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Visiting the Larches

November 15, 2012

On Election Day after casting my ballot I took a drive down PA Route 191 to see the Larches.

It may sound like the surname of some old family friends who are up for the weekend or the long-lost name of a distant cousin (to be sure, the Larches are as contradictory as some of my most eccentric relatives) but they are friends of a different sort.

The Eastern Larch or Tamarack, its Native American name, is one of my favorite trees. Each autumn I seek out these tall, pyramid-shaped trees that are easiest to spot after their slender, green spines have turned yellow. Usually I do a drive-by to see the stand of larch that grows above Equinunk, just off of Route 191.They are tall, yellow trees that on closer inspection, seem to shimmer with tones of iridescent purple and rusty pink.

But it is not only the larch’s color that seems to shift. As a conifer, the larch produces cones; but contrary to conifers, they also shed their needle-like leaves in autumn, which is the mark of deciduous trees.

Larches grow from the Ohio River Valley north to the Arctic. Natives are said to have used the tough root fibers of the tamarack to bind birch bark canoes. The tree has also been used for railroad ties, fence posts and to make newspaper. It is also a food source for ruffed grouse, porcupine and deer.

Tuesday was a sunny day—the first in a while. And as I drove along the route I saw the tell-tale reminders of Hurricane Sandy—heaved up roots of fallen hemlocks and a convoy of utility trucks. I realized it is late autumn now, headed toward the first day of winter. The knotweed that flanks the Delaware River is as rust colored as old barbed wire. Only a few oak trees still clung to their golden leaves. There were large, roiling flocks of grackles gathered in the trees—rising and landing again. There were gnarled apple orchards—remainders of long-gone farms. There were the ghosts of old apple trees.

The larches also remind me of Eileen Pagan, a writer who was a member of the Upper Delaware Writers Collective in the 90’s and early 2000’s, as was I. Eileen was a thoughtful reader and writer, who’s contrary nature enriched her observations. She loved, and wrote often of, the larches on her property in Forestburg. In her poem “Solstice” she writes of both the winter and summer solstices, pinpointing the sun’s position on summer solstice as “… north of the seventh larch.” She often invited me down to see these favorite trees but I, for whatever reason, never went. Eileen died in 2008. In “Solstice” she writes: