It’s high summer in the Bitter North now, when for those few brief months a magical transformation comes to forests that spend much of the year under deep snow. A few years ago on a visit home I betook myself to an area within an hour’s drive of where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. I have the good fortune to come from one of the areas of the United States where there’s still more wilderness than anything else. A look at the map of the area I visited shows that in any direction you care to strike there is … wilderness. It has an official name: Idaho Panhandle National Forest (IPNF), under administration of the USDA Forest Service (website on IPNF here). You can see for yourself just how much wilderness rules the roost in those parts:
As an indication of the scale, the map is roughly 60 miles (maybe a bit more) across as the bird flies, but you can’t go as the bird flies unless you sprout wings. The roads run north and south, because in the east-west direction you run smack dab into the Selkirk Mountains — a daunting prospect at the best of times. There’s a network of Forest Service roads, gravel surface of course, that are open only until the snow makes them impassable. Beyond that your options are reduced to hiking. And there’s bears in them thar hills, bucko. In the northern reaches there are GRIZZLY bears, too, not just black bears. So top up that life insurance policy before you strap on that backpack and hitch up those boots. No need to prepay the funeral home stuff because it’s not likely the body will be recovered. Just saying … 🙂
I’m picturing someone from Los Angeles suddenly beamed by Scotty from Wiltshire Boulevard to the spot where I spent the day of my visit, about five miles north of Nordman, Idaho, off a gravel road that only shows up on the Forest Service map. Not being a born-and-bred city slicker, I can’t claim to know exactly what a denizen of LA would think as the first thing after rematerializing in the middle of the woods, but I suspect the answer to the question, “Where are you?” might well be “nowhere.” No KFCs, no malls, no Starbucks (OMG AYS??), just forest as far as the eye can see. There’s nothing there the human animal can readily identify as pertinent to the continued survival of its biology. From that perspective, “nothing” is a legitimate response. I myself didn’t go there with the intent to stay the night (my momma didn’t raise no dummies), because my biology is as fond as the next guy’s of a cushy bed and plumbing and KFC. I just went to visit the forest, to spend some time after long absence in a biome that has special charm in its green, accessible phase, which lasts only a short time each year. Humans don’t really belong there, if the truth be told. It’s best if we just pop in for visit and then take ourselves back from whence we came.
The matter of some 60 miles apparently makes a world of difference if you’re a forest, especially if the direction in which you’re headed is North. I grew up at the southern end of the county, where things look very different. Ponderosa pine is in ample supply, as is Douglas fir and grand fir. We have a few spots with red cedar, but they are nothing like the stands in the North Country, and our birches are hybrids, not the true white paper birches (Betula papyrifera) found up North. Sixty miles south of my hometown will find you in the basalt pine flats of the Spokane basin, wondering perhaps what possessed you to go there, especially if it’s late July or August when things resemble a tinder box waiting for a spark to set off a general conflagration. The upshot of all this is: a little distance matters. Things change dramatically in the space of an hour’s drive in any direction. Here are some examples:
The pics are arranged by greatest to least distance from the spot where I spent my day up North. You can see the pines on the hillside throwing their arms out like they’re on the dance floor of a disco. They mommas did not raise them right. Around the lake you see all manner of leafy loveliness that is, unfortunately, not cut out to survive a winter in the Bitter North. What does survive there, you ask? Let’s have a look:
One difference in particular captures the attention: everything’s skinny. Pointy and thin as a rail. There’s a good reason for that: sometimes as much as five feet of snow falls over the course of a winter. If you carried on like the pines on the hillside we just saw, throwing your arms out all over the place, you’d end up with some amputations from the weight of snowfall. In the Bitter North, being a skinny bitch is the only way to go. The trees also stand very close together, compacted by their slender habit. One might almost think they were huddled together for warmth in anticipation of the sub-zero temperatures that regularly occur between December and March.
The tree species are very different from those of the land on which I grew up, some 45 miles to the South. The difference in elevation between the two areas amounts to only 200 feet, so obviously the distance northward is the determining factor. Those miles demarcate the Bitter North from the less bitter climate of my old stomping ground. It regularly snows oodles there, too, but obviously the differences in temperature are significant enough to create a distinct biome. The snow lingers longer up North, no doubt about that. I remember having cabin fever in my neck of the woods weeks before one could reasonably expect the snow to melt off and give the plants a chance to start all over again, as they must each Spring. I suspect the only way I could muster the patience necessary to wait for the thaw in the Bitter North would involve strong drink or sedation. Good thing I’m not one of those skinny bitch trees.
