“I came here 40 years ago, having just moved from Juneau,” says Kes Woodward with a buttery-soft South Carolina accent. “These trees were just saplings.”
Woodward, 69, a painter and emeritus art professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, guides me on a walk through an unusual grove of trees. The tall stems that stand in front of us are not often seen in central Alaska.
In the delightful 80-degree air on the hottest day for two years, we’re surrounded by lodgepole pines from the Yukon, Siberian larch from Finland, and wart birch also from Finland, the latter featuring straight-grained wood that locals preferred for sled riders.
In 1964, just after Lyndon Johnson was sworn in to follow John F. Kennedy, Alaskan forester Les Viereck and others planted tree seedlings at the northern end of this former farm field.
The two-acre exotic tree plantation is part of a much larger “boreal arboretum” on the UAF campus, which consists primarily of native spruce, birch, aspen, poplar and willow trees.
Having borrowed the key from a researcher at the FMU Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Woodward invited me to join him inside the chain-link fence.
I’ve been curious about these trees for years as I walk around the fence on the trails next door, especially in the fall when the larches light up orange.
Some of these trees seem to have cracked the code for life in the subarctic, unlike some sugar maples that I have brought home from New England over the years in glass jars. The extreme cold and drastic changes in daylight in Alaska are too great for most species on the planet, including trees.
But a few trees imported here stand tall, straight, and perfect: Siberian larch and lodgepole pine seem to be the champions, so far.
“In their first 40 years, larch will exceed six times the trunk volume of the local white spruce, and the crooked twist for 35 years will overtake locals,” said Woodward.
I later check his numbers in an article written by Alaskan forest geneticist John Alden, who got his fingernails dirty planting seedlings here. Woodward is right.
He also questions me:
“There is only one non-Alaskan tree that scientists have documented to have survived and spread to new sites. They call it “naturalizing”. Guess which tree it is?
“Lodgepole pine? “
“No, that’s what I thought. It’s rowan.
This ornamental species that decorates many streets in Alaska has red / orange berries. The fruit is a favorite of Bohemian waxwaxers, which do much of the propagation of the seeds.
As we walk, our steps calmed by orange larch and pine needles, Woodward and I both talk about how peaceful it is. Just outside the fence, a runner passes without noticing us. We can hear his labored breathing. Above, an alder flycatcher sings its two-note song, just arriving from the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to perch on the northern branches.
These exotic trees – some now 70 feet tall – are a beautiful heirloom for men who planted shin-high seedlings years before Woodward last visited the plot in 1981. Les Vierecks, an environmentalist renowned who wrote Alaska Trees and Shrubs, died in 2008.
Why – in this age of awareness of invasive species that might crowd out natives – Viereck and others planted different trees in Alaska?
“The introduction of non-native tree species can improve the diversity, stability and productivity of managed forest ecosystems,” wrote John Alden. He added that new tree species could also “favorably modify the habitat of native wildlife.”
Although many trees in the UAF plot are thriving, Woodward points out that these woody organisms have enjoyed the lifelong protection of a coarse-mesh metal fence. It prevents moose from nibbling on tree shoots and pulping the trunks with their antlers.
Pieces of material fabric also hang from the bottom of the fence. The wire mesh excludes snowshoe hares, which sometimes cut seedlings to the stalk or girdle young trees, especially at the height of the hare’s 11-year cycles.
This gentle south-facing slope over a well-drained silt loam of Fairbanks has been a great place to be a tree for the past half century. The airy lodgepole pines appear to be patiently waiting for their Whitehorse brethren to deposit their seeds northwest.
As these trees soared over the past 40 years, Woodward painted more in his studio overlooking the Tanana River Flats.
“I’ve always been in the trees,” he says. “My name is Woodward; it’s probably in my genes.
Woodward remembers walking through stands of fragrant pine trees with his grandfather, a lumberjack in South Carolina. His grandfather selected the trees for the harvest.
Woodward has less consuming plans for the trees at the UAF site.
“It’s like a dream come true for me to be on this two acre lot and see how the trees are doing all over the circumpolar north,” he says. “I want to get to know every tree here.
Since the late 1970s, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has provided this column free of charge in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell [email protected] is a science writer for the Institute of Geophysics.