The Tree of Great Peace

White Pine island

Readers of The Glade will know that I’ve spent the last couple of days effectively computer-less. I still haven’t decided on a solution to the issue, but at least I’ve diagnosed the problem. It seems that my power supply and motherboard/processor went, so I’ll be in the market for a new computer. The question will be when. In the meantime, I’m house-sitting for my mom and have hijacked her computer. I’ll probably be adopting my dad’s old one until I can make a decision on buying a new replacement (which will probably coincide with my next big paycheque, whenever that is).

So I’ve been away from the blog for a couple of days, but I’ve had these photos sitting here with the intention of posting about them, and sending the post in to Festival of the Trees. The deadline is today, so I better get going!

White Pines at sunset

Despite that in winter trees are the one thing you can reliably find a lot of, I don’t actually make a lot of posts about them. The reason is that trees tend to be more background than point of interest, they blend in with the scenery – they are the scenery – so it’s easy for the eye to pass over them while looking for something smaller, or animated.

Really, this is a huge injustice to trees. There are nearly 1000 species of trees native to North America north of Mexico, which is more than the number of bird species for the same area, and far more than the number of mammals. And that’s not including the introduced species! With such diversity, they really deserve more attention. But they tend to get overlooked. We may know our bird species upside down and back to front, we may know the names of our common butterflies, of all the mammals that wander through our yard. But when it comes to trees, I suspect most people would have trouble naming more than a few dozen wild (non-cultivated) species. I got up to about 50-60 and then started struggling to add more to the list. Probably it doesn’t help that Canada only has about 180 of those 1000 species, but even still, I felt I should know more.

White Pine pair

So I’m going to try to make a point of highlighting a tree species at least once a month. This month I selected Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus. Part of the reason for this choice is that this happens to be my favourite species of conifer, towering and majestic, and richly scented. However, I also chose it because winter really is the best time for observing and appreciating White Pines. They are the tallest tree found in eastern North America, growing up to 70 meters (230 ft) in virgin forests. Since most virgin forest has been logged over the past couple of centuries, very few individuals now reach that height. Most are less than 50 m (160 ft). Even still, they tower above the surrounding canopy. Of the deciduous trees in our forests here, Sugar Maples may only reach 35 m, and White Oaks are even shorter, at 25 m on average.

White Pines can live up to 400 years old and beyond, but most throughout eastern North America are probably less than 200 years, having only grown since previously cleared agricultural or logged lands have had the opportunity to return to forest. Many of those huge virgin trees, particularly along the Great Lakes, were logged for ships’ masts. They’re a relatively fast-growing species, for evergreens, at 2-3 feet per year on average when given good conditions, so even some of the very tall ones around here may be less than 80 years old.

In the summer, despite their height, they blend in more with the rest of the green landscape, but in the winter, when the deciduous trees around them have lost their leaves, they really stand out and catch your eye.

White Pines along shore

The White Pines around here all grow along the edges of the lakes, or on ridges. I notice that on Kingsford they tend to be positioned mostly along the eastern shore of the lake, with a western exposure. I have to think that microclimate plays into this – that is, the very local conditions that can vary from one spot to another even within the same region or ecosystem. In this case, I suspect that since most of our weather comes from the west and blows eastward, the western shore is more exposed to harsh conditions in the winter. Presumably this affects either the soil condition there or the humidity; I would think the cold dry winds during the winter would have a desiccating effect on the trees and landscape. Possibly the conifers such as the White Pine and White Cedar that line the lakes are more well-adapted to dealing with these things than the deciduous trees; certainly White Pines are better at surviving in exposed landscapes such as granite outcrops.

The other possibility is that the eastern shore and ridgetops receive more sunlight than the western. Though they can tolerate some shade as seedlings, White Pines only thrive and grow when given partial to full sunlight.

