Sometimes endings can lead to a beautiful beginning

It's my wife's fault for having too many grandchildren. How was I to know that having children would end up being so complicated? I just wanted to have fun playing music with my grandkids, so I started building mountain dulcimers for them. Dulcimers are simple for children and adults to learn to play.

But the grandkids keep coming and it's all starting to get expensive. Do you know how much hardwoods cost? Then I discovered a beautiful wood right here in Colorado that is less expensive and can be used to make dulcimers: blue-stain pine!

Nature often creates beauty through natural processes that seem ugly or harsh. Take a brightly colored mushroom growing amidst decaying organic matter, for example. Or a gold, metallic-colored beetle rolling a ball of dung. The geologic terrain is shaped through violent storms, earthquakes and volcanoes. In the natural world, one lives when another dies. Vegetation is eaten to sustain life, and waste is produced to sustain vegetation.

In recent years, Colorado has experienced an infestation of Dendroctonus ponderosae, the mountain-pine beetle. Numerous trees in our pine forests have succumbed to this infestation.

Their gray shapes can often be seen looking like ghosts in the dense green foliage of the forests.

The adult, female beetles chew through the bark of available trees while releasing pheromones, a gaseous attractant for male beetles. They mate and lay eggs within tunnels chewed into the trees. The eggs hatch, and the larvae continue to eat and burrow through the trees. Eventually the larvae pupate and hatch out the next year as new adults.

Once trees are infected, pheromones attract more beetles to the same trees, resulting in a mass infestation that can eventually kill them. One cause of tree death is the numerous galleries and tunnels through the trees that inhibit water and nutrient flow.

Trees have some natural abilities to combat such infestations. One defense mechanism is the resin that's secreted by pine trees, commonly at the site of wounds. However, pine beetles carry, within a pouch in their mouthparts, a variety of Ascomycete fungi that can interfere with the tree's resin production.

The fungus produces a thread-like mass of "hyphae" and spores that are "sticky." These eventually block the water-conducting columns of the tree, drain the trees of their nutrients, and eventually cause the tree to starve to death. Beetle larvae feed on the fungus, as well as the tree, further promoting beetle growth and increasing their numbers.

The fungal hyphae are made of inert material that persists after the fungus dies. These colored hyphae cause discoloring of the wood. While the wood is often discolored bluish, different fungi can stain the wood other colors, including shades of blue, brown, green, red, and even black.

If a tree killed by pine beetles can be harvested quickly though, the wood can still be used. However, with too much time lapse, the wood begins to dry, crack, and warp due to the many tunnels left by the beetle. These problems make it difficult to use the lumber for building. Many of the infected trees are older, with diameters greater than 8 inches. They are often scattered within the forest, making it difficult to harvest them.

The death of an ancient tree is sad, but natural. The association of three living organisms that complete their life cycles in tandem is an arrangement called symbiosis, living together. Living things tend to live on or in other living things, and such associations as these may be the most common form of life on earth.

What is the result? A beautiful blue-stained wood called blue stain pine. Have you seen it? You may have seen it as rustic siding and paneling on cabins or homes, or in mountain dulcimers made in Colorado. I find it fascinating the way nature creates beauty through natural processes that sometimes seem ugly and harsh.

Gary McCallister, gmccallister@bresnan.net, is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.

Recommended for you