“That’s a red pine tree,” I told her. “The layer under the bark protects it from fire, so as long as the flames don’t reach the crown, it will survive.
“Red pines have two needles per fascicle– and if you press them together they make a cylinder.
“This one is a spruce, and that’s a balsam fir. A spruce has flakey bark, and a balsam has smooth bark.with blisters of sap. Balsams are dangerous in a forest fire because they don’t drop their needles when they die, and the sap is flammable, and sometimes the top of a tree will shoot up in the air and start a fire on an island.
“You can roll spruce needles between your fingers, and they grow all around the branch, but balsam needles are flat and grow sort of flat on the branch, too.”
“Look!” she shouted, pointing, “Honey! I see honey!”
It was spruce sap, but she insisted on finding out for herself.
Her aunt showed me the hemlocks that a previous owner had hybridized (much to the interest of the folks who are planning how to keep the forests healthy in the near future since this rare tree isn’t impacted by climate change).
I learned about the trees of the boreal forest when I lived at Wilderness Canoe Base. That first summer I sat in on the staff orientations on most things, including with the naturalist. Surrounded by trees as I was, I might have still forgotten but the outhouses were papered with photocopies of hand drawn infographics about flora and fauna. (Did you know castor canadensis, aka the beaver, was deemed a fish by the pope because it has a scaly tail and swims in the water? Thus, the voyageurs could eat it even on Fridays).
I like knowing the names of trees and how to tell them apart, even though a spruce is a spruce is a spruce to me, still (though I know spruce root was used to stitch birch bark canoes together, and that the roots grow out, not down, same as with white pines).
I learned and held onto many more things from those three years in the woods at the edge of the Boundary Waters– and plenty of it I’m happy to have let go. But I’m grateful to have learned to see the trees as individuals, to still be able to tell from a distance if a stand is birch or aspen– and to feel how basic, how not-a-big-deal that is: they’re my most populous neighbors, of course I know them.
When nearly everything wears away, what’s left? When people are gone from this land, the trees with their long roots and leafy or spikey crowns, will surely take over our insubstantial lease.