A sand County Almanac

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Excerpts from Pines Above the Snow essay in A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold.

Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a shovel. By virtue of the curious loophole in the rules, any clodhopper may say: Let there be a tree—and there will be one.

The pine’s new year beings in May, when the terminal bud becomes ‘the candle.’ Whoever coined that name for the new growth had subtlety in his soul. ‘The candle’ sounds like a platitudinous reference to obvious facts; the new shoot is waxy, upright, brittle. But he who lives with pines knows that candle has a deeper meaning, for at its tip burns the eternal flame that lights a path into the future. May after May my pines follow their candles skyward, each headed straight for the zenith, and each meaning to get there if only there be years enough before the last trumpet blows. It is a very old pine who at last forgets which of his many candles is the most important, and thus flattens his crown against the sky. You may forget but no pine of your own planning will do so in your lifetime.

Hard years, of course, come to pines as they do to men, and these are recorded as shorter thrusts, i.e. shorter spaces between the whorls of branches. These spaces, then, are an autobiography that he who walks with trees may read at will. In order to date a hard year correctly, you must always subtract one from the year of lesser growth. Thus the 1937 growth was short in all pines; this records the universal drouth of 1937. On the other hand the 1941 growth was long in all pines; perhaps they saw the shadow of things to come, and made a special effort to show the world that pines still know where they are going, even though men do not.

When one pine shows a short year but his neighbors do not, you may safely interpolate some purely local or individual adversity: a fire scar, a gnawing meadowmouse, a windburn, or some local bottleneck in that dark laboratory we call the soil.

There is much small-talk and neighborhood gossip among pines. By paying heed to this chatter, I learn what has transpired during the week when I am absent in town. Thus in March, when the deer frequently browse white pines, the height of the browsing tells me how hungry they are. A deer full of corn is too lazy to nip branches for than four feet about the ground; a really hungry dear rises on his hind legs and nips as high as eight feet. Thus I learn the gastronomic status of the deer without seeing them, and I learn, without visiting his fields, whether my neighbor has hauled in his cornshocks.

In May, when the new candle is tender and brittle as an asparagus shoot, a bird alighting on it will often break it off. Every spring I find a few such decapitated trees, each with its wilted candle lying in the grass. It is easy to infer what has happened, but in a decade of watching I have never once seen a bird break a candle. It is an object lesson: one need not doubt the unseen.

In June of each year, a few white pines suddenly show wilted candles, which shortly thereafter turn brown and die. A pine weevil has bored into the terminal bud cluster and deposited eggs; the grubs, when hatched, bore down along the pith and kill the shoot. Such a leaderless pine is doomed to frustration, for the surviving branches disagree among themselves who is to head the skyward march. They all do, and as a consequence the tree remains a bush.

Questions based on this passage.

What is the technical term biologist use for what Leopold calls the “candle?”

Leopold says that a young pine whose candle is damaged can only grow into the form of a bush. How would a botanist explain this fact? (Hint: You’ll find the details in Sadava 8th Edition, p. 806.)

The best scientists are often the most observant. What are several things that Leopold learned simply by being observant?

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