Saturday, December 8, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Tree of Magic

During our time at Lost Brook Tract one of our great pleasures has been discovering and measuring larger examples of the old growth trees that cover most of the land.   There are four canonical species of tree in our boreal wonderland: red spruce, balsam, white birch and yellow birch, plus an occasional mountain ash.  Both the red spruce and yellow birch impress in old-growth form, the latter in girth more than height.

Our catalog of giants includes a yellow birch with a diameter over three feet and multiple red spruces with heights over eighty feet and diameters in the two-foot range.  One red spruce, just a little bit down slope from our property, exceeds a hundred feet by a good margin. At our elevation trees like these are impressive and very rare in the Adirondacks.

Last July I was walking back from a trip to our summit.  The trail follows the side of a large outwash area with a number of immense spruces, some long downed and some lofty and imposing, as healthy as can be.  While walking though a grove of smaller balsams and spruces and my eye was caught by a particularly large trunk of a still-standing dead conifer, partially denuded of bark and lopped off at about thirty feet, situated alone in the center of a small clearing.  I made a mental note of its girth and continued on to the lean-to.

The next morning I passed the opening again on my way to map peaks from our summit.  I looked over to the great, dead trunk with a smile and resolved to return with a measuring tape later in the day.  I had walked on for a few moments when suddenly I whirled around with excitement.  My brain had effected the recognition that my eyes had recorded but that I had not consciously realized. “It can’t be,” I said under my breath as I trotted back to the opening and entered it.  I stared at the trunk with disbelief.  There was no doubt.

I raced back to our lean-to.  “Amy!  You’ll never believe what I’ve found!” I screamed as I grabbed the measuring tape.  I ran back to the clearing, navigated the logs and underbrush and brought my chest to the trunk of the deposed monarch. I threw the tape around it, pulling it tight at about eye level.  The circumference at that height measured over five feet.  This was so exciting you would think I had just recorded the measurements of my first-born son in the birthing room.  I scouted the forest floor for the fallen portion and measured what I could of it.  A little estimating gave me a likely height of maybe eighty feet.  I returned to the lean-to, entered the information on my discovery into our journal and sat lost in thought, waiting for Amy to return from her errands.

Now a red spruce with these kinds of dimensions is very likely old growth and worth noting to be sure, although there are many others of equal or greater stature on our land.  But my extreme excitement was due to the fact that my initial and casual identification had been wrong, partially because of its size and partially because of the uneven and incomplete condition of the bark.  This baby was no red spruce.  It was a balsam.

If someone were to accompany me to Lost Brook Tract looking to be impressed by old-growth trees the first one I’d take them to would be that balsam, dead or not.  I’ve never seen one anywhere near that size; to me it is breathtaking.  But of course we would be surrounded by balsams throughout our visit. Mature balsams pepper the lower reaches of our property, competing with the taller spruces.  With their large trunks and stiff branches they look nothing like the familiar iconography of the Christmas tree and can easily be mistaken for their loftier cousins until one looks more carefully at the bark or needles.  An opportunistic cohort of young balsams, lighter in shade and forested with soft, lush branches, has grown up to claim the clearing made forty years ago when our predecessors built the lean-to.   As one ascends our ridge balsams of various sizes become more and numerous until they are ubiquitous.  On top of Burton’s Peak the Big Blowdown of 1950 has lain waste to the older trees, their trunks crisscrossed everywhere like pick-up sticks.  A typical thicket of short balsam so dense as to limit visibility to a few feet has grown up all around the storm’s detritus, making passage over the true summit an exercise in shoving more than hiking, quite reminiscent of getting around on Manhattan’s C Train at rush hour.

I have grown to greatly admire the red spruce, Queen of the Adirondacks, a tree with which I was not very familiar before we acquired Lost Brook Tract.  In fact I devoted a previous Dispatch to its remarkable qualities and versatility.  I grew up with birches in Ohio and never met one I didn’t like.  After all, what is more evocative of wilderness lore than birch bark?  But my tree-loving heart will always belong to the balsam.

Native to North America, spread throughout the Northeast, upper Midwest and Canada, the balsam is the only true fir naturally occurring in the Adirondacks.  Its ecological significance and myriad qualities have been well-covered before in the Almanack, particularly in this 2009 post by naturalist Ellen Rathbone, so I will not repeat that information here.  Suffice it to say that virtually the entire tree has been used throughout history for one purpose or another by human beings and animals alike.  I look forward to trying balsam flour, made from the inner bark.  This winter, balsam twig tea is on the agenda for a late-night libation.  Balsam burns hot when green, so when we want to dramatically pep up our fire a few balsam branches will do the trick quite nicely.

The one thing we won’t do with balsam is to build with it.  It is brittle, weak and highly susceptible to rot.  It is also susceptible to a variety of bugs including the pine sawyer, especially if the bark is left on it.  Should someone foolishly select a balsam log with the bark still on for the peak of a lean-to that is otherwise constructed of hardier red spruce, there is a good likelihood that at a certain point, years later, a couple of large and ugly pine sawyers will drop out of it from above, fully sated, and make your acquaintance up close and personal just before the center of the peak dissolves in a shower of duff-like sawdust.  I can attest to this.

But it is not the balsam’s utility that endears it to me.  It is its enduring and vital magic.

