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Tree Love: Alders

Small leaves dance across the horizon, strings plucked one by one with fingers of rain on this dreary April morning. The soft, lightly rolled under serrations of new leaves need this moisture. Gray dappled trunks running with rain remind me of childhood, watching Northern Flickers dig into mushy woody hollows in the dank backyard of a neighbor, forgotten and disused. 

A carr is what my gaelic ancestors might have called this patch of wet ground thick with alders. This is possibly why my Irish father liked to remind me that we lived on an old swamp, and hid tape recorders playing Irish music in the yard to convince me of resident faeries. Sprites or otherwise, the flickers, woodpeckers that they are, needed those swampy burrows of rotten aging alder for their eggs. In that former riparian strip subsumed by my suburban neighborhood, I got my first inkling of needing alders as well.

An alder circled pond along the Skagit River.

I have long been obsessed with trees. After-all, so many of the vertebrates I admire spend much of their lives among them. Birds brush their wings against dense leaves in pursuit of food. They huddle over eggs yet to hatch in womb-like cavities inside of trees both living and dead. A Purple Finch bubbling away outside at this very moment is undoubtedly the star at the top of a Douglas fir. Their cousins the Pine Siskins twitter away as they pick at the pendulous racemes of bigleaf maples. For all but the most seabound or grassland strewn of birds, trees are life. (And let us not forget the many other extravagant, hysterically beautiful organisms that need them as well.)

A Red-breasted Sapsucker nesting in a red alder cavity.

Before I knew what was happening, I was working up in trees too. I had strode through trees as a naturalist guide, an ornithologist, an educator, but out of monetary necessity I was also a professional “tree guy” for two years of my life. This largely meant killing trees, hacking, pulling, grinding, chipping, generally wreaking havoc on living organisms. I had to navigate the cognitive dissonance of being a “tree hugger” and a tree killer. And yet, I liked the work because it was challenging both physically and mentally. Wood normally considered waste took on a new meaning as I learned to carve green wood. Tree work actually brought me closer to trees. 

I needed a space to consider the tree I love. So, I am writing love letters to the trees of my home. And my first is to the alder.

The leaves and trunk of a young red alder.

Red Alder, Alnus rubra, the short-lived, the first to arrive, and the first to bed. How they vacillate from the hazy auburn of yet to open catkins in late winter, to the brilliant chartreuse leaves backlit by April sunrays. How they usher in a small sadness with those first drifting yellow leaves, borne on a warm August breeze, emblems of summer’s end. Wood that transforms from freshly hewn bleach white, to the oxidized rust and tan of only hours exposed to air and sun. To me, almost more than any other tree, alders represent resilience, death and rebirth, a representative of the cyclical nature of the world.      

Hate may be a strong word, but I have heard many people express this emotion in reference to alders. Even in personal circles I hear more people carping about them than extolling their virtues. They aren’t necessarily wrong, especially if you can’t drift from expressly Western perspectives. Alders live short, punky lives – the juvenile delinquents that visit trouble on many a rural Washington road during a windstorm. They rot and fall, and make huge messes. They spring up unwanted, by the thousands, in recent clearings or have to be beaten back from swallowing verdant fields. Alder wood has up until recently been viewed as waste by loggers. Tree guys hate climbing them, because they are relatively weak, and have hidden pockets of rot that make them dangerous. Talk to the person who heats their home with wood and they’ll often list alder at the bottom of desired cordwood. Even I have been known to complain about the lack of clarity alder grain carries in carving.

Despite all this, I love alders. They have always been part of the places I call home. The places I have lived along the Salish Sea are the strongholds of their range, spanning the Pacific Crest west from California to Alaska with remnant pockets holding on in Northern Idaho. The thirty odd species of alder grow in many forms. The Sitka alder (Alnus viridis) of Cascadian avalanche shoots form shrubby impenetrable thickets that resist unimaginable annual pressure from snowpack. Poles from the trunks of black alder (Alnus glutinosa) built the foundations of Venice, incredibly durable when used in water. 

