Larches

Larches

Preface

Some of my personal essays have considered various kinds of plants for which I have an affinity–such as oak, persimmon, Queen Anne’s lace and lilac.  This essay explores another kind of tree for which I have a fondness—larch.  It’s also an essay about my grandmother, Christine Lebline Rapp, about whom I’ve previously written. She was the one who introduced me to larch trees, although we never actually saw any larches together–until now. So in a sense, this is our story.

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Christine and John Rapp (with children John, Julia and Margaret) in front of their new house in 1923.

It was the “Roaring Twenties.” Yet Christine Rapp and her husband, John, were experiencing one of the most difficult periods of their young lives together.  The house where they’d lived in southern Indiana for the five years since they married had been destroyed by fire on New Years’s Eve in 1918.  Their daughter Margaret (who later became my mother) was just six months old and was carried from the burning house and laid in a dresser drawer on the lawn out of harm’s way.  It took four years for John and Christine to rebuild their house during which time they lived at a nearby farm. Christine’s twins (Julia and John) and a fourth child (Ingleby) were born there.  

John had operated his family’s farm since his father, Will, died in 1908. Sometime after he and Christine were married in 1913, John’s mother Ella went to live with her daughter in another area of Indiana.  Christine and John moved into their new house in 1923 after which she took on more responsibility for managing the farm itself while he operated a sand and gravel business he’d started along White River where it bordered their land.

Christine’s name in the front of one of her The New Nature Library books.

During the mid-1920s Christine acquired a set of books titled The New Nature Library.  It consisted of ten volumes, each filled with information and photographs concerning various aspects of nature including butterflies, moths, wildflowers, fish, birds, insects, mushrooms—and trees.  Perhaps these books were a house-warming gift from a friend, or she might have just acquired them for herself.  However they came to her, this set of books was clearly significant because each was inscribed with her name on its title page.  I now have these books and they are among my most-treasured possessions.

Osage orange leaf pressed by Christine between the pages of her The New Nature Library volume about Trees.

As a boy during the 1950s I often visited my Grandmother Christine at her farm.  I was introduced to The New Nature Library books early on; she kept them in a bookcase with glass doors that stretched across one whole wall of her living room.  She and I sometimes referenced them and would place plant specimens we’d collected during our nature outings (such as tree leaves and wildflowers) between the pages for safe keeping.   I still come across these “artifacts” whenever I look through the books now. They remind me of my grandmother’s special role in fostering a sense of nature for me.

Author and naturalist Rachel Carson published a 1956 article about the importance of nurturing a child’s appreciation for nature. In it she wrote:

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.

Grandmother Christine was that adult companion for me.

Exploring nature with my Grandmother Christine. (1950)

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Christine (right) and a friend during a nature outing along the White River. (1905)

As a boy I understood that my grandmother’s interest in nature had come early for her too.  I’m not sure who her adult nature companion was as a child, but I do know she shared nature walks with friends.  One 1905 photograph, for example, shows Christine during high school as she stood beside a friend along the White River where it bordered her family’s farm. She’s holding binoculars in one hand and the picture must have been taken during one of her nature outings.

Christine speaks to her friends about nature at their Brown County cabin. (c1912)

After graduating from college in 1910, Christine and several other women from her community bought a log cabin in nearby Brown County, Indiana.  She went there often to appreciate the rustic beauty of that area of the state; it’s still a mecca for nature enthusiasts.  After marrying John she continued to visit the cabin and subsequently became its sole owner after the other women moved on. She kept the cabin for almost fifty years.   

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Pressed beech leaves from my high school science project collection. (1963)

I don’t know how larch trees came to be an interest for my Grandmother Christine. None grew in her area of Indiana; they’re only native to the northernmost part of the state.  To my knowledge she never traveled there so I don’t think that she’d seen a larch tree in person when we explored nature together during my childhood. I remember becoming aware of her interest in larches in 1963 when she helped me assemble a collection of (pressed) leaves from native Indiana trees for a high school science project. Perhaps she told me then that larches are native to Indiana and that they’re one of only a few “deciduous conifers” (i.e. they lose their needles in the winter).  She might have even referred to them then as “tamaracks,” although I only now remember her using the term “larch.”  Larch and tamarack are used interchangeably—including in The New Nature Library volume about trees.  Tamaracks and other larches are in the same genus (Larix), but classed as different species. 

Page with larch photos from The New Nature Library (1905)

Since I don’t believe my grandmother had seen larch trees in person when she first informed me about them, her understanding probably came through reading the section about them in The New Nature Library. I do vividly recall, however, that she expressed a strong desire then to actually see a larch.

My Grandmother Christine during a hike we took together on her farm in 1960.

