From the ashes: looking down to discover the forest

lodgepole1.jpg

Forest after a spring fire.

Back in my old haunts last week, in the boggy bush around Lodgepole, Alberta, I passed through a swath of recently burned timber.

In exploring natural areas, I am trying to train my eye to look down. My gaze naturally goes to the horizons, the distant vistas and the large drama of mountains, hills, and treescapes. So much of what is important in nature happens, though, at the less photogenic and easily overlooked perspective from the knees down – the small growth, the form of the ground itself – even what is under my feet and lower, the substrata.

new sight lines

new sight lines

As a place to practice looking down, looking closely at the ground, a burn zone is a great classroom. At a distance, the black mostly branchless stands of thin timber invite passage. The dense undergrowth that is typical of bush country is gone.

The forest is temporarily reduced to basic elements – vertical and horizontal.

Where the pine and spruce have fallen, their root mass exposing the soil, you realize what a fragile terrain this is for trees.

roots, ash and clay

roots, ash and clay

 The west country of central and northern Alberta is mostly a terrain of clay covered by a felt carpet of mosses. The sphagnum and other mosses grow here because they can. As simple life forms, they gather where more complex plants can’t. And the mosses, in turn, discourage other growth – creating an acidic environment that works well for them but is not nourishing to most plant life.

black scales on solid trunks

black scales on solid trunks

My eye falls to the fallen trunks and it’s immediately apparently that a forest fire does not consume everything. These timbers are crusted with black scales in place of bark but the core wood of the tree is often intact. In fact, someone has been through the area, harvesting the scorched trees, cutting and stacking the largest trunks. So unfortunately they won’t stay here, contributing to the natural evolution and recovery.

The lodgepole pine cones, however, will remain. The cones pop open during a fire and throw their seeds widely. Ironically, the fires that sweep through a lodgepole forest also perpetuate the pines – they are among the first forms to spring back up.

I kneel down and dig a little deeper.

the dense mat underneath

the dense mat underneath

 

Beneath the dusty ash surface, the ground here is a dense and cool web of peat, root fibres, and evergreen needles. It is spongy underfoot – and less than an inch below its charred surface it is cool and slightly damp. I pull up a clump. To my amateur eye, it’s hard to tell what life is sustained in each tuft. Mosses are among the most resilient of plants. They can lie dormant through extreme heat and cold and spring back to life with the simple application of light and water.

I stand, turn, and see the forest floor take on a new identity. Stretching out in front of me is the green of regrowth and regeneration.

 

From the ashes: looking down to discover the forest

From the ashes: looking down to discover the forest

 

 

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