I am only one of thousands and thousands of Adirondack hikers who have literally felt the healing properties of the balsam’s odor.  The essential scent of balsam, whether in oils or in the very atmosphere, has been taken to have medicinal properties for hundreds of years by Native Americans and Euro American peoples alike.  I literally count on the balsam-infused air at Lost Brook Tract to heal my tired lungs and brow and blood, to restore me to a different state of health and youth than the debilitations of city life have left me.  It never fails to do so.

This effect of balsam scent is no trifle, no granola-headed new-age mumbo-jumbo.  The next time you are on a long hike, fatigued but with miles to go, maybe with a heavy weight on your back, sweat dripping from your forehead and a long uphill slog ahead of you, try this:  grab a generous pinch of balsam needles – the darker the needles the better – crush them between thumb and finger, smearing the oil out of them, then bring the crushed mixture to your nose and inhale as deeply as you can while you further rub the needles, taking in a full snoot-worth of that heavenly essence.  Then watch what immediately happens to your energy level.  Your head will clear, your mood will spike upward and a spring will return to your step.  This is an old and well-known trick among experienced back country enthusiasts and it really works.  I have finished a tough hike with the aid of balsam scent many times.

Then there are the other aesthetics of the tree: soft, voluptuous in its bushy conical shape, beautifully proportioned (when young at least) and a perfect shade of green, making a compliment to emerald moss in a boreal forest or streaking and dusting the sky at the ring of a summit.  Who among us hard-core hikers has not reveled in deliberately pushing through a soft, snow-laden stand of balsam on a cold winter day just to feel the branches give way before us and the powder fly and cascade down from cluster to cluster?  Add to these aesthetic joys its fabulous scent and it is no wonder that the balsam is the iconic Christmas tree.

This year over the Christmas holiday we will hike into Lost Brook Tract.  Among the items in our pack will be some battery-powered Christmas lights and a few of our more precious ornaments.  We will pick one of the many balsams near our lean-to and we will decorate it.  As night falls and the lights begin to shine and glimmer, past and present will blend, evoking a lifetime of traditions and memories in the dusk. In the abiding darkness that comes a connection to some very primitive part of myself, mysterious and terrible in its power, will emerge into the present for a while, hovering at the rim of the light that fades into the deepening wilderness, hovering at the edge of memory.  As it has for millennia, from Egypt to ancient Rome to Germany and England, an evergreen, sanctified by our decorations, will answer the darkness with its sustaining color and needled staying power, a symbol of the greatest kind of human hope we can aspire to.

But then, at the end of what we arbitrarily mark as a season, at the end of ritual and symbolism, the lights will come off and nothing will change.  The hope and magic of the balsam is in my soul, in every corner of Lost Brook Tract.

Photo:  Mature spruce and balsam at Lost Brook Tract

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

6 Responses

  1. Eagleye says:

    Is “canonical” really what you meant ??

  2. Bill Ott says:

    I sit here sipping a Bud Light lamenting how little I know about trees, but I know more now because of your article. I do have a question though, and that is how do the Red Pine and White Pine (my favorites) fall into your family of trees, or perhaps just the family tree of trees?
    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, Ohio

  3. Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:


    I am a rank amateur when it comes to most trees. I know relatively little about red pines and a little more about white pines, loving the Adirondack Eastern White Pine as I do.

    Pines are not native to the boreal forest. They are suited to lower elevations and sandier soils. Eagleeye was not sure of my use of “canonical” but the four trees I mentioned are in fact the only species of tree in an Adirondack climax montane boreal forest. In a disturbed forest one may find other species, but at Lost Brook Tract only the Mountain Ash sneaks here and there into clearings. Everything else is balsam, spruce and birch. And a whole lot of gorgeous ferns and moss.

  4. Pete: Now that is a balsam I would like to see and I agree as to its many favorable qualities. An adopted Siberian mother of mine boiled a related fir bark and used the poultice to ease leg cramps. The benefit to Adirondack air quality from balsam is immense — our park would be a very different place without it for sure. As to red spruce girth and old growth status, aging through coring or other means needs to be done to be sure. I have 30 inch diameter red spruce stumps on my property above 1600 foot elevation that only grew to 85 years old. These old stumps appear to have been cut by crosscut saw and were surely second growth. Their growth rings were half to three-quarters of an inch – demonstrating excellent site conditions. Even at higher elevations good site conditions can produce red spruce of large girth and strong health that are not over 100 years. Still, seeing large diameter red spruce is always like meeting an old friend in the mountains! Thanks always for your excellent writing and care for the wilds Pete! Dan Plumley, Adirondack Wild

    • Pete Nelson Pete Nelson says:


      I hope to have a formal field study done this summer by our friend from ESF, that will tell us a lot more.

      But I have little doubt about the longevity of our larger spruces. For one thing, the elevation difference between 1600 feet – even 2500 feet – and 3,400 feet is ecologically substantial in the Adks. Where else in the park do you see spruces that size at that elevation? For another I have photos from the Hal Burton era in the late 40’s and the trees are just as big. I also know the history of the land in detail and there was no logging, so natural disturbances would be the only impediment to old growth.

      When I did my initial measurements I used McMartin’s statistics on red spruce growth, sliced by elevation. They put the trees in the 200-300 year category.

      We’ll see after the field study! No matter their exact age they are treasures to be loved… as is that decaying balsam trunk, which I’m sure you will some time see.

  5. catharus says:

    Agreed! To me, the balsam is an icon of the ‘Dacks and high-elevation mountain tops of the ‘Skills. It’s cooling shade and odor are therapy for the mind, soul, and now you tell me body….I’ll certainly have to try your suggestion. Thanks!

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