Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Return of the Great White Pines

The following is an essay by guest contributor Bob Leverett, the eastern (U.S.) old-growth forest "guru". 




Saheda, Tecumseh, and Washakie

Three Massachusetts Trees That Give Us Bragging Rights

 

            By Robert T. Leverett
            April 20, 2018

White Pines: A Historical Perspective


What comes to mind at the mention of New England: the region’s rich history, culture, scenery? All of these, but what about its forests? Were it not for our brilliant fall colors, I doubt many people would visit us to see our woodlands. New England’s forests are not associated with exceptional trees. But it wasn’t always this way. In the 1600's and 1700's, chroniclers described a landscape that featured giant pines, some claimed to be well over 200 feet in height. In fact, the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) was the foremost symbol of the region’s original virgin wilderness.

Great white pines of yesteryear

Today’s forest historians relegate those giant pines to the pages of history. Romantic accounts abound of white pines, especially in Maine and New Hampshire, reaching astounding sizes and achieving great ages, and of course, the species was famous as a resource for ship masts. The great whites became the replacement for the exhausted European Riga Fir (actually Scotch Pine, P. sylvestris) used by the King’s Navy to hold up the sails of its war ships. Trees of a certain size and shape were reserved exclusively for the Royal Navy. They were often marked by three slashes of an ax, called the broad arrow markings. But the time of those legendary pines came and went. 

 
The intense lumbering of the region, especially in the 1700's and 1800's, left us with young regrowth woodlands. By the early to mid-1900's, most of our New England forests were populated with younger trees. Field guides of the time often described the white pine as a tree capable of surpassing 100 feet in height, but often listed current heights as commonly 75 to 100 feet. More descriptive authors like Donald Culross Peattie reminded us of the historic heights, but most of these authors made it clear that no such trees still existed. In fact, the stature of the species had been so diminished that one hiking guide to trails in New Hampshire boasted of a pine that was purportedly 125 feet tall. This lone tree was considered the rare exception at the time the guide was written.

White Pines Today


To make matters worse, today’s management paradigm aims at keeping our woodlands young and shrubby, said by timber interests to be a healthier state than when trees reach their maturity. Yet, for many reasons, our forests are offering up some surprises. The biggest one may be the re-emergence of the eastern white pine to reclaim some of its former glory.

So, what is today’s story about this charismatic eastern species, and more particularly, where do Massachusetts’s pines fit into the narrative? In conservation areas, parks, state forests, and even on private lands, the great whites are maturing, and one of the best places to see them is Mohawk Trail State Forest (MTSF), located in the MA townships of Charlemont, Savoy, and Florida. How large do these regrowth pines get? Do any approach their historic sizes? This question will in part be answered by my account of the re-measuring of two of Mohawk’s largest.

Re-measuring the Saheda Pine


On April 18, 2018, Ray Asselin, Jared Lockwood, and I went to the Elders Grove of white pines in Mohawk Trail State Forest. The visitor reaches a cluster of conspicuously larger trees after a 10 to 15 minute walk on a trail paralleling the scenic Deerfield River. On the 18th, this path was slippery with recently fallen wet snow. The compromised footing presented me with challenges for my new knee. Yet, I was anxious to get as much measuring done as possible before the hardwoods leaf out. The veil of dense green of the hardwoods 50 to 100 feet above the head makes re-measuring the overstory pines that thrust through the hardwoods very difficult, if not impossible.

My first task was to re-measure the Saheda pine. Saheda is the name of a Mohawk ambassador who was murdered in the late 1600's when he was on a mission of peace to the Pocumtucks at what is now Old Deerfield. I thought the historic Saheda deserved a tree named for him in the Elders Grove, and in my Native Tree Society (NTS) capacity, chose arguably the handsomest pine in the grove. Saheda is located above the trail, near two others: Sacajawea and Ouray.

On this visit, I wanted to record Saheda’s current height before the onset of the growing season. I closely monitor this great tree and have for years. I’ve watched Saheda and other pines in the grove climb upward since the late 1970's, but it was in the mid-1990's when we began measuring Saheda with serious intent.