What are the major tree species in our Bitter North forest, you ask? The Forest Service provides us with a handy list and a photo gallery to boot. We’re in the upper reaches of the biome so the predominant species are Engelmann Spruce (Picea engelmanii), Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana), Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa) and Western Red Cedar. There’s a famous group of cedars a bit north of Nordman, called the Roosevelt Grove of Ancient Cedars (info here) that shows the species at its geriatric, scraggly best, but they form pockets and keep to themselves rather than dotting themselves throughout the forest. In the pics above you see the real lay of the land, which is a mass of densely packed trees composed mostly of hemlock, spruce and subalpine fir. In so dense a forest the undergrowth is scant, unlike the forests in my home area, where you often have your work cut out for you schlogging through the underbrush, especially if you have the misfortune to stumble on a patch of buckbrush (Ceanothus velutinus). As you can see in the pics, passage through the forest in the Bitter North is easy by comparison. It’s also quiet like a cathedral and wonderfully fragrant in the summertime. What’s not to like when summer puts out the Open House sign? Strike while the iron is hot, that’s my motto, so off I went while the getting was good.
The chiaroscuro of the forest floor, deep shade alternating with patches of brilliant sunlight, is the feature of the place I remember most when thinking of the woods. It’s not quite the same as the effect of light through the stained glass windows of Chartres, but it’ll do in a pinch, and the quiet of the northern forest beats the hush in Chartres hands down because it’s natural, not the product of centuries of fingers held to lips in signs of disapproval. I like a quiet forest, to be honest — where I grew up things go twittering and scampering and rustling all over the place. In the Bitter North the forest denizens are few and they keep their voices down, so the quiet is deep to the point of being almost as strong an element as the light and shade.
I go there in the summer because it’s the only time you find the botanical world in full swing. It must be said — though I do so in no spirit of criticism — that the species diversity in the Bitter North would likely induce an ecologist to use the word “paucity.” We have far more going on botanically in my home area than goes on in the northern forest. That said, the things that do take off there in the brief summer are lovely. I know almost all of them from my own neck of the woods, but seeing them in that different biome brings to them an aspect of newness, ensconced as they are in a world that imparts so different a sensory impact. To come across a monkshood in full flower after coming out of the forest from a ramble in the cool silence is like finding the sun coming out on a cloudy day. Some pics will tell the tale:
The first pic is of a plant that all by itself makes the trip North worth it, in my opinion: wild ginger, botanically Asarum caudatum (the Forest Service Fire Effects Information System — FEIS for short –info page is here). I first met this lovely creature when working for a couple years doing radon surveys in the Bitter North for a French mining company, an experience for which I still hold out hope protective amnesia will kick in so I can’t remember it. 🙂 The money I earned later got me through undergraduate school, that and the fact of meeting Asarum caudatum are the only points worth retention. It’s a plant of the cool forest floor, so handsome with its heart-shaped leaves, and yes, the root does indeed smell of ginger. I knew I would find it when I made my visit and it was a sight for sore eyes.
The next pic is Pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea), an oddment in the botanical scheme of things. It’s a member of the group Monotropoideae, which astonishingly is in the heath family (Ericaceae) and makes its living by being parasitic on mycorrhizal fungi. Hardly a ladylike thing to do — one feels certain the Queen Mum could not approve of such an arrangement — but if it gets you flowers like you see in the pic it’s nice to know somebody’s having a good time out of it. The Forest Service wildflower page on the species is here if you want the particulars. The other member of the Monotropoideae in the area is Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), a stark white plant I call The Ghost Plant. If you’re a saprophyte you needn’t worry your pretty little head about being photosynthetic, which leaves Indian Pipe free to ditch the chlorophyll and loll about on the forest floor draped in white like some distressed damsel from a forgotten age who kicked the bucket and decided to hang around. It’s a lovely plant to the eye but always gives me a mild sense of unease. Some part of me thinks, “It just ain’t natural.” The feeling is that there must be something dead underneath into which it’s sinking its toes, and perhaps it’s there due to foul play. Gives you the shivers. It is natural, obviously, but all the same I find ghostly parasites mildly off-putting. I much prefer green plants who roll up their sleeves and concoct their own dinner from the sunlight. Pinedrops isn’t creepy until you learn what it does for a living, but I can forgive it more easily because at least it keeps up appearances. And we all know, don’t we, how important it is in life to keep up appearances. Just ask the Queen Mum.
