For those of you just arriving, I am currently writing about Pacific Northwest trees. This is a practice in appreciation, place-making, and is a pandemic project I hope to continue beyond this period. Though there are certainly no starts or finishes to this, if you are interested in this subject, I suggest you go back and read my first two pieces on red alder and bigleaf maple. The goal here is to not try to be all encompassing, supply every fact, but to tell stories.
Someone recently suggested that I write about an alpine tree and that sounded appropriate, because right now I am pining for the alpine. I know it’s still there, without me, and that it’s still early to be traveling on elevated trails just yet. And it still feels as if summer could slip by without really getting into those glorious hills. As always, thank you for engaging with this subject and considering our part in nature.
They were cast about like rocks, thrust deep below the talus we traversed. We exhaled with the pain of thin air and heat and insects. They stood silent, numb roots wiggling free in thaw. Our fragile lives groaned past their tortured trunks, curled deeply like arthritic hands that seemed to mock our pain: ours was temporary self-flagellation, their’s was monastic devotion. A hollow tinkle below our feet and a shimmering veil of mosquitoes told us how they were persisting. And that’s what alpine larches do, they persist. No matter what I tell you in the following, it’s not glamorous. Mostly, it’s a practice in deep time, lingering in places where the lines between geology and flora meld and collude.
I grew up in the Evergreen State. I went to The Evergreen State College. As a child conifer, as in cone-bearing tree, and evergreen were synonyms. Or, at least they were until my mother started classes towards her imminent landscape design business. Through a strange osmosis, she took a class in tree ID, and I tagged along and unconsciously absorbed. As preteen I wasn’t yet too cool to feign disinterest but mostly I was just happy to be out in arboretums with binoculars, imagining rare birds behind every sprig of needles. Despite my all consuming thirst for birds, I started learning about trees.
Arboretums are strangely wonderful places. Collections of living things plucked from reality and arranged in ways that please the gardener and the guest. As with many of my critical thoughts about my identity as a naturalist, arboretums can feel unsettlingly Victorian, representations of exploration, plunder, and lacking in context to all but the most engrossed of visitors. Of course gardens, tree focused or otherwise are of all cultures. In one form or another, they are markers of our biofilia, our spiritual and visceral need for vegetative life. And arboretums also surreal, beautiful places, representations of hard labor with foresight and artistic flair. They are spaces to admire life that will outlast us.
I was yet young enough that I can’t recall what I must have absorbed while strolling arboretums with my mother. Or from driving through the city, erratically stopping to consider an unusual tree. There’s a similar lack of clarity when I think back to learning birds. I do not know when I first learned to recognize Song Sparrows; they seem to have always been part of my consciousness. Other birds, like my first House Finch, a male seemingly stained red in a blackberry thicket, have through-lines. Larches, alpine or otherwise, are deep memory.
On what must have been a gray spring day (an unhelpful atmospheric memory for a person growing up in the Pacific Northwest), they vibrated a translucent neon. Their evergreen brethren seemed stagnant by comparison, likely because of what I’d just learned. This was unearthly. “Larches are deciduous conifers.”
Peering through my spotting scope, I confirmed what I’d glimpsed with the naked eye. I’d been walking beside the dammed portion of the Skagit River called Lake Diablo with my classmates, when I looked up to see a hint of gold on a distant saddle of Colonial Peak. Fall afternoons were closed in, shoulders of surrounding mountains framing in darkness, the craggiest peaks washed pink and golden. I felt like I was seeing the most westerly larch in the North Cascades, alone on an inhospitable flat between mountains that once peaked above landscape consuming glaciers.
The Pacific Northwest has two species of larch. The alpine, or subalpine, larch, Larix lyallii and the western larch, Larix occidentalis. I was staring up in surprise at an alpine larch, which are the more hardy cousins that exist in the most extreme of environments in Washington. The two species have clearly diverged over their ability to endure what is essentially alpine tundra. These are places sometimes just above the treeline throughout the Cascade Range of Washington and the Northern Rockies. Hence the two common names: subalpine and alpine. Alpine sounds more distinguished, and I can’t help but find it annoying to describe a species by what it is not.
