Thursday, February 21, 2013

Maples in Motion

Late afternoon sun snuck out from under a cloud bank as my skis swished easily in the freshly groomed tracks. Days like this are the reason I love living in the Northwoods.

A slight breeze knocked loose days-old snow from where it had perched since the last big storm, and the white clumps fell from branches and twigs with soft plops that were more visual than auditory. The motion drew my eyes up, and I took a moment to appreciate the woods. This section of the Valhalla ski trail, off County Road C near Washburn, climbs through an even-age stand of deciduous trees.

The dark, furrowed bark of aspen graded to creamy white in the canopy. Paper birches with dying tops still presented pure white bark at eye-level. The most common trees had the smooth, brownish-gray bark of young maples, and a quick look at winter buds on the saplings told me that this forest holds both red and sugar maples.

Red maples have been a favorite of mine since my college botany class, when I appreciated the crimson color of their twigs and buds that make them easy to identify. Autumn reinforces my appreciation of red maples, as I watch their leaves flash a brilliant rainbow of green, yellow, orange and red all on the same tree.

I also admire their resilience. I have seen them in some of the harshest habitats available: from swamps to droughty soils; in bedrock crevasses and on spongy beds of decaying organic matter; on mountainsides congregating with the toughest firs; and in soggy creek bottoms tangled with alders.

Red maples are one of the most abundant and widespread tree species in eastern North America and have the widest tolerance to climatic conditions of all the North American species of maple. And they are becoming more common.

A lack of winter cold has given the green light for red maples to move north into territory where they would previously have been killed by extreme cold. Current fire suppression policies also favor red maple, which does not do well with repeated fires, but can respond vigorously after a single fire by sprouting rapidly from dormant buds on the root crown. Seedling establishment can occur from surviving trees onsite or from seeds carried easily on the wind.

While red maple is susceptible to numerous pathogens, fire, and damage by sapsuckers, one of its leaf diseases might be thwarted by climate change. A Duke University study revealed that infections of a certain fungus were less common and less severe in red maples exposed to higher-than-normal concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

I am happy that red maples seem to have a secure place in the uncertain future of our forests, but the coming changes might not be great for its cousin the sugar maple. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison predict that sugar maple will reduce in abundance in Wisconsin. Increasing winter temperatures are causing stress and escalating insect damage. Warmer springs are making the sugaring season shorter, smaller, and less predictable. Although red maple can be tapped for making syrup, its season is frustratingly short. Red maples flower much earlier than sugar maples and the sap becomes unpalatable after bud break.

Buds still clasped tightly against the cold on this February day, but I was warm from a long climb. As I reached the top of a hill and rounded a corner, the forest changed. A rosy sunset glowed through the heavy bows of balsam firs. I pushed off once with my poles to gain momentum and went whizzing through a gnarled stand of oaks. A sharp corner forced me to step out of the tracks, but I kept my balance and savored the wind in my face, soon gliding into a cathedral of pines. Glimpses of sky showed that it was still going through its full palate of pinks.

A world in motion may be confusing, and sharp turns in the path may throw us off balance. Change often means losing as well as gaining. Sometimes we might rather just stand still, and savor a particular place, and a particular moment. Though change will never end, we can help guide its direction and strive to find beauty in every shifting hue.

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