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The boreal forest is truly amazing

A birch tree is a living breathing chemical experiment creating all sorts of interesting chemical compounds that support its life
Walt Humphries Tales from the Dump column standard for Yellowknifer

Zippity-doo-dah Zippity-day,

My, oh my, what a wonderful day!

Plenty of sunshine, headed my way.

Zippity-doo-dah Zippity-day!

It was a beautiful summer day when I wrote this column, and I was sitting outside enjoying it. That song came to mind because it was popular years ago. I even looked it up and on Wikipedia and discovered this: “Since 2020 Disney has dissociated itself from the song due to the longstanding controversy over racial connotations associated with the movie Song of the South, which was a 1946 live-action animated musical drama." Wow! Who knew?

Now, despite the movie, I still like the song because I was enjoying the day. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the trees were covered with buds and new leaves. A great day to sit outside and soak up the sunshine and the warmth. A good time to read a book, write a book or engage in one of my favourite pastimes, watching the forest grow.

The boreal forest is truly amazing. It involves hundreds and probably thousands of different species of trees, plants, animals, birds, insects, fungi, mosses and lichen, all working together to create the forest.

Take the birch tree as an example. Each mature tree produces thousands of seeds, which get scattered about by the wind and the little birds that feast on them. In the spring, if a seed gets enough water, heat and energy from the sun it starts to grow. It sends out roots to collect water filled with minerals, chemicals and nutrients. Through its leaves it gets heat and energy. Mixed with the water, this creates growth through photosynthesis.

Most trees are 50 per cent carbon, plus oxygen and hydrogen in the form of water, plus calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron and manganese. So, the tree is a living breathing chemical experiment creating all sorts of interesting chemical compounds that support its life. The tree is also growing bigger and bigger every year, but it is contained in a tube of birchbark. The tube doesn’t stretch, but over the years it breaks and sheds the old birchbark or skin and exposes a new layer. It is quite an ingenious process that slowly, year after year, allows the tree trunk to get bigger and bigger. As new birchbark emerges, the old bark breaks apart and peels off.

After years of growth, the tree begins to die from the top down. Its branches die and break off and eventually the whole tree falls to the ground and slowly rots into the soil to feed other plants, fungi, insects and critters.

In science, we tend to look at individual parts and miss the collective whole. The birch tree is dependent on all sorts of other factors like what it feeds on, what trees surround it, the amount of water it gets and, in return, it affects all the living things around it and feeds several critters and microorganisms. So, the individual is important but so is the entire forest.

The boreal forest has several tree species that make up the whole and each one has an important role. I have spent years watching the forest grow and thinking about them and there are always new things to learn about it.

Birch trees tend to survive forest fires better than some other species, and yet birch bark is extremely flammable if it is removed from the tree. Plus, I love the way the leaves start out as a brilliant splash of green, turn a duller green for the summer and then go orange or golden colour in the fall as they fall and provide nutrients to the soil.

So zippity doo dah and have a wonderful day.