Alders are all resilient, remarkable species that still manage to fly under the radar because of their commonness, their lack of visual sophistication. In the most urban of Seattle neighborhoods unseeing droves walk past red alders picking away at cement margins, bastions of habitat, shady haunts. Their lichen blotched trunks show me where the land has some moisture to it, sometimes literally growing from the water, and where even the most infertile soil now has potential. They may not be stunning trees, but they make up for this in other ways. 

Sweating, pushing, swearing; I felt like this wasn’t working. The bar of my little climbing chainsaw was stuck in an alder log it had no business bucking. “Alder is soft for a hardwood,” I thought to myself. Why not do my buddy a favor in return for letting us stay at his cabin. Way up the South Fork of the Skykomish River I was in too deep without the necessary tools. 

Stretching a stiff back, I stood and took a walk to observe the fallen tree. A plate of roots stretched six feet into the air where they’d given up their hold, letting the trunk plummet right into a water tank. The soil of the pit where the roots once gripped was sodden from winter rain. No surprises here. Alders fall all the time.

Looking closer at the brown tangles of roots I noticed something strange. Roots extended outwards as normal, but had strange growths along their lengths. I snapped a few off to look at them closer, little balls of root material made up of tiny individual stalks that gave them a crenulated texture. An overall shape that reminded me of pollen depicted on a large scale or frankly, the images of the CoronaVirus that were circulating widely at that moment. I was pretty sure I knew what these growths were, but I pocketed a few before getting back to grunting and shoving wood down the clay slicked slope.  

Back at home, I confirmed that these little globules were what I expected. Possibly the most important, but rarely seen anatomy of any alder tree. Among many things, alders are nitrogen fixers and these growths were proof that this tree had been engaged in this process. Nitrogen fixing is something legumes are famous for, like the clover cover crop sown in rotation to renew worn out soil. Beneath the surface, these legumes are in cooperation with bacteria colonies that live in their roots and convert atmospheric nitrogen into a usable form for the plant. In return, the plants permit root nodules to form, which the bacteria live in while sharing their production of nutrients. Alders, though not a part of the legume family, do the same thing. 

Alder roots host a specific strain of actinomycete bacteria called Frankia alnii. Though I’ve made it all sound copasetic, this nodule I’d found was the result of a Frankia infection. The relationship can still be considered symbiotic, but the bacteria need to change a few things to be at home. Young alders develop nodules as they grow up in soils with the bacteria present, allowing them purchase on hard scrabble soils. Indeed alders are famous for being the first to show up on land freshly denuded of nutrients. Coiled beneath the surface of likely every alder tree you have ever walked by are nodules housing these bacterial colonies.

Root nodules from a red alder.

Sunlight bathed us as we stood on the ridge, enjoying the crater and the glorious day. And I was suffering. I’d been up since 4:30 AM to pack up the van, pick up our guests, and shepherd them south through rolling hills and river valleys towards the mountain. The last thing I wanted was to get warm and sleepy; I still had hours of late afternoon driving back back to Seattle, undoubtedly with a van-load of sleeping guests and a bladder too full with coffee.

Driving to Mt. St. Helens from Seattle is not like driving to imposing Mt. Rainier, which blithely struts out in gasping views. I wasn’t alive before the 1980 eruption of St. Helens, but today the peak isn’t prominent enough when you are deep between the many hills of Southwest Washington. Then, suddenly you are along the North Fork of the Toutle River, winding up the Spirit Lake Highway, and the landscape opens up to magnificent destruction. In May of 2012, the hillsides above us had long since been replanted with coniferous trees, but below in the aftermath of the largest landslide in recorded history, were alders. 

