The Wisdom of the Boreal Forest

The Wisdom of the Boreal Forest

Photograph of a mixture of balsam firs, spruce and larch (Source: Lee Everts).

I’m in such awe of them. I look at their rough and straggly bark, some leaning over, old webs strung raggedly amidst the branches and maybe some Old Man’s Beard, a type of lichen, clinging to them. I think of how steadfast and noble are our boreal trees and how much they must know.

Ancient Trees

I lean against one tree, the other one that used to stand alongside it, now fallen, acquiescing to the gentle songs of decomposition and decay. I can’t help but think of the heritage of these trees. The depth of human heritage can stretch back to around 11.6-5.3 million years ago, and that’s respectable enough.

Homo sapiens are the most recent evolutionary spin-off of that line—that’s us. We can only lay claim to 315,000 years since we broke off and went our own way. Despite it being a long time, in stark contrast, trees can call on a much deeper past—around 400 million years, in fact. To compare the two is impossible.

So, for me, trees must be far superior to humans. What had changed in their biology or ecology when they were at 12 million years, let alone 315,000 years, and then simply discarded? We’re mere infants by comparison.

The boreal forest regally crowns the planet, stretching across 8 more northerly countries—Canada, China, Finland, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. It covers approximately one-third of the world’s land surface—more than 15.3 million square miles. For us in Canada, the boreal forest lays claim to around 60% of the country.

Patience is a Virtue

Several trees make their home in Newfoundland and Labrador, in particular, the province where I live. The balsam fir is one of the primary trees in the boreal forest that covers the entire province. The fir is often joined by the black spruce, larch or tamarack as it’s sometimes known, pine, as well as deciduous trees including the trembling aspen, balsam poplar and various types of birch. The first three are common on the trails where I walk.

Throughout the year, the trees must periodically withstand seemingly gale force winds, often over 100 km/h. The day after such a storm, I’ll walk along the trail and invariably there will be trees bent over or

lying strewn over the trail.

Photograph of blown down balsam firs (Source: Lee Everts).

The circle of roots at their base has simply lifted as the tree toppled over. The balsam fir and the black spruce tend to have shallow root systems, thus allowing them to be readily thrown over by the wind.

I love walking through certain parts of the woods to see the rich variety of growth. Often, there’s moss and a variety of plants on the floor of the woods, the moss ringing the base of the trees. The moss has also often enshrouded the rocks and boulders, sometimes trees taking root on their surface. There are other sections where it is virtually carpeted with young balsam fir.

Photograph of balsam fir seedlings on the floor of the forest (Source: Lee Everts).

Photograph of moss covering boulders (Source: Lee Everts).

They are unbothered by the lack of sunlight, as balsam fir are known to be shade tolerant. But as a result, the balsam fir can readily respond to the challenges posed by the wind. As soon as the wind overturns one of the more mature firs, several of those smaller firs will quickly begin to savour the greater amounts of sun now reaching them and begin to grow.

So, there’s almost a type of patience inherent in such a behaviour. Some may say, but they’re just trees. What would they know about patience? But it’s more accurately a way of being that exemplifies patience. It’s demonstrative of the great stretch of time trees have had to realise or learn it is best to wait. It’ll work. For the younger trees, their time will eventually come. That’s how evolution works after all.

Display of Determination

While the balsam fir has a method for addressing adversity, the black spruce does its own thing. For the black spruce, its winged seeds that had fluttered to the ground from its parent’s cone simply waited for more ideal conditions, in this case, light, in which to grow. To my eyes, it was a reflection of sheer determination. It’s a quality shared with trees in general.

Under normal conditions, the Black spruce gets the job done. It possesses female cones and male cones, making it monecious. The female cones with the eggs cells, where the seeds develop, tend to grow on the upper 1 to 2 metres of the tree. Meanwhile, the male cones containing the pollen are lower down. In late May or early June, the male cone swells and opens, the pollen then being caught by the wind. If all goes well, that pollen will reach the female cones which are simultaneously opening. And its planned to ensure genetic viability is maintained, as the one trees pollen reaches another spruce’s female cones.

Photograph of a red squirrel happily eating a cone (Source: Lee Everts).

For the larch, it’s much the same, except the male and female cones appear on the same branches. They are active in different years. Although the male flowers are borne on 1- or 2- branchlets, the female ones are borne on 2- to 4-year on ones. So, it maintains its genetic viability.

Fires Offering a New Beginning

As I rambled along the trail, contemplating the trees reproducing, I was put in mind of the keen resilience, in particular, of the Black spruce. You see, the Black Spruce has something else up its sleeve. There are times when the woods are susceptible to fire. That’s just a natural part of life. However, the Black spruce is prepared for such an occasion. The waxy exterior on their cones are actually readily melted by fire. Jump starting the new generation of trees, the seedlings are then released onto a seedbed fire-cleared of any existing vegetation. This would’ve normally impeded the new growth. Fire is always regarded as utter destruction and devastation, but after 300 million years of evolution, for a Black spruce, it’s a new beginning.


Pausing along the trail, I take a seat on a fallen fir. Looking all around me, I’m in a section of the woods where the balsam fir is more dominant, just every now and then I see a spruce. Yet when I ponder the woods, I feel all the trees exhibit a strength. They know what to do when they meet various forms of adversity—wind, fire or otherwise. Every year, the cones on the trees grow, time passes and then the little buds appear. It’s magical. They always seem to stand impervious to the elements, whether rain or snow.

They’ve had hundreds of millions of years to work things out. Something that didn’t work, perhaps a bad choice, was soon whittled away over the centuries, leaving trees who simply and peacefully, know how to be. We need only listen and indeed learn.


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