Sunday, April 11, 2010

Spruce desert

Some years ago, maybe as many as ten, a storm blew down a tree on the northeast corner of our lot. The tree guys came and cleared it out, giving us firewood and a new view of Crockett's Beach and the road out to Ginn Point. Almost immediately the newly opened ground was covered with hundreds of baby spruce, feathery, tiny things that looked more like moss than trees. They responded to the new light now unlimited by their parent, soaked up the free sun and water, and colonized the place.

Gradually, the pioneers grew bigger, now competing with each other for resources. Their numbers grew fewer, but the space was no less dense. Soon, we could no longer see the water, just the land on the other side of the cove. The strong trees, by whatever accident of genetics or luck or plan, prevailed over the weak.

Today, the winners are 10 to 15 feet tall. Those on the outside of the thicket are thick with branches and needles nearly all the way to the ground. We can no longer see the far shore, just sky now. But inside the thicket it's a little desert. Light can no longer feed the lower branches and they are brown and dead. Nothing grows on the ground. All the trees' energy goes into the tops, still shooting up.

Some years hence, we'll have our view back again. The trees will be fewer still, and the dead branches will be broken off in the storms, leaving that tall, skinny look as on tropical ridges, in the Everglades, or on a woodlot recently thinned. The spruce's immense profligacy of seed will have been reduced to a few survivors, waiting for the next cycle, and humans will have had little to do with it.

Homo sapiens, of course, works oppositely: few offspring, overwhelming descendants. When we cut down trees, we do it wholesale, or capriciously, for money or convenience. When faced with the spruce desert of the Great North Woods, in which little else but big trees grow, the few animals that prowl are the famous predators, and the silence is magnificent, the timber surveyor of the 19th century and early 20th saw only endless profits, and laid waste. The paper company executive of today is somewhat better, cutting more selectively, replanting. But the real estate investment trusts, which now own much of the North Woods, see second homes, in suburbs and developments, in a new Industrial Revolution as greedy as the last, and if their plans come true, then we'll really have a desert on our hands.

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