HAPPENINGS - JULY 2001
THE SPRUCE FIR
by Damian Fagan
Elevation and temperature drives the balance
of summer. When the mercury starts bubbling in July here in the
hamlet of Moab, its time to reevaluate that bumper sticker
Get high in the mountains. Not consciously-challenged,
but get up there in elevation to some cooler spot like the spruce-fir
a green shawl draped around the mountains shoulders, the spruce-fir
zone is the high elevation conifer belt. Where the aspen, Douglas
fir and ponderosa fail to dwell, one can easily find thickets of
Engelmanns spruce or subalpine fir.
Though both are members of the Pine Family, you only have to feel
their needles to tell the two apart. The spruce needles are stiff
and sharp, pointed at the end like a cats claw and square
at the base. The fir needles are softer and not so stiff. If you
can find their cones, the pendulous spruce cone has numerous wavy
scales and the upright fir cone is purplish-green. Both cones are
quite different from their near relative, and lower elevation cousin,
the Douglas fir.
story goes that a long time ago (as most stories start) there were
many mice that lived in a forest of fir trees. In this forest there
were some very large trees with thick bark covering their trunks.
One day a huge fire started in a meadow and raced through the forest.
The mice, afraid that they would be burned, climbed up the large
trees and hid beneath the cones scales and escaped the fire.
Well, almost hid. Their tails and two hind legs were exposed, as
they are today. So the story goes.
But back up in elevation, some white fir and blue spruce mix in
with their higher elevation relatives. Quite a pinny convention
here above 9,500' where the stature of the spruces and firs betray
the weather conditions at this higher elevation. Tall and thin,
with upturned limbs, these trees are built to shed the snow. Their
tight clusters also protect individuals from harsh mountain winds
and freezing temperatures. Tough to find a deciduous tree like an
aspen or lanceleaf cottonwood in these areas.
what you may find up in this lush zone is a different association
of wildlife species. Clarks nutcrack-ers with their grating
calls, fly from tree to tree in search of ripe cones. Once known
as whisk-ey-jacks, these birds will take advantage of an unattended
campsite. Just remember to screw that cap on tight.
crossbills, finches with a wicked over-bite, fly in chattering flocks
as they too search for the good cones. The crossbills displace the
ruby-crowned kinglets and pine siskins, smaller birds that search
for insects and seeds in these mountain halls.
These smaller birds fall prey to sharp-shinned hawks. One of the
smallest accipiters in North America, the sharpie is a bundle of
tenacious energy. The unaware kinglet or siskin may not get a chance
to think twice about its plight.
Like each belt of vegetation that encircles the La Sals, the spruce-fir
one is most easily traversed in summer. The snows of winter drive
many of its wild inhabitants southward, or at least to lower elevations.
Some hardy individuals remain, and I wonder if they count the days
remaining until the warmth of summer once again descends upon this
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