Friday, November 17, 2006

Along the Strath at Dunbeath

By this time last year, Morris had packed me off to the southern hemisphere so as not to lose me in my first Caithness winter. In the near perfect blackness of a November evening trip between home and town I thought that now only family, friends, and fools like me are left up here. Like most locals I complain about the winter and the darkness but take a secret pride in being one of the sturdy ones who makes her home in the North.

On a sunny day in any of the seasons here, however, in a heartbeat all is forgiven and forgotten. The sun in winter is strong and when it comes out from behind clouds it gives everything a warm, yellowish glow. I had thought the weather might keep me from my trip to Dunbeath to learn about Aspen trees, but the day instead is clear and bright and warm as I pull into the parking lot of the Dunbeath Heritage Centre. I have for this trip the Caithness equivalent of a convertible car ride: the heater on full with an opened the sun roof. The air is soft and sweet, the sun warms the top of my head, and the slight road trip breeze, the tender cousin of the usual rowdy winds, tousles my hair.

I am one of nearly 50 people collected from the highlands and the islands (Orkney and Shetland and Western Isles) for a workshop sponsored by the North Highlands Forestry Trust on how to help the declining Aspen population in the North. I am here because I miss trees, because a friend met me walking in the woods and got me on his committee, and because in my new life I get to exercise many interests that had to be ignored when I was a fast-paced American career woman. I am dressed in layers and have brought gloves for digging and good wet-weather walking shoes. My shoe wardrobe now consists mainly of hardworking boots rather than sensible pumps.

Because I was anxious about finding my way on my own and being, again, an 'only', I left home at the very last minute. By the time I arrive everyone else is inside, but the group is informal so I go to the kitchen for a cuppa and a pancake with jam to settle my nerves before we collect in fewer cars to go down to the site where we will learn hands on about aspens and why we should be concerned about them.

As we scramble over the hill and along the path through the croft I recognize some faces from previous trips: a man with a croft who works for SEPA (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency) and is a geologist with a wealth of knowledge about the rocks of this area, a man who studied lichens with me on another seminar, a former forester now turned nurseryman, two of the Highland council rangers whose guided walks have taught me much about this wonderful new landscape.

We walk over a part of Dunbeath that has been, in the words of the crofter and storyteller who accompanies us, "Balmoralized," a short hand term for the effects on the landscape created by Queen Victoria and her kith and kin in re-creating parts of the highlands for their personal enjoyment. It is a phrase that carries much political baggage. Among the changes at Dunbeath was a path created along the river so that the ladies could ride in a gigue rather than walk when the men went on shooting parties. They also planted trees, many of which were not native, but fortunately they left the broch untouched other than to put a stone dyke around it.

As we walk single file up the muddy slope along the swollen river, bits of the story of the area drift back to me. In front there is a well preserved broch; over our shoulders are the remains of the oldest enclosed church in mainland Britain. Like so much of the history of the highlands, these treasures are hidden away and little known. Some times I like that; sometimes it makes me sad. Walking alone on a sunny Saturday afternoon through a 7th century church is a rare and precious opportunity. In the silence I can hear more than I would as part of a group with an expert leader, but like any new convert, I also want to share these treasures with others.

The poet part of me who wanted nothing more than to sit on the hill and watch the colors shift with the light struggled with the diligent student who wanted to learn what the assembled experts had to say about fungus, Aspen clones, and managing biodiversity for the benefit of the hoverfly. I'll save the poetry of the strath for another time and place, here are some words about Aspens, which have a poetry of their own stretched out along the top of a hill or scrabbling onto a limestone cliff edge.

Aspens are among the first woody plants to colonize after a glacier has retreated. There is evidence that there were many aspens in the north in times gone by because, among other things, the Norse word Asp for Aspen shows up in many place names. Only one person in the group had ever seen the Aspen in bloom and seeds from those trees that do manage to produce seed are not viable. No one, and the group included some heavy duty experts, seemed to know why this is so, but they were taking action to help the Aspens maintain their rightful place in the woods through taking root stock, surgically cutting off the treelets that appeared, and nurturing those treelets in a misting unit. Doing this allowed them to reuse the root stock to generate more treelets and so to generate hundreds of trees from a hardworking piece of root.

Much discussion about clones and cloning took place on the slope overlooking the river and in the shade of an ancient aspen. I did listen to it all, but I can summarize it quite briefly here: aspens send out suckers, treelets that grow on the roots of the mother tree. These little trees grow up, as you would expect, exactly like the parent. Where there are lots of trees sending out roots and little trees like houses and hotels on a Monopoly board, the best way to tell which trees are related to which is by the fact that they will bud, leaf out, or drop their leaves at exactly the same time. I imagined can can lines all raising and lifting their skirts in time to a music that only each clone family can hear.

This cloning habit is either very good news if you are trying to encourage aspen growth and development, or the worst of all possible news if you have an aspen sending up these trees in the middle of your garden. Much discussion on the slope centered on this as well as one man's efforts to ensure that he had each and every new little tree mapped to its own proper mother clone.

The group moved further up the hill to take a look at an aspen sending its extended family into the field around it, and I learned that there is an aspen clone in Colorado that extends for several hectares. It is not only the largest aspen but is a contender for one of the largest living things. I looked with greater respect at the little trees huddling onto the ridge top. When I took my own small tree from the back of the forester's van, I dreamed of generations of aspens creeping across a field at Isauld as a testament to the persistence of the ancient Caledonian forests.


At 7:44 PM, Blogger The Curmudgeon said...

This was interesting: Are the Aspens retreating because the cloning strategy doesn't work well where man has landscaped? And do all Aspens have the ability to flower at some point in their life cycle? Before they establish a cloning community?

(Liked the image of the "can can lines all raising and lifting their skirts in time to a music that only each clone family can hear.")

At 8:54 PM, Blogger landgirl said...

Aspens naturally clone, as do many trees. The common term is suckering. I think they send out clones as soon as the trees are mature enough to have sturdy roots. I think climate change has made it harder for aspens to reach flowering--not the global climate change that we worry about now but that weather was different a few thousand years ago. Aspens require male and female trees for seeding so I think cloning is a survival mechanism in case they do not get the right mix of sexes.
Ploughing up fields or grazing animals both destroy young aspens so in that sense man has affected their reproduction rates.
Glad you liked the image of the can can. I sometimes worry that my quirky way of looking at things is too quirky. The trees are quite beautiful. I wish I had taken pictures.

At 6:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

At 9:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you write so well // did not read this one at the time // none the worse for that // sun shining this morning and a visit there would be good // perhaps in warmer days // scorrie //


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