Looking Small: Bark

Sometimes during winter, when the more obvious, prettier stuff falls away, you get a chance to notice and appreciate things you overlook in the summer. Like bark.

Last Sunday, Frances and I took advantage of unseasonable warmth (it’s amazing how balmy 5C can feel when you’re used to temperatures below freezing) to take a walk by a nearby, tiny, frozen-over creek down to the neighbourhood Big Park. You can’t have weather like that on a weekend afternoon in February in Toronto and not go outside. It’s illegal. I’m sure of it.

Anyway. While Frances amused herself by getting Teri, her toy pteradactyl, to peck through the ice on the creek in search of fish–and there I stood, bemusedly wondering why we think we need to teach kids to love nature–we took note as we walked of all the different kinds of bark we could see. It’s amazing. If you drew a tree, you’d probably just draw a smooth brown sheath, but when you stop and look there’s so much variety in something so simple.

Layered bark. Peeling bark. Ridged bark. Cracking bark. Smooth bark. Papery bark. Whorled bark. Don’t you wonder why? What evolutionary advantage would smooth bark impart to one tree and not to another in the same ecosystem? Or is it an accident of the way the wood grows?

Isn’t it gorgeous? Have you ever really stopped and looked at bark?

Bark protects trees. It discourages predation by herbivores, since outer bark is usually indigestible. It slows water loss, can mitigate fire damage, and insulates in colder climates (where tree barks are generally thicker). But according to this page from the University of California LA, bark is generally poorly understood. Go figure. Here you might have assumed that some scientist somewhere would have the answer to almost any question, and yet something as commonplace and ubiquitous as bark remains a mystery.

Scientists can also use bark to measure the level of some contaminants that trees have been exposed to.

One day I’ll learn how to identify trees just from looking at the bark; in the meantime, I’ll appreciate it. So much of enjoying nature in an urban or suburban context means changing the scale from the charismatic and large to the small–stopping to stare at things you’ve walked by a thousand times but never really seen.

What kinds of bark can you see in your neighbourhood?

One thought on “Looking Small: Bark”

  1. And there I stood, bemusedly wondering why we think we need to teach kids to love nature.

    I love that.

    I can identify ponderosa trees by their bark and also cedar. Cedar is strippy. Ponderosas are ponderosas : )

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