Destructive beauty


I hope everyone had an enjoyable and relaxing holiday! It can be such a busy time of year for many people, sometimes it takes a conscious effort to slow down and sit back for a bit. I had a nice visit with my family, who are so spread out over eastern Ontario these days (no one is closer than an hour to anyone else, and the farthest distance between two of us is four hours) that we don’t have many occasions where we’re all able to get together. Needless to say, the break in the usual routine proved a slight distraction from online activities, and I’m just getting back into the post-holiday swing.

This afternoon was beautiful and sunny, albeit a bit on the cold side. I bundled up and took Raven out to the 100-acre woods for her daily exercise. We got a couple of inches of snow yesterday night, and the landscape was freshly powdered. I admired it all, through the narrow gap between my toque and scarf, but didn’t take many photos. I already have lots of lovely winter landscape images. There’s only so many I can actually put to use. You’d all get quite tired of seeing snowy scenes if I photographed and posted every spot I admired.


Christmas night and into Boxing Day we got a fair accumulation of freezing rain. In most open areas, where the sun can reach and shine on the branches, the ice had melted off. However, in the confines of the forest where direct sunlight is sparse and fleeting, much of it still remains on the trees, a glittering coat about 1/2 cm (~1/5 inch) thick. We haven’t had any above-freezing temperatures that would melt it in the absence of direct sun, and so it persists. Where they catch the sun as it filters through the branches, the ice-coated trees can be quite beautiful, glittering like crystal. I wish that the camera could capture the scene as well as the eye can perceive it.


Ice can be incredibly destructive, too. Pine trees seem to suffer the heaviest casualties. Of the pines I passed today, very few were unscathed, and most had at least one limb lying on the snow at their foot. The pine out in front of our house has lost two branches. We had some wicked winds yesterday night, and they may have helped to bring down some branches that might otherwise have escaped damage simply through the weight of the ice itself.


The problem for pines seems to be that their long needles all sit slightly separated, so that when the ice freezes on them they can hold a lot more of it than an equivalent limb on a spruce (short needles), cedar (few spaces), or other evergreen might. Generally speaking, evergreens have developed very strong limbs that can support more weight than the average deciduous tree might be able to, because they need to be able to hold the heavy snow and ice that accumulates on their needles. Deciduous trees have comparatively weak limbs – they don’t need stronger ones because they drop their leaves in the winter, instead, and ice and snow buildup is relatively minimal.


Underneath the big maples in our fields the snow is scattered with shards of ice, crystals that have dropped from the tree’s overhanging limbs as the sun has warmed and melted it. It crunches underneath my snowshoes as I walk through. The maples sit out in the open, exposed. They lost a few twigs and smaller branches with the winds blowing the weight of the ice-covered limbs about, but compared to the pines, it was simply a light pruning. You’d be hard-pressed to even detect where the branches fell off from.


Enough ice collected on the dried grass stems in the fields to lay them flat, and blowing snow from last night has all but covered them. Strange shadows, grass blades carved in relief from the surface of the sheet of white. A few scattered stems still project from the soft surface, and these, too, will soon be hidden by the next storm, or perhaps the one after.


This area was part of the Ice Storm of 1998. The nearby town of Smiths Falls actually makes the Wikipedia page on the event as it was one of a number that declared a state of emergency. Perth and vicinity received in the neighbourhood of 60-80mm of freezing rain – assuming it all froze solid, that would be 6-8 cm (2.3 to 3.1 inches) of ice coating everything. Millions of trees through the affected region were damaged or destroyed. Aside from the obvious aesthetic effects, the storm also crippled the maple syrup and orchard industries, who depend on healthy trees for their crops. I bet woodpeckers were one of the few groups to substantially benefit from the storm, as the sudden preponderance of dead trees and snags would provide a bounty of nesting and foraging sites. Although there are very few signs of the storm remaining, or at least ones that can clearly be attributed to that particular event, I do sometimes wonder about bowed trees like these, and what weight might have caused them to bend so.