In 1998, Will Blozan, President of NTS and an arborist extraordinaire, climbed and tape-drop measured Saheda. At that time, we confirmed Saheda at the eye-popping height of 158.3 feet. Based on what we believed white pines to be able to achieve growth-wise in the modern era, this was exceptional. Only one other tree we knew of topped Saheda - another white pine, also in MTSF, named for Mohawk chief Jake Swamp. Will had also climbed and tape-drop measured Jake to a height of 158.6 feet on the same visit when he climbed Saheda. The two trees were neck and neck, and so far as we knew, the two tallest in Massachusetts, if not all New England. We were still influenced by the descriptions of forest historians and government resource managers who continued to maintain that the species was still in its youthful stage throughout New England, save for older pines growing on very unproductive sites – small trees. 

We’ve watched both pines, Jake Swamp and Saheda, exceed 160 feet in height, and more recently 170. Neither shows signs of slowing down. However, for me, as the years passed, it became apparent that Jake was growing a little faster than Saheda. That seemed to fit with the differences in their ages. Jake is about 160 years old and Saheda, around 185 or 190.

To put a finer point on the numbers, Saheda’s growth rate has averaged 8.46 inches per year since Will’s climb in 1998, and Jake has maintained an average of 9.6 inches since 1992. Most forestry professionals expect pines the ages of these trees to be growing at maybe 5 inches in height per year.

My last measurement of Saheda, taken with a laser rangefinder in July 2017, set its height at 171.4 feet. However, I didn’t use my tripod on that measurement, which made exactly hitting the target a challenge. I had gotten numbers as low as 171.0 feet and as high as 171.8 feet, with one measurement at exactly 171.4. When you press the “fire” button on a laser rangefinder or hypsometer, you can pull the instrument down slightly. On any given measurement, that may or may not happen, but it is a potential source of error. Anyway, the 171.4-foot height seemed a reliable number to settle on, so I proclaimed it as Saheda’s height.

But on this visit I carried my tripod so that I could control handshake and the button-press sources of error that invariably accompany measurements when instruments are handheld.

While I re-measured Saheda’s height, Jared took diameter measurements up the trunk using his TruPulse 200X (hypsometer) and Vortex Solo RT 8/36 (monocular). The combination of a hypsometer and monocular allows us to measure diameter up and down the trunk from a remote location. The formula needed to calculate trunk width above or below eye level from a distance using a monocular is:



where M = reticle reading, D = distance to middle of trunk, F = manufacturer’s reticle factor, and A = angle above or below eye level of width line being measured.
On this visit, our double objective was to fix Saheda’s height prior to the onset of annual growth and to re-model the pine for trunk volume, which required the trunk width measurements.


Jared (left) and Bob measuring Saheda

Finding a good location to see the left side of Saheda’s crown, I set up my tripod. I could see Saheda’s silver id tag near its base, so I was set. Below is a view of Saheda’s base and the location I use to choose an exact spot on the ground from which to measure height. An argument can be made for setting the base point lower to match the slope of the land. I choose to be conservative on this point.

Saheda's base



From locations within 200 feet, necessary for seeing both top and base, the highest crown points of Saheda are the real challenge to see, let alone measure. However, from a much greater distance, its complex double crown stands out. Below is a view of the top taken from well upstream. You can see where I’ve marked the top. But, again, seeing that sprig from much closer requires both work and luck.

Looking for Saheda's top

Part of the challenge becomes clear when one realizes that the area of twigging with candidates for the absolute top can cover as much as 100 ft2 on these larger, older pines. At their widest, mature white pine crowns are typically between 40 and 55 feet, although the points of maximum width are well below the top. Still, the area that includes the highest twigs often presents many choices. On older pines, there is seldom a branch that is clearly the tallest from one’s vantage point, and even less often is it centered over the trunk. Crown breakage and re-sprouting is the norm.

Saheda's top

 
Here is an interesting fact. For visitors to Saheda, seeing the tree from a distance seldom seems to make much of an impact. A four-foot wide trunk seen from 200 feet away looks like a stick. One needs to get up close for impact, and looking directly up its trunk is when you experience an OMG moment -and that still occurs for me. In my opinion, Saheda is all that a white pine can hope to be. When I first took my friend Tim Zelazo (now retired from MA-DCR) to see the tall pine, he looked aloft into its crown, and was an immediate fan of Saheda. Tim was no stranger to the Berkshire’s forests, but the Elders Grove had escaped him. Gazing upward, this is what he saw.






