The leaves are back in Southeast Alaska

Posted: Wednesday, June 05, 2002

Soft green pixels appear, slowly closing off distant views and focusing our gazes on closer ones, the leaves are back. The gradual obscuring of dramatic perspectives of lake, slope and shore become once again more intimate ones of devil's club, elderberry and alder. The season opening event is finally in full swing.

It's taken a seeming eternity for winter to end, and fresh snow on the second of June causes doubt even now, but the return of this graceful green gauze makes me sigh with relief. The views were spectacular, and the possibilities of rediscovering them with my pruning shears is always there, but it's always a delight to have the familiar outdoor spaces reappearing.

Delicate feathers began filtering into the field of vision a couple of weeks ago, the first tendrils of green winding through the gray and mossy branches, but now with the emergence of the cottonwoods and the first willows even the larger spaces are developing that undulation of the summer landscape.

The understory is still bare. Blueberries, rusty menzesia and dogwood are striking in their winter sparseness, starkly punctuating the forest scene. Many of these shrubs have been killed off by this winter's severe ending blows, and the salmonberries may be down for the count in exposed regions, but thanks to the big trees we can still feel the return of the growing season.

Clambering up the slopes of the Douglas waterfront this week I saw huge patches of the sturdy berries where the new growth was only sporadic, and all the standing canes were brittle and tan. The shading of the slopes was only lightly dappled, since there were no leaves. It will be a full season before they can bloom again, hummingbirds will be hungry when they arrive.

Blueberry thickets that were facing the sun during the April-May sun anomaly suffered the same devastation. It is not just the province of the domestic landscape to get winterburned.

Azaleas and rhododendrons show the symptoms in our yards, but the wild spaces had the same stresses, and they had no recourse either. Bright dry days and freezing nights drew out the stored moisture from foliage and branches, leaving the buds dead. Labrador tea, crowberry and lowbush cranberry felt the heat too.

It is a clear view of the natural systems in place to see the undisturbed skunk cabbages in their full succulent glory, moisture pulsing through their shiny leaves and big bright yellow capes wrapped around their slender cones of flower. They were safe underground during the cold days, and waited out the difficulty in comfort with full bellies and glad dreams. They look so happy sweeping down mossy creeks into soaking wetlands.

Being dormant and waiting out the winter underground is safe for some, but just like primroses frozen out in our gardens, the wild pantheon will have gaps too. We will see spaces where different species had severe losses, and the next couple of weeks will be very interesting, as we watch what returns and what doesn't. Which were affected and which were immune.

Our introduced species show similar scattered effects, some are totally here, some devastated. Glistening crimson and gold Siberian red stemmed dogwood, fragrant clove scented currants, and those tough old lilacs all seem fine, even in our nursery right in the mouth of the Mendenhall blast. coral flowered honeybells, and the graceful arctic purple osier willow have been killed to the roots.

I was delighted to see that the big trees we planted into the peat beds had no such troubles. Twenty-year-old scarlet hawthorns, and the cloudlike Chinese flowering crabapples have huge fat buds, green stems all the way out to the ends and are just bursting out into new growth.

Big European green beeches and dramatic columnar hornbeams that spent the winter in the water retentive peat beds, even though they were in the same spaces as other damaged species, were unhurt.

It is really true that the use of this local material is going to change the way landscapes are built.

The larger world around gives us lessons every day and they are presented in a distinctive way. This year there were some that didn't return, others that thrived. It seems like the rising of a stage curtain when the season changes, but really the reverse is true. We humans have interpreted these natural cycles and based our entire understanding of emotion, conflict and resolution on this annually repeated vision.



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