Walking the Hummocks Trail at Mt. St. Helens always felt like a treat at the end of a long, warm day. I’d been a naturalist guide for a Seattle-based ecotourism company for over a year now and was mostly frustrated by taking people to Mt. St. Helens and back in a day. Everyone was after the spectacle, not to hear geologic lessons or to understand the opportunity documenting the regeneration of a blasted landscape offered to scientists. At the Hummocks were alders growing out of what were basically piles of gravel, the aftermath of an entire mountainside rushing down the Tuttle River valley moments after the eruption. Here I could sometimes get people to see first-hand the seeming miracle of regrowth. 

The Hummock’s Trail near Mt. St. Helens.

Red Alders have always been a riparian, river bottom species. The story goes that until settlers showed up and started clear cutting, the tree wasn’t as known for the pioneering qualities that most scientists, foresters, and loggers know it for today. Certainly logging offered up spaces for shade intolerant, early succession plants like alders to expand in a first wave of regeneration. Living along oft changing waterways, the ability to fix nitrogen was always useful in exploiting newly opened spaces. And indeed alders represent the majority of hardwood canopy in the Pacific Northwest, and have apparently expanded twenty fold in the wake of settlers. But if I’m being honest I don’t think this story really gives weight to how good alders are at arriving and thriving in newly disturbed spaces, “natural” or not. 

All alders sport obvious dangling catkins, which represent both male and female parts of the tree. The male catkins are long, obvious appendages that release pollen, which is then received by the female catkins which are less obvious until they swell with seeds, turn brown, and begin to look like pine cones in autumn. The cone-like structures hold hundreds of tiny seeds. The Betula family, the birches, of which alders are a part, are famous for growing densely because of the rain of seeds they produce. A pound of alder seeds can contain more than 660,000 seeds, tiny samaras built to ride the wind. According to the Oregon State University’s Oregon Wood Innovation Center, a favorable and recently cleared site can harbor around 100,000 alder seedlings per acre. This is approximately how it feels when walking the Hummocks Trail.

The trees around us were still a welcome shade, even if this was a year of tent caterpillars. Nearly every tree around us had globular webbed tents that housed the hungry young of tent caterpillar moths, who defoliate alders and other broadleaved trees every few years during population explosions. Despite this, the alders were clearly reinvigorating the soil with their nitrogen fixing bacteria and rich mulching leaves. Despite basically being on a bed of gravel, plants were growing everywhere. As the first to show in these distrubed spaces, alders are also often neighbors to many introduced species enjoying newly enriched soil. The regeneration of Mt. St. Helens has also become focal to understanding how non-native plants envelop new sites. Pacific chorus frogs lazed about on foxglove leaves as we brushed by them on lush trails, most likely unconcerned with the origin of their roosts. 

Unlike most other hardwoods, even the few that are native to the Pacific Northwest, red alders live short lives. The founding cohort of twentyish year-old trees in the Hummocks were well into middle age and had been reproductively mature for over ten years. A healthy seedling can reach three feet in its first year. This is part of the reason that tree plantations spent many years fighting alders by cut and chemical, until they were redesignated as helpful nitrogen-fixers who staved off diseases that threatened the desired monocrop. Alders outgrow even the famed Douglas fir in their first twenty years, which is why they are considered the first succession of trees in a regenerating forest. With less competition in this overpacked woodland, and with better soil than gravel, the red alders here could have been at least 70 feet tall by the time I was walking among them with my guests.

I had been staring into the large forked crown since I first noticed this multi-stemmed loner. Vireos danced through the canopy, bulking up for the long flight south. Curtains of epiphytes sloughed off impossibly long limbs, shading my graduate cohort sitting below. I wanted to get up there. 

Despite knowing next to nothing about lichen identification, I could tell there was immense diversity in the top of this massive alder in the Upper Skagit Valley. We were neighbors for a year. It showed me what a lone, aged alder without competition could look like. This tree was so deeply different from the craning, single stemmed alders growing below the floodline along the banks of the Skagit. I had never seen an alder like this before. 

Learning beneath the lone alder.

