Some of the timberland my family owns abuts state forest. On our side of the property line is a thoroughly ordinary mix of beech, red maple, and white pine. Mixed age, but pretty young; the whole thing was probably pastureland 100 years ago. We’ve been harvesting firewood there to try to release some of the stems with sawlog potential, but there’s just not a lot to work with.
On the state’s side of the line is a mature stand of white pine and hemlock, and by mature I mean ancient and archetypal. A storybook forest where trees tower so mightily that you can’t see the tops, trees fat enough that it would take three people linking hands to hug them. The forest floor is pitched and wavy like an ocean, littered with mossy limbs. It feels different. Special. When I’m in the area for no particular reason, I always gravitate here.
The only thing separating the two forest stands is a line of red boundary paint, so it seems likely that it was all once big and old – what ecologists call a climax forest. When our side was cleared, the clock was reset: pasture became weeds and berry canes, which became fire cherry and white pine and popple, which, in turn, became the mix we have today. Now we’re playing God – encouraging the tree species we want, discouraging those we don’t – while right across the line the vicissitudes of time have produced and maintain a remarkably different forest.
I was thinking of this place after reading David Foster’s piece on the old growth Pisgah Forest in southwestern New Hampshire. In his story, Foster tells of Richard Fisher, a man who, nearly 100 years ago, spearheaded an effort to preserve that forest so it could be used as a research laboratory. This whole idea of doing nothing and simply observing how nature changes itself is such a quiet, graceful idea – especially considering the historical context. It made me admire Fisher and the people who carry on his vision.
We probably don’t celebrate big, old, unmanaged forests enough in these pages. Part of this is because there just aren’t a lot of old growth stands left out there, and thus relatively few stories to tell. But part is because we get so focused on promoting the working landscape that we forget to pan out and see the whole picture.
It’s a hazard that any activist promoting any cause faces, and when it happens the message gets parochial and a touch rote.
I watched an example of this a few years back at a teacher’s conference, where a forester was using a stump cookie to explain to a teacher why we had to harvest trees. See how the growth rings are fat in the middle?
The tree had a lot of light and was healthy then. See how the growth rings are small near the edge? The tree was overcrowded and in decline, and by cutting this one we made the forest healthy; we had to weed the garden. This is a fine point to make, of course, if you’re talking to a landowner about crop trees in their working forest, or a 10-year-old watching their first tree fall, but the teacher’s skeptical look hinted at time spent amidst giant storybook hemlocks. “However did the forest survive before humans?” she asked, then moved on to the next booth.
I once heard someone say that the key to improvisational comedy is that there’s no such thing as “no” – you just take the word out of your vocabulary and the concept out of your head. When someone posits an idea you say “yes, and.” It just keeps going around and around like this as the narrative builds. One idea doesn’t have to be opposed to the other; they can build on each other to help the whole story grow.
We want the Northeast to be a place where people build a complex narrative about the land – where kids don’t grow up thinking that heat comes from an oil truck and food comes from a grocery store and boards come from Home Depot. Yes, and we want there to still be places where the trees are huge – where we can walk to get a sense of bigness beyond ourselves, where researchers can study how nature works outside of human interference. Yes, and…