6 Pseudotsuga (Douglas-fir Genus)

Finding a New Fit

After finishing up wiring the sign onto the northern white cedar, my starting point on today’s list, I make my way next to the American elm (Ulmus americana). This will be the first tree to receive the effects of my hammer and nails. We are using hot dipped, galvanized nails as recommended by our city forester. I stand in front of the elm with the ID sign poised in one hand and my hammer in the other. Susan Jane has texted me that she will arrive shortly, and I’m glad to continue getting things started alone for these few moments, preparing myself to pound nails into a tree — a first for me. I pause before the elm, then circle around it once.

This is a mature tree with a gigantic three foot diameter, quietly emanating a majestic presence back at me. Not for the first time, I let the sense of awe wash through me standing face-to-face with an elm that was able to survive the devastating Dutch Elm Disease of the 60s. That plague changed the landscape of our cities across the nation forever. This tree is a survivor. Almost every elm on our boulevard is gone now, replaced with a variety of species (we learned our lesson) including maple, ginkgo, northern catalpa, honey locust and disease resistant elm varieties. When I was growing up in the 60s, the huge American elm from which I gathered perules towered over our postage stamp backyard. On one side a knotted rope was tied for climbing, and on the other – my favorite – a tire swing provided hours of entertainment. How I loved that tree!

My dad’s field of research as a plant pathologist was the study of plant diseases arising from the microorganisms (the fungi, bacteria, viruses and nematodes) that cause them. Dutch elm disease is caused by an invasive fungal pathogen and spread by elm bark beetles. He had the knowledge and equipment at his disposal to try and save our tree using a fungicide injection system. All around the base of the elm, he drilled holes and then inserted plastic tubes into them for siphoning some kind of concoction into the living tissue of the tree. In the end, it did not work, and that majestic tree had to come down.

Again I pause. The thought of the wounds I will be inflicting, however small, has given me pause more than once during the planning phase for this. But I tell myself, others have done this before me. Pounding nails into trees is what people do, including my dad starting the first generation of tags for this project. So, I must go ahead and begin. This includes evaluating where to place the tag using both rational thought and going by how it feels. I find that method works best for me. I walk around the massive trunk again, waiting for that ideal spot to reveal itself.

A tree is not just a flat surface like a bulletin board and all you have to do is find the empty space. A telephone pole is cylindrical, but has no surface variation. Mature bark over a century in age, on the other hand, has grown attractively deep furrows and undulating textures according to its nature, time, the weather, and the flow of its own life. Visibility is also a factor, yes, but not the only one. Unlike the goal of placing a flyer, notice or poster in the most visible location, this is a bit more complicated. Sometimes, it feels more respectful to the tree to use some subtlety. Also, there is the sensibility of the passerby to keep in mind; one need not always choose the most obvious side. Let a walker step beyond their habitual path someday and be pleasantly surprised upon encountering one of these. I decide to make this one for the elm tree somewhat hidden. Once I find the spot that feels just right, I draw in a breath, let it out and tap in four nails, one through each corner. Done! First one complete. Looks and feels good.

The next tree is a silver maple (Acer saccharinum), just a bit farther up the walking path. I know right away where I want to place this tag, but I give the tree a couple twirls just to be thorough. This one I place front and center particularly aware of the wide angles here for catching notice. The sign’s neutral colored substrate shines in the morning sunlight. I like how it ostentatiously reflects the eastern light back across the nearby parking lot. I hope it entices walkers to step from the asphalt path, come up close and read what it has to say.

At this point Susan Jane comes up from the parking lot to join me, and it is good to see her. Together we head next to the honey locust tree while I fill her in on what’s been happening so far. She is in complete agreement with my explanation of the head and heart method for choosing placement, and we soon get into a rhythm of working together. We find that the quality of each heartwood reveals itself in the physical act of nailing. Unlike the abstract idea of each tree simply accepting nails according to plan, in reality each tree has its own reaction according to its species. We need to find the flattest place, especially on trees with deep, furrowed bark. Further, some trees have a soft inner wood such as American elm, while others are hardwoods, such as sugar maple and oak. The ironwood and beech tree prove to be the hardest of all, beating out all other native trees to Minnesota in this category. They vehemently resist our efforts. Nails on both of these trees bend on the way in and require careful aim or even a new nail. They’re also hard to remove. Susan Jane prefers that I do the nailing, but on the ironwood, I encourage her to take the hammer and experience for herself how hard this feels.

We tackle the balsam fir next, giving the largest one in that grove its new sign.

“Balsam fir is my favorite tree,” Susan Jane tells me.

“What makes it your favorite?” I ask, intrigued.

“I like how soft the needles are, how they make the forest such a shady, deep green in the winter. How all kinds of creatures take shelter under their densely needled branches.”

“And eat them!” I add. “Moose love them in winter, their favorite food! Grouse like eating the needles, too, and the cones provide food for the animals and birds that can get up top to eat them.”