White Pine and fallen brethren

One of these pair looks like it came down recently. I wonder if it was during the big windstorm we had a little while ago. It was obviously after the ice had frozen. It could have been weakened by insects, as there are a number that target pines, including a bark beetle that will actually bore into living trees and slowly kill them. Or it could simply have been in the way of a rather forceful and unfortunately located gust.

White Pine cone

I took advantage of the downed top to get a few photos of bits I might not otherwise be able to reach. The cones tend to grow near the tops of the trees, which, on these giants, is a long ways up. They can be anywhere from 3 to 6 inches long. When the seeds are mature the scales open and they drop out, to be scattered on the wind. However, often before they make it that far birds will find and forage on the cones. The remarkable White-winged and Red Crossbills have bills specifically adapted to prying open the scales of pine and spruce cones before they’re fully mature and opened – thus getting at the rich food source hidden inside before it’s lost to the wind.

We’ve heard crossbills around our area on occasion, but haven’t seen any by the house. We’re on the western shore, and don’t have very many evergreens nearby; the birds are probably sticking to the far shore where the cone crops are. Cone crops peak every 3 to 5 years, and crossbills will wander according to where the crop has peaked. Since different areas and populations peak in different years, the crossbills always have somewhere to go for food, but they’re found in large numbers in any given area on a more cyclical basis.

White Pine needle

Pines are evergreen, meaning that they retain their “leaves” year-round rather than dropping them in the fall for the winter. That doesn’t mean that their needles last forever, however. The needles on most pines, if they survive being eaten by insects, only last for about 18 months or so before dying and being dropped and replaced. This is the reason for that thick bed of orange-brown needles underneath pine trees.

White Pines can be told from other pines by their needles. Pines usually grow their needles in clumps, bound together at the base. White Pines usually grow in clumps of five, while Red Pines (the other common pine around here) only have two needles per clump. Red also tend to be longer than White.

White Pines on hilltop

Last night, while watching The Nature of Things, my mom and I observed that David Suzuki has really become the face of environmental issues in Canada (he’s an amazing individual, incidentally, for those who aren’t familiar with him). In a similar way, White Pines are probably the personification of the Wild North and Cottage Country. The species figures prominently in the paintings of Canada’s famous Group of Seven, such as White Pine by A.J. Casson or Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay by Frederick Varley. There are cottages, resorts, farms, and other establishments named after the trees (interestingly, the couple of links I clicked through to turned out to be for places in eastern Ontario). It’s the provincial tree of Ontario and the state tree of both Maine and Michigan. The state flag of Vermont bears White Pine springs alongside the emblem.

White Pine trunk

The Iroquois called their neighbours (the Algonquians) the ratirontaks (Adirondacks), meaning “tree-eaters”, for their habit of using the soft inner bark of the Tree of Great Peace as food in harsh winters when food was scarce. When dried and pounded, this layer can be used as a flour or starchy substitute. Young cones were often stewed with meat by the Ojibwe to add a sweet flavour. The Chippewa would use the tree’s sap to treat gangrenous wounds. It can also be processed to produce turpentine. The sticky resin was used as waterproofing for baskets and boats.

Its official name is Eastern White Pine, but it tends to be referred to simply as White Pine. It’s also sometimes called Northern White Pine or Soft Pine, and sometimes Weymouth Pine, particularly in Britain. My favourite name, however, comes from the Iroquois: the Tree of Great Peace. According to their legends, the cluster of five needles, bound together, represented the five nations that made up the Iroquois, and the spreading roots that reached in all four compass directions were the roots of peace, extending to all peoples.

Pine, torn asunder

Tree hit by lightning

A couple weeks ago, when I was visiting my parents, my mom took me back into the woods behind their house and showed me this tree. It had been an old, massive White Pine, mature but still in good health. I love the pines on the property, the White Pines towering above the rest of the forest canopy, still catching the last rays of the setting sun even after it’s left the rest of the forest, the first to catch the early morning sun as it slides up over the horizon. They’re favourite perches for crows, who like to sit up in the highest tree and scan the landscape. They’re majestic in their strength, enduring, almost powerful.

So to find one of these giants torn asunder, lying on the forest floor, is a bit of a shock. It takes a powerful force of nature to topple such a massive tree: this one was hit by lightning.

Tree hit by lightning

We’re now experiencing an extended period of sunshine and nice weather, but for a while there we had thunderstorms virtually every afternoon. I remember talking to my dad on the phone one evening, and he’d commented that that afternoon they’d heard a crack of thunder so startlingly loud they knew it had to have hit nearby. It may have been this tree. They project so high over the canopy that they would be the forest’s inevitable lightning rods.

Lightning with many step leaders and a single massive discharge strike. Borrowed from the Wikimedia Commons.

I did a bit of research on how lightning works, though, and although lightning does generally target the tallest objects, they don’t necessarily always do so. Lightning works by the air particles beginning to ionize, or form directional charges, like the way a magnet has been ionized so that all of its molecules line up in the same direction creating a positive end and a negative end. The ionization spreads along the path of least resistance, but may spread out in multiple directions at once. These paths are called “step leaders” (note it’s leaders, not ladders, which is how I keep reading it). The direction is often, but not always, down towards the earth.

Lightning hitting the Eiffel Tower in 1902. Note the streamers coming up from the bottom. Borrowed from the Wikimedia Commons.

As these step leaders start to get close to the ground, the air near the ground begins to form strong charges and the equivalent of reverse step leaders, called “streamers”, form from objects on the ground, reaching up into the sky. When one of the step leaders contacts one of the streamers it forms an unbroken path of ionization that the cloud’s electrical charge discharges through. The streamer to be contacted is often the one that reaches the highest, but it doesn’t have to be, depending on the path the step leaders take. All objects, including people, send out streamers, which is why you can still be hit even if you’re near taller objects. Both streamers and step leaders glow, but are not as blindingly bright as the discharge.

Tree hit by lightning

The whole process, from the start of ionization to the connection of the step leaders and streamers, to the discharge of electricity, takes a fraction of a second. Prolonged lightning is actually multiple pulses of discharge flowing along the ionized path, but so quickly that it just looks like a long strike to our eye. The length of a roll of thunder represents the relative number of pulses (or “re-strikes”). The discharge is incredibly hot – hotter even than the surface of the sun. Anything it touches will be immediately burned, or, if liquid, vapourized, and if the medium doesn’t conduct electricity well, the excess heat created by the electrical resistance will cause the effect to be pronounced. This is what happens when lightning hits a tree. The sap within a tree is not very conductive, so rather than funneling the electricity through the roots into the ground, the sap vapourizes. Gas takes up more space than liquid, and so the result of this instantaneous vaporization is an explosion – tearing the tree to splinters. They’re a bit hidden in the ground vegetation in this photo, but there were splinters and chunks of wood everywhere.

Tree hit by lightning

Oak and elm are the most commonly hit types of trees, but pine ranks third. They have deep tap roots that reach the water table, and typically stand higher than other trees in a forest. The high resin content and needles also contribute to higher electrical discharge, though Wikipedia fails to elaborate on why. Trees are actually a good way of protecting a building from lightning strikes. Some species are more capable of dealing with strikes – trees that have massive root systems, which spread out in the soil and have a higher biomass than the above-ground portion of the tree, have the ability to dissipate lightning very efficiently. In most trees the lightning takes the path of least resistance, which is generally the wettest part of the tree, often outer layers where the sapwood is. This results in a burning of the bark, and possibly the stripping off of a small section of the trunk, but is generally easy for the tree to heal over from. Deeper wounds are more difficult to heal and usually result in the decay and death of the tree.

In the case of my parent’s pine, the strike went right down through the heartwood and tore the tree in two. One side has a trunk and crown that is still standing and intact, but it’s hard to say whether the damage to the lower part of the trunk will be enough to kill the remaining part of the tree. If it does die, it won’t be a terrible thing – the Pileated Woodpeckers will love it.