What? Old growth forest in Massachusetts?
Yes, there is a bit of it still intact, believe it or not. And some of it is stunning. What saved it from the axe is its location... on steep, difficult-to-log mountainsides. These places often grow boulders as efficiently as they do trees. But the combination of the terrain, the boulder fields and ledges, the soaring trees, and the lush green carpet of ferns and mosses make these relic forests irresistible to me.
|Late afternoon in a western Massachusetts old growth forest|
These sites typically also have moist soils, which contributes greatly to the verdant carpet of ferns, lichens, and mosses. The steep mountainsides can offer a wall of protection from high winds, but are not 100% effective; trees do get toppled and broken. But their carcasses slowly decompose on the forest floor, creating ideal seedbeds for such small-seeded species as black and yellow birch to establish themselves. Over time, their constituent elements melt away into the soil to eventually be recycled into new trees and other living organisms.
|Mossy log returning to soil|
The hardwood species in these western Massachusetts old forests typically consist of maples (sugar, red, striped), birches (black, yellow), white ash, beech, and basswood; some bitternut hickory, red oak, and hophornbeam. Softwoods include hemlock and white pine.
|Green-toed old sugar maple in the boulder field|
To be sure, there are some good-sized trees found here (ie, large circumference). But competition for light tends to favor height before girth, and wind and storms knock many down before they get too large in diameter. As a result, the truly old forests of this region (New England) may not have the look that most of us might imagine. That is, the virgin forests here would not be dark, sinister, foreboding haunts consisting of huge-diameter, crooked and gnarly giants with massive, spreading limbs. Fat trees with low and spreading limbs are not grown in forests, but rather in open spaces where light is plentiful.
So, the trees in these forests tend for the most part to look a little slimmer, but with impressive heights (often 120 feet or more) and few side branches under the high crowns.
So, contrary to how some may imagine a northeastern old growth forest looks, it is not a dark, Disney-like place full of huge diameter, gnarled trunks with twisty side limbs. Neither is it a Pacific northwest redwood-like forest of 200-foot tall hulking giants.
Somewhere between those two examples lie the New England old growth hardwood forests. Yes, there are some impressive individual trees here and there. But by and large, our old growth is as described above... a blend of many ages and sizes. The
|Trillium and Sugar Maple|
The trees generally have a very tall overall appearance, though there are plenty of smaller ones as well. But they're not an uninteresting, crowded collection of even-aged poles, as you might find in a young second growth woodland.
The forest shown in these photos was recently visited by a man from Chile; in his words, "this place is mystical". I think the combination of mountainside steepness, huge boulders, overall green cast, aged trees, tranquility, mystery, and lighting all played a part in creating that impression.
|Moss covered boulder|
Just knowing that a forest is a pristine, natural, intact example of "what it should be" is enough to instill a sense of reverence for it. Deep feelings of connection to the primal earth may play upon your senses in a place like this. It feels right. It is right.