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lichen "roots" Katherine

The Social Lives of Trees: Part 3 Underground Partnerships

September 1st, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Emma Ewert, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort. Take a look at part one and part two of her series on the social lives of trees!

While the partnerships between trees and fungi that I have been discussing in my previous posts are fascinating, what really intrigues and excites me is how these mycorrhizal networks we have been talking so much about help trees connect to each other, and how they form the basis for almost every aspect of the forest ecosystem. The relationships between trees allow them to survive and adapt to the world around them. It certainly helps explain why a tree that relies so much on access to the sun would choose to live so closely together that their ability to photosynthesize might be compromised.

At the moment, what we know is that mycorrhizal fungi not only play a huge part in keeping trees alive, but they also connect trees and plants, creating a forest ecosystem where almost every plant in any one square mile is directly connected to every other plant. This underlying mycelial structure allows trees and plants to share resources and warn each other of dangers.

» Continue reading The Social Lives of Trees: Part 3 Underground Partnerships

The Social Lives of Trees: Part 2 Mycorrhizal Fungi

August 25th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Sourdough T downed tree

By Emma Ewert, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort. Take a look at part one of her series on the social lives of trees!

It is almost impossible to distinguish root systems from the fungi that they are connected to. In fact, the term mycorrhizal means “fungi-root”, and refers to the root system as a whole, including both the tree roots and mycelial hyphae systems (Fungi are most commonly associated with mushrooms, but these visible structures are just the fruiting bodies of a network of thin string-like hyphae that create webs underneath the soil). Within three months of germinating, tree seeds have developed a mycorrhizal network, and while the species of fungi changes throughout its life, a tree will always maintain this partnership. Mycorrhizal fungi have existed for over 400 million years, and evolved along with plants as they moved onto dry ground. All conifers and most broad leafed trees have mycorrhizal partnerships, and it is probable that both  the fungi and the trees need this partnership to survive. Mycorrhizal fungi has three major roles. First, they extend the root system further into the soil, and allow a tree to access 1000 times more soil and water then they could with their roots alone. Secondly, they access and dissolve critical minerals and nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium or phosphorus into compounds that a tree can absorb and use. Finally, they can detect potentially harmful fungi or bacteria, act as an immune system for the tree.

» Continue reading The Social Lives of Trees: Part 2 Mycorrhizal Fungi

trees K. Renz

The Social Lives of Trees: Part 1

August 22nd, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Emma Ewert, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

I have always found trees comforting and familiar. Playing in the dense woods surrounding my childhood home, they were the walls of my forts or the home of woodland fairies. Living in the Salish Sea, my childhood trees were the stately Douglas-firs, scrappy Shore Pines, somber Grand Firs, and the beautiful, queenly Madronas. Before starting the graduate program at NCI,  I took this connection for granted. I knew forests, I could sense the differences in species and size that came with different climates and succession stages. However, for the most part, I was more interested in getting through the forests to the high places where I could REALLY see something.  

As I learned more about trees and forests, I became more aware of each and every tree. Each new species I learned to see, each new forest I became familiar with added to this growing interest. I started to notice peculiar patterns. Cedars and Western Hemlocks grew tightly along the sides of Douglas-firs, taking advantage of their shade, and creating odd pairs of intertwined trees. Depending on the climate, the same species of tree could look like a gnarled shrub or grow tall and straight, reaching hundreds of feet into the air. I wanted to know why this happened, to get a sense for how and why trees chose to grow in these weird ways.

» Continue reading The Social Lives of Trees: Part 1

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Growing Minds: Tree Planting at Cornet Bay with the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program

April 7th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

Environmental Education has the unique opportunity to bring people and organizations together in the most radical places on this planet. Last month, myself and three other members of the current graduate cohort at the North Cascades Institute hopped on a bus full of students, chaperons, a police officer and National Forest employees as part of the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program.

The Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program (or Kulshan Creek for short) is a partnership between Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Mount Vernon Police Department, Catholic Housing Services of Western WashingtonNorth Cascades National Park and North Cascades Institute. Coming together they work with youth from the Mount Vernon, WA neighborhoods of Kulshan Creek and Casa de San Jose to:

  • Foster a connection to nature by increasing students’ understanding of their place in the North Cascades and surrounding region
  • Help students discover the connection between natural resources, public lands and the urban environment
  • Develop a stewardship ethic through meaningful environmental education experiences
  • Facilitate opportunities to gain life skills, build self-esteem and foster community engagement and pride
  • Provide positive role models for staying in school
  • Provide a pathway for students to continue their engagement through next step opportunities including Youth Leadership Adventures and exposure to internships and careers in natural resources, community services and environmental education

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Orlando Garcia instructing students what our day is going to look like.

Each month the Kulshan Creek program provides free opportunities for students to engage with the natural world. This year alone they have already been eagle watching and working with the Skagit Land Trust, and later this month will participate in the annual Migratory Bird Festival at Fort Casey State Park! On March 19th all of us met with the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group to help out with tree planting at Cornet Bay.

» Continue reading Growing Minds: Tree Planting at Cornet Bay with the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program

NorthwestCoast-Holm

Northwest Bookshelf: Native Art, Native Trees and a Journey to the North

June 2nd, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Northwest Coast Indian Art
Bill Holm (University of Washington Press)

From blankets to gambling sticks, coffins to rain hats, spoons to shaman’s paraphernalia, seemingly every material aspect of the indigenous cultures of the northern Pacific Coast was decorated with representations of the natural world, usually animals. Salmon, bear, raven, wolf, whale, seal, beaver: the wild creatures of the British Columbian and southeast Alaskan coastlines and islands are memorialized in bold strokes of black and red by Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit artists from time immemorial.

