Simultaneously crispy and cozy, the first days of autumn belong to the poet.
All the seasons are lovable in their own way, and each claims my favorite when that quarter’s beginning day of solstice or equinox finally spins around. Yet there’s something about fall, its fading light and muted yet still burning colors, that is especially good at invocation. Symbolically, it’s that last call before the witching hour of death—bare branches, brisk, dark, truncated days–the one guarantee we get besides birth, one our modern industrial culture is predictably loath to appreciate. If winter is the cold end, spring the new beginnings, and summer just carefree fun, fall is the reflective calm. Books could be written devoted to the beauty of maple leaves coasting whimsically to the ground, Crayola palettes inspired by the browns and ambers and goldenrods and crimsons of October. Both are probably out there.
A few nights ago, during the first big storm since graduate Cohort 13 arrived at the Environmental Learning Center, a new meaning of the season struck me with a boom. The lightness of falling leaves may be a quintessential image, but what about the heaviness of falling trees?
Fellow grad, Tyler, and educator extraordinaire Kevin followed the sound of the crash and discovered a red alder lying prone and broken across the Sourdough Creek Trail, not far from campus. Later, out with our first week of Mountain School, we all had to cross a tangle of more alders sacrificed to the storm just past the Fawn Creek Shelter. Though my non-ecological mind immediately sentimentalizes, “Oh, poor trees,” I soon remember this North Cascades forest community is composed of at least as many horizontal, decaying logs as it is healthy standing ones. The cycle is complete: easy to see and obvious to teach.
The inside of the tree, now splinted, is easy to see as well. This is a benefit, as it offers a visual on why this species was named as it is. Red alder, or Alnus rubra, translates to “red red.” According to Pojar and Mackinnon’s trusty Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, ‘Alder’ seems to be a variation of Old English or Old High German words for ‘reddish-yellow;’ ‘rubra’ is red in Latin. Redundant or emphatic? It matters little, for now I have in situ evidence when I tell students the bark is used to make a red or orange dye. My other favorite regional field guide, Daniel Mathews’ Cascades-Olympic Natural History, says the Salish have techniques to boil, chew, or urinate on cut bark to make and fix the color. This potent bark is also medicinal, used against tuberculosis and as an anti-biotic wash for skin wounds. The wood is reputed for being among the best for smoking salmon.
It is hard to ascertain this vermillion-ness from the standing trees, though, for on the surface their trunk is a mottled combination of white and grey, and moss. The trees’ thin layer of outer bark is greyish-brown, and the patchy effect is from the white crustose lichens using the alder as a reliable host. These lichens are also easy to check out, eye to apothecia, when having to negotiate the fallen trunks. Nature explodes in details.
The sage green is a foliose lichen (think, “foliage” aka “like a leaf”), and the white is the crustose lichen (think, “like a crust”) that forms the patchy texture of red alder bark. Notice the apothecia, the tiny circular reproductive structures of the fungal partner of the lichen. Photo by author.
It really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that the species causing the midnight raucous was red alder. They grow fast and aggressively, but they die young, considered an old tree at 50 years. In their short time, though, they offer an invaluable natural service, partnering up with bacteria that live on their roots and “fix” atmospheric nitrogen that is normally unavailable to plants. In many ecosystems, including the Pacific Northwest, nitrogen is one of the biggest factors limiting plant growth. Not only do the bacteria thus provide some nitrogen for the soil and the host alder, but the alder leaf litter is nitrogen-rich, fertilizing the forest floor and preparing the system for later successional species, such as Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock, as it decomposes.
The Red red tree: a pioneer, a friend of the lichen and bacteria, an important plant resource for human cultures. And for the poets among the alders, stepping over all this on the trail, another pleasant reminder of a favorite season.
Leading photo: A bigleaf maple leaf (Acer macrophyllum) rests in the fresh break of a fallen red alder. Photo by author.
Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is currently one of two editors of Chattermarks. Until March 21, autumn is usually her preferred seasoning.