The Black Spruce

“Pioneers,” the painting mentioned in this essay, is an acrylic on canvas by Juneau artist Constance Baltuck.

Learning from a tree

By Corinna Cook


To understand the black spruce, remember it grows from a fist-sized root ball as grey and compact and crucial as a brain. Each black spruce spindles itself straight up into the crack of the cold, stout branches making a skyward scrub from base to apex all winter night. And below that brain of roots lies permafrost, even in summer. This, then, is a tree that keeps ice in mind.

I remember meeting black spruce during my move from southeast Alaska to the interior. I was ill at the time, a fjordlands creature with an immune system gone haywire, taking temporary leave from the rainforest and a sabbatical from the whole glaciated coast against which my fevers flared. I went inland, aiming for semi-arid, boreal-forested Fairbanks, where I hoped to find a kind of medicine.

It was end-summer when I went, fall-not-winter. The road north took me through Tok. Here is what I remember: I rolled down the highway and the spruce flanking the road shot me an uncanny glance. Thus arrested, I glanced back.

Hello, said the black spruce. We are the toughest things you have ever met.

Those black spruce on the road to Tok, they told me something about where I was going and what kind of cure I might find. They said it straight—with their tight skyward shape, their dark color, their dry firm trunk-stems as spindly as old canes, their flaking skin bark and waxy stout needles, that fierce clod of roots—they said just what it means to live outside. In winter. And to do it well.

As if falling into step with a tree might heal my ailment.

I reeled a little bit. I was still sick, see—strong enough to drive, but not strong enough to open my car door in a cross wind.

Yet I heard them clearly.

Hello, said the black spruce. We are the toughest things you have ever met.

I learned something about myself then: if the trees will talk, I will listen. What did I hear? For starters, those trees’ toughness so far exceeded mine I laughed out loud.

We are the toughest things you have ever met, they repeated, except maybe for chickadees.

Deadpan truth-humor: The black spruce appreciated my laughter. That is how I became friends with a kind of a tree.

I thought of Emily Dickinson, of course—

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you—Nobody—too?

So it went that on land that loves to be frozen—that lives for it, really—I sidled up to a kind of tree, the black spruce, the tree that keeps ice in mind. I paused in Fairbanks for a few years to consider this. A pair of nobodies before those all-important chickadees, the black spruce and I leaned in shoulder to shoulder; we went on arm in arm.

 Some years later and many miles south, my mother gives me the gift of a painting. An artist from Juneau, Constance Baltuk, has returned from a residency with the Park Service. A crew of some sort brought her into the backcountry of the Kobuk valley for a few weeks. The crew did their science—counting caribou?—while Constance set up her easel every day. Made sketches. Then she returned home, some 800 miles southeast of the Kobuk, completed a series of paintings, and had a show. My mother picked a painting from this show.

It’s the trees, my mother explains. It’s not the flashiest painting of Constance’s Kobuk series, but there is something about the trees. The trees remind her of when I took my leave of our rainforested island and passed those seasons in Fairbanks. She figures the painting will remind me, too.

It’s an arctic summer landscape. The greenery in the foreground is lush and streaked with yellows and dotted with pinks and oranges; an urgent bloom. There is one cluster of five black spruce standing together; otherwise they are in twos and ones—this is not a forest landscape, but perhaps the northernmost reach of black spruce habitat. The far plane of hills is abstracted to dusk colors, grey lavender mauves, and the sky behind is clouded, pale grey-blues shaded in the shape of cumulous billows. High clouds, puffy, but dense. Summer sky bearing down hard on land that just holds its breath, waiting for a good hard frost to clear the air.

In the Goldstream Valley, where I first got to know the boreal forest, the black spruce grow in the low places, wetlands or bogs, while birch trees grow on hills where the ground is drier. But soil type is only one of the differences between birch and spruce habitat. There are also inversions: during winter’s coldest spells, an inversion sends the most bitter air downhill into the bogs while a fluff of warmer air sits on top. Above the inversion among the birches, it may be 20 below—but 40 below beneath the inversion among the black spruce.

I wintered both ways. And as it had by the side of the sea, my immune system kept its own counsel: persistent reactions came and went. Sometimes they swelled, ruptured the skin, and became the site of strange infections. For one winter I nursed these while living in a cabin among the birch trees above the inversion. And for two winters I pondered these flare-ups from a home below the inversion, alongside the black spruce.

Have it either way on the question of “warm” and “cold.” Two Rivers poet Derrick Burleson cuts to the chase by gauging not winter’s cold, but winter’s color. He arrives at an understanding of blue, sees that in the winter night the birch trees glow blue, that their shadows cast dense blues on the paler blues of the snowpack. Derrick sees even the blue shadow of his breath. But that breath itself—this makes a cloud of white rolling out into the air over blue snow, against blue treetrunks in a birch stand. I re-read his book Melt to verify all this: indeed, the moon, the snow, the birch—all the hues of winter are blue save one: there is whiteness in the poet’s exhaled breath alone.

I was grateful to Derrick for teaching my eye to see how shades of blue bind the snow and the moon and the birch trees and everyone’s nightshadows to winter, to cold.

And so imagine my surprise when one night, I perceived red.

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