Measurement Results


From my vantage point, I was able to shoot to four identifiable tops of Saheda’s double crown, all on the uphill side of the crown. One conspicuous tip gave me a reading of 128.25 feet above the centroid of the TruPulse. I asked Ray to confirm the measurement, which he did. Turning the TruPulse on the axis of the tripod and shooting to Saheda’s metal tag, the height below the centroid read 40.5 feet on the display. The height of the tag above the point I use as Saheda’s base, as shown in the first image, was 3.0 feet. The three numbers add up to 171.7 feet!

Saheda hasn’t grown since July 2017. The difference between the 171.4 and 171.7 probably lies in the use of my tripod, which gave me a sturdier platform to shoot from, as previously explained. In addition, this time my vantage point was different. Regardless, there isn’t a dramatic difference between 171.4 and 171.7. Still, when you are the second tallest living thing we know of in all New England, inches matter.

 Saheda's Carbon Sequestration Capacity


Our second challenge was to update our calculations on Saheda’s trunk volume. With updated figures, we would then: (1) convert volume into total woody mass, (2) derive the carbon portion of that mass, and (3) calculate the amount of CO2 pulled from the atmosphere to build the trunk. The next chart shows our calculations, followed by more explanatory comments. The process and calculations are shown here to explain the methodology. Skip the chart if you are not interested in these technical details.

 
The newly calculated trunk volume of Saheda is 852 ft3. I had been using 825 ft3 before based on cruder measurements. Limbs add between 5.5% and 6% of the trunk’s volume. Using 5.75%, I arrived at a trunk and limb volume of 901 ft3. Taking an average density of 24 lb/ft3 (that number varies from around 21 to 29), we get a total trunk mass of 21,624 lbs. If 48% of the total mass is elemental carbon, this yields 10,380 lbs. The amount of CO2 needed to deposit the calculated amount of carbon in the trunk and limbs is 10,380 x 3.67 = 38,095 lbs or 19.05 tons.

For the modest sized rectangular area that Saheda takes up on the landscape, we’re getting a very good environmental return on the physical space.

I’ll leave Saheda with a final picture of the pine and my late, great friend Gary Beluzo, who was an environmental studies professor at Holyoke Community College, where I also taught as an adjunct for 24 years.

Gary Beluzo at the Saheda white pine

Tecumseh and Washakie

  

One of the two other trees we re-measured was Tecumseh, named for the famous Shawnee chief of the early 1800's. Tecumseh was a charismatic figure. It is still difficult to get his full measure. Tecumseh’s tree is no less impressive, but it is even harder to measure than Saheda. In the past, I had established its height at 166.8 feet, but on this visit, I could only get 165.5 feet. We noticed that Tecumseh had experienced a lot of limb pruning, and I believe that it has lost crown. For now, I’ll stay with 165.5. Tecumseh has been climbed and tape-drop measured by both Will Blozan and Bart Bouricious. Like Saheda, Tecumseh achieves a 12-foot girth at breast height. My current estimate of Tecumseh’s trunk volume is 849 ft3.

Below is an image of the base of Tecumseh when my friend Bart Bouricius was climbing and tape-drop measuring the tree. DCR’s Tim Zelazo photographed the event. 

The Tecumseh white pine







We measured another pine, hitherto unnamed, growing a short distance south of Tecumseh. I last measured the nameless one in 2010 when it was 152.6 feet. Today, I got 155.3 feet. This pine has averaged a modest 4.6-inch annual height increase. Obviously, not all the pines are growing at Saheda’s rate. However, most are growing at least a half a foot per growing season. We named this pine Washakie after the great Shoshoni chief. It measures a respectable 10.3 feet in girth, and has a trunk volume of between 550 and 575 ft3. I felt satisfied with the naming choice. Monica and I have visited the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming on several occasions, and I have long admired Washakie. He was a true leader.
 

Our Custom of Honoring Native Americans by Naming Trees After Them

 

In terms of honoring the past Native Americans with trees in the Elders Grove, we now have Saheda, Tecumseh, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Sacajawea, Ouray, Osceola, Wampanoag (unspecified), and now Washakie. The other larger trees will eventually acquire Native American names. Our reason for naming the trees after Native Americans is simply that the custom seems appropriate. The great white pines of yesteryear were abundant when indigenous people were in control. Also, the Mohawks proclaimed the eastern white pine as their tree of peace, and the Algonquin-speaking nations held the species in no less esteem. Additionally, the indigenous peoples found sustenance in the underbark of the pines as a food source. Today we are discovering that the compounds of the pines released into the air have health benefits. In terms of naming all the pines, we don’t want to rush the process, though. It would be counter to the ceremonial state of mind that I associate with real Native teachers.


