Lange: The Tamarack

Aug 4, 2014

In midsummer, Vermont is as green as it’s possible to be. But when I turn into my driveway, a softer, lighter green always stokes old memories for me.

Larix laricina, commonly known as American larch, is native to Canada, from Yukon east to Newfoundland, and south into the northeastern United States.

The Leaf River runs over 200 miles across the Ungava Peninsula in northern Quebec. Its course coincides with the northern limit of trees. The black flies there were the worst I’d ever seen. So it was almost a relief when we were blown ashore on a day too cold and windy for flies and took shelter up a side stream.

My late buddy Dudley and I put on all our warm clothes and windproofs and lay down on the bank with life jackets for pillows, hands shoved into our pockets, and just our eyes and noses showing. Above our heads, small tamaracks waved wildly in the wind. Half-asleep, we marveled at their unusual fruits. We were used to tiny cones, less than an inch long, on the New England variety; but these had purple ones the size and color of ripe plums. Dopey with drowsiness, we ended our observation with a mutual, “Hmm...” and as I recall, never mentioned it again. So much for the march of natural science.

The tamarack is a symbol of the North. There’s a grove beside Route 2 between Marshfield and West Danbury, reminding me when I pass of the Northeast Kingdom just beyond; and beyond that, the Canadian bush of the Cree, who named the tamarack (“snowshoe wood”); and farther north, the taiga, tapering off finally into the Barren Lands.

It’s a primitive tree, a predecessor of the hardwoods. Each fall it loses all its needles. But first they turn a brilliant mustard yellow that stands out among the spruces like a flag. Partridge and spruce grouse feed on the cones.

The Cree have lived with the tamarack for thousands of years, learning its virtues by watching its behavior in the wind. The black spruce sways back and forth in a breeze like the mast of a moored sailboat; the tamarack tosses its top like a long-haired modern dancer. The Cree steam it into snowshoe frames, and bend it around log,s to make narrow toboggans. They use its splits for beautiful baskets and goose decoys.

Tamarack loves wet ground and lots of sunlight. When we moved here a few years ago, I noticed our property was damp – a perfect spot for them. But nobody had any of the bog-loving American species. I finally found a guy in St. Johnsbury who brought over a dozen and planted them – around our dog’s grave, beside the leach field, and down by the road.

The ones around the grave don’t get enough sun, and those by the leach field got hammered by the deer. But at the foot of the drive they’re thriving. When I pull in during the winter, they’re invisible; in summer, the most delicate shade of olive; and in November, a blaze of yellow – a reminder of happy days living rough on the northern rim of the world.

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.