When I'm feeling lazy about getting out of the house and taking a walk, I give myself a purpose. Some kind of task. Today I took an informal survey of the neighborhood trees: Do you really have more moss on your north sides? And the answer, to my satisfaction, was yes. It's not a myth. Most of the elderly sort of trees by the roadside that did have moss growing around the base of their trunks, or even extending upward, had a tendency to have thicker growths on the side that faced north. The reason is that the north sides get less light, overall, and moss flourishes, as we know, in the shade.
Lichens too seem to favor the northern-facing sides of tree trunks. I used to think that, like fungi, moss and lichens were parasites that damage their hosts, but it's not true. Like mythical beings, they actually live on light and air. And you can use them as an indicator of how healthy the atmosphere is. Judging by the amount of them growing here, the air must be pretty clean – nice to know that.
It was a damp afternoon. I became aware of the sound of the creek across the street, still running high with snowmelt, although the little snow cover we had vanished after the big rain last week. After that brief blast from the Arctic in mid-December, the temperature's been consistently above freezing, and today it's in the upper 50s. There is no snow in the forecast, only rain. Walking around in this false spring is pleasant, but it gives me an uneasy feeling. There has to be a downside.
Is this bad for the maple syrup producers, for instance? I asked Jay Broekema, who owns Sugar Brook Maple Syrup on Samsonville Road. He thought the long spell of warm weather "could lessen the sugar content later in the season ... you're depleting some of the stores of sugar," because yes, with the warmth, the sap starts to run. "Through the years, we've always had January thaws. Now we're getting maybe more of them, and earlier."
I asked if he was tapping trees yet. He was not. For him, it would be to awkward and time-consuming to start the whole syrup-making process and then put it on pause, knowing that the weather will turn icy again at some point.
The trees are used to this, of course. They can shut themselves down when another cold spell arrives, and start running sap again in late February or March. Jay was confident that sugar maples could handle these spells; but, like many other northern tree species, like beeches for instance, they are adapted to snow cover in the winter. It insulates their roots from the cold. Will it kill them if there's no snow? Diane Greenberg of the Catskill Native Nursery told me this:
"Sudden fluctuations between bitter and warmer temperatures do more damage to trees and other plants than steady cold. It’s as if you were trying to sleep but someone keeps waking you up; it eventually ruins your health, and if goes on long enough, it can kill you. The most damaging conditions are when there is a quick weather shift and we get radical differences between a mild temperature during the day followed by plummeting cold at night. This temperature roller coaster can trigger what is called frost cracking, and it can literally split the bark on the trunk of a tree, leaving a gaping wound that the tree will have to spend energy to heal. These fluctuations also cause evergreen foliage to turn brown and often result in lost branches or permanent dead spots ... While some plants like bulbs and perennials can usually return to a state of dormancy with only minor damage, woody stemmed plants are likely to suffer serious or deadly consequences from these sudden and extreme temperature shifts."
The Mohonk Preserve has been keeping weather records since 1896, tracking precipitation and temperature. I decided to see what the data said about the last 10 Januarys. Every single one was below average in snowfall, and except for 2018, above average in temperature. The average January snow total in the Mohonk Preserve is – or used to be? – about 15 inches. This year? We shall see about this winter. Hitting 15 inches doesn't appear too likely at the moment.
Walking down the road, I can't tell how the forest is doing, really. Trees seem so strong, so durable. I'm only a human, with a human lifespan and sense of time. What trees will grow here in a hundred years? Will there still be sugar maples … hemlocks … oaks … white pines … beeches … wild cherry … dogwood?