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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Old Growth Forests in Massachusetts

While this blog is primarily about woodturning, and the latest projects in the shop, it seems appropriate to talk about some of the places where wood comes from, namely, forests.

There are plenty of trees coming down for various reasons to keep a wood consumer like me supplied for life, so there's no need (or desire) for me to go out and cut down living trees just to get my hands on some wood. No, I'd much rather appreciate trees in their glory days.

1 - Towering old White Pines
And, wanting to see trees in all their glory, there's simply no better place to do that than in an old growth forest. But that's not always an easy thing to pull off. So little old growth is left to be seen, since our forests have long ago been ravaged by insatiable lust for timber and developable land.

However, even here in Massachusetts, there are small tracts of gorgeous old forest; not necessarily virgin forest, but old nonetheless. The previous blog post talked about Bob Leverett, widely recognized as the "eastern old growth guru". This article is a continuation of that topic, with updates. If you haven't read the previous post, you might want to do that now before continuing. Otherwise, click on "Read more" below ....

This spring, I've had the good fortune of exploring more old forests in western Mass with Bob, where we not only amble among giant trees, but enjoy some physical exertion and fragrant, woodsy spring air. It's rejuvenating stuff. We've also visited several locations to see individual special trees, or small stands with impressive ones.

So here are photos of some of those places. I may or may not identify the specific locations, but all are in western Massachusetts. I hesitate to give too much publicity to these sensitive areas, but anyone with a genuine interest in such places should be able to find out more about them with a bit of searching.

I hope you enjoy the photos, and will be able to sense the special nature of these forests. If you do explore them yourself, please be careful and respectful, and try not to trample vegetation or do anything else to lessen their beauty or health.

Here we go...

First, photos of a stand of towering White Pines, many above 130' in height, at least 19 over 150' tall, and at least one over 160'. This forest is spectacular for the northeastern U.S., with an unusually high density of big, old White Pines. These trees are estimated to be in the 240 to 280-year-old range.

These pines are still being researched and measured, primarily by Bob Leverett, but those measured so far range from about 8' to 13' in circumference at 4.5' above the ground (a standard height to measure circumference).

Photos 2 and 3 give some idea of the density of the clusters of large trees in this forest.

2 - White Pines
3 - Clustered Pines
4- Looking Straight Up
Number 4 is what you see when looking up the trunk of one of these behemoths. The crown is a long way up! Actually, you can't see the top of the tree in the photo, it's above those first lofty branches. 

In number 5, Bob is preparing to measure the circumference of a large pine with a tape. 

5 - Bob prepares to measure circumference
6 - Forest giants in the mist
Photo 6- A look at the giant pines of this old stand, in the mist.  

And now, some of the other species in the same forest. Photo 7 is what an old Sugar Maple should look like! The moist environment of these woods produces a lot of moss, among other things.

 In #8, we see a White Ash with its toes in a small stream. White Ash trees are disappearing rapidly to the west of us, with the onslaught of the Emerald Ash Borer, now advancing into New England. What a shame.

7- A mossy-footed old Sugar Maple

8 - White Ash on the brook

Red maples can end up too numerous in a forest that's been cut over, lowering the diversity. In an old growth forest, they're more sparse, and can be gorgeous in their old age. Photo 9 is an example of such a tree. 

10 - Aged Sugar Maple with a lean

9 - What an old Red Maple looks like
 An aged forest monarch with a decided lean, covered in moss, as in # 10, somehow conveys a sense of antiquity and permanence. It will in time go down, of course. But it seems to have grace and dignity in its resistance to inevitable forces. 

What can you expect to see in a Massachusetts old growth forest?

Much, but not all, of the remaining old forest in Massachusetts is in very steep terrain, which no doubt played a part in its survival. It wasn't easily accessible to logging of the past, and the high, steep mountainsides provide shelter from the winds. Other stands have been protected by benevolent landowners. Don't expect to find significantly old forests in the lowlands or river floodplains of the Bay state; that kind of land is just too valuable for agriculture (at least in the past) and development.

Of course, there will be old trees. You may need to become accustomed to recognizing them though. There will likely be a mix of tree ages. Not every tree will be a huge specimen. But there should be a significant percentage of them. Over the decades, as large trees go down, the canopy is opened and light streams in to spur regeneration; you'll likely see some seedlings, saplings, and all sizes of trunks up to the largest.

 In a second-growth forest, you can often find some individual large trees. But, although they may be large in diameter, they tend to be few, and have limbs that begin to spread not far from the ground. Trunks of the taller, straighter trees probably taper in diameter quickly. Or, you may be looking at a single "wolf" tree (more about that here) that grew on open land which later became forest around it. The forest floor will lack significant numbers of large logs. There may be remnant "pioneer" species that grow on open-land, such as red cedar, or even juniper shrubs (from pasture land).
Second growth forest
Now, compare that look with the first several photos in this post...
notice the soaring trunks with little taper, and lack of large, if any, limbs near the ground. A closed canopy eliminates branches below the crown.

The bark of old trees takes on a different look too. Many lose the relative smoothness of their younger counterparts, developing heavier plates. Bigtooth Aspen is an example- it develops deeply furrowed bark with age.
Old Bigtooth Aspen Bark
Others, such as White Ash, which have sharply furrowed, ridged bark when young, develop deeper, coarser ridges; eventually the sharply defined ridges may slough off and flatten out. The photo below shows three different White Ash bark ages: younger to the left, old in the center, much older to the right.
White Ash Bark- Young, Old, Older

 A significant part of the beauty, and ecology, of an old growth forest is the random and sometimes chaotic mass of log litter on the forest floor. Wind and ice storms topple trees, or break their tops off. The fallen timber isn't "cleaned up" by man, so it may be difficult to walk through some areas due to the accumulation of downed timber. It can take a long time for nature to make a large diameter log disappear.
11 - Timber tangle
13 - Root maze of windthrown tree
12 - Log litter

Logs and other debris are slowly broken down by the decomposing action of fungi, returning the constituent elements to the soil to become new plants, including trees. 

14 - Decomposers at work
15 - More Decomposition
16 - Pileated Woodpecker's work
Other organisms aid in the breakdown of wood too, such as carpenter ants, and Pileated woodpeckers, who chisel into rotting tree trunks in search of the ants. Black bears will claw logs apart in their quest for a meal of grubs too. Even freeze/thaw cycles help to break wood apart.
17 - Wood breaks down on the forest floor

The mounds of soil heaved up by windthrown trees are seedbeds for tree species with small seeds. The tiny seeds of birches, for example, don't have enough stored energy to sprout and send a long root down through leaf litter, so usually need to be in direct contact with soil. Larger seed species (think acorn) contain greater amounts of stored energy, which permits them to sprout and send a comparatively long root down through the duff to find soil. 
Uprooted trees expose fresh soil
 Fallen logs in a moist forest become saturated with water on the forest floor, and often serve as "nurse" logs, on which new tree seedlings can root. In the forest pictured here, Yellow Birch is present, and is commonly found growing on mounds and nurse logs.

18 - Yellow Birch growing on root mound

19 - Yellow Birch seedling on mossy nurse log
Birches often have the appearance of "standing on tiptoes", ie, their roots seem to mysteriously travel through the air to reach ground. How do they do that?? Well, they originally rooted on a soil mound, which eventually washed away after the tree had grown enough to remain standing. It can create some pretty entertaining sights. You can often find them "grasping a rock in their talons". 
Yellow Birch on tiptoes
The mounds ("pillows"), and the craters created next to them, can remain visible for many years. Over time, this can lead to an uneven, bumpy texture to the forest floor. Compare that to the more uniform, smooth, flat look of a second-growth woodland, which probably was tilled farmland not long ago. An abundance of stone walls in the woods is a sure sign the land was in agricultural use in the last century or so, and isn't an old growth forest (yet)

If the terrain is not too steep, the accumulating duff on the forest floor builds up, and you'll notice a soft, spongy feel to the ground as you walk on it. Moss may be visible everywhere, and there may be a variety of wildflowers, ferns, and other plant life. 

Large tracts of old growth forest tend to produce the purest water runoff too, due to the deep soil's ability to filter so effectively. We would be wise to keep that in mind for our reservoir watersheds.

In Conclusion

Maybe on your trek through an old forest you'll come upon a trophy tree you won't forget. For me, that happened when I first saw this incredible Black Cherry ... over 9 feet in circumference, nearly 100 feet tall.
Trophy Black Cherry Tree
Looking 100 feet up the Cherry

At the old growth trail's end, perhaps you'll pass through a wonderful hemlock grove such as this ...

You'll be hooked.


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