The red spruce (Picea rubens) is the epitome of the West Virginia highlands; its flagged branches atop the Allegheny Front are iconic to all who’ve set foot on the ancient spine of the North American continent’s oldest mountain range. The rich, green color of spindly needles on stubby branches harkens back to harder times when life in Appalachia just wasn’t that easy. It’s safe to say the red spruce is my favorite tree, one that grows only in the highest portions of the Central Appalachians, and a tree that means home to so many West Virginians.
My love affair with red spruce trees began early in my teenage years when I cut my backpacking teeth in Dolly Sods. A friend and I went up in early June, only to be greeted by thick fog and snow. As we huddled under the dense branches of a wind-battered spruce in the high plains, I was immediately grateful for this tree, although I didn’t yet know exactly what kind of tree it was. I took a dendrology class in college and learned about all sorts of conifers and hardwoods, but my heart remained up on the Sods, huddled under that spruce, cooking ramen over a stove with my friend. That spruce is still there—a testament to what these trees can endure when faced with the harshest of conditions.
Now, as an avid skier in my late-thirties, I’ve spent countless hours cross-country ski touring among the thick stands of red spruce, just as in love with them as I was two decades ago. There’s nothing quite like meandering through the Appalachian majesty of a red spruce forest in the dead of winter (although cold weather makes me feel the most alive, so perhaps we should change that phrase).
The most gnarled red spruces that patiently grow atop the backbones of the Alleghenies have much in common with us backcountry skiers, preferring to spend their days getting blasted with incessant subzero winds and covered in a thick crust of rime ice and snow.
While a skier picks their route, a seed doesn’t choose where it grows, although I’d like to think those particular ridgetop spruces standing tall in the bald meadows did just that. The spruce is the epitome of resilience. When I’m going through a particularly rough patch—whether it be during a bushwhack or a work project—I think like the spruce. Stand tall. Go with the wind, not against it. Bend, don’t break. These daily affirmations help connect me to my favorite landscapes, and in doing so, become part of them.
But, like all things, spruce eventually succumb to the elements. When a mature red spruce tree falls, it creates a hole in the thick canopy, allowing seedlings to sprout and compete for light in a (slow) race to close the gap once again. Red spruce saplings are surprisingly shade tolerant and can rest somewhat dormant while waiting for their chance to steal the limelight—some trees only a few feet in height can be decades old.
Pay attention when walking in a red spruce forest—you may just stumble upon an area carpeted in hundreds of small red spruce seedlings, often growing on the rotting detritus of the fallen giant. Look up, and you’ll undoubtedly find a gap in the canopy. When I find one of these areas, I like to lie down next to the cadre of seedlings and stare up at the hole in the canopy to get a feel for what these seedlings experience. Yes, I know trees don’t have eyes, but I do, so please excuse my ill-fated effort to anthropomorphize our woody brethren. I like to think that they’re a group of children, playing together in the midst of the towering adults, thinking One day, I’m going to grow up to be that big.
Most healthy red spruce forests in West Virginia exist in insular communities called spruce islands. This isn’t a product of Mother Nature’s grand design, instead it is the unfortunate result of the destructive clear-cutting of the early 1900s. Red spruce once covered over 1.5 million acres of the West Virginia highlands—hardwoods were rare, and deer, with exponentially less food on which to browse, were even rarer.
After the slash-and-burn sprees of the early loggers, the red spruce began their slow recovery on the mountaintops where they could establish themselves before faster-growing hardwoods stole the light. Now these spruce islands remain fragmented, making it incredibly hard for species like the Virginia northern flying squirrel, Cheat Mountain salamander, and native brook trout to migrate between their requisite habitats. Fortunately, various groups of dedicated folks and organizations are working hard to restore the region’s once dominant spruce forests and connect those disparate islands.
One late night at a campfire after I had consumed a bit too much whiskey, a persuasive friend had me convinced that Bruce Springsteen, upon learning of the importance of red spruce trees in the fight against climate change, had recently started a spruce restoration nonprofit called Spruce Springstrees. I initially rejected the cockamamie idea, but after his relentless objections, I yielded, suddenly in love with the concept. Of course, he was yanking my chain, but nevertheless the name and the sentiment for which it stands live on in our lexicon. Every time I plant a red spruce tree—we’ve planted upwards of 20 seedlings so far on two acres of mountaintop property we own—I think of The Boss himself, hands in the dirt, planting a red spruce atop some remote hill in West Virginia.
I encourage you to volunteer for a legitimate red spruce planting event and join the fray. That’s right, we need you to spring some spruce trees from the fertile soils of Appalachia and help our fake nonprofit reach its lofty goal of planting one bajillion red spruce seedlings. Who knows, perhaps one day your grandchildren’s children will be walking through a vast forest of towering red spruce, talking about those elder activists who came before them and worked tirelessly to connect the now-distant spruce islands.
Dylan Jones is publisher of Highland Outdoors and encourages you to donate to Spruce Springstrees by subscribing to the mag online!