Alders growing in Seattle, where I first started climbing trees, look little like those growing in less polluted spaces. Even as I write this, halfway between Tacoma and Seattle, with SeaTac Airport spewing planes day and night, my rural island alders have the rich covering of lichen and moss that urban trees rarely get. I wanted to get up close to that biomass hanging in the branches above me. 

The difficult thing about climbing a tree to observe epiphytic life is not knocking it all off in the process. Tree climbing is really rope climbing, but your feet still kick into delicate bouquets of life and your rope still abraides everything it touches in the process of your breathless struggling. I tried to tell myself this was no different than a stiff wind, that this was a dynamic environment. And I still felt dismayed when lengths of Usnea, old man’s beard lichens, drifted by me like party-streamers. When I finally got as high as I safely could on weak alder limbs, I delicately picked my footing, hung in my saddle, and gazed around. Not only was I up, climbing and cradled by a living thing (just consider that for a moment), I was surrounded by others who knew nothing but these perches. Crustose and foliose, macro and micro lichens surrounded me. The bubbling leaves lungwort, bumpy nodes of bark barnacle, and methuselah’s beard intermingled with what seemed hundreds of other species at home in this often misty canopy.   

Just a sample of the great life high in those limbs.

Sitting still in a tree canopy you are often surprised by how unconcerned other visitors are. A common story of people tree-sitting is to wake with flying squirrels curiously crawling about them at night. Above my daylight vantage were Purple Finches quietly calling while crunching on alder cones that disintegrated into the breeze. Chickadees jumped about the branches, prying at unseen insects, seemingly oblivious to the human in the tree with them. In what felt like the tallest of the tallest alders (red and black alders are the two tallest species in the world), I was certain biodiversity was higher than the nearby row of Douglas fir even if I had no real way of being sure. 

There is significant evidence, both blandly scientific and anecdotally guttural that alder forests are more diverse than those of dense Douglas fir. Because of its increasingly realized value as a commercial timber and a recognized asset to forest structure, much forestry research has been devoted to understanding how alders can benefit a healthy and “productive” forest. In areas where alders are excluded, even-aged stands of conifers like Douglas fir will eventually shade out most of the life beneath them. It doesn’t take a scientific study to demonstrate that a monocrop of trees isn’t going to boost biodiversity, but this has given a nuanced approach to some forest management practices, whereby overall diversity is increased when allowing alders to persist, leaving a legacy of forest-opening mosaics when they are overtopped and outlived by coniferous cohorts.

The explosion of life beneath the alders along the Skagit in the spring.

Below an alder forest there is just simply more life. The forest I pushed about along the Skagit River while in graduate school, just downfield of my home at that point, was brimming with green. Without hyperbole, every lowland river in Western Washington is lined with alders and is vibrant with life. The spot on the Skagit had nearly a dozen species of trees and shrubs growing there, thanks to the dappled shade of cottonwoods and alders, graciously sharing the sun. There were at least twice as many birds as the mixed conifer forest uphill across the river. If I am out enjoying birds in Washington, I inherently drift towards the edges and reaching canopies of alders and away from the quieter, shady fir stands on all but a few occasions.

Red alders along the Nooksack River outside Bellingham, Washington in winter. They are red with catkins just starting to unfurl.

Up in that tree, I could feel the twisting rhythm of stems moving with the warm wind flowing upriver. I was thankful that I wasn’t here to dismantle a tree that had probably started growing when the land was first cleared to farm and the house behind me was built. This tree grew from a seed the size of a pin head that likely drifted from the now beaten back flood forests. Possibly this tree’s parent predated White settlers in the region and might have stood with the first people living as they had since time immemorial.  

I don’t feel comfortable talking about plants as useful, even though it’s a word I often assign to many things in my life. My reason for this is that I don’t like the gross, clutchy feeling of colonialism and land management that spring up when the supposed value of a tree is considered in my Westernized culture. And yet alders are undoubtedly important and useful trees, and have probably been viewed as such for as long as humans have shared spaces with them. Though I would guess that local Indigenous mindsets assign less hierarchical approaches, alders are certainly a great source of medicine and material for lives more consciously linked to natural resources. You need only cast a glance at any ethnobotanical text to affirm that alders are useful across cultures, which ultimately is just part of a human relationship with plants. The part I cringe about results from being of a culture with unhealthy expectations of how resources are used. 

