Writing in the Snow

Qali Growing up, I would hear people quote this statistic: “Eskimos have more than a hundred words for snow.” Actually, I still hear people rattle off this little ‘fact’, especially in winter.  However, there are a lot of problems with this statement, not even including the fact that the indigenous people of North America’s tundra and Arctic regions are known as Inuit, not Eskimo. No, what really grates on me about this blanket statement is the implication that it’s somehow weird to have so many words to describe one thing.

When it’s something that makes up a very large part of your daily life during a significant portion of the year, why wouldn’t you take the time to describe it as accurately as possible? The English language has several words for rain: showers, downpour, drizzle, sheets, so why not snow, especially in light of the fact that it sticks around a lot longer than its warm weather counterpart.  Actually, as a Canadian, I’m surprised that we, as a population, haven’t developed more words beyond flurries, blizzard and slush to describe this white stuff that blankets much of the country for four to six months out of the year.

To do that, we have to turn to other cultures and languages. While the true count is well under one hundred, many Inuit dialects have several useful words to describe the incredible variety of snow that we can encounter throughout the course of the winter.  For those of us who live in forested areas, one handy word to know is qali. It refers to the snow that builds up on the branches of trees, glazing limbs in white and making it look like someone attacked the woods with a decorator’s bag full of royal icing.

I was lucky to have learned several Inuit terms for snow as part of some of my undergraduate university courses and like many people who study winter ecology, they’ve been part of my lexicon ever since. So, it took a bit of digging to figure out where the word qali comes from. According to William Wonders, who wrote the book Canada’s Changing North (2003), the word originates from the Kobuk Valley Inuit of northwestern Alaska, along the edge of the treeline.

Qali can range in thickness from a light dusting that could almost be mistaken for hoar frost to heavy globs of wet snow that drag beleaguered limbs to the ground under its unrelenting weight. All along that spectrum, it has a significant impact on the ecological community.

Many winter residents are affected by qali. Spruce grouse and squirrels that regularly feed on cones often find themselves driven down to the ground by a particularly heavy layer of qali. The snow-covered branches can be hard to navigate, forcing these species to search elsewhere for food. On the other hand, qali can make some food more accessible. With particularly heavy wet snows, the qali that builds up on young birches, willow and aspen pulls the flexible branches down, bringing the young, tender tips within reach of hungry cottontails and snowshoe hare. These contorted trees may also provide shelter for a whole host of wildlife.

You might not have ever realized it, but if you live in an area that experiences snow, qali has likely affected you at some point and I don’t mean that moment when you accidentally brush up against a laden branch and send an unwanted shock of snow pouring down the collar of your coat. I’m talking about more significant impacts. Qali can be very heavy and often trees buckle under the weight taking down whatever else is nearby, which is some cases are power lines. I know I’ve spent the odd cold, snowy night in the dark, waiting for hydro to be restored.  These qali-broken trees also open up the forest floor to new growth, creating pockets of mini forest succession and driving the forest cycle on a smaller scale.

Snow is an amazing thing and qali is only one small facet in a dizzying array of diversity, which thanks to northern cultures, we’re able to describe in accurate and imaginative ways. So, next time you take a winter walk surrounded by white, take a moment and discover that variety for yourself and maybe even create your own words to describe it.

 

Living on the Edge

Ecotone - a zone of transition, of overlapOur world is in a constant state of transition, both in time and space. Most of us are more aware of the former, noting the passing of minutes, days and years. However, for many species, it’s changes in habitat across space that have a significant impact on their survival.

Life needs edges, places where the shadows of the forest recede in the face of the sun, where waves of grasses dip their roots in murky waters, where ripples lap incessantly at a rock face, etching away the sand of the future. Edges create variety and when it comes to ecology, variety is truly the spice of life, at least in terms of its diversity.

The technical term for a transition zone between two types of habitat is ecotone. It’s a place where two communities meet, knitting together elements of each other, often bringing the best of both worlds.

Some ecotones are abrupt, like the striking boundary between forest edge and farmer’s field, a change so sudden, it can easily be seen from the air. Others are more gradual, such as the subtle gradation of shades from soft, sunny aspen leaves to the dark mossy needles of the boreal forest as one moves pole-ward throughout much of the northern hemisphere.  Some edges we we can’t even see, like the lines between distinct communities layered on top of each other in the depths of a lake. It’s all a matter of perspective. What might seem like a continuum to us, may be a stark contract to another species.  It all depends on the resources you value.

Regardless of how they’re defined, edges are important places. They’re interfaces, areas where two distinct worlds can influence each other for better or worse. Edge-effects can be positive or negative, depending on the organism whose point of view you are looking from and what type of edge it is.

