Cautiously, I transfer my weight to the snow, and find that rising temperatures and a new layer of flakes have softened it since my last visit. Forty-eight hours ago, just around the bend, my crunching footfalls sent the first bear of the season hightailing it into the forest, leaving only a single hair and two footprints in testimony of the encounter. Even with my volume slightly abated, the snow is not quiet. Snow is never quiet, and I am not convinced that today’s mezzo forte will be any less alarming to a bear than yesterday’s fortissimo, so I step as lightly as I can, and into the woods I walk alone.
Scanning forest floor and treetops, I hope for bears, but have no expectation. There is little here for a fresh-out-of-hibernation, hungry bear—no skunk cabbage yet, no ground cone, no grasses or dandelions. Any bear here is either passing through to a remembered food source or following her nose to a snack that could be a mile away. Bears’ olfactory abilities are that refined.
It won’t be long, though, before new growth on the cottonwoods will draw in sows and cubs by day, boars by night, to dine in the canopy alongside porcupines and squirrels. Later in the summer, the smell of returning salmon in this little creek will attract fiercely competitive bruins to feed an unquenchable hunger that will fatten them for another winter fast.
The forest is busy with birds this morning. Along with the usual varied thrushes, pine siskins, dark-eyed juncos and pacific wrens calling and moving about the bottom two-thirds of the forest, three common redpolls rest briefly atop a bare alder.
Trailside Barclays willows are loaded with fuzzy white catkins—the first flowers of the forest, and an important food source for many a hungry forager.
A trail that has remained untaken this winter beckons, and I step from the beaten path onto an unseen route, hidden beneath over two feet of snow. Without prior knowledge, one would never be able to follow this route in these conditions, but I have walked this trail more than a hundred times, and am confident the way will be apparent.
Five minutes later, with no idea where the trail is, I ramble through a scrappy young forest that is struggling to find a foothold in the rolling, sandy moraine. Though the trail is nowhere to be found, there is no worry of getting lost. With Mendenhall Glacier to my left, the river behind me, and several recognizable peaks on three sides, I am free to wander without a care. This is walking alone at its finest.
Trudging through the windswept and crusted snow, I am reminded of the sand dunes of Gujarat, and try to imagine camels sheltering beside spruce trees and nibbling on alder and willow.
I am laughing at the absurdity of my vision when I notice the top of a young tree growing a scant six inches out of the snow—a single stem, with no visible branches or buds. The tree is instantly recognizable as a Barclays willow by its gall. At the tip of the stem, a stunted growth, somewhat resembling a dried rose, was formed in response to the larva of a gall midge that, just after hatching, burrowed into the terminal bud of the willow. Known as willow roses, these strange growths provide food and protection for those developing grubs who are lucky enough to avoid parasitization by any of a dozen tiny wasps who insert their ovipositor into a gall and deposit their egg inside the grub. Once a wasp hatches inside the midge and begins to feed, it is game over for that midge.
Kneeling to photograph the willow rose, I notice the thin bark on the stem is torn and frayed. Two other nearby young willows look the same—single gall-topped stems with patches of torn and frayed bark.Were this snow fresher and without a strong crust, there would be tracks around the willows, but the culprits who did this damage were light enough to get away without leaving a sign. The offender could be mammalian or avian—willows catkins are delicious to plenty of species. My guess is snowshoe hare—a critter I have seen many times on these trails.
Willow tree should be grateful for the midges who lay eggs on their bud, for without the rose, whoever eats the catkins is likely to chomp the tips of every budding stem as well. Even moose, who love to eat willows, avoid the willow roses, ensuring that some part of the tree survives to live another year. In the case of these tiny, young trees, the one-two punch of gall and hare might be a knockout.
As I walk on, I think about how the hatching of one tiny larva can create such far-reaching ripples, affecting not only its host tree, but wasp, moose, hare.
Perhaps these unseen midge eggs are not much different than tiny viruses waiting to waft from one host to the next like so many grains of pollen drifting hopeful on the air. Most midge eggs will not survive to burrow into a willow bud, and most that do will be parasitized and killed by a wasp. Similarly, the vast majority of virus strands will never reach their intended destination and will die unfed, and unknown, before ever living. But the occasional one, the rare little strand of genetic material that finds just the right host—like the rare midge egg that hatches and survives long enough to burrow into a willow bud—has the potential to send broad ripples into the world around it, permanently scarring its host and affecting its entire community.
Yet, for all the thousands of willow roses I have encountered, I have never seen a midge egg. Of course, seeing so many roses, I cannot deny the eggs’ existence. Similarly, who has ever seen a corona virus? I haven’t. Neither has my friend David, but not seeing it, didn’t keep the virus from entering his lungs. I pray that David, like most people who contract COVID-19, and like healthy willow trees bearing galls will, though forever changed, be in some way strengthened. Unfortunately, some who host this unseen virus, like the tiny tree stripped of its catkins, will suffer a knockout.
It can be frightening knowing that there is an invisible, sometimes deadly invader among us. It is even scarier knowing that any one of us, at any given time, could be hosting it completely unaware, and passing it on to people we love.
Like most people these days, except for the occasional trip to the grocery store, I am not venturing into places where other people are. When I have to visit the store—and I will only do that when I have to—I will be thinking about the tiny little midge, and the ever-expanding ripples its unseen eggs produce, and I will put on a mask. That is the least I can do. The rest of the time, for now, I will walk alone among the roses.