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,  


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.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Icing on the Trees

My pal Arnie is always in the mood to go for a hike in a forest when I call him, in most any kind of weather or temperature. A few days ago, we headed out in frigid conditions to further explore an old growth forest tract in a mountainous region of Western Massachusetts.

There was snow on the ground, but not particularly deep. We were expecting that. What we weren't expecting, but were delighted to see, was a frosty white coating of ice on entire distant mountainsides along the route to our woods. A few more miles down the road and we were now driving through a crystal forest. The heavens overhead were azure blue. The sun was putting silvery white sparks of life into the thick ice overcoats encasing every tree twig in sight. This is probably the finest glamor show that winter ever puts on. We had no choice but to stop the car and do some photography. Old growth forests are high on our priority list of places to see and be, but the ancient trees weren't going anywhere and would wait a little longer for our visit. Ice crusted mountainside forests are ephemeral, you don't keep them waiting.

So here are some of the images recorded that day. They can't replace the personal experience of being there, of course. But we hear so many sensationalized "dangerous winter storm" warnings in today's media that it seems only right to celebrate and share the beauty of such events once in a while.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Old Growth Forest for a New Year

It's day three of a brand new year. Who knows what's in the works for us in the coming months? Looking out my window, I see that today is gray, damp, and somewhat gloomy. It occurs to me that new years probably should begin on a sunny, breezy, greened-up kind of early spring day, not a day like this. I find myself longing to be in a verdant, old growth forest. Even though I've lately been exploring a 200-year-plus stand of hemlocks and hardwoods, those several outings were bright white with snow. Thoroughly enjoyable, yet missing so much.

I craved a tonic, like a steamy drink on a bitter cold day. Something to bring me back to the lush, leafy forests that flood my senses with a pleasing wavelength of green light, scented air, and the renewing rush of mountain streams. I knew what that would be: a meander through the photos of those places. So that's what this is, a visual essay in green. I hope it does for you what it's doing for me. All the scenes are from aged forests of Western Massachusetts.