In his book Wild Harmony, naturalist William Pruitt recalls boyhood dreams of living as a misfit trapper in a mythical “Great North Woods” teeming with wild game. As a man, he came to realize that his once-imagined landscape was real and called the taiga: the farthest-north circumpolar belt of conifer forest, an ecosystem of slow-growing plants, sparse animal populations, and weather extremes. Some ecologists consider taiga the very northern part of the boreal forest biome, the tree limit—sometimes called “land of little sticks”—that fringes the tundra. Most biologists, however, use taiga and boreal forest interchangeably. In Coming into the Country, John McPhee aptly observed that in this land of little sticks, most of the spruce trees “looked like pipe cleaners. The better ones look like bottle washers.” In the taiga, a tree an inch in diameter might be fifty years old. Yet on a journey from the Arctic Ocean inland, the sight of the first tree inspired the explorer Roald Amundsen to exclaim: “A very diminutive, battered little Christmas tree, hanging out of a crevice . . . produced a wonderful sensation, reminding me that we were now out of the Polar regions and on more homely human ground.” The original Yakut word taiga (literally, “clumps of woodland”) connotes the Siberian landscape of open, rocky ground patchworked by stunted conifer stands. This description resonates in Sigurd Olsen’s text, when he, like a caribou, “sought shelter in the islands of dwarf spruce known as the taiga.”

Eva Saulitis