Is There a Higher Purpose Behind Our Measuring and Modeling?

 

Why do Ray, Jared, and I spend so much time with these lofty pines, and in particular Saheda? Each of us has his reasons, but an especially important one for me is that I find it unacceptable that in 2018 such a great tree should go unrecognized in a state as highly educated and foresighted as Massachusetts. The visibility and importance of Saheda and his companions have largely been lost to our fixation on the presumed need to “manage” all our forests - too often a euphemism for exploitation.

Those of the latter mindset do not understand the full range of the ecological services provided by our biggest trees. These forest monarchs provide habitat for a range of species, sequester more carbon than their junior counterparts, protect the genetic heritage of their species, moderate the climate around them, and provide heretofore unrecognized health benefits to those who walk among them. They appeal to our artistic sense and spiritual nature. No less a personage than Henry David Thoreau understood their place.

Each town should have a park, or rather a primitive forest, of 500 or 1000 acres, where a stick should never be cut … a common possession forever.” (1859)

People can disagree on Saheda’s value along subjective lines such as aesthetics, but Saheda’s role in sequestering carbon should not be in doubt. That alone gives us an immediate reason for valuing it and the other big pines of the Elders Grove. Saheda and Tecumseh debunk the mistaken, and often self-serving belief that the larger, older trees are senescent: holding, but not adding carbon. They are adding, and adding a lot, and we will continue to keep track of the amount.

Sacajawea (left), Saheda, and Ouray pines                                     (New England Forests photo)


I’ll close this topic with some unsettling observations. I wish I didn’t feel the need to make them. All people and professions knowledgeable about forests should find inspiration in places like the Elders Grove. Those splendid trees should be valued for historical, cultural, aesthetic, and ecological reasons.

But sadly, much of modern forestry discounts the ecological role of trees in their maturity. The profession actively promotes early successional habitat, while at best, paying lip service to its late successional counterpart. Obviously, timber people can’t wait 100 years and more for trees to fulfill their ecological role before cutting them. So, practically speaking, most of our forests have to be managed on shorter rotations if we’re to continue enjoying wood products.

Still, one would hope that the professional forestry organizations would publicly support a nontrivial percentage of our forests maintained as late successional. Yet today we are seeing a growing number of forestry voices promoting the use of trees to generate heat and electricity. They claim biomass to be carbon neutral. It clearly is not, and the mental gymnastics that supporters of biomass go through to justify their illogical claims are wholly unconvincing.

As long as outdated and mistaken beliefs about the growth rates of mature trees are publicly promoted by resource managers attempting to justify logging it will be necessary for us to ‘publicly’ set the record straight.

 

Paying Respect to All

This essay is primarily about the Elders Grove pines and more particularly Saheda, Tecumseh, and Washakie. However, in the introduction I alluded to the return of the eastern white pine in Massachusetts as our true New England forest monarch. I will conclude with a list of all the sites we have documented in the Bay State with pines in the height range of 140 feet or more. This list constantly changes, but in the direction of an increasing number of locations. As shown in the table, many of our measurements are old, and we do not believe that we’ve exhausted the current number of "140" sites. There may be as many as 50 statewide. 

Species Code:  WP=White Pine  NS=Norway Spruce  TT=Tulip Tree(Yellow Poplar)

 


 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

New Film: The Lost Forests of New England

New England has experienced a vast manipulation of its once-virgin forest lands in a relatively short period of time. There has been an almost complete turnover in forest cover since the arrival of the first European settlers.

Upon the retreat of the Laurentide ice sheet (which had smothered the land under thousands of feet of glacial ice for thousands of years, eliminating all life under it), plants and animals migrated northward to re-establish New England forests. This occurred approximately fourteen to fifteen thousand years ago.


New England's Old Growth Forests


The composition of the forest here has changed since that time, the species varying with warming climate. By the time the first Europeans arrived, New England was largely covered by primeval forest. In some areas, Native Americans had already altered forests, for several reasons. But the forest had never been rapaciously exploited as it would be post-settlement.
White Pines







The current forest cover we now enjoy is not what it was 350 years ago.

We, perhaps as recreational users, may find today's New England forests to be attractive in many ways, and doing just fine. But is that just because they're all we know? Are we impressed by stands of 10-inch diameter poles, all the same age? Are multi-trunked, coppiced trees the norm in a forest? Why is that grove of Norway spruce there? Why do all those hemlock trees have so few needles? Why are the beech tree trunks covered with blisters?

