Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Woodland Riddle

Anyone out there up for a riddle?

When I was in Fairbanks for my obstetrics and gynecology rotation, I was fortunate to have a few days off so I could get out and experience the Alaskan landscape. Alaska is so big that it is impossible to make generalizations about the land. The people, the flora, the geology, the weather - it's difficult to write about the place without over-generalization.

One thing about interior Alaska that is hard not to notice is the trees. Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for several years, I've rediscovered a connection with the colossal organisms that define the landscapes here. Evergreens are, after all, the reason Seattle can claim the title of Emerald City. It isn't surprising that one of the first things I noticed after landing in Fairbanks was the diminutive stature of the area's trees. Black and white spruce, paper birch, alder and poplar are the main species there. And none of them grow much taller than 40 feet! Old growth forest consists of tree trunks less than a foot in diameter. The short growing season conspires with the extreme winter cold to limit tree height and diameter.

There is something else peculiar about interior Alaska's trees. There is a much higher frequency of burl formation there than any place I've been. Woodworkers know burls to be valuable sources of figured wood. Laminates, sculptures, and bowls derived from burls are things of beauty. Hikers and orcharders know burls to be those funny bulbous growths along the trunk, roots and limbs of trees. One of the more affected trees I encountered on a hike is shown at the left.

The strangest thing about burls is that no one really knows what causes them. Theories range from insect infestation, mechanical damage, genetics, fungus and soil contents. What I know is that when a medical student who has been a biomedical researcher and is an amateur woodworker encounters these misshapen trees in the forest, the first thing he thinks of is a riddle. That's right, the trees speak to me! This one said:

You doctors, you searchers, you cutters of flesh;
You sawyers, you sculptors, you dry aesthetes:
Gather together to crack my mystery.

So then, my witty readers... What do you think it all means? What was this telling me? How and when might we be able to figure the etiology of this I'll put up what I think it was telling me next week, and provide grades on your responses. I hope some brave readers will offer solutions to this mystery, first.

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