During the holiday season, it’s a good idea to step back and take a moment to appreciate the trade we’ve chosen. We get to work outdoors, with trees. We meet new and interesting people all of the time — normally people who also care for trees. If you ever struggle to find a topic to discuss among tree workers, just ask them what their favorite tree is and then sit down. (If you do so, prepare for a long conversation.)
We probably wouldn’t be in the tree business if we weren’t fond of trees. For most of us, trees are a constant source of amazement and, as such, it’s not unusual to have a favorite. Whether it’s the largest or most beautiful, most unique or the one we played beneath as a child, it’s that one tree that represents for us the best of nature’s greatest plant.
My own, personal favorite is a massive, weather-beaten pine that stands alone atop a remote island on Lake Superior called Dead Horse Rocks. This island is only about 2 acres in size and one of 400 other islands that make up the archipelago of Isle Royale National Park. For those understandably unfamiliar with the least-visited national park in the lower 48 states, Isle Royale is located in the northwest section of Lake Superior about 12 miles from the Canadian shore — barely within the U.S. border. The park is reachable only by seaplane or boat. More people visit Yellowstone National Park in a single day than visit Isle Royale all year.
Named by Wayne “Mack” McPherren, a fisherman who lived in the area in the late 1800s, it’s said that he chose the peculiar name because when he approached Dead Horse Rocks from his cabin on Captain Kidd Island, he thought the rocks looked like a dead horse lying semi-submerged in the water.
I visit the massive, weather-beaten pine every year and have seen dead moose washed ashore in nearby Lane Cove, but never a horse. The rocks don’t resemble anything close to what I imagine a dead horse to look like.
Dead Horse Rocks is also the only place where I’ve seen seagulls land in trees. The gulls go after the berries from the mountain ash. They have a difficult time maintaining their balance on branches too small for their broad, webbed feet. Others choose to hover beside the trees to pick off the berries. Seagulls aren’t hummingbirds; they can hover only for a second or two.
Due to its exposure to the elements, Dead Horse Rocks is covered with ground-hugging plants such as lichen, moss, carpet juniper, blueberry and periwinkle. There are a few scrawny trees that also scrabble a living there – mountain ash, cedar and spruce. None are more than 20 feet tall. The growing conditions are so harsh that trees grow less than 1 inch per year. The stunted vegetation reminds me more of a tundra habitat than the boreal forests of the Upper Great Lakes.
My pine isn’t very tall, as white pines go. White pines can reach 200 feet. But this one is only 70 feet and yet towers above the other trees, which is some indication for how old it is. The pine stands out so prominently that I’ve often seen eagles use its limbs as a lookout perch.
It’s evident that storms take running starts at the pine. Cold fronts race down from Canada and the winds gain momentum over the open water. You have to admire the old tree for its tenacity — it’s almost like it stepped forward from the forest and said, “Take your best shot!” And, like the old warrior it is, the tree has lost some battles. The top’s been snapped off several times, and since pines grow two new leads when they lose their main lead, it has grown four dominant leads. One of them is missing, evident by the jagged stub that remains. Visible lightning scars run up and down the trunk — it’s anyone’s guess as to how many times it’s been struck, as lightning doesn’t always leave streaks or wounds.
One year, I brought a measuring tape to determine the trunk’s girth, which is 57 inches in diameter. The trunk has dark, blackish-gray bark that’s at least four inches thick and appears so tough it would deflect bullets. It’s covered with crusty lichen and stiff, brittle mosses that cause it to look so ancient you wonder if it’s been there since the dawn of time. Where the trunk meets the ground, the buttress roots swell, separate and sprawl. Smaller woody roots spider across the top of the shallow, gravelly soil and it’s not clear whether the tree is clutching the ground or the roots have transformed into living stone.
Of all the trees I have seen, professionally or otherwise, the pine on Dead Horse Rocks is the toughest tree I’ve ever known. No doubt, one day it will fall to a Lake Superior gale. When it does, it will return its last bits of nourishment borrowed from the island. For a tree is married to the land it dwells on, and more faithful partners cannot be found.
I’ve asked several island people — the park rangers, fishermen, regular visitors — about the pine. They all scratch their heads and say they don’t recall the tree. Even the research scientists who study the wildlife — people who ought to notice — struggle to picture it. The thought that this Superman pine, that this David and Goliath death match, that this lightning-scarred hero draws so little attention is puzzling. In fact, the lack of attention makes me feel all the closer to it.
When I’m hanging lights on our family’s Christmas tree this month, the evergreen tree will remind me of another pine tree. And, if I feel a sudden chill as I hang that last string of lights, I will likely wonder if my favorite pine just withstood another icy gust of wind. If so, I will wish it well, and pray it soldiers on.
I will tip my mug of eggnog to that lonesome pine, as I do to all of us who care for trees.