Next: huckleberries! Yum yum. My mother has a war story from her early years in the area about a legendary huckleberry patch at Lamb Creek, south of Nordman, where one year when I was too young to know what was going on the huckleberries were like cherries weighing down the tree, so goes the tale. Apparently gallons just fell into your bucket as you ambled from one heavily laden bush to the next. I have no doubt every word is true, but never in my long years of huckleberry picking have I ever come across such a patch. Huckleberries in my experience require resolve, determination, patience and a picnic basket with coffee and muffins. If I ever came across a patch like my mother described I’d go hog wild and fill the freezer so full of berries nothing else would fit in it for a couple years at least. Those of you who know the delights of huckleberry coffee cake and the agony of having your frozen berries run out in February will understand my reasoning without further explanation.
The first pic in the second row is monkshood — Aconitum columbianum. The USDA plant profile page is here. As can sometimes be the case with our botanical chums, what looks pretty can be deadly to us mammalian sorts, and Aconitum is decidedly on the don’t-mess-with-me list. Acotinine and its related alkaloids are both cardiotoxic and neurotoxic — two toxicities for the price of one, woohoo! You just need to absorb that fact, let it sink into the recesses of your long-term memory so it blips across your mental screen when you meet a monkshood, then carry on enjoying the lovely foliage and the stunning flowers. The color is superb, one gets so few wildflowers in that part of the world of a deep blue or purple. Seeing a spray of the flowers in full bloom is cause enough for me to stop in my tracks and gawk a good long while. And btw I’ve never once found myself seized by an uncontrollable urge to chomp a monkshood when I came across one, so don’t worry, they haven’t an aggressive bone in their body. If they wore T-shirts I’m sure they would say “LIVE AND LET LIVE.”
The next pic, if it were a cultivated plant in someone’s garden, would doubtless put one in mind of old cardigans and support hose and liniments smelling of camphor and such like, because it’s a Spirea. The small-flowered white shrub that back in the day was a must-have in the rural working class garden deserves IMHO the moniker “Old Lady Bush.” I can’t count the times I’ve seen it in the front or back yard of old ladies living out their days in a ramshackle house filled with knick-knacks in the worst possible taste. The plant in the pic is a different animal, however — Spirea betulifolia, birch-leaf spirea, and the color alone exempts it from association with old ladies, unless they’re the kind who wear lots of makeup and still mosey on down to the bar of an evening for a drink with the fellahs. I had a lovely one just a stone’s throw from my modest abode on the property my family owns. I always said hello whenever I walked past it. I think once I even got a wink. 🙂 Saucy …
The plant in the last pic in Row 2 deserves a MUCH better photo, my head hangs in shame at the disservice I do it with that wretched photo I took. It’s fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium, and it’s a stunner in the flesh. The flowers are a gorgeous color I couldn’t possible name accurately — mauve? pale violet? who knows … I couldn’t identify a swatch of mauve at gunpoint, so pick whatever name suits you best. I pilfered a photo some time ago of a fireweed group growing in the Ivano-Frankivsk area of the Ukraine, which offers a much better view of it:
In my neck of the woods we have a sister species, as well, the common willow-herb, Epilobium glandulosum, that grows barely a foot high. Lovely in its own way, to be sure, but the sight of a group of tall fireweed plants in full bloom is hard to beat.
