Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Thoreau Pine - State Champion of Massachusetts

Bob Leverett, Old-Growth Forest Explorer

 For decades, my friend Bob Leverett has been searching out the remnant stands of old growth forest that (surprisingly) can still be found in New England, particularly in western Massachusetts. Although he's now retired, Bob hasn't slowed down a bit, and his engineering background manifests itself as a continuing compulsion to measure trees (he calls it an obsession), preferably but not necessarily in old forests.

Bob has sized up virtually every native tree species to be found in these parts, as well as a number of non-natives; he's also done similar field (er, forest) work throughout the eastern U.S. (and then some). As an author of a number of old-growth-forest related publications, co-founder of The Native Tree Society, and an authority on measurement guidelines for the American Forests national champion tree registry, he knows his trees and their statistics.

New England's Tallest Trees

Bob realized long ago that the tallest tree species in New England's forests would be the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). He has made a practice of naming some of the most notable and noble of our forest trees to honor some of our most notable and noble people.
The Thoreau Pine: Massachusetts State Champion White Pine

A few days ago, we trekked into some old growth forest in the Deerfield River gorge to visit one of Bob's most spectacular discoveries, the Thoreau Pine. The hike had several purposes; one was to show the tree to Richard Higgins, a Thoreau researcher and author. Another was to take an end-of-year measurement of the tree to gauge its continuing growth.

Here are Bob's words on the great pine, which is now the state champion white pine tree of Massachusetts:

Thoreau’s Pine: an Icon for an Icon

By Robert T. Leverett
December 18, 2015

Sometime between 1820 and 1840, a white pine seed sprouted on a mountainside above a stream in what is now Monroe State Forest. Likely there were other pines that sprouted at the same time, but with the exception of two, we don’t know what happened to them. The little seedling survived and grew into a sapling, and during these initial years of its life, a young fellow by the name of Henry David Thoreau was growing up into manhood. He later became known as the Sage of Concord, and today is acknowledged as one of the nation’s foremost naturalists, revered around the world. Thoreau died fairly young - in 1862- but unbeknownst to the outside world, the little pine lived on, growing larger and larger.

Around 1987, my son Rob and I were on the north side of that stream surveying the south side for the crowns of large pines. On that occasion, we spotted what appeared to be two whoppers. One was that little pine that had now become a giant. Seeing its crown along with the other pine higher on the ridge, we knew we had to find those trees. We literally tore down the ridge, forded the brook in our hiking shoes, and made our way up the south side until we stood beneath the massive crown of the first of the two trees.

In 1989, I took a group that included members of the Massachusetts Forestry Association to the see the lower of the two big pines. A forester measured it with tape and clinometer, and set its height at an impressive 154 feet. If that measurement held up, it would be the first living tree in Massachusetts confirmed to a height of 150 feet or more. Around two years later, timber framer and architect Jack Sobon from Windsor, MA, and I made our way to the first of the two huge pines and re-measured it using a transit, cross-triangulating the top from two directions. This surveying method yields an accuracy of +/- 2 inches. We eventually settled on a height of 152.4 feet. The big pine’s circumference was around 12 feet, as best as I recall. The other pine farther up the ridge was even larger, but it was shorter and didn’t quite make the same impression on me. Nonetheless, it was to become the Grandfather Pine, the largest-in-volume single-trunked pine we know of in Massachusetts.

It was later that I named the first of the giants in honor of Henry David Thoreau. It seemed fitting. The pine was the only tree of any species that we had measured in Massachusetts to the height of 150 feet, and its beautiful form and wild surroundings seemed to fit with the spirit of Thoreau. That was then. A lot has happened since. My Native Tree Society (NTS) companions and I have measured it with advanced measuring techniques every year beginning around 1997, when we acquired infrared laser rangefinders. Thoreau has also been climbed and tape-drop-measured twice to obtain the most accurate height
determination possible. The first climb was led by Will Blozan, President of NTS, accompanied by Dr. Robert Van Pelt, a legend in the Pacific Northwest, and Ed Coyle, an arborist from Long Island, NY. The second climb was accomplished by Massachusetts climbers Andrew Joslin and Bart Bouricius. Bart is an arborist and rainforest researcher.

At this point I note that the Thoreau Pine is off trail. A moderate bushwhack is required to get to it, but we do not publicly communicate its exact location, or that of other important trees. In particular, we don't supply coordinates or maps for these treasures, except to DCR and to select members of NTS who help with the measuring. This might sound selfish, but it is essential for the trees’ protection.

Until now, what had been missing was a visit to the Thoreau Pine by a bona fide Thoreau scholar. We needed someone who could stand at the tree’s base and connect the stature of Thoreau with that of the tree and perhaps imagine what the Concord Sage would have felt in the presence of such a magnificent specimen. Richard Higgins, a retired reporter for the Boston Globe and a Thoreau scholar, and the author of the still-to-be-published book Thoreau and the Language of Trees was the man. I had promised to show Rich the great tree before the snow flies, so taking advantage of an idyllic near-end-of-fall day, we hiked up the stream on December 16, 2015. Ray Asselin, a naturalist, photographer, and fellow tree-measurer friend, accompanied us.

Although the Thoreau Pine was our destination, we were content to take our time. Every foot of the way along the brook (which starts its journey from the side of a 3,000-foot mountain in southern Vermont) is its own reward, a continuous stream of visual and auditory treats. This brings us to our first image, which shows the brook gurgling, tumbling, and spilling its way over car-sized boulders to eventually join the Deerfield River. From there the waters flow into the wide Connecticut with an eventual destination of Long Island Sound.

With the symphonic sounds of the brook ever present in our ears, our eyes enjoyed a veritable feast of gorgeous trees, some young, some old, and a few very old. It was among these trees that I first began to appreciate the old growth treasures that had escaped the axe and saw during the epic period of land clearing in the 1800s.

About 15 minutes up the trail, some large white pines thrust their crowns well above the surrounding hardwoods and hemlocks on the opposite side of the brook, creating what forest ecologists call a super canopy. I had made a concerted effort about 6 years ago to measure them, but tried to do it from within the stand, a very difficult place to get accurate measurements of exceptionally tall trees.

This time, I managed to get a shot of one of the big pines from across the brook using my super accurate LTI TruPulse 200X. I was surprised and pleased to confirm the tree’s height at 140.2 feet. It had apparently grown quite a bit since I first measured it from inside the grove (or maybe I failed to hit its top on the earlier try). That pine becomes the fifth to reach the 140-foot height threshold in Monroe SF. There may be two other pines in that stand in the same height class.

What is especially satisfying for me is that the tops of these conspicuous conifers have achieved the big numbers. I think their ages are between 140 or 160 years old, maybe slightly older. Despite commonly held beliefs to the contrary, they can still add 5 to 15 more feet of height before senescence overtakes them.

To measure all the pines in this promising little north-side stand, I'll need to buy a pair of waders so I can cross the brook. There is no easy access ever since Hurricane Irene destroyed the footbridge crossing.
There's no bridge across the brook

Along with the pines in this grove, there are others scattered in the woodlands north of the brook.  Some are real beauties. The next two images show several, with the one and only Dr. Lee Frelich included for scale. Lee is the Director of the Center for Forest Ecology at the University of Minnesota.

I’ll dispense with the usual big tree numbers. The photos are presented mainly as mood-setters, suggestive of the visual tree treats awaiting attuned visitors.
Dr Lee Frelich at an Eastern White Pine, Massachusetts
Dr Lee Frelich and E. White Pines

Dr Lee Frelich at a Massachusetts White Pine
Dr Lee Frelich at a White Pine

Thoreau's Favorite Birches

The old yellow birches accessible from the trail impressed Rich, who reminded us that the yellows were Thoreau’s favorite of the birches. The next image shows an especially appealing ancient birch that has largely engulfed boulder-sized rocks. This Tolkienesque form lives with a huge amount of decay, defying natural forces seeking its collapse and disintegration. I expect the birch’s age is not less than 250 years, and possibly over 300.

Ancient Yellow Birch engulfing a boulder
Ancient Yellow Birch engulfing a boulder
Rich Higgins(L), Bob Leverett, and an old Yellow Birch
Rich Higgins(L), Bob Leverett, and another old Yellow Birch

We eventually left the main trail, still heading up stream. After a distance, we cut up the ridge, passing many mature sugar maples, red maples, white ashes, and hemlocks with a few red spruce thrown in for good measure. Amid this visually pleasing collection, one tree stands out, a large black cherry. Rich was quite impressed. Sadly, the tree has begun to show its age, but still conjures images of exquisite furniture in the minds of most of its visitors. I try to squelch such thoughts.

Measuring 8.6 feet in girth, the cherry is now down to approximately 110 feet in height from a maximum of 117. It probably won’t be with us for more than a decade or two, but until then, it lives on as a placeholder for its species – a living documentation of what it was naturally engineered to be. The next image shows the cherry with Ray beside it for scale.
Ray Asselin at a large Black Cherry, Monroe State Forest
Ray at the large Black Cherry

The Sigurd Olson and Thoreau White Pines

Going upslope, we passed the first of the three great whites (as I often call them), the impressive Sigurd Olson Pine. Among worthy, but smaller trees, its 12.4-foot girth draws attention, reminding us that while many species of trees are impressive, the white pine is the true giant of our New England forests. Somewhere, I have a photo of my wife Monica next to Sigurd, the name suggested to me by Lee Frelich, who reminded me of Olson’s lasting impact as a voice for nature and wilderness.

Bob Leverett at Sigurd Olson Pine
Bob at Sigurd Olson Pine

From here, we continued up the ridge and into the presence of the huge Henry David Thoreau Pine. Because the surrounding hardwoods are 100 to 115 feet tall, Thoreau’s visual impact is delayed, but then it suddenly dominates the surrounding space. You feel its power and wonder how it could have remained anonymous for so long.

Rich went farther upslope for a better vantage point while Ray filmed the Thoreau pine with puny me beside it for scale. And then it was time to re-measure. I took extra care this time. Thoreau has a wide, complex crown and grows on a steep slope. You can’t see its top from the more traditional measuring distance of 100 feet used by tape-and-clinometer measurers. You must ascend far upslope: I climbed to a point 92 vertical feet above Thoreau’s base, where I could then see the high points of its crown. From my lofty perch, I repeatedly shot all distinguishable tops, eventually locating the highest one.

I can now state confidently that the Thoreau Pine is not less than 160.1 feet tall as of 12-16-2015. Interestingly, Bob Van Pelt's 2004 measurement of Thoreau's height was 160.2 feet. With growth, crown breakage, regrowth, etc., there is little net change. For now, the pine is holding its own, though I doubt that we're going to see it get any taller.

Bob(L) and Rich Higgins measure Thoreau Pine's circumference
With Rich's help (Ray was busy filming), we measured circumference of 13.3 feet. I then calculated the crown spread at 62 feet, which is more than my previous conservative estimates. The widest extensions of the crown are really high up, so measuring spread is no trivial matter.

The elite club to which Thoreau belongs includes the white pines in New England with trunk circumference (taken at 4.5 feet above mid-slope) of 13 feet or more, combined with heights of 160 feet or more. And guess how many pines are members of this elite club? The answer is one: the Thoreau Pine.

The only other white pine we have measured in the entire Northeast that meets these dimensional bars is the now-dead Cornplanter Pine in Anders Run, PA. Its last dimensions were: height = 167.1 feet, circumference = 13.0 feet. 

Let’s now review Thoreau’s credits. Based on the measurements of the Native Tree Society, Thoreau is:

  1. Monroe State Forest’s tallest tree
  2. One of only 18 pines in Massachusetts reaching a height of 160 feet
  3. One of 4 clearly single-trunk, forest-grown pines in Massachusetts achieving a trunk and limb volume exceeding 1000 cubic feet
  4. The Northeast’s only known living white pine achieving the combined dimensions of a 13-foot circumference and a 160-foot height.

So what do these measurements and comparisons add up to? In my humble opinion, the Thoreau Pine is THE flagship white pine of Massachusetts. Elsewhere, the giant Tamworth Pine (14.6 feet in girth and at least 150 feet in height) in New Hampshire's Hemenway State Forest probably fills that role in the Granite State. A big pine in Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller Historical Park serves for Vermont (13 feet girth x 150.0 feet height). I don't know which pines would be the flagships for Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island, but I seriously doubt they have trees with dimensions even close to those for Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

While I was spouting tree numbers to put Thoreau into context, Rich explained that when he was doing research on his new book on Thoreau and the Concord Sage's love of trees, he looked in a forestry book, seeking a description of the physical dimensions the species attains. The source listed heights of 80 to 90 feet, half of what the Thoreau Pine achieves. This is typical of understatements of maximum heights often found in older tree guides written by timber professionals. Some popular sources rely on anecdotal accounts, quoting improbable heights for white pines (such as 250 feet) for giants of the colonial era. None of these elevated numbers can be confirmed. I see them as the tree equivalent of big fish stories.

The truth is that heights of 100 to 120 feet are fairly common today for white pines across the Massachusetts landscape. However, above 130 feet, the number of locations drops dramatically. So far, I have documented 66, some with but a single 130-footer, and others with a significant number of them. I expect there are twice as many sites statewide, but considering the abundance of the species, the number is still very small.

Above 140 feet, the number of isolated trees and stands crashes, and by the time we get to the 160-foot threshold, we're down to 3 properties in the state: the incomparable Mohawk Trail State Forest with 16, Monroe State Forest with one (the Thoreau Pine), and the Bryant Homestead with one (the Bryant Pine).

The above said, why do both popular and technical books, guides, articles, and the Internet get the big tree numbers so wrong, so often? The past anecdotal accounts often exaggerated tree dimensions, presumably to draw attention and make the news, but what of the otherwise reputable forestry guides? My belief is that the quoted dimensions represent what forest managers typically anticipate allowing species to attain before harvesting them. Other authors then quote what they consider to be from expert sources. The larger, older trees that we revere in places like Monroe State Forest are simply not on the radarscopes of the forest managers.

Let’s now take a better look at Thoreau. 

Climbing the Thoreau Pine
Climbing the Thoreau Pine

Grandfather Pine

I’ll close by paying my respects to Thoreau’s elder, the gargantuan Grandfather Pine a few yards up the ridge from Thoreau. Grandfather’s measurements are: circumference = 14.2 feet, height = 146.5 feet, and an unsurpassed trunk and limb volume of not less than 1,150 cubic feet. In the image below, a most humble Bob seeks to establish the point on the trunk to take a new circumference reading. I often think of Grandfather as Thoreau’s guardian. Grandfather’s start in life may well date to the birth of the Sage of Concord. Not a bad thought to end with.

Bob Leverett measures Grandfather Pine, Aug 2014
Bob measures Grandfather Pine, Aug 2014

To see a video of this day's hike to the Thoreau Pine, click here,
or on the embedded video below.

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