As I stood gawking at this glowing golden larch, a sentinel on Colonial, I didn’t know it yet but larches extended even farther westward to my back. The Pickets, a range of peaks made famous by inaccessibility and ruggedness, hold alpine larches too. This confounds us humans, who like to distinguish boundaries and draw lines around things. Further east of where I stood Ross Lake, in a rift-like valley that is the dammed portion of the Upper Skagit River, is often viewed as the dividing line of the Cascade Crest. Indeed there are stands of ponderosa pine on the east lakeshore and only a few on the west. But what to do about those alpine larches up in the Pickets? Where oh where does the Cascade Crest actually sit? This encapsulates the North Cascades, that they are difficult to comprehend as a single entity, a jumble of ideas with people trying and mostly failing to wrest control and understanding. Larches seem to echo this.
Of course alpine larches don’t care what we think, they know in their roots and knobbly stems what are suitable perches. This seems to be in places freshly scoured by ice. In the Cascades they are barely found below 5000 feet. Larches appear to relish a good challenge, scrabbling against geologic frost fortresses with only a chilly three months to grow each year. Three months is plenty for annually flowering plants that die back, throwing fistfulls of seeds about in fading light. Three months is hardly anything for a tree. As a result, these high up denizens take their time.
Some of the oldest trees in the world are larches. Can you imagine standing in an endless, assaulting winter for a thousand years? Well, an alpine larch can, they strive for it. In their first 25 years they might only reach 12 inches in height. Focusing on height isn’t terribly useful until you have a grip. Root systems develop more fully first, to find water and footing in the rocky places larches grow. This system of slow growth means they can grow where most other trees cannot do as well, but at a sacrifice: they can’t compete with faster growing conifers like subalpine fir and mountain hemlock, who grow in solid stands at just lower elevations. I have stood in talus fields where krumholz firs cower beneath pure stands of larch and within a couple minutes walked downhill, to a few legacy larches amid densely packed subalpine forest.
I have something of an admission to make. It feels like when I tell people I’ve never been to Hawaii or Alaska, which are somehow requisite trips if you live in the Pacific Northwest. Up until a couple years ago I’d never really admired larches in autumn. This is partly because I’ve never made the journey into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness at the right time of year, nor gotten a permit for a much desired backpack into the Enchantments. And if I’m being honest, it never really occurred to me how beautiful an autumnal drive up Highway 20 or chilly October hike in the Pasayten Wilderness would be.
My experiences with fall foliage changed when I was fortunate enough to spend a year living in the North Cascades. While many can never get enough time up in those high places that larch live, I got a fair share considering I was in the midst of graduate studies. I saw them throughout the seasons: gray and bare, neon and flush, golden and fading. I admired them from afar, a final murmur on a landscape slipping back to sleep. I petted their soft needles and dreamed of a bed of their limbs. Larches are the trees that slip up out of nowhere and surprise you, suddenly a hillside is bright green or sharp yellow where you never noticed they grew. You come around a corner or slog through a cirque to find a miniature forest of them in the shadow of monstrous slabs of rock. Mary Shelley’s sublime view of nature is of the larch. Battered, neon green, growing in the cracks between boulders sheared in two by a thousand foot drop, weathered by a thousand years.
Why would a conifer be deciduous? Though I have yet to discuss the value of needles in these writings, the general idea is that all those vulnerable photosynthesizing chloroplasts are protected by waxy, resinous materials. Frozen weather is shrugged off and at the first sign of favorable conditions, an evergreen conifer can start growing instead of first needing to push out fragile new leaves.
This works well up to a point, because there are limits to the stoutness of evergreen needles, and that limit is seen at the edge of the North American boreal forests where the only “trees” further North are all tiny enduring birches (or so I’m told). In Siberia, Dahurian larches, Larix gmelinii extend miles beyond where all other trees stop. They are the most northerly trees in the world, trees that inspired Siberian shamans, their tree of the world, a tree of the dreamtime.