The first pic in the last row shows how much we can learn from our plant friends in the area of cooperation. Here we have asters, a cow parsnip and a goldenrod each doing their own thing and getting along just fine with their neighbors. There are no covenants in their development, as far as I know, and I saw no community watch signs. During my visit I heard not one word of complaint from any of them about how their neighbors keep — or don’t keep — their yard. Rather makes you wish you were a plant …
The middle pic, last row, is all about foliage — LEAVES. Look at them all, so fresh and glossy and crisp. It looks like an enormous salad, one’s tempted to sprinkle it with ranch dressing and start chomping. But of course one maintains an appropriate restraint at all times, doesn’t one. Of course one does. If you were a moose, however, you’d chomp it even without the ranch dressing. Yes, Bridget, that’s the voice of experience speaking. I had near my humble abode a white alder tree I was lavishing with tender loving care in the hope it would grow and spread seed far and wide. One morning I awoke, looked out the window and saw a moose chomping the thing to bits. When it finished the branches were bare. 🙁 I really must have a chat with the Design Team after I get past the Pearly Gates. Many things on four legs can only be considered flaws in the schematics, particularly if you happen to be of the botanical persuasion. In my opinion, wildlife should be ornamental, nothing more. I have tons of forms filled out for the Suggestion Box On High in the hope that inundating the Higher Ups with them will lead to the error being corrected ASAP. Fingers crossed …
Last but not least we have our old friend Western Mountain Ash, Sorbus scopulina, which is in the rose family — which I mention because that fact may increase its clout with some, roses being the ooh la la thing they are with so many folks. The berries become a brilliant red in the fall, which is lovely to see as one goes about the forest. I find the glossy, long leaves equally scenic. Its family ties put it in the same ballpark as cherries, plums, almonds and a host of other common fruit trees, almost all of which are members of the family Rosaceae. Since there are excellent orchards in the vicinity with fabulous fruits on offer, however, I see no reason to disturb our mountain ash friends for the berries. The birds do a good job of that, so let’s leave them to it, shall we? There’s an excellent page on the species on the website of Native Plants PNW (here).
The area is called Priest Lake because — duuuh — there’s a lake there. A really big lake. A huge lake is just down the road — Lake Pend Oreille. Lakes like these are what you get when you throw an Ice Age party, carve everything to smithereens with glaciers, then melt off the ice so the gouged out parts fill with water. For those of us with a taste for water skiing or fishing, the geological sequence of events and the timing are perfection itself. We get the pristine mountain lake without having had to freeze ourselves to death for thousands of years, then we cleverly avoid the to-do of the Missoula Floods (info here) that created Lake Pend Oreille, one of the five deepest lakes in the United States (info here). Just think what forces of Nature ganged up for its creation and be glad we weren’t around to get caught in the middle of things. No place for a lady, that’s as plain as the nose on your face.
Priest Lake isn’t so huge that it boggles the mind, whereas Lake Pend Oreille decidedly is mind-boggling, at least for me. That isn’t to say, however, that Priest Lake doesn’t impress by its size. It’s impressive, alright, especially with its ring of mountains on the eastern side. Let’s have some pics to prove the point:
You all know what a lake looks like, so it’s the perfect opportunity for me to use some of my artsy-fartsy pics. For those of you of concrete-like literal mind, yes, there’s water. Yes, it’s big. Yes, it’s COLD. Even in the middle of the summer it’s cold. It’s the Bitter North for God’s sake, you can’t expect it to get to the temperature of bathwater like the Mediterranean does in the summertime. Since I’m not a water baby it doesn’t really matter to me, but if you’re the type to plunge in and splash about, just remember that real men and cowboy gals don’t let their teeth chatter, it shows you’re a wuss. 🙂
I spent a lovely day in the forest and remember it very clearly even at this temporal distance. I caught it at just the right moment, when things were at their peak of summer perfection — the flowers, the leaves, the woodsy fragrance from the conifers and the forest floor, you couldn’t ask for more. I will admit, however, that later that year, back at my job in Saudi Arabia, I was glad to be halfway round the world enjoying perfect summer weather in January. I’m the one with the problem, obviously, the forest doesn’t mind the winter at all. Thank goodness it makes itself accessible to the likes of me for a few months of the year in the summertime, I’d cry crocodile tears if I were disbarred from its company entirely — that’s how it is with beautiful things, after a while you start pining to see them again and nothing but a visit will scratch that itch.
To close, a bit from Ludwig Tieck that always comes to mind when I’m in the northern forests: “Waldeinsamkeit,” “Forest Solitude,” a poem from his story “Der Blonde Eckbert.” Btw the German word “Waldeinsamkeit” is pronounced valt-ayn-zam-kite, so it rhymes perfectly with “delight,” which is the key concept of the poem. Hence the rhyme is strategic. Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not as stupid as I look 🙂
- Die mich erfreut,
- So morgen wie heut
- In ewger Zeit,
- O wie mich freut
- Wie liegst du weit!
- O Dir gereut
- Einst mit der Zeit.
- Ach einzge Freud
- Mich wieder freut,
- Mir geschieht kein Leid,
- Hier wohnt kein Neid
- Von neuem mich freut
Here’s a translation by Yours Truly:
And by the way, if you happen across an old lady who invites you into her cottage for a peek inside that fancy new oven she just got, simply explain that you have a dental appointment later in the day and really must keep moving. You’ll be glad you did. 🙂