The black spruce
My favourite tree is black spruce, Picea mariana. This may speak to some contrarian streak in me. The tree does not possess any of the usual attributes we prefer in trees. It is not tall or large or stately. It only rarely gets older than the average human. It is asymmetrical, spindly, dark, and droopy. In Alaska, where I grew up, black spruce suggests sodden, mossy, hard-travelled ground. It suggests mosquitos. Up close, black spruce is prickly, with short, stiff needles. Closer still, it is sticky, from the sap that weeps from its bark. But here lies a small redemption: Sometimes when I collect this dried sap and chew it up, it coalesces into something with the texture of modern, petroleum-based gum, and the coolness of menthol. Other times, it turns first into dust, then into a type of glue that sticks indelibly to the soft tissues of my mouth. I have not learned to predict which will be which.
But black spruce suggests to me another quality of trees, one that is less obvious—their mobility. Today, black spruce is one of the most common trees in North America, with a range that extends from Newfoundland to Alaska, dipping into the Upper Midwest and as far south as New Jersey. In places, stands of black spruce stretch to the horizon, suggesting eternity. But this impression, which trees often evoke in us, is an illusion. In reality, the world’s forests are constantly in motion. Again and again, the black spruce forest has advanced and retreated across North America, following changing conditions. Fossils show that the endless forest as it currently exists is just five or six thousand years old, only a little older than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Now, the changing climate is again rearranging the world’s forests. Across North America, scientists have discovered the black spruce forest changing, advancing north and upslope. The strange, prickly, sticky tree is in motion.
Zach St. George