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My grandmother realized her aspiration to see an actual larch tree just a couple of years after we completed that leaf collection project.  She was in her mid-seventies then and had experienced some small strokes that impaired her capacity to live on her own.  By 1966 she was staying with my parents at their home in upstate New York.  I was away at college then so the account of my grandmother’s first encounter with larches was told to me later by my mother.

When my grandmother first moved into my parents’ house, my mother introduced her to several of the neighbors.  One of them–a Mr. Bundy–operated a small dairy farm down the road.  Mr. Bundy was also in his seventies and I imagine he and my grandmother quickly found common ground around their mutual interests in farming.  He always addressed her as Mrs. Rapp and she called him Mr. Bundy; that was the way for their generation. Somehow the subject of larch trees came up for them. My grandmother would have understood that upstate New York was within the native range for larches, so perhaps she shared with Mr. Bundy her desire to see a larch tree. Mr. Bundy then informed her that there were a number of larches growing right on his farm! She would have been delighted to hear this, and he likely offered to show them to her. So one autumn afternoon in 1966, Mrs. Rapp and Mr. Bundy hiked to the “back forty” on his farm to take a look at some larch trees.

I would very much like to have been present when my Grandmother Christine and Mr. Bundy first encountered those larches over fifty-years ago.  I imagine my grandmother’s exuberant gratitude as she fulfilled her longstanding aspiration. Yes, I can imagine…     

The range of larches in eastern North America.

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I never spoke directly with my grandmother about her and Mr. Bundy’s excursion to see those larch trees that fall. When I returned to New York from college for the holidays in December, I was full of my own stories and interests. It just didn’t occur to me to ask my grandmother about her experiences that fall. To be fair, she’d experienced more strokes and her health was failing. She subsequently died on January 30–less than a month after I returned to my university for the second semester.

After my grandmother’s death, my life-path took me to Indiana, Connecticut, South Carolina, California, Wyoming, Colorado and Minnesota. Larch trees don’t grow in these places to any extent—except in Minnesota where they’re known as tamaracks. However, even after I had moved to Minnesota for graduate school in 1974 I seldom heard about such trees. St. Paul (where I lived) is south of the range for native tamaracks and so I only saw them from a distance during our infrequent summer camping trips into northern areas of the state. And those tamaracks were typically inconspicuous and found in unpopulated wetland areas. Thus it took me a while before I came to realize that Minnesota’s tamaracks are actually a type of larch!

The word tamarack came from a Native American word meaning ‘wood for making snowshoes.’ The fibrous roots of tamarack trees were used by native people to sew birch strips together for their canoes; such stitchings were water tight when sealed with balsam pitch. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described this (using both terms “tamarack” and “larch”) in his poem “The Song of Hiawatha:”

Give me of your roots, O Tamarack!
Of your fibrous roots, O Larch-tree!
My canoe to bind together,
So to bind the ends together
That the water may not enter…

Some Minnesotans do take note of tamaracks in the autumn when, in the words of naturalist and writer Aldo Leopold, their foliage turns “smoky gold.” But to be honest, I can’t say that until recently I ever thought much about them–even in the fall.  That changed for me in autumn of 2018. My wife and I had returned from our newly-adopted home in Seattle to visit longtime friends in Minnesota.  One October morning I decided to take a bicycle ride from where I was living in White Bear Lake along a familiar route.  The brilliant maples were my principal interest that day since their foliage was in peak colors of yellow and red.

Yet as I proceeded on a road that borders Bald Eagle Lake near White Bear, I came upon a vista I don’t recall noticing before.  It was a small marsh on the west side of the road, and that morning it seemed to be glowing. I slowed and pulled to the roadside to observe the scene.  There were cattails in the foreground with that golden aura in the distance.  As I looked more carefully I realized that the glow was associated with a small grove of tamarack trees in the marsh. I left my bicycle and followed a small trail that led back to a place where I could get a closer view of those trees. After walking about fifty yards or so I took a photograph to remember that special scene–and that moment.

I now regard that brief encounter with those tamarack trees in the golden sunlight of that October morning near Bald Eagle Lake as a turning point. It was the first time I had experienced the beauty of larches. And I expect my Grandmother Christine might have had a similar response when she first viewed Mr. Bundy’s larches decades before. I could feel her pleasure.

“First” view of larches in the marsh near Bald Eagle Lake. (October 22, 2018)

I’ve not since duplicated the sensation I felt that morning near Bald Eagle Lake. Yet the experience has put larch trees into the center of my awareness ever since. For example, I’ve learned that another species of larch grows in the western Rockies and Cascade Mountains near my new State of Washington. These grow in more upland environments (e.g. on mountain slopes) and provide a golden display as fine as anything autumn has to offer in that region.

Larch trees in the Rocky Mountains of western Montana. (October 2021)

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Larch trees have long been used for lumber and construction wherever the trees are found. The wood is valued because of its natural resistance to decay. Affirming such durability The New Nature Library states:

It is believed that larch will outlast oak.

My grandmother would have liked this about larch wood since resilience and stamina are qualities she admired in others. The wood has also been used for furniture and flooring because of its beauty.  When I realized that my grandmother and I were in our seventies when we both first experienced the beauty of larches, I decided to acquire a bowl made of its wood. I felt that it could serve as a symbol of our shared appreciation for this tree of the North Country. I found a bowl I liked through Etsy and contacted the vendor. I learned that his bowl had been created of wood taken from a larch in the same region of the country as Mr. Bundy’s trees. Perfect.

Larch bowl.

After acquiring the bowl, I presumed that my connections with larches and my Grandmother Christine were over.  Then I met Bill Kruschel.  In a short time Bill had become a special friend in Minnesota and one of the most impressive nonagenarians I’ve ever known!  I met him in 2018 at about the same time I discovered the beauty of those tamaracks near Bald Eagle Lake.  Our friendship developed quickly and one of the reasons were the day-trips we took together. For example, in the fall of 2020 we toured some of the places that had been significant to Bill during his early childhood in Minnesota.  He led my wife and me to locations he’d known during the late 1920s and early ‘30s, and one of those places was Big Marine Lake where his parents owned a lake-shore cabin in that time. 

But before we began our sojourn, I informed Bill that I was using our trip as an opportunity to scout for stands of native tamarack trees in the area.  I knew our route would be north of St. Paul, an area where larches might more likely be found to grow.  He responded, “Sure, I remember tamaracks up that way.”  However, I also knew that a fairly-recent outbreak of the eastern larch beetle had diminished the numbers of mature tamarack trees over an extensive area of Minnesota’s forest! Since most tamaracks grow in remote bogs where few people live, the problem hadn’t received much publicity. And even with these losses, Minnesota still had more acreage of tamarack trees than any other state.  

I’ve also seen the diminishing effects of this larch borer infestation first-hand.  After tamarack trees became a strong interest of mine, I took occasional hikes at the Tamarack Nature Preserve in Woodbury, Minnesota.  It’s a noteworthy place because one of the southernmost stands of tamaracks in the entire state is found there. During my relatively short acquaintance with the Tamarack Preserve I’ve noted a reduction in number and vigor of mature tamarack trees there.  I’m not sure that larch beetle is entirely responsible for this decline, but I won’t be surprised if it’s a contributing factor.  Warming of the area’s climate in recent decades has allowed larch beetles to reproduce at a higher rate than usual, which has resulted in more severe damage to mature trees.

Diminished larches at Tamarack Nature Preserve in Woodbury, Minnesota. (2019)

So when Bill recalled having seen mature tamaracks in the Big Marine Lake area in the past, I was dubious. But then he added:  “Steve, I can even show you a building made entirely of tamarack logs!”  On hearing this, I was ready to go!  I now knew that whether mature tamarack trees were plentiful or not, this trip was going to offer me a rare opportunity to experience a larch-wood structure. I expected my Grandmother Christine would have been excited by this prospect too.

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Larch has been used for a number of interesting purposes through history.  For example artists during the High Renaissance of Europe, such as the 16th Century Italian painter Raphael, produced some of their finest work on larch panels.  Canvas hadn’t been adopted yet as a foundation for paintings, so wood was used instead.  And there was no more durable and lasting wood than larch!

Madonna and Child Enthroned With Saints by Raphael (painted on larch panels – c1504)

Larch wood was also used in the United States during the 19th Century for posts, telegraph poles, railroad ties and ship timbers.  And then in 1926, the Disabled Veterans Rest Camp was established on donated land along the shoreline of Big Marine Lake in east-central Minnesota.   Its purpose was to help disabled veterans from World War I recover from “shell shock” (known today as post-traumatic stress disorder).  Six years after the Camp opened organizers built a “canteen” at the Camp to serve as a place for veterans and their families to gather together–and they used logs from tamarack trees growing on the Camp’s property and in nearby marshes. Today the Camp is known simply as the “Veterans Campground on Big Marine Lake” and welcomes all former military personnel.  And that 1932 larch-log canteen building is still there.

Young tamarack trees growing in a marsh near Big Marine Lake. (2020)

We set off on our road-trip with Bill early one September morning.  Our sixteen-mile drive to Big Marine Lake was a time for listening to Bill’s stories about his early-childhood experiences in the area.  For example, he told of meeting a “rum-runner” during Prohibition at a wayside we passed along our route. Then he showed us the location of his family’s cabin on Big Marine Lake. He also pointed out where, at age seven, he’d stood and watched his father being taken from the cabin to a hospital in St. Paul. His father died a short time later before Bill could see him again. Such sharing of his stories in their places enhanced our understanding of Bill’s life–and enlarged our friendship.

As we drove the route to Big Marine Lake I hadn’t seen any tamaracks until we were almost there. And those trees were too young and small to have provided any logs for a building constructed in 1932!  Bill stopped at the registration gate of the Camp to seek admission so we could look around.  Bill’s earliest memory of visiting the camp was from 1929 when he was just four years-old.  He also remembered attending, at age seven, the official dedication for the newly-constructed canteen!

After entering the campground, we went straight to the canteen building.  One of the Camp’s staff opened it and as we entered Bill touched my arm and pointed to the interior; it consisted mostly of logs.  “Tamarack!” he said.

Bill Kruschel stands inside the Canteen at the Veterans Campground on Big Marine Lake. (2020)

The décor of the canteen was consistent with its military veteran clientele and of the season we visited.  There were symbols for each of the branches of the Armed Forces, and since it was pro-football season there were also team banners; this was Green Bay Packer and Minnesota Vikings country after all. 

And there were also tamarack logs—lots of them–serving both structural and decorative purposes.  Each was six to eight inches in diameter and hand-hewn.  Some had been stained while others were varnished.  Some showed signs of having cracked as they dried over the almost ninety years since the canteen was built.  All of them appeared to have been harvested from larger, mature trees–greater diameter than any trees I’d seen as we’d approached Big Marine Lake earlier that day.  I tried to imagine trees such as these growing in the area’s marshes before their harvest in the 1920s.  The biggest would have been about fifty years old then, which meant they’d begun growing when the area was first settled by immigrants.  And I also realized that the trees contributing logs for this building were also growing on December 8, 1888—the day my Grandmother Christine was born.  I sensed that she and I were admiring them together.

Tamarack logs in the Campground canteen.

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The wood of these bravest of all conifers…   —Julia Ellen Rogers from Trees Worth Knowing (1917)

Whether those who built the canteen at the Camp regarded their tamaracks as “these bravest of all conifers,” they certainly knew that they can survive extreme conditions than just about any other tree of the area.  One naturalist has noted that tamaracks even grow in the Arctic tundras up to “a line where no tree dares overstep.” 

I continue to ponder why I have developed such an affinity for larches even though I never saw one until my thirties.  My grandmother was initially attracted to them because they are deciduous conifers, but I expect her appreciation expanded after she encountered Mr. Bundy’s larch trees.   I know my own appreciation for larches now extends beyond just their novelty–or even their “smoky-gold” fall foliage.  I now see larches as “pioneers” and I admire their resilience and adaptability in the face of adverse conditions and habitats.  And although my Grandmother Christine might not have recognized it, I see parallels between these admirable qualities of larches and her own path-breaking life.  

The eldest of three daughters in her family, Christine was valedictorian of her high school class and the first in her family to attend and graduate from college.  She then went abroad to Europe in 1911 and traveled unaccompanied for two months in order to advance her language skills (she taught high school French and German at the time).  Following this experience, she eloped with John Rapp in 1913 and they farmed together for fifteen years before divorcing in 1928.  She reared her four children as a single-parent through the 1930s Depression years while continuing to operate the 500-acre farm on her own. She did so for nearly forty years until her death in 1967. 

Grandmother Christine and grandson Steve at Thanksgiving dinner. (November 1955)

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I recently came upon a photo of my grandmother that I don’t recall seeing before.  It was taken at Thanksgiving in 1955 when she came to my family’s house for the holiday. I was nine years-old then. My father snapped the picture as my grandmother and I were gathering at the table before the Thanksgiving meal. 

I’m impressed now by the broad smile on her face. Maybe she was amused by someone or something, although I doubt that. More likely she was simply relishing this time with her family–and my expression suggests that I was in awe of her in that moment. 

Happiness lives in the most ordinary of moments. –Maria Popova

My grandmother understood the truth of this quote.  Her life was marked by many accomplishments–and especially for a woman of her time. Yet I believe her greatest satisfactions came through ordinary ways–like a Thanksgiving dinner with her daughter and grandchildren. And some of my grandmother’s happiness also came through her extraordinary curiosity, which was what fueled her desire to someday experience a larch tree. Had I been with her that day when she fulfilled this longing, I might have seen an expression of delight on her face much like on that Thanksgiving day eleven years earlier. I would certainly have had the same look of admiration for her on mine.

Yes, Grandmother Christine, I do understand.  Happiness is in the most ordinary of things–like family and larches. It’s our shared wonder.        

“Tamarack Bark” by Melanie Diedrich

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This personal essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2021. All rights reserved.