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The great outdoors: Timid, yet quite tenacious, it’s the tree which stands proud and beautiful

© Shutterstock / Aleksandra DudaAn alder on the banks of the Orchy gently twists its way skyward
An alder on the banks of the Orchy gently twists its way skyward

The most beautiful tree in all Glen Orchy is an alder. Even by the lowly aesthetic standards of alders, however, it is modest, unshowy, small. They can grow up to 90 feet tall, but not in Glen Orchy.

This one is slender, lithe, shapely. Its stance is so edge-of-the-bank that when the River Orchy tumbles in spate mode, fuelled by rain or snow melt, the alder wades. In a rare summer drought in Argyll, you can stand on the riverbed and see how the alder’s roots exert a sure clasp on the riverbank and how the riverbank resists the tug of spates by virtue of the alder roots’ tenacity.

The roots splay neatly then steepen down over rock into the river’s peaty embrace. This particular alder is one of hundreds along the Orchy – most of them wade when required, for the alder is to water what the eagle is to air.

Imagine you are an Atlantic salmon surging upstream in the Orchy, hell-bent on the spawning burns of the upper river. What you will see of the world beyond the edge of the water is mostly alder trees. Yet if walking by the river, you might not notice the alders at all. They line both banks in single file, leaving only enough space between trees to accommodate each other’s canopies. Behind, aspens, oaks, birches, Scots pines, willows and hollies compete for the level ground of the flood plain, and crowd down to the alders.

Behind that second rank, spruces and larches clothe hillsides most of the way to mountain tops. The forestry industry has been none too gentle with Glen Orchy. But set against such swarming summer greenery, the alders are so inconspicuous they practically vanish. Most of the time, wherever they grow in any kind of profusion, practically vanishing is what they do best.

But what they lack in spectacle they compensate for in tenacity. They are thirled utterly to water, to damp places, wet places, waterlogged places and, yes, to the shores and banks of lochs and rivers. They have evolved a technique to safeguard their right to the role of guard of honour for the epic march past of the Atlantic salmon. The tree produces two kinds of catkins, long dangly ones which are male and little cones which are female. Alders are the only deciduous trees to bear cones. The cones hold the seeds and the tree drops them in its own roots.

The result is that either they seed there and guarantee the next generation of alders on the parent tree’s stance, or the river carries them to a new landfall downstream. So the continuity of alders is fed from the water, and no other tree species gets closer to the riverbank than that.

The alders of Glen Orchy, then, line the riverbank in perpetuity, but wouldn’t it be nice to know when they first moved in? The alder, after all, is a pioneer species.

It would have been among the first to show up when the last ice age ended around 10,000 years ago.

Given that Glen Orchy would have been an early landscape feature as the glaciers from the icecap that was Rannoch Moor began to reconfigure the central and west Highlands into something we might recognise now, the alders of today might be the direct descendants of some of the earliest trees to re-establish in the wake of the ice.

So surely they are worth a second glance. With that in mind, consider the most beautiful tree in Glen Orchy. What makes this one particularly beautiful is its compact and balletic pose, which its water’s-edge stance only enhances. The trunk rises straight for only about six feet, at which point it bends at 45 degrees and reaches up and out over the shallowest water.

But only four feet up from the roots, the trunk also throws a limb out towards the water and almost at right angles, and that limb begins at once to bend upwards. The result is a sinuous aspect formed by the trunk and the limb, the first staying close to the shore, the second reaching out over the mainstream.

The alchemy they achieve derives from the shapes of the two spaces they enclose as they curve towards each other and then apart from each other. One is a perfect oval, the other an elongated triangle.

Change the angle of your viewpoint slowly and watch the shapes of the spaces change – widening or narrowing, shortening or lengthening. The hypnotic effect is enhanced by the fact that the spaces enclose nothing but bright and vigorously mobile river water.

A gleeful wind shivers the leaves and lesser branches of the tree, yet their modest spread has a controlling effect on all movement. So the whole tree is anchored by the trunk but the limbs and the branches and leaves shift subtly against the background of the river’s liveliness, and that liveliness is there in the spaces within the tree.

I could watch this for hours. With a guitar in my hands I might have coaxed the tree’s dance to make music. I must go back with a guitar sometime. As it was, all I had in my hand was a pen and a notebook to write it down.

I had brought my bike. When I rode on, relishing the midsummer quiet of the glen’s delectable single track road, I lingered over the sense of the tree, its swaying image gently seducing the memory as I tried to keep it bright in my mind, the zest of it, the perfect definition of what the writer Margiad Evans called “the touch of the moment, the touch of the daylight on the dream”.

If you think that an extravagant response to a smallish alder tree on a riverbank, as the Argyll writer Marion Campbell put it, “You have not seen her with my eyes.”

Alders are diligent trees. They stand at the service of others. Bees find an early source of nectar and pollen in their catkins, while siskins and redpolls are among the birds that eat their seeds. Mosses, lichens and fungi like their water-loving ways.

Their wetland, riverbank and lochside presence ingratiates them to otters and beavers. Many an otter holt is indebted to alder roots to keep its roof in place. Many a beaver larder is stuffed with alder branches and leaves, and – though they prefer willow and aspen – a profusion of alders close to suitable sites for lodge and dam is as likely to persuade them to settle there as anywhere.

Water is the alder’s lifeblood. Many trees simply rot in prolonged exposure to water. Alders, however, are strengthened by it. In a small woodland near the edge of Stirling, alders have saved the lives of two huge willows.

The heart of the wood is very wet. Both willows appear to have outgrown the capacity of their roots to keep a firm grip on the boggy woodland floor, and keeled over. But both live on because as they fell, they both encountered upright alders half their size, and these broke the willows’ fall and held firm.

The weight of the willows presses them deeper into the watery ooze, where they grow stronger and stronger, and the willows thrive at an angle of about 60 degrees.

I imagine beavers – already gnawing at the frontiers of suburban Stirling on the Forth – finding their way into that wet wood which is more or less on my doorstep.

It already has roe deer and foxes, buzzards and blackcaps and squirrels. They’d fit right in and the wood could do with a beaver-inspired makeover.

Any day now – watch this space.


Into the Wild: jimcrumleynature.com