Though I could take time to list all the ways Indigenous people in this part of the world have used alder, I’d rather not. I am a White settler-colonist with no long or lasting relationships with Native people in Washington State, despite having grown up on their traditional territories. To discuss such things without that relationship is hollow and feels disrespectful. What I will tell you is what I’ve discovered myself: alder is magical to carve. 

A couple of the many spoons I carved from red alder.

Break open a green log and you can feel the moisture emanating from the split faces. Walk away and you’ll discover that the tannins have quickly oxidized and the wood will have started to redden and yellow, that the outer bark that split away is deep red. I learned this because, at the same time I was living along the Skagit River on the traditional territories of the Upper Skagit and the Sauk Suiattle, I discovered the tradition of carving spoons from green wood. 

Alder wood is light, soft, and easy to work. It grows fast and is common. Long, straight boles are frequent, so straight grain is not hard to find. This has made red alder the “most important commercial hardwood in the Pacific Northwest.” This is also why I love to carve it and why Indigenous people from California to Alaska have also appreciated this fine timber. Unlike knotty bitter cherry or twisted madrone, I can shave off amazingly clean cuts. This is so enjoyable that I could easily sit and lose myself in shavings instead of ending up with a spoon.

The yellowy-red wood of recently cut, oxidizing alder.

This relationship has helped me come full circle, back to a time when I was clearing alders for the sake of clearing, an echo of colonization. Though I don’t think carving a few spoons absolves me of cutting trees to perpetuate urban sprawl, it gives me a better appreciation of what can come from material that is underappreciated. This gives me a more healthy relationship with the natural resources around me. I have settled in complexity, for how I view not just alders, but all trees. Throughout my life I will both plant and harvest trees and plants, and there is nothing wrong with that inherently. I believe this is much better than holding nature at arm’s length and stigmatizing many ways of connecting. 

Outside my current home I carve beneath the tapering speckled gray trunks of half a dozen alders. In this forgotten cross-section of three fenced properties. They form a private canopy where I can axe away happily at various woodworking projects, binoculars nearby for any birds that are flitting through. Recently a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, head feathers crested to display its namesake, stopped it’s bubbling song on a bobbing branch tip, posing mid-action to stare at me. We made eye contact before it went back to singing and hovering along branches, snatching at insects within feet of me. It felt like I was given a small nod of approval.

Looking through the dappled crowns I consider what all these trees mean. My whole appreciation is here, where I can simultaneously appreciate the life they represent, while crafting from their fibres. I consider that this genus has been a tree of importance across the world where they grow: buttresses and amendments to Incan hillslope agriculture, the original pillings of Venice, medicine and dye for the Coast Salish. My ancestors in Ireland might have avoided stands of what they called fearn, alders, for fear of what lurked in the depths of the bogs they grew near. At the same time they also made drinking vessels and utensils from such wood. Riverine nitrogen fixers that they are, the red alder of the world I grew up in has always represented calm and potential. They are the first wave of regeneration, unassuming yet unassailable.      


  1. Saul Weisberg

    Thank you. This is excellent. You write from a place of deep attention, grace and care.

    • Brendan McGarry

      Thank you Saul for reading and for your words. I hope you are well.

  2. Gordon Michael McGarry

    Brendan your insights amaze me and open doors of perception I never knew existed Love Slainte Dad.

    • Brendan McGarry

      Thanks Dad, I’m glad you appreciate it. Trees are in vogue with nature writing at the moment but I like to think they transcend a fad. I look forward to writing more, because I of course learn in the process.

  3. Pingback: Tree Love: (Sub)Alpine Larches | Wingtrip

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