Do we know what primitive, old-growth New England forests looked like? Those are long gone, aren't they?

Well, yes they are. And that's truly a sad thing to contemplate. But wait-- there are a few small patches of old growth forest still in existence in New England, as hard as it may be to believe. I was literally thrilled to learn that, some thirty years ago, when I went on my first hike with Bob Leverett (I don't think he had much choice in the matter... I had to see these places!). Bob has led the charge in Massachusetts (and much of the rest of the country) to rediscover, measure,  and document remnant old growth forests. I don't know how he's managed to cover as much ground as he has, but I'm truly grateful for his pursuits. He wore out a couple knees in the effort though.

A few years ago, it was becoming apparent to Bob and me, and some others,  that these remaining old stands, with their characteristics of age and almost mystical ambience, needed to be revered, studied, and most of all... preserved and protected. That led to the idea of a film to document our old growth woodlands. But there was a dilemma... these ancient forests are small fragments of what once was, and as such are vulnerable to loss from ignorance of their value and ecological import. They could disappear literally in a matter of a day or two. To be protected, their existence must be known to those who would care enough about them to be vigilant (that would be you). But the other side of that coin is that sometimes, attention by too many well-meaning enthusiasts results in a place succumbing to "too much love". That put us in a tight spot... we wanted to see these remnants protected forever, but not at the cost of losing them to heavy traffic!

Well, the film is now done. We chose to not readily identify specific locations, so as not to promote undue visitation. That may strike some as elitist; we felt it was the best course to take.

Preserving Remnant Old Growth Forests



The reasons for the need to preserve our only bits of unmanaged, old growth forests are many; they give us a benchmark to compare with what we do to managed forests; they preserve valuable genetic material; they are the best forests that nature can produce in their particular sites; they are complex ecosystems (versus the simplified ones of managed woodlands); so far, they've mostly resisted non-native species invasions. There are more reasons. But one I find to be quite important (no... required) for own my well-being, is the knowledge that such places really do still exist, unspoiled by human exploitation, free of litter, and inhabited by a variety of organisms that belong there just as much as we do.


The film discusses the forests experienced by the first Europeans who saw them and what transpired after settlers took to the land, to the present day explorers and scientists who have rediscovered some real treasures. Featured are a number of prominent ecologists who have studied our old growth remnants.

You can view the film on our New England Forests channel (Youtube), or in the viewer below (may not be available in email feeds).

Please do convey your thoughts about it in the comments section here, and/or on the channel.                                     

        




Tuesday, September 26, 2017

New England's Tallest Tree

New England is not what most people would think of as "big tree country." Yet, there are some respectable columns of cellulose rising from the ground here. Massachusetts, in particular, grows a number of respectable white pines, and other species as well.

In fact, the tallest living thing in New England (and then some) is rooted in a protective cove in a Western Mass state forest reserve. It's an eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). In September, 2017, the "guru" of eastern old growth forests, Bob Leverett, re-measured the tree, which he's been keeping close watch on for 25 years.




This tree is not a particularly old specimen, as old trees go; it sprouted from seed in the Civil War era, so is roughly 160 years old now. But it has taken advantage of the site conditions to rocket its way skyward, now scraping low-lying cloud bottoms at 175 feet. A number of other nearby pines are not far behind.

The pines in this stand are currently affected by a fungal infection known as "needle cast," which is causing their foliage (needles) to drop. The thinning in their crowns is quite noticeable, sadly. In spite of this, the trees are still growing, although for how long is a painful question to contemplate.



Bob knows all there is to know about measuring trees; you could say he wrote the book. No, really-- he and Don Bertolette just wrote new chapter and verse on tree measuring methods for American Forests, keepers of the national champion tree registry. Friends, what we now have is an 84-page (and growing) tome that will guide anyone with enough lignin in their cells to the irrefutable dimensions of a tree. Bob, Don, and Matt Markworth also head up the newly formed American Forests National Cadre, a group specializing in proper measurement techniques for national champion trees. And as a co-founder and Executive Director of the Native Tree Society (NTS), Bob is well-known across the country.

