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
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,

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.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Spring Trees Glowing in New England

There's a grand show on the road right now in New England. It's been running for weeks, and is traveling from south to north. You can still catch it in its prime in the more northerly areas of Massachusetts, and up into Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.