Last week, I took a drive over Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, which is a beautiful excursion above the tree line with some truly majestic vistas. Every time I travel that road, there’s a spot where a certain word pops into my mind. It happens where the road rises to transition from the subalpine forest to the alpine tundra, and the word is krummholz.
If you know this word, the reason it springs to mind at that point is probably obvious. I don’t remember when I first learned the word, but I’d guess it was on a trip to a national park—perhaps even RMNP when I was about 8 years old on a trip out to Colorado from California. Krummholz refers to the trees and other vegetation in the transition zone between subalpine and alpine, plant life which is typically twisted and deformed by the struggle to survive in extreme winds and temperatures.
Krummholz trees frequently include pines and firs. They cling to rocky ground, dwarfed, bent, and gnarled. Those that still survive frequently have green branches on only the lee side, away from high winds, forming flag trees. Those that fail leave white twisted tree corpses. It’s a stark yet beautiful landscape, as well as a reminder of the tenacity of life and the unforgiving climate of the high mountains.
I love the word krummholz. From German, it translates literally as “bent wood” or “crooked wood” (and keep your off-color jokes to yourself!). It sounds like it should be the name of a character from a Charles Dickens novel, some old curmudgeon, or maybe even a cagey and twisted villain. I’m not opposed to the Dickensian naming convention in my own writing, so I could see using some variant of Krummholz someday for a baddy.
Part of what gives the word power, to me anyway, is its existence at that transition point. The krummholz zone, though fairly small, is a grand visible sign of metamorphosis: one thing becoming another, a tree-covered land rising to where no tree can survive. Transitions are powerful—more powerful than the states on either side, which are static. As a fiction writer, it’s the transitions that matter, that are important to demonstrate. Maybe that’s why krummholz has always stuck in my mind.
When I looked up the proper spelling of krummholz (and actually there are acceptable variants), I found another word, a synonym, that deepened my appreciation for this transition zone. In 1903, an English translation of the German Krummholz was rendered as elfin-wood. The term elfinwood survives as an acceptable variant for krummholz. As a fan and writer of fantasy fiction, how could this word not spark the imagination?
I don’t believe I’ve ever written fiction about the krummholz zone—although thoughts are churning now. What sort of elfin creatures could live in this stunted wilderness? What would they look like—twisted and gnarled like the landscape itself or somehow resistant to the elements? Why do they live there, and for how long has this been their home? Good questions to start with, and perhaps if I choose to answer them, a story will evolve to solve the mysteries.
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins