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Ancient sentries

They're not redwoods, but the region has its share of age-old stands

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / November 19, 2006

STOCKBRIDGE -- Standing deep in a mossy gorge, I gazed up at a towering hemlock with scarred bark that began growing before the Revolutionary War and mouthed a silent apology.

When I moved to New England, other hikers told me that the woods I walked through were middle-aged (like me now). Ancient stands were cut generations ago to build shelter and to clear farmland and make firewood, and the trees that had grown up in their place were, the hikers implied, mundane. A handful of old -growth stands were said to survive, but I was told they were too treacherous to reach or too tiny in size to be worth visiting.

Now I knew better.

I stood in a quiet, 25-acre cathedral called Ice Glen, surrounded by 300-year-old white pines and hemlocks, a mere 20-minute walk from my car parked at the end of a residential road. And I was learning from tree hunter Robert T. Leverett that there are several dozen of these old-growth stands in New England: ancient, serene, and accessible.

"People don't know old growth when they see it in New England because the model they carry is a redwood-sized tree," said Leverett, an adjunct professor at Holyoke Community College, and co author of "The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient Forests of the Northeast." He spends many weekends researching trees, including old ones that can date 400 years or more. "We have lots of old growth . . . but you have to know what you are looking at," he said.

I joined Leverett and nine fellow tree hunters one recent chilly morning as they wrapped tape measures around hemlock trunks and debated the ages of trees in Ice Glen, one of the most spectacular old -growth stands in New England. I quickly caught Leverett's point: Ancient tree hunting is nothing like a close encounter with a giant sequoia. And sometimes, you have to adjust your expectations.

Many of New England's oldest trees are not going to win any beauty contests. Some escaped the ax because they were in hard-to-reach areas or a harsh climate stunted their growth or twisted them into knobby shapes unattractive to loggers. Other stands do evoke the sensation of age and majesty found in a redwood forest -- Ice Glen is one -- but even then, it helps to have a little history to appreciate what you are seeing.

Shortly after we started walking, I stopped and stood on a bed of needles under a stand of giant hemlocks and white pines and looked around in awe. Watching me, Leverett shook his head. This stand was surely more than a century old and had a certain dignity. But it was second-growth beauty -- this land had probably been cleared long ago. The ancient stuff was still to come. We walked, then scrambled over giant boulders carpeted with moss into a narrow, misty gorge.

My feet sank into the spongy soil formed by decayed twigs, leaves, tree trunks, and the passing of centuries. Ferns carpeted the forest floor. Rocks and dead trees were cocooned in lichen and moss. There was an absolute stillness in the air -- even conversations were muted by the clinging dampness. Two chipmunks chased each other over a dead hemlock already well on its journey back to the soil.

But what were these new trees sprouting from the floor? I had always pictured an old-growth forest as something like a gathering of related great-grandfathers huddled together against the passing of time. Instead, all around me was a regular blended family reunion with trees of various ages and types. It turns out that true old-growth forests have trees of all ages -- and they can be tough to walk through.

As Leverett navigated over and sometimes under the dead and living trees, he passed a massive fallen hemlock with eight evenly spaced saplings sprouting from its decaying trunk. Called a nurse log, the old tree provides the saplings with nutrients. They will grow -- all in a row -- as the hemlock disintegrates into the forest floor.

"Someone is sure to come here in 100 years and say no way this can be an old-growth forest because the trees are all in a row, they'll think it was planted," Leverett said. "But it's natural."

Hikers , even experienced ones , may need a little assistance in identifying old growth and individual ancient trees. Leverett's book gives charming descriptions, a bit of history, and most importantly, detailed directions. While specialists may be able to gauge a tree's age by looking at its crown characteristics, shingled bark, size, and girth, most people need a little more help.

Leverett and Will Blozan, who founded the Eastern Native Tree Society, are specialists . They have been researching old stands -- and documenting the giants of each species -- since the 1980s, after it became clear there might be more of the valuable ecological habitats around than scientists initially thought. Since then, dozens of "new" old stands have been discovered from Georgia to Maine. In 2002, Massachusetts officials, with Leverett's help, discovered that a large swath of forest on Mount Everett in the town of Mount Washington was almost two centuries old, a fact that had escaped notice for generations.

It's easy to see why. I visited Mount Everett a few years ago and never realized the wind-worn scrub oak and dwarf pitch pine on the rocky summit were special. The pitch pine stand is 80 to 170 years old; Leverett calls them bonsai stands.

Leverett and a coalition of scientists and naturalists estimate there are more than 500,000 acres of old growth in the Northeast, with most of it in New York's Adirondacks. Only about 300,000 acres are considered pre settlement, meaning they were around when European settlers arrived and have never been cut. The rest are very old stands -- usually at least 150 years old -- but they may be shorter-lived species .

After spending a few hours with Leverett, I set out on some tree hunting of my own.

Within two hours I was in Vernon, Vt., near Brattleboro and parked in a cul-de-sac in the middle of a residential neighborhood. A trail map at the entrance to the J. Maynard Miller Town Forest guided me into a black gum swamp that proved to be a thoroughly eerie experience. Maybe it was the gloomy weather or the fact that I was alone. But being in the presence of the ancient black gum trees, with their alligator-skin bark, some of which dated to the late 1500s, made me a bit jumpy. As I touched the deep grooves in a tree's bark, an animal moaned in the brush near me. Then the skies opened up. I ran back to the car in the rain.

Still not satisfied, I set out to explore a 300- to 400-year-old sugar maple stand in mid-Vermont, but never could find it. Ultimately, I realized that tree hunting requires some time built in for getting lost. So I hung up my hunting cap for the day. But I'm putting it on again, soon.

Contact Beth Daley at bdaley@globe.com.

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