The definitive study of the visual language of Northwest Coast Native art is back on bookstore shelves in a 50th anniversary edition that includes new color photographs, illustrations and reflections from contemporary artists on the impact of Bill Holm’s landmark book.

Holm is credited with decoding the hidden structures of the complex and highly stylized art form, helping “unravel the secrets of Northwest Coast art,” according to one artist. He made his findings in a systematic study of hundreds of artifacts housed in the University of Washington’s Burke Museum as a graduate student.

“I realized there was a sort of grammar or syntax to it not unlike a written language,” Holm writes in a new preface. “There were ‘rules’ that transcended tribal and linguistic boundaries on the northern coast, and these rules were followed with remarkable uniformity by artists of all the tribes in the area.”

Considered one of the most advanced art forms in the world, Holm demystifies the schematics of Northwest Coast Indian Art while also allowing that it is the individual artist’s sensibilities that make the sum of elements greater than the parts.

Even with his deep comprehension of the art, Holm acknowledges mystery too: “It is difficult to understand how these Indian artists, scattered among the inlets of the rugged northern coast, mastered the complexities of the design system to such a degree that only an occasional piece in the vast museum collections of today deviates from that system.”

» Continue reading Northwest Bookshelf: Native Art, Native Trees and a Journey to the North

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Red red

October 7th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Simultaneously crispy and cozy, the first days of autumn belong to the poet.

All the seasons are lovable in their own way, and each claims my favorite when that quarter’s beginning day of solstice or equinox finally spins around. Yet there’s something about fall, its fading light and muted yet still burning colors, that is especially good at invocation. Symbolically, it’s that last call before the witching hour of death—bare branches, brisk, dark, truncated days–the one guarantee we get besides birth, one our modern industrial culture is predictably loath to appreciate. If winter is the cold end, spring the new beginnings, and summer just carefree fun, fall is the reflective calm. Books could be written devoted to the beauty of maple leaves coasting whimsically to the ground, Crayola palettes inspired by the browns and ambers and goldenrods and crimsons of October. Both are probably out there.

A few nights ago, during the first big storm since graduate Cohort 13 arrived at the Environmental Learning Center, a new meaning of the season struck me with a boom. The lightness of falling leaves may be a quintessential image, but what about the heaviness of falling trees?

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Fellow grad, Tyler, and educator extraordinaire Kevin followed the sound of the crash and discovered a red alder lying prone and broken across the Sourdough Creek Trail, not far from campus. Later, out with our first week of Mountain School, we all had to cross a tangle of more alders sacrificed to the storm just past the Fawn Creek Shelter. Though my non-ecological mind immediately sentimentalizes, “Oh, poor trees,” I soon remember this North Cascades forest community is composed of at least as many horizontal, decaying logs as it is healthy standing ones. The cycle is complete: easy to see and obvious to teach.

The inside of the tree, now splinted, is easy to see as well. This is a benefit, as it offers a visual on why this species was named as it is. Red alder, or Alnus rubra, translates to “red red.” According to Pojar and Mackinnon’s trusty Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, ‘Alder’ seems to be a variation of Old English or Old High German words for ‘reddish-yellow;’ ‘rubra’ is red in Latin. Redundant or emphatic? It matters little, for now I have in situ evidence when I tell students the bark is used to make a red or orange dye. My other favorite regional field guide, Daniel Mathews’ Cascades-Olympic Natural History, says the Salish have techniques to boil, chew, or urinate on cut bark to make and fix the color. This potent bark is also medicinal, used against tuberculosis and as an anti-biotic wash for skin wounds. The wood is reputed for being among the best for smoking salmon.

It is hard to ascertain this vermillion-ness from the standing trees, though, for on the surface their trunk is a mottled combination of white and grey, and moss. The trees’ thin layer of outer bark is greyish-brown, and the patchy effect is from the white crustose lichens using the alder as a reliable host. These lichens are also easy to check out, eye to apothecia, when having to negotiate the fallen trunks. Nature explodes in details.

IMG_5905The sage green is a foliose lichen (think, “foliage” aka “like a leaf”), and the white is the crustose lichen (think, “like a crust”) that forms the patchy texture of red alder bark. Notice the apothecia, the tiny circular reproductive structures of the fungal partner of the lichen. Photo by author.

It really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that the species causing the midnight raucous was red alder. They grow fast and aggressively, but they die young, considered an old tree at 50 years. In their short time, though, they offer an invaluable natural service, partnering up with bacteria that live on their roots and “fix” atmospheric nitrogen that is normally unavailable to plants. In many ecosystems, including the Pacific Northwest, nitrogen is one of the biggest factors limiting plant growth. Not only do the bacteria thus provide some nitrogen for the soil and the host alder, but the alder leaf litter is nitrogen-rich, fertilizing the forest floor and preparing the system for later successional species, such as Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock, as it decomposes.

The Red red tree: a pioneer, a friend of the lichen and bacteria, an important plant resource for human cultures. And for the poets among the alders, stepping over all this on the trail, another pleasant reminder of a favorite season.

Leading photo: A bigleaf maple leaf (Acer macrophyllum) rests in the fresh break of a fallen red alder. Photo by author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is currently one of two editors of Chattermarks. Until March 21, autumn is usually her preferred seasoning.

 

Trailside participants

Rocking the old growth

January 15th, 2010 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Sometimes we think in order to see new things that we need to travel to the furthest reaches of our earth.

I was reminded of how wrong this train of thought is last Saturday as I traveled 40 minutes downriver to Rockport State Park. Rockport is a small place, blink while driving across Highway 20 East to the Cascades and you might well miss it. However, being small and little known should not suggest that this State Park has nothing to offer. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a more easily accessible example of old growth forest anywhere in the Cascades.

Old GrowthThat which we do not speak of makes its presence known

» Continue reading Rocking the old growth