Dropping needles means several things: larches don’t have to worry about losing moisture to cold or desiccating heat, which are both part of their world. Late spring and early summer can bring intense bouts of sunshine despite the still frozen conditions. Larches grow their needles late and so don’t have to worry about the inescapable heat. Depths of winter? No problem, even their buds are protected beneath knobs of bark, giving larches recognizable pimpled branches. Muddling things, further evidence that larches care only for survival and not our desire to pin them down, young trees grow wintergreen needles. These are evergreen needles that last through the winter and into the following fall on the lower branches of the tree. Evidence suggests these needles are more drought resistant than the rest and having needles earlier in the year is a leg up when establishing.
Though alpine larches don’t cast much of a shadow, literally or figuratively, in the Pacific Northwest, they have captured most imaginations. March a group of graduate students up a frozen Tiffany Mountain on the last day of September and they’ll forget the howling wind amid glowing yellow needles. Chase four friends through a circle of storms, miles of trail crisscrossed with downed sooty trunks, up gasping, heartbusting climbs, and make them bed down in a thunderstorm. Despite themselves they will wake in high spirits under ancient trees with florets of chartreuse needles. Alpine larches may have long memories up in their follies, but they seem vampiric, capable of absorbing the human pain of wild places, leaving pleasant, bright days brushed with soft needles. Thinking about the places I have mingled with these trees gives me that uncontrollable, shaking excitement that starts deep in the core and finishes with a sanguine rise of the chest. I want to drop everything and rush aloft.
This brings us to the precipice of usefulness; as if emotional joy is no use. This is also where I say bollocks to your usefulness. These trees are too far and few between, on the whole too small, to be considered for industrial perversions (though do not doubt that other larch species have not escaped this fate). Though it hasn’t yet slowed worldwide deforestation, I would implore the person looking for a use for these trees to consider that the largest larches you’ve seen may have taken root during the Mayan Empire. And if that isn’t enough, Indigenous peoples likely had little desire to disturb such ancient trees, out of practicality and I’m sure respect for those high places. Why should anyone else then? As is said in Richard Power’s The Overstory: “What you make from a tree should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.” What in the world would that be?
I have clearly placed trees, and alpine larches in particular, upon a pedestal. They are deserving of this, as are any lattice of organisms you have the patience to train your mind to. Many creatures can do things that we cannot despite our cleverness. What continues astound me about trees is what can be perceived as their notion of time. They live in the same annual world we do, phenologically linked to seasons. And yet many trees, including larches, have memories that extend to a time when glaciers were not rapidly disappearing.
Larches occupy a place of unrest, of upheaval, of summer snowstorms. They remember the bad years as much as the good and record them in the imperceptible rings of their cores, in gale thrust bows, and centuries of yellow and green. There should be no doubt that larches are tough trees, but can memory and time save them from a climate even more chaotic than their norm? Time will yet tell.
When my family moved into our home in North Seattle, there was a lot of work to do. Humans are certainly ecosystem engineers to the extreme and my mother set me to ripping up stumps and removing sod. During our excavations we found giant stones, scattermarked from the same ice that rendered the landscape of larches. This unearthed glacial till became erratics that featured in the berms and beds of the garden I grew up (moaning about) tending. Sometime in middle school my mother planted a weeping larch across one of these rocks. By the time my parents moved, this prostrate tree had spilled over the boulder in a draping carpet of blue green.
This small tree held within it the memory of frozen winters, of a climate so fierce it could not grow as an upright tree. Genes that saw vacillating continental ice sheets, the footfalls of mammoths, seas so low our ancestors could walk between places now separated by vast waters. Alpine larches, all larches are superlatives. In my mind’s eye I hold that prostrate larch in my parent’s old yard, and the lone one on Colonial Peak. They are frozen, forever there, immoveable, shambolically sublime forms. Larches are unimaginably tough and tender all at once. Who knows when I’ll next hold hands with an alpine larch, but when I do I’ll remember being a child and adult all at once, and how knowing trees has made being human an immense delight.