formations. These sorts of plantations look unnatural, because of the pattern of the trees and their uniform age, and I don’t even feel make great habitat because they lack the diversity of structure that encourages many species to inhabit the woods. There’s no understory. The only small plants growing there were small pine seedlings, and even these were few.

Old farm shelter

At one spot along the trail there’s an old shelter, which looks like it may have been used to house either farming equipment like tractors, or hay bales for storage. Given its placement in the woods, it seems like an odd place to keep either, but it’s possible it hasn’t been used in a while and the young forest had since grown up around it. Or, if it was used to house equipment, that could be brought in through the trees.

Old foundation

A bit further down the trail I spotted the remains of this foundation, slowly growing in with young saplings, possibly black cherry, and a couple of birches. Presumably this was the homestead that went with the old storage shed, but it could also have been another barn or outbuilding.

Fence and field

We walked back along the road to where we had parked the car. In several sections the fence was overgrown with vines and dried goldenrod. I didn’t take a close look at the vines, but I’m not sure that I’d be able to tell the difference between wild grape and Virginia Creeper without their leaves. I scanned these open fields and the fenceposts that lined them for any small white lumps that might reveal themselves to be Snowy Owls, but with no luck.

Beech saplings with dried leaves

In many spots along the trails there were young beech saplings, brightly coloured against the white snow and dark evergreen forest as they retain their dried leaves throughout the winter. The phenomenon is called marcescence, and applies in this case to leaves withering without falling off. There’s some debate about the reasons it happens, but it’s noted only to really happen on very young sapling beech or the lower, young branches of older trees. I read a good blog post about it recently, but I’ll be darned if I could find it now to link to it. (Edit: I just found it. It’s posted by Carolyn over at Roundtop Ruminations.)

Canada Geese flying north

On the drive home I noticed a number of flocks of geese heading north over the fields. I associate these sorts of large, multiple-flock movements with migration so… hopefully a sign that spring is on the way?

Canada Geese flying north