On the earliest map of the land that became the Marty farm, 1851, the wetlands are labeled “Marsh” and “Tamarac swamp.” Zoom out and “Tamarac swamp” peppers the map.
But growing up there a hundred years later, on a farm full of trees, I never saw or even heard of a tamarack. It was news to me to learn of this venerable tree's association with my home state when a Minnesota magazine named a prose contest after it in the mid-1980s.
Tamarack, also called larch, is one of only two conifers that loses its short bundles of soft needles every winter. It’s the northernmost growing tree on the continent. My favorite tree reference book says for centuries its roots were used by indigenous people to make canoes.
The reason tamarack appeared all over that 1851 map was the main reason I never knew tamaracks on our farm: Those trees were like gold. The mapmakers had railroads in mind, and tamarack was prized for railroad ties in the days before creosote. The Lake Superior–Mississippi railroad would be built between Duluth and St. Paul in 1870 along what became the east border of the Marty farm.
Memory of Trees remembers oaks, maples, elms, birch, apple, spruce, pines, cedar, and even the Bible tree, fig. But it never mentions tamarack.
Later I asked my brothers if they knew of any tamaracks on the Marty farm. Yes, they said, but only on the Anderson place where our mother grew up—in a marshy spot, of course—nearly inaccessible. On a spring walk through the woods I got to see them for the first time, just a couple of drab trees standing in snowmelt.
Today walking across the campus of Michigan State University among evergreens and bare hardwoods, a single golden tree came into view. I had never seen anything like it but recognized it immediately. This is a tamarack.
It really was gold. Under the blue autumn sky it was dazzling.
“Larch,” my friend said.
“Tamarack,” I said. I felt wonder. I reached up to touch the needles, so delicate.