In January an old forest stretches upward from a dark canyon inside the darkest canyon of the year. Charismatic Douglas-fir and western hemlock reach with shadowy, ramrod straight trunks into a winter sky only briefly blue. Beneath these gloomy orthodox sentinels wriggles another old growth forest. The twisted arms of vine maple gather adjectives: misshapen, contorted, distorted, deformed, warped, bent, unpredictable, diminutive, beautiful, lovely, and alluring. Their green photosynthetic bark and crooked fingers collect crumbs of light that fall to the forest floor between the tall, overbearing conifers. Vine maple are elfin trees that get along by taking life slowly, making do with what is available.
In this green pucker at the western edge of North America, there is no green like vine maple green. The bark is the color of jade. Humans seem to find this color soothing, which might be the reason we love jade jewelry and serpentine mountains and emerald eyes and that particular hue of the ocean on a sunny day at the southern Oregon coast. Looking closely at these things causes our pulse and blood pressure to fall. Vine maple bark is often etched in delicate horizontal scars, quite unlike the deep longitudinal furrows of the majestic coniferous overstory. Moss colonizes the low trunks, beginning as small creeping doilies, eventually becoming soft billowing sleeves hanging from angular trunks. In her book Gathering Moss, Robin Kimmerer grieves the loss of these understory moss mats to harvesters, who sell them for ornamental plant baskets, and she wonders how much time is required to reestablish old growth mosses. Vine maple that host the mosses can reestablish from fire-burned roots, so the trees on which the moss grows might be older than overstory now shading them. This is much longer than people live.
If you have sensed a kinship between vine maple (Acer circinatum) and Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), your intuition would be correct. Vine maple is closely related to east Asian maples in the Palmatum group. They share a trans-Pacific biogeography with many other plants and animals, including humans. I’d like to think this is because their winged seeds became airborne on a magical long distance flight, perhaps carried on a raging autumn gale such as the Columbus Day Storm in 1962. But dispersal was probably a boring incremental process of encroachment over continental connections rather than a transoceanic voyage. In fact, vine maple reproduction can be seedless. When stems are bent to the forest floor, they readily send down roots and propagate vegetatively.
Vine maple are tougher than nails. Okay, maybe not nails. My pet tree did not make the world list of Top Ten Hardest Woods, as measured by the Janka Hardness Test. Physicists will love this index. It’s the pounds of force (or Newtons) required to imbed an 11.28-millimeter diameter steel ball into the wood to half the diameter of the ball. And in case you were wondering, this does not account for other common measures of toughness: bending strength, maximum crushing strength, shearing strength, static bending, and work to maximum load. Nevertheless, vine maple is a very hard hardwood. The biological basis of this physical toughness resides in the secondary xylem, the interconnected cells that transport water and minerals through the tree, which when impregnated with lignin become tough and hard. We might surmise that vine maple xylem is loaded with lignin, and the cell walls are densely packed because the trees grow so slowly beneath the lordly overstory.
The utilitarian toughness of vine maple has been recognized by Northwest people for a very long time. “Notes on Ethnobotany in Western Oregon” provides a prodigious list of uses by indigenous humans. These include structural material for fish traps, hand drums, smoke houses, snowshoes, and baby cradles. Wood was fashioned into sewing needles and pestles, and smaller stems were woven into baskets.
Coastal tribes occasionally used vine maple for making bows. One winter I took this to heart and went about constructing a vine maple bow entirely with hand tools. I whittled and scraped and sanded and polished and when it was finished it was a poorly designed thing of beauty. The limbs thinned too quickly at the ends and soon began to crack under the arching stress of drawing the bow. But I keep it because it is beautiful. The blonde convex face retains all the voluptuous distortions of the live tree, with smooth knobs that are a joy to my hands. My brother made me a vine maple walking stick that’s hard and gnarly and could probably be a tool for self-defense. Rather than hit someone with it, I modified one end by drilling a hole and inserting a right angle hook for safely manipulating rattlesnakes on my herpetology field trips. The human possibilities for vine maple wood seem limitless.
There is wisdom in knowing the value that humans place on vine maple. But my favorite tree figures into the modern metrics of forest productivity only as an early competitor with Douglas-fir. Because we no longer construct vine maple baby cradles or fish traps or bows, it therefore has no commercial value. Instead, we use conifers to make two-by-fours and plywood, which are useful, too, but this myopic focus on growing as many Douglas-fir in as short a time as possible limits our appreciation for the larger picture of forest ecology. Those small vine maple leaves that fluttered to the forest floor last fall are now rapidly decomposing and will raise carbon and nitrogen levels in the soil and increase mineral availability by raising the soil pH. Elk and black-tailed deer browse on twigs and new leaves and use vine maple thickets for bedding areas. Mountain beaver climb the trees to harvest twigs and stems. The small red flowers are an early spring nectar source for bees and butterflies. Moss mats on the trunks are used by Pacific Wrens and Swainson’s Thrushes for nesting material.
When I walk into a dark stand of second growth Douglas-fir empty of vine maple, I find the simplified ecology empty and disheartening. Give me the complex majesty of vine maple, the supple grace of youth that battles Douglas-fir children for space and sunlight, the wisdom for knowing when that race is over, and when to use the moist shade and leftover sunlight for growing leaves that improve the soil for everyone. Give me red flowers that feed insects and become seeds that fly. Give me a blanket of old moss to share with birds. Let me touch the appreciative hands of a person who can feel the forest in sinewy wood. Show me the dense twisting complexity of life on this good green earth.