Friday, March 17, 2006
Our New England landscape: an evolving perspective
New England woodlands have evolved considerably over the last 40 years and so has my perspective on this natural resource. This is an attempt to summarize these changes. In the process I hope to convince you that active land stewardship is crucial to the health and continued regeneration of our woodlands.
When I was a child, my friends and I considered the woods pretty much the same as primitive forest. We lived in Boxford, Mass., a town very similar to Carlisle. Building lots were two-plus acres but the lawns in my neighborhood were very limiting — too small for baseball, football was cramped and nobody had a decent basketball court. What we did have, however, were overgrown fields, swamps, ponds and of course the woods.
We spent a lot of time in trees. Sometimes we would set up sniper towers for games of "combat." On windy days we would go down to the edge of the field for what would now be called tree surfing. We also played "catapult:" three kids climbed to the top of a small ash until it arched over to the ground, two kids let go. We played tag aloft in a small oak grove. You'd be "it" if you got tagged or touched the ground. There was a lone white pine in an overgrown field that we used as a watch-tower or prison. It had a crude ladder to the lowest limb and a seat nestled into the base of its cabbage-shaped crown. It was also a great place to read.
I read several books about Daniel Boone. He was as close to a childhood
hero as I ever had. Looking back I don't know why I was so fascinated
by the whole frontier scene, but it was probably the woods that we had
in common. I had no idea of just how different those woodlands were,
Daniel Boone's and mine. I remember being completely baffled about how
they could clear ten miles a day for the Cumberland Road with just axes
and bow saws. Okay, they were tough guys, but I also knew they were
liars. It took us all day just to clear a path through our wilderness
to the next subdivision.
A magical old-growth forest
A decade later the ten-miles-a-day wilderness road building made sense. On a late September backpacking trip, I had bushwhacked off the Appalachian Trail in Maine to the Rangely Lakes and chanced across an old-growth forest. It was magical. There were large trees but more noticeable was the light underbrush. You could sight a compass course for 200 yards and pretty much walk direct, remove a fallen limb here and there and drive the wagons straight through. There were no stone walls.
Looking back I realized that the wilderness of my youth was simply first- generation forest on abandoned farmland, which will certainly be even more beautiful when it is old growth once again. This was the seventies; all we needed to do was to leave Mother Nature alone.
Things were very different in Washington State where I moved after college. This was the eighties and Mother Nature could not get a break in the land of nuclear power, hydroelectric dams, apples, mining, wheat, fishing and timber. Resource extraction permeated the culture. Federal lands seemed to be owned by either local ranchers or Boise-Cascade. Somehow there was a rough parity between timber jobs for the next five years and the Spotted Owl for eternity. Land stewardship consisted of Weyerhauser replacing intact alpine forests with erosion and seedlings. Sure, I did some great climbing and skiing but I missed the Northeast. Here we have had an extra couple of hundred years to come to terms with nature and have a stronger tradition of conservation.
Married with kids, I returned to New England ten years ago with new eyes and appreciation. We do have a beautiful landscape. Sprawl continues but there are limits, and the woodlands continue to mature. I'm quite pleased that my children frequently see beaver dams, hawks and wild turkeys. I never did. On the other hand I'm less thrilled about the interloping coyotes that killed a young fox family born under our driveway last spring. Deer are overabundant and the white pines are thriving. I remember poison ivy and blackberries and regular field weeds that I have since understood to be European, but I can't recall thickets of buckthorn, barberry, rose, burning bush or honeysuckle. Driving down Route 128 (sorry, Route I-95), you'll see large stretches of trees being pulled down by bittersweet. That's new. Regrettably, a carefree natural landscape just doesn't exist.
Threats to the woodlands
There are other new 21st
Learning that our North American ecology emerged only after the glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago and has always been heavily influenced by man is oddly liberating. Man has always hunted our deer, burned the forest understory and girdled trees. This has never been a hands-off landscape, human participation is okay. For me land ownership carries an obligation. Besides, like all problems, it's more comforting to be part of the solution than doing nothing.
At the top of my list of doing something for our local ecology is battling invasive plants. Complementing that effort is planting under-represented native species and protecting them from deer. We don't have a full array of native flora because of heavy logging and agriculture over the last three centuries. With a rapidly changing climate, slow-moving tree and shrub species need help migrating north. The best defense against exotic pests and diseases is biodiversity; just witness the persistence of our American elm and American beech that are found scattered all over Carlisle. Thinning thirsty trees like white pines to increase the survival of neighboring trees during droughts makes good sense. Allowing those ugly tree snags in the woods to remain standing provides vital habitat for animals.
I wonder how my perspective on the landscape will evolve over the next 40 years. Purple loosestrife will probably always depress me, but it's exciting to think of planting American chestnuts sometime soon. On sunny afternoons I hope to still be goofing off in the woods, but I suppose I'll be strolling among the trees instead of swinging in them.
I am confident however that my enjoyment will be greatly enhanced knowing that I worked hard and played my part to preserve this American landscape.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito