Sunday Morning in a Northeastern Old Growth Forest

by Wayne Ferrier

God is the experience of looking at a tree and saying, “Ah!”

–Joseph Campbell

Old Growth Canopy Mohowk Mahican Trail Mass Most people, who reside in the Northeastern United States, don’t know that there are remains of old growth forests scattered here and there among them. And most don’t care. The human species is not hard-wired to appreciate these things. The people who do appreciate them have a difficult time digesting this, but it’s true. Most people’s world view is a social reality imprinted and reinforced by the way other human beings look at the world. Human beings are social animals and few could survive alone in the wilderness; they’d starve or succumb to the elements. However, most would lose their sanity long before the unforgiving laws of nature would get them. We see this phenomenon in our prisons, where inmates prefer to be out in the yard even if “out in the yard” there are other inmates waiting there to kill them. Being killed by one’s fellows is far more preferable than the worst of fates—solitary confinement. In ancient times the worst thing that could happen to you was banishment.

Natural selection has certainly predisposed human beings to be with other human beings, to gravitate towards other human beings even if they don’t like them, and to see things the way other human beings do because it enhances their survival. Human beings trade reality for social reality. Yes there are differences between people but the differences are minor when compared to the way things are outside of our towns and cities. Anyone who has studied science, for example, knows that the universe doesn’t work—not even remotely—the way that most of human society thinks it does. And this may be a reason why many people have a hard time with science—it violates one’s sense of reality in much the same way that psychoactive drugs like LSD do, by dismantling and reassembling one’s perception of the universe.

Hearts Content Eastern Hemlock

Nature can be just as trying. If you are “out there” too long it can alter your state of mind by changing your perception of it. Few people can handle this. But a certain few do, and these folks might have a predisposition or a domain specificity towards nature—the circuitry of their nervous system is geared to specialize in that specific kind of reality. Scientists might be wired differently; naturalists might be wired differently; police might be, and also emergency responders, teachers, morticians, mechanics; each having the generalized social intelligence we all share, while specializing in an area that others know nothing about. But for most of us the idea of back to nature might be a myth. In our past we might have been closer to nature, but we probably were never truly happy living in it as a group.

And for the planet this may be a good thing. Towns and cities, artificial as they are, might have saved the rest of the planet from our kind. If human beings didn’t concentrate in highly populated areas, they would be more uniformly spread out across the continents and human beings are harder on the environment than a herd of elephants is. So cities it is!

Eastern old growth forests are few and far between but they do exist. It’s not fair to compare the trees in them, in size or age, to the impressive stands in the western United States. Redwoods of the Sierra Nevada can be as old as 1,500 to 3,000 years and reach 280 feet. Foxtail White Pines can get even older, though not so impressive in size; some Bristlecones in this family are reputed to be nearly 5000 years old! East Coast species are junior members in this venerable club.

However, when Europeans first came to Northeastern North America they were faced with a sea of old growth forests, which was something they were not quite used to. The first attempts to establish colonies here ended in disaster. With sheer persistence the Puritans succeeded by intensifying the rigidity of their social structure and hugging the coasts. While north and south of them, more adventurous individuals penetrated into the New Hampshire and Pennsylvania wilderness and tried to tame it. Early on the Dutch made forays into Upstate New York but didn’t last. The French were more adaptable befriending certain native tribes of Indians and penetrating deep into the interior—they were a special breed.

Old Growth Spruce Mt Greylock Mass

The Woodland Indians themselves were closer in spirit to these forests than the Europeans were. But even they kept to their village life most of the time. They slashed and burned the forests and planted fields of corn, beans, and squash; they had orchards that were the envy of their white neighbors. The strongest of these were the Haudenosaunee or commonly called the Iroquois, and they were quite an advanced civilization. They had a sophisticated government, and their extensive roads and trails stretched from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes and from Canada to Pennsylvania. They managed to balance the power between the English and the French, and the numerous other tribes to the north, to the south, to the east and to the west.

The British had been cutting the trees in New England. And the Eastern White Pine was especially coveted. It was said that there was so much White Pine in the Northeast woodlands that a squirrel could spend a squirrel’s lifetime hopping from one branch to another and never reach the end of it. Straight and tall, light and sturdy, relatively weather resistant, the tallest White Pines made the best masts for sailing ships, and England was engaged, at the time, in major conflicts with France—good ships were necessary. And when these were gone the timber was used for just about everything else. Early American was built on white pine, and much of it was exported to the rest of the world as well.

The American settlers didn’t appreciate the French who, along with their Indian allies, would make life exceeding difficult to anyone who had the guts to penetrate and try to tame the interior. But when the French were defeated in the French & Indian War, the Americans became more irritated with the British Government, who wanted the timber for themselves, who demanded first dibs on the cod fisheries, who wanted to control the rum and slave trades—all very lucrative—and the British Government wanted the Americans to pay their taxes to help reimburse the British for that costly war with the French; and the Americans we not willing to do that.

All in all once the Brinish were defeated the Americans again moved into the interior, cutting trees, clearing fields for farmland, and establishing forts and villages. Only the powerful Iroquois stood in their way; but after one skirmish too many Washington lost patience and sent troops in to wipe the Haudenosaunee from the face of the earth. The Sullivan Campaign moved into Iroquoia, burned their villages, chopped down their orchards, and destroyed their fields; and anything else they could find. Without their orchards, without their fields, without their grain stores, the Indians were as helpless as any white man facing the elements of the northeastern forests and the coming winter. The Iroquois either retreated to Canada or faced starvation.

Hearts Content Old Growth

With the Iroquois out of the way pioneers quickly moved into the interior, at first hunting, fishing, and trapping, then logging and farming. A lot of timber was burned simply to make charcoal and potash or roof shingles. Virgin soils were farmed, depleted, and then the farms abandoned. Much of New England is forests that have taken over and reclaimed abandoned farmland.

By the turn of the century, most of the virgin timber, as far west as Minnesota, had been cut. Clear-cutting continued into the 1950s and today, we are left with juvenile forests—unhealthy ecosystems infested with disease.

Eastern forests are reviving, but it will be centuries before they become as they once were. The Appalachians are aggressive mountains. Time and again people move in from the city, cut everything down, bulldoze out a driveway and plant a big lawn; they put up a pool, and try to grow a lot of exotics. They display their plastic pink flamingos and ride their expensive lawn mowers in the pursuit of the American Dream. Ah, social reality. Give or take a decade our cozy family is divorced or deceased, or worse—surrendered to the forest. The yard is unkempt and the forest is back. The natural state of the Northeast is forest.

But for now I live in the city and the fight goes on. I share my city with deer, possums, skunks, ground hogs, squirrels, birds—critters who have gotten used to this—and people. Every summer without fail some guy with a little too much testosterone goes out and rents a chainsaw and the cutting ritual begins again. This year my neighbors cut down a beautiful 75-year-old maple, so they could set fireworks off on the Fourth of July—sigh. So now I need to get out of here for awhile and spend my Sundays lying on a carpet of pine needles, listening to the sweet sounds of a thrush welcoming the morning and stare up at a 150 foot tree in an old growth stand and contemplate. Was this a seedling when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet? Was it 100 years old before the first white setters ever made it to these parts?