Naturally occurring ecotones, like a reed bed bordering a lake shore, are hugely important areas, a bridge between the land and watery worlds, creating an interface where a greater number of species can thrive than would otherwise exist without these marshes. Whether they’re lines of trees along a winding stream, offering a windbreak in an otherwise open field, or a wet meadow cutting its way through a thick forest, edges can also provide natural thoroughfares, ancient pathways followed by generations of animals.

However, that same linear accessibility can also become a problem when the edge is not natural. Clear-cuts slicing into an normally intact forest, seismic lines cross-crossing though arctic tundra or farmland pushing into what’s left of tall-grass prairie can create novel and unnatural ecotones, opening corridors for predators and invasive species, irrevocably changing the landscape. In contrast, what may be right-of-ways for some organisms may also be barriers for others, with human-caused edges limiting normally wider-ranging movements of many habitat-sensitive species, such as songbirds and woodland caribou.

Anyway you cut it, the world is full of edges, both dividing and uniting this remarkable patchwork of landscapes in all three dimensions. Understanding the depth of that complexity and our impacts on it has kept biologists busy for decades and will continue to do so for many more to come. I, for one, welcome the chance to continue the exploration.

A Breath of Life

Poplar bud in springSpring is in full-swing here now. In the southern reaches of Manitoba, some trees have leafed out almost fully and many of the ornamental fruit trees are in full bloom. At home around the lake, however, things are moving just a little slower. The first blush of green is only now enveloping the forest and I find it fascinating how only a few hundred kilometers can make such a difference in to the rate of renewal after winter’s chill.

As with many natural processes, day-length does play a role, but the story here is much longer and more complicated than that. In fact, the stage for each spring’s grand entrance is set the previous fall.

The shortening autumn day signals to the tree that it’s time to enter into a period of dormancy, sort of a forced vacation, where all systems shut down to preserve the tree’s tissues and protect it from freezing temperatures and water loss. Before it enters into this stasis, the tree uses the last of its growing resources to form the buds for the following year, encasing these primordial leaves in waxy scales that hold them in place until they get the go ahead to continue development.

After everything shuts down for the winter, the process shifts into a sort of time-release mechanism. Each species has it’s own mandatory vacation period, a set number of cold days it must endure before any warming will trigger the growth of new leaves. That period, however, is usually shorter than the average Canadian winter. So if we get a sudden early warming, like we did this year in March, it can trigger the start of new leaves, which can then be a death sentence if the forest is then hit with another cold snap. Alternatively, really warm autumns or warm winters can delay the onset of budding by pushing back the point at which the ‘mandatory cold period’ started. This reliance on temperature to maintain their cycle may make it very difficult for trees to adapt to the rapid changes in climate patterns we’re starting to witness.

Here in Manitoba’s boreal, however the wave of green is sweeping across the landscape as it always has this time of year. It happens so fast, that if you’re not paying attention, you can miss the in between stages and those are the best parts.

My absolute favourite time is when the Balsam Poplar’s (Populus balsamifera) buds (pictured above) begin to swell to bursting. They’re full of sticky, volatile oils that fill the air with a warm heady scent, that’s a pleasant mix of vanilla, cut fir boughs and Vicks Vaporub. I’ll never forget my first experience with a Balsam Poplar stand in full bud. It’s an amazing smell that washes through you, leaving you both calm and invigorated all at the same time.

Balsam poplar buds in oil

Soaking up the sun – Steeping balsam poplar buds in oil, the beginnings of Balm of Gilead

The healing effect may not just be limited to your sense of well-being. For centuries, Aboriginals and European immigrants alike have used poplar buds for medicinal purposes, typically warming them in some sort of fat to draw out the oils and then using the resulting salve on everything from wounds, eczema, and rashes to lining the inside of the nose to clear up airways. I learned how to tease the benefits from the bud from a woman living in the farmlands north of Swan River, Manitoba.

After steeping the buds in a good-quality oil in the sun for several days, strain off the liquid and thicken it with beeswax. The result is known as Balm of Gilead and makes a nice skin cream that smells wonderful.  Beyond it’s fragrance, the oils also contain salicin, a compound similar to aspirin that has been used as an analgesic by many cultures.

Whether it’s grounded in chemistry or not,  I still believe there is nothing better for your health and well-being than getting out an experiencing the first breath of life that is spring in the forest and surrounding yourself in its fragrant, verdant beginnings.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

No matter how hard we cling to the long light, crisp mornings and golden trees, fall, like all good things, must eventually come to an end. Autumn is gasping its last breaths here in the boreal forest as the cold November winds sweep away the last of the colour and hard frosts condition us for the deep freeze to come.

Our last blaze of glory before the forests fade to the dull greys and bleached greens of winter comes from an unlikely source, a tree that should be an evergreen. I’m talking about the Tamarack (Larix laricina).

