Monday, January 21, 2013

Scarred Trees

Culturally scarred trees in Glacier National Park, the Nez Perce and Bitterroot Forests, the Flathead Lake area, the Bob Marshall Wilderness, and elsewhere in western Montana are indicative of travel corridors that native people used seasonally. Majestic Ponderosa pines and, less often, western larch and other types of trees served as a source of nutrition in the spring when the sap was running. Food was scarce at this time of the year and the people were hungry. Various tribes harvested the sweet bark, or cambium. For the Salish, it was women’s work. They used a stone knife or ax to make a foot-long waist-high incision on the outer trunk of the tree. A pole thrust upward into the bark served as a lever to loosen and peel the outer bark. Then the women used a sharp knife to shave thin strips from the inner layer. Some of the strips were eaten raw on the spot and immensely enjoyed. What remained was dried on drying racks like jerky. When the strips were completely dry, the women pounded the strips into a fine powder and used it as a nutritious sweetener. The procedure did not kill the tree, and often the scars are so old they are nearly healed over. Lewis and Clark noted the practice of peeling bark in their journals, and some scarred trees were harvested as long ago as the 1700s, before Lewis and Clark trekked through Montana. Ponderosa pines are not ready for harvest until the bark turns a reddish color when the tree is about two hundred years old. Forest fires have claimed some of these treasures, but some of the massive survivors have stood for centuries.

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