The science (art?) of measuring trees has changed with the times and technology. The methods of yesteryear may have been relatively inexpensive (eg, a lengthy tape measure and a clinometer), but you got what you paid for... frustration and inaccuracy. It's one thing to be tasked with measuring the height of a flagpole in the middle of an open field. But imagine a tree on a steep slope surrounded by dozens of other trees, all with foliage that obscures your view of the top and/or base of the tree to be measured. In the "old" days, you'd stretch the tape measure out to perhaps 100 feet from the tree, as the baseline of a right triangle. Then you'd determine the angle formed by that baseline and an imaginary line to the top of the tree, using a clinometer. Apply some basic trigonometry (that just scared you away, huh?), and presto! You just calculated the height of the tree! The only catch is, you didn't get the right answer (for a number of reasons, not all of which are readily apparent).

In comes today's technology. We now can reduce that burdensome method to a mere press of a laser rangefinder button. Well, ok, it's not really quite that straightforward all the time, but that's essentially what it's about. The tool measures distances and angles, and does the math for you.


Bob Leverett, Matt Markworth

We have produced a short film in which Bob and Matt explain the basics of tree measurement, using today's methods; don't worry, you'll be spared... it only covers about 4 of the 84 pages of the manual. Just enough to give you an idea of how trees are officially measured for champion status.

Should you wish to learn more about measuring trees, big tree hunting, or many other tree-related topics, visit the Native Tree Society website at www.nativetreesociety.org
 
You can see the film at our Youtube channel (click here), or click on the embedded video below (if you're reading this in an email feed, you may not see the embedded video link). Be sure to select "1080p60" as the viewing quality from the gear wheel "Settings" icon at the bottom right of the youtube screen.




Monday, July 31, 2017

Mt Tom Microburst Recovery


Bill Finn, well known and appreciated for his volunteer trail work on Mt Tom in Western Massachusetts, recently sent me some photos of sprouting and fruiting American chestnut trees from Mt Tom. He saw the trees in an area that was clobbered by a severe microburst nearly three years ago, in October, 2014. The bushy chestnut sprouts had flowered; some now had small burrs on them, the prickly husks that contain the chestnut fruits (ie, nuts).
American Chestnut catkins



American Chestnut sprout




Since American chestnut trees were virtually wiped out by the chestnut blight of the last century, we never see mature chestnut trees here anymore. A very few do still exist here and there in the U.S., but I personally know of only one site (in Vermont) where a few large chestnuts could be found. I and some friends saw those trees, coincidentally, in the same month the microburst hit Mt Tom, three years ago. Every one of them had signs of the blight, and may no longer exist now. The largest was a beauty, 8'9" in circumference at 4.5' above ground. Seeing these mature chestnuts was likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, as I had never seen mature ones before, nor since.
Chestnut burrs

8'9" cbh American Chestnut (VT, 2014)
The blight kills the chestnut's above-ground stem, but does not kill the root system; therefore, the roots repeatedly send up new sprouts, which grow for perhaps several years, then succumb to the blight. I've seen hundreds of root-sprouted chestnuts, occasionally some with nuts, but Bill's report raised my curiosity just the same. So I visited the microburst site, which is conveniently along a road on Mt Tom.

While there, I saw the multitude of bushy chestnuts Bill reported, and took note of many other species that are slowly recovering from the beating they took. Among them were basswoods, hophornbeams, slippery (red) elms, hickories, sugar and red maples, red oaks, chestnut oaks, black birch, paper birch, sassafras, bigtooth aspen, sumac, white ash, butternut, and more.

8'9" cbh American Chestnut (VT, 2014)
There were blueberries, elderberries, pokeweed, beaked hazelnuts, and grapes. Wildflowers too numerous to mention, witch hazel, and mountain laurel.

A 5'10" nut, and the 8'9" VT Chestnut
They're all thriving in the sun on the mountainside, where once there was a tall canopy of trees that shaded and cooled the roadway.

American Chestnuts (Vermont, 2014)
You have to work quite diligently to keep the forest at bay here in New England; leave a patch of open ground alone for a year or so, and a forest will begin to happen there. The hardwood trees that were snapped off and stripped of limbs by the microburst three years ago are sprouting new branches and foliage. They look like fuzzy utility poles from a distance (see photo), but in time will develop spreading crowns once again. The forest is resilient, and although trees can be destroyed by natural events, they do return.

A forest is much, much more than just the woody trunks we see sticking up out of the soil however. There's a subterranean mirror world below them, with roots that spread just like a crown of branches. An internet of fungal webs connects the trees together underground, and there are scads of other organisms we know little about. It all works as a system we don't understand completely.