It is a rather interesting characteristic of true firs that their cones neither drop from the tree when ripe nor do they hang downwards. Instead, firs present their cones facing upright on the branch towards the crown of the tree. Squirrels, chipmunks, and several species of songbirds like to sit up there and pluck out the seeds, sort of like eating corn on the cob. If not eaten first, the cone scales fall from the ripening fir cone one by one until only a skinny, bare spindle is left sticking up like a candle on the branch. In this way, fir trees rely on forest creatures and wind to disperse their seeds from the cone onto the ground.

On we continue, until midday finds us at the rock elm near the district office, at which point Susan Jane says she needs to leave for an appointment. Over the last few hours, she and I have affixed tags to many of the trees. All morning I have been walking, much of the time with Susan Jane and earlier just being alone with my thoughts. Taking on this effort is proving to be invigorating and fulfilling. Joyful rays of energy seem to radiate into every cell of my body as I go from tree to tree. Though I’m tired now, thirsty, and hungry, I just can’t seem to get enough of this ecstatic elixir coursing through me. So, I continue on by myself a little while longer coming up with one more area I could visit before taking my midday break. I decide to check out the Douglas-fir hill for a quick inspection of the three tree ID signs there from my dad’s original map, just to make sure they are still intact and readable.

Approaching the Douglas-fir first, I flashback suddenly to almost two decades ago. My dad was showing me a photo of a tree as we sat around relaxing in my parents’ home after dinner. My husband, daughter and I were staying with them here in the Cities (as we ‘outstate’ folks refer to Minneapolis/St. Paul) to participate in an art show. Besides having a place to stay, this arrangement gave us all a chance to visit, and especially allowed my young daughter to have some precious Grandpa and Grandma time while we were working. The photo he extended out to me that day was printed on a piece of copy paper.

“Isn’t that a beautiful tree!” my dad exclaimed as I took the printout from him, “I just took this today.”

“It looks like a pine tree,” I remarked with my typical aplomb back then regarding evergreens, adding, “or, is it a spruce?”

“It’s a great exemplar of a mature Douglas-fir,” he marveled.

“Oh! I don’t know what that is, but it’s really nice. I love it!”

Indeed, the tree in the photo presents a towering silhouette rising up gloriously from the top of that hill I mentioned earlier, and quite visible from just about any vantage point.

My pine tree comment, though, accidentally had some merit. By that I don’t mean Douglas-fir is a pine tree, just the small point that — along with spruces and firs — Douglas-fir is a conifer in the Pine family. If any of these species were actually pine trees, their genus name would be Pinus. While ‘fir’ is in its common name, it’s not a true fir either! Douglas-fir’s history involves tangled discussions revolving around just exactly what kind of tree it is. The common name is hyphenated because, again, Douglas-fir is not actually a true fir. Neither is it a spruce nor a hemlock. Its cones are much larger (up to 4” long) and completely different from hemlock cones. Similar to pines, spruces and larches (and most conifers), the ducts with the wood of Douglas-fir send pitch (or resin) into both the bark and inner wood areas. This is unlike the hemlocks, true cedars and true firs, where the resin is more or less restricted to the bark layers. Yet, Doug-fir needles are soft and fir-like, dissimilar to pines; its seed cones hang downwards and the scales (that is, the flat, decorative parts) persist – again, unlike firs. Round and round this discussion went between botanists of long ago searching for a way to classify this unique tree. Douglas-fir simply does not fit into any Pine family genus. In the end, botanists created a new genus and species tailor-made just for Douglas-fir: Pseudotsuga menziesii.

Doug-fir is its own person being the sole member of its own genus, Pseudotsuga, which translates from the Greek as ‘false hemlock’.

What sets Doug-fir apart from other cone bearing trees is the cone itself. They have the sweetest, very long-tailed three-part bract at the end of each scale sticking out all over. A visual delight! Whenever I spy one of these cones hanging demurely from a branch or smiling up at me from the ground beneath the tree, my heart gives a little lurch of joy, and I just can’t help but smile back.

Two sub species of Douglas-fir exist, and both are nonnative to the Midwest. Their original range is the coastal western region and the interior of the Rocky Mountains. The coastal Douglas-fir dominates the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest and southward and creates habitat that spotted owls rely on for survival. These old growth giants can tower up to 300 feet or more and can live to over 1,000 years. Trees of that height appear to have their own weather system up there and niches depending where you are on the trunk, from the crown catching whiffs of moisture to the mossy toes reaching downwards. While the bark of mature Douglas-fir is very thick and quite resistant to fire, they can succumb to extremely high intensity wildfires in addition to drought, beetle infestations and disease. The Rocky Mountain Douglas-firs are smaller (about 100 feet tall), and less long lived than the coastal giants. Douglas-firs are a species often commercially grown in the Midwest and harvested for Christmas trees, besides being very decorative to look at for landscape design.

For some reason, through the decades after that conversation with my dad, the memory of him enthusiastically sharing that photo of a Douglas-fir has stuck with me. Partly, it shows his obvious love of trees. He never did explain why he was photographing the Douglas-fir that day, what the project was, the sponsors, the district environmental committee’s involvement. He wasn’t secretive, just not the best at relaying the sequence of information that might give a person an understanding of a more comprehensive view. At the time, I wrote it off as his being recently retired, and it wasn’t unusual for him to take photos of trees and flowers he admired, so I was assuming that’s all this was. Leaving it at that, I had turned my attention to preparing for my art show the next day.

Not until decades later, right after he died, in fact, did the bits and pieces come together at last to complete the bigger picture. People naturally started sharing their memories. Newspaper clippings turned up clues. Someone from the district sent a photo of my dad’s favorite tree in the park. My sister mentioned she had gone on one of his early tree treks with her family. Wow! I never knew that! Further research turned up all sorts of information that expanded my understanding; it was like a black and white picture gone to full, cinematic color. Why had all this flown so long under my radar? Why didn’t I make these connections sooner?

I’d known all along my dad was volunteering for tree projects in the park starting with invasive buckthorn shrub removal. My daughter had told me about “Grandpa’s tree tags”. Over the last 30 years, I had randomly came across one or two tagged trees on my exercise walks, probably telling my dad how much I liked what he was doing. Beyond that, I didn’t look for more information or even think about it. My work took me away on weekends, and Tree Trek was only one Saturday a year. A favorite photo my mom gave me years earlier I knew perfectly well was a Tree Trek promo taken for the neighborhood newspaper. Yet never before had I noticed that in it, he’s wearing a pair of binoculars around his neck! In fact, I ended up using that photo for his memorial service, creating a birch bark frame to surround it. How many people are like me, needing big arrows under a spotlight before they take notice? Understandably, we’re distractedly putting energy and effort into making a living. Our focus is directed elsewhere as parents. Sometimes we’re just not paying attention.

When I started paying attention, the whole picture swung into a full and complete view. My perspective shifted. Things no longer lined up within me the way I was accustomed, and as a consequence a new picture presented itself. My heart led me to realize that I very much wanted to pick up my dad’s legacy and continue where he had left off. Like Doug-fir, you could say I needed to place myself in a new genus, a genus I never imagined existing in before. I no longer, however, fit in the former one. Being here now feels familiar and safe, like home. It makes me feel connected and alive. There is no going back!

Each one of us evolves as we go through the many ups and downs of life. Even in the midst of grief and loss, opportunities present themselves for listening, paying attention, taking notice and following where your own arising inner wisdom leads. As we unlock from the inside and nurture what we find there, a new purpose can reveal itself allowing us to share latent gifts we each possess within us. We may even emerge significantly changed.

During the winter after my dad died, I got the go ahead from the park district to revive the tree trek event. When spring arrived and the snow melted, I walked my dad’s original route using his first map to locate trees while planning for my own, first Tree Trek. I was so excited! The Douglas-fir from my dad’s photo was the first tree I looked for when planning my route. The probability was high that it would prove to be one of his tagged trees. I remember how I crested the brick stairway to the park memorial that rests nearby Doug-fir’s hill full of such great anticipation of confirming this and stepping into an area of the park where I had never set foot before. As a child, I had ridden my bike around the lake and to the Lily Pond pool below and often climbed these brick steps to the memorial, but just simply had not ventured beyond. As an adult, also, my habitual routes for walking took me elsewhere. That day, I felt a great adventure opening up before me upon entering this new realm, and as I drew closer my whole body felt energized. Sure enough, there it was. A cream colored tag with its text and little drawing stood out from the Douglas-fir tree a short distance away, clearly visible in contrast to the dark tree trunk.

The tag winked at me, beckoning me forward like to an old friend as if to say,

“What took you so long?!”

A rush of happiness suffused me. I avidly read for the first time the tag’s information while placing my palms flat against the trunk. I picked up a few cones, planning how I would include these as talking points the next day. Moving beyond the tree, I discovered that the park designers had planted a whole grove of Douglas-firs behind this one, albeit of a much younger generation. Nice!

Since that first, in person acquaintance with Douglas-fir and my introduction into my own, new genus, I have led several tree treks. I’ve observed the many Doug-firs popping up in other places throughout this very large park and enjoy imagining future trekkers who will be randomly encountering them.  My wish is for Douglas-fir cones to continue surprising others with magical sparks of delight the same way they ignite in me.

So, here I am now, standing in front of Doug-fir to check out his old sign, just the two of us before I go to lunch. Me and Douglas. Doug’s old sign is rather tight to the tree after all, and I begin to remove it. The idea is to reattach the same sign but with longer nails which will provide some growing space between it and the trunk in the years ahead. Pulling the old one off, I discover with a jolt of surprise moving jaggedly through me another one of those red metal labels revealing itself from beneath. Just like with the blue spruce, the tag is still attached, except this one is now appearing into the light of day after being covered up for almost two decades. Without a doubt, this small red tag dates back to the year my dad attached it, the year he began leading tree treks, the year he took that photo. Again, it feels like he’s saying hello.

Smiling, I pull off the unneeded metal tag and stow it away for safe keeping in my zipper pouch. A souvenir after a morning’s good work.

Time for lunch!


Tree Trek Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Mirocha Ellison. All Rights Reserved.

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