Also known as larches, tamaracks are conifers, needle-bearing trees; but unlike their boreal forest brethren, they are one of the only North American evergreens that don’t remain ‘ever-green’. Tamaracks are deciduous conifers, a beautiful paradox that bring one last flash of light to the forest before it’s extinguished by the wind scattering their needles all over the ground like a Christmas tree in January.

So, why do they do it? Did larches miss the ‘conifers are evergreens’ memo?

The jury seems to still be deliberating on the evolutionary history, costs and benefits of this strategy, but when you take a step back and think about it, larches are taking advantage of the best of both worlds. Broadleaf trees, like aspen and birch, create leaves that are relatively cheap to produce, with a large surface area-to-volume ratio that makes them high-efficiency photosynthetic factories. Unfortunately, that large surface area also makes them incapable of handling wild swings in temperature and moisture. So, deciduous trees cut their losses and lose their leaves when conditions no longer favour them.

Conifers take a different approach. Their needles are built to last, their low surface area-to-volume ratio and waxy covering make them much more resistant to temperature and moisture extremes. This allows the tree to keep them all year, which is necessary, because they don’t produce nearly as much energy through photosynthesis as their deciduous counterparts.

Tamaracks straddle the fence. Their needles are soft and long, with thinner cuticles and a little more surface area. This allows them to make the most of the summer sun and produce as much food as possible through photosynthesis, while protecting them from the wild swings in temperature and moisture typical of the northern boreal forests. Having needles also makes it possible to extend their season, turning sunlight into food right through to the end of October. Then, when the frosts set in and snow is in the clouds, the photosynthetic pigments shut down, leaving the needles a brilliant gold before they flutter to the ground. Without the added strain of maintaining their needles, the tree can survive  harsh winters that can sometimes damage other conifers.

This strategy has allowed tamaracks to survive and even thrive in some pretty difficult habitats, from the edge of the Arctic treeline to the waterlogged and acidic soils of bogs.

As a field biologist, I’ve had sort of a love-hate relationship with tamarack. Whenever I spotted a stand of these trees towering in the distance along my survey line, I knew that I would soon find myself up to my knees in water and would spend the rest of the day trying to dry out my boots. Then, I would find myself in their midst, their soft, feathery limbs brushing me as I passed as though welcoming me into their world. Now, it’s a world a return to visit as often as I can.

The Trouble with Being Beautiful ….

Although I’m always advocating the value of finding the beauty in the everyday, I’m still swayed by those things that are unarguably beautiful. Lady Slippers are one of those things and Showy Lady Slippers (Cypripedium reginae) top the list.

Showy’s come by their latin name honestly. They truly are the queen of the lady slippers. First-off, they’re huge, reaching up from their mossy bed by almost 2 feet. Each plant is crowned with up to three enormous white and pink blossoms that look alternately like a woman’s shoe or a blushing little dutch girl in her winged bonnet, depending on the angle you’re looking at them.

Regardless of the angle, they are truly impressive plants. They’re also usually pretty rare, being restricted to relatively boggy areas, pushing up amongst the sphagnum moss and horsetails in their quest for pollination.

Because that’s really what all the fuss is about, attracting insects to spread their genetic calling card around. This blushing beauty, however, seems to be bit of a tease, offering little or no nectar as a reward to the flies, beetles and bees that crawl into its modified petals.  One could argue that it’s mostly for insurance anyway. Although they do produce a lot of seeds, thanks to their winged dupes, showys reproduce mainly vegetatively, through runners (also known as rhizomes) sent out through the ground. This is why you usually find them in clumps.

Like most other things that civilization has come to regard as precious, their beauty and rarity have made lady slippers an object of fascination, something to be coveted and collected. Up here in the north woods, we’re lucky to have quite a variety of orchids. These past few weeks, the dryer forest has been dotted with yellow lady slippers, large and small and I’ve been able to find dozens of these stunning pink behemoths of the orchid family up in the boreal wetlands, away from human development.

Still, not all have been left in the wild. In my trips around the cottage subdivision where I live, I’ve spotted a few clumps of showys in people’s yards, caged in with chicken wire to save them from browsing deer, looking like a brilliant bird in a zoo. As nice as it is to have the opportunity to see these guys without having to get ankle deep in water, I can’t help but wonder how many were lost in people’s quest to tame this wild beauty.

You see, lady slippers don’t transplant well and they really don’t like having their flowers picked.  They’re bound to their habitat by a mutualistic relationship with a fungus that twines itself around the plant’s roots and branches out into the ground. It’s this fungus that helps the plant survive, taking up nitrogen from the surroundings and making it into a form that the orchid can use.  Moving the plant damages or even severs this relationship, making it unlikely to survive alone in its new home. For every successful transplant you see, there are usually many more that didn’t make it.