At Mt Tom, nature reworked some of her design three years ago. We wisely left most of the downed timber in place (other than what blocked the roadway), and its constituent materials are currently being decomposed and recycled into new trees. It's unlikely that any of the chestnuts will be blight resistant and live long enough to become stately elders of the woodlands, but there soon will be shade over Christopher Clark Road again. Three cheers!


Swath of microburst damage (center), 3 years later
Microburst-damaged trees refoliating
Slippery Elm
Beaked Hazelnut




"Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree"  (Well, maybe someday...)

Monday, July 24, 2017

Forest Waterfalls

There are any number of creatures and features in our New England natural landscape that draw our attention; some of us are fascinated by bird life, others by large, charismatic mammals. Many are awestruck by dramatic mountain landscapes. For others (not mentioning any names here), being immersed in the mysterious wilds of an old growth forest delivers us from the agitation of life among too many of our own species (don't read too much into that). 

Some folks aren't much moved by any of these. I've known people whose central nervous system, I believe, was rewired by Tim Allen: just a bit too much power applied.

Few of us though, I suspect, would utter "ho-hum" if plopped down in front of a waterfall. I wonder what it is about large quantities of water molecules merely being governed by gravity in an overtly obvious way that mesmerizes us. Water flowing in a stream or river is acting under the same influence, and is pleasing (and, at times, exciting) to us. But, drop it off a cliff, and wow! The crowds will gather. The jaws will drop. The faces will smile. The legs will bring their owners as close as possible to the spray.


I suppose a waterfall is a symbol of freedom from all constraints, an expression of natural power and grandeur. Or, maybe it's just a nice place to play on a hot summer day. Or all these things. The thundering of a cascade at any time of year is inspirational and therapeutic. The misty spray mixes with clean, oxygenated forest air to rejuvenate our stale senses. And it doesn't have to be a Niagara to have these effects.

Whatever a waterfall is, it's wonderful. There's a sense of mystery about it... where's all that water coming from? What's up there at the top of the falls? Where's all that water going? 

I especially like to see a waterfall in slow motion, where you can see individual globs of water experiencing freefall; where a solid sheet of water becomes a punctuated veil of droplets. 

And it's easy to appreciate how a long-exposure still photo transforms a silvery fluid thread into a dreamy white, silky scarf. It's not something that exists in reality; it's an artificial scene created through the trickery of camera work. But there's a magical appeal in it, as though we should be able to see flowing water this way, if only we could slow ourselves down enough.



When a waterfall occurs in a dense, timeless old forest, the sense of mystery is heightened. Approaching the base of the falls, it's then even more intriguing to imagine what secrets lie upstream in the unknown. What woodland denizens travel the intricacies of the mossy mounds, the mouldering logs, the hollows under the rocks? How is it this mystical place even exists, and there's no one here?

In fact, for me, even the grandest of waterfalls lose some appeal if they're not in an aged forest; they've been compromised and devalued. An undisturbed, old growth forest has the physical structure (deep soil, interwoven root systems, forest floor duff layer, etc) to do the best filtering job nature can do to provide us with pure water. That's how forests are supposed to be. Just one reason why we should have much, much more old growth forest than we do.

In Western Massachusetts, there is a (shamefully, yet thankfully) small amount of such forest still in existence, approximately 1300 acres in total. Several modest but delightful waterfalls flow in or from these ancient woodlands. 

Waterfalls of Western Mass film


There is a new film, "Waterfalls of Western Mass", that highlights several of these waterfalls and their surrounding forests at our Youtube channel,  

www.youtube.com/c/NewEnglandForests.

Hope you enjoy the film!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Southern Appalachian Journey


Bob Leverett, old-growth forest guru, and wife Monica share their account of a trip taken through part of the southern Appalachian mountains with botanist friend Jared Lockwood. All photos courtesy of Bob Leverett, except as noted.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

New England's Champion Hemlock Tree

On the second day of this wet June, botanist and fellow old-growth forest trekker Jared Lockwood and I made a foray into the Monroe State Forest of Massachusetts. Our goal was to locate and film the old hemlock tree that is the current champion hemlock of New England. I first saw this tree in August of 2014, with old-growth-forest guru Bob Leverett leading the way to it. He and his son Rob discovered the tree about 29 years ago while intensively exploring the region for big, old trees.