Although long forgotten by many the ice storm that took place in December 2008 still occupies significant territory in my mind. This storm of historical proportions had huge impacts on our forested landscape. Many of those who experienced the storm might remember the harrowing night when trees snapped off every few seconds sounding like shotguns blasting into the cold air. The sound of a breaking forest is more than scary when you are surrounded by woods. When the forest is snapping apart for a span of more than eight hours the experience can only be described as immensely unsettling.
I remember wondering about how wildlife would survive the onslaught. The tops of trees and heavy branches thunderously landing on the frozen ground would certainly be the final demise of some individual animals. And while some might not worry about this I could not help but feel a burning pit in my stomach each time a weighty limb or tree top snapped and careened to the forest floor. It seemed akin to an advancing superior enemy. You could hear them coming and yet had no way of stopping the carnage.
When light peered its head over the horizon the next day the sight was amazing. Our two hundred and fifty foot long gravel driveway, no longer visible, was buried in fallen trees and branches. Amazingly our truck and car went without scars. An interesting matrix of brush had piled up, every which way, around the vehicles without any direct impacts. Nary a scratch could be found on any of the cold metal surfaces. Our road was buried underneath hundreds of fallen trees, and branches. The power lines were tangled amongst the forest wreckage lying on the ground. Like a fishing line birds nest it was difficult to understand the tangle. We had no electricity, and it was out for days and days, but for some strange reason we still had an internet connection. We joked that cyberspace was the only space in the area without a fresh pile of wood in it.
It took more than a couple of days to clear the driveway, Taylor Brook Road to the town line going east, and our yard which looked like a gigantic slash pile. Like many other folks in town we knew that it would have to be our own efforts that opened us back up to the rest of the world. I wielded our chainsaw and Maureen moved the slash. Not being as young as we once were we limited our efforts to about 8 hours each day. Two and a half days later we arrived at the town line having cleared a space wide enough to get our truck out. A rough count told us that we had sawed through over 70 trees in the road alone, countless fallen limbs, while deftly avoided power lines although we suspected that they were all as dead as a doornail.
It took weeks more to clear our woods roads. And that was only accomplished with the return of our two adult sons over the Christmas holiday who more than earned their keep during that visit.
And despite the incredible damage done to the forest this ecologist saw this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to gain a better understanding of forest destruction and recovery.
Much of the forest on our land to the south of our house was a jumbled mess of tangled trees. Most of it nearly impenetrable. To navigate to a destination required locating easier routes, and crawling under and climbing over fallen wood debris. And although I have a keen sense of direction I was constantly checking my bearings for two reasons. The thick slash prevented me from seeing anything more than 20 feet away and this forest that I knew so well had changed so dramatically that recognizing where I was by the presence of familiar objects or land marks was impossible. It was as if this land that I had wondered for thirty some odd years was a completely different place. I felt as if I were a stranger in a strange land. There were some areas so difficult to navigate that I avoided them for years.
One half a decade hence, on an early November day, I stand on a high ridge looking north. From this vantage point I can see the forest canopy from above. There remains many large snags, dead trees without tops, that actually benefit the forest ecosystem. These dead trees are perfect habitat for insects that use the decaying wood environment. Many bird species use these insects as a food source. These avian species include pileated woodpeckers, yellow belly sap suckers, downy woodpeckers, red bellied woodpeckers, northern flickers, and hairy woodpeckers to name a few. Other species like saw-wet owls, northern and southern flying squirrels, and black capped chickadees may convert larger woody excavations into nests. A rich, diverse forest contains snags naturally and well managed forests let many snags remain for the benefit of those species who might use them.
As I travel down hill in a northern direction I come upon an area, formerly an impenetrable mess, that now has some trail openings that lead to the interior of this area of dead falls. Several broken hemlock tops and a red maple top remain tangled on the forest floor. A few years back these broken tree parts were elevated because they were held on stout branches that kept them off the ground. Now the branches have decayed and the tops lay directly on the ground in most locations. It is relatively easy to step on or over the trunks as I enter the area. Deer beds, as evidenced by the compressed New York ferns on the ground, are plentiful. Several yellow birch saplings about 12 feet tall, whose growth had formerly been suppressed by lack of light, have been released and are presently reaching for the sky.
I sit on one of the fallen tree tops and look around. At my feet I can see small oval holes burrowed under the tree trunk laying on the ground; evidence of red backed voles or white footed mice that now use this as both escape and cover habitat. There are plentiful brambles growing amongst the fallen tree tops. Almost all of the brambles have had the terminal buds removed by browsing white tails looking for a quick snack. In a corner of this covey created by the great ice storm I notice something white sticking out of the ground. I get up from my sitting position to examine the white stick-like object. It is a small antler left behind by a young buck from last winter. The antler is severely misshapen from small rodents who chewed the hard surface in search of calcium.
After a few minutes I wander further down the hill. There is a large spring, a beautiful oasis in the forest, that trickles water on to the ground’s surface three hundred and sixty five days a year. It is a water resource that I’ve never seen dry up even in severe droughts. On the west side of the spring an entire red maple fell over during the ice storm of 2008. The tree was overburdened with tons of ice, a weight that the shallow roots could not withstand, and it fell to the earth ending its approximate 100 years of life. The tree will take decades to decompose. It will be host to fungi that will break down the coarse wood fibers known as lignin. Small invertebrates of all kinds will live within and under the large decaying trunk. Some of these invertebrates will utilize the decaying wood while others will predate those that are using the decaying wood. Red backed salamanders will find refuge under the massive trunk. This common amphibian loves dark and dank environments. This is nearly a complete environment for this shy character. Here it will eat, sleep, live and die. The composition of this community, fungi, invertebrates, vertebrates, and rooted plants is an interdependent system that both holds mysteries and truth; a wonderful representation of forest symbiosis where the untrained eye might least expect it.
The fallen tree has acted as a temporary dam where water flowing out of this perennial spring finds a blockade. A small pool has formed where I can collect water in my cupped hands and rehydrate myself. The water is clean, pure, and delicious.
This watering hole, an refuge for the weary and thirsty, feels sacred. I can’t imagine a better place to appreciate the miracles of nature. And as I stand here, my eyes uplifted towards the sky scanning the blue heavens above, an owl soars amongst the branches.
My mind returns to the day after the great ice storm of 2008. The forest seemed devastated. About 800 hundred trees on our land alone had been severely