While habitat loss is also a concern, the plant’s stunning beauty could actually be the Showy Lady Slipper’s greatest threat, especially in areas where people can get to the wild plants relatively easily. Like the ibises and other plumed birds that were nearly brought to extinction for their beautiful feathers, misguided gardeners drawn by its colour and fascinating shape could decimate wild orchid populations. Already, this and many other orchid species are listed as threatened all over North America.

Still, I have hope. More and more people are beginning to realize that wild things are better off remaining wild and that the best way to capture and hold beauty in your hand is with a  camera.

If I were the King of the Forest…

A little over 10 years ago, I had a job as a survey biologist. My duty was to walk endless lines through the boreal forest, stopping at set intervals to count everything that was alive that wasn’t a tree. It was a brutal job in many ways, but what it did leave me with was an endless fascination with the things most people tend to overlook. Every day for four months, I would carefully study half-meter square patches of the forest floor and marvel at the diversity of life that usually end up crushed underfoot as we hike to some breathtaking vista or stalk the woods for a glimpse of a moose or a bear.

Even though since that summer, I devoted the rest of my research years to studying ‘charismatic mega-fauna’,  it’s become sort of a ‘thing’ with me to notice all those plants and animals that everyone else seem to miss.

Today it’s horsetails, those spindly green rush-like plants that seem to pop-up everywhere once you start noticing them.  Sometimes the bane of gardeners, they’re often called scouring rushes and they come by the name honestly. If you pinch their hollow stems between your fingers, you’ll feel a rough crunch reminiscent of sandpaper. What you’re feeling is silica, embedded in the cell walls, giving what otherwise would be a limp noodle of a plant its structure.

The spindly little stalks that we see today are the remnants of what was a much more diverse and impressive group of organisms that once dominated the forests of the late Paleozoic.  If we could go back 300 million years to the Carboniferous period, we would have found ourselves walking among forests of horsetails, picking our way between trunks up to a metre thick and over 40 m tall!

For a couple hundred million years, these plants ruled the forested habitats, offering perches for species like pterosaurs and eventually Archaeopteryx. Then, in a form of evolutionary downsizing, horsetails eventually relinquished their foothold to other plants that were better-suited to the changing conditions. Like everything, forests evolved and horsetails got smaller and smaller until they all but disappeared into the understory, just another shape in the mess of green at our feet.

Still, horsetails are worth taking a closer look at. Often reviled as a weed, scouring rushes have proven useful to a number of cultures around the world. First nations used them like sandpaper to sharpen and hone everything from bone and shells used for knife points to pewter and wood. Europeans used them for scrubbing floors and campers today still sometimes use them as nature’s brillo pad.  Woodwind players may have used them to shape their reeds.  So while they may no longer be the rulers of the forest, these living fossils have shown that it’s adaptability, not size that matters when it comes to longevity.

Coming out of the Woodwork

Spring is sort of a fickle thing around here. I was so sure we’d seen the last of the snow, then I woke up to white and howling north winds over the weekend. The only saving grace was that it didn’t last for long.

Weather isn’t a very reliable indicator of the seasons up in the north woods. I’m pretty sure the only month I haven’t seen flurries of some kind is July. However, there are plenty of other indicators of the impeding spring.

While returning birds are always a good sign, it’s when I see my first butterfly that I know we’re finally starting to thaw for the year. Usually sometime around early April, I spot one, a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalus antiopa, pictured) or an Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma), basking on a branch or the middle of a gravel road, soaking up the now warmth-giving rays.  It’s always an especially fun juxtaposition when I find one sitting on top of some snow that just refuses to melt and it makes me wonder: what is a cold-blooded insect doing up and about so soon in the spring?

The reason these butterflies can get an early start on things is because they spend the winter hibernating as adults. Actually, calling it hibernation is putting it lightly. They tuck their delicate bodies into old woodpecker holes, cracks in the tree bark or between the shingles and wall boards of old or unheated buildings and then they simply let themselves freeze. Okay, well not quite. While they do let ice invade their bodies, these butterflies are quite particular about where the crystals form, keeping them confined to the fluid on the outside of their cells so that vital systems aren’t destroyed.

As the days get longer and warmer, they literally come out of the woodwork, flitting around in the sunshine, even when there is a foot of snow on the ground. How these butterflies and other freeze-tolerant organisms know when to wake up is still a mystery. They’re basically in a state of stasis all winter, their lives set on pause, so what exactly constitutes their alarm clock is still an unknown.

Once they’re up and at it, however, there is no time to waste. Mating begins right away, with males and females fluttering around each other before settling down to business. Once the eggs are laid on suitable host plants, like willow, aspen and birch, these harbingers of spring die off, leaving their genetic legacies to the next generation. It may seem like a short life, but most of these over wintering butterflies have been alive as adults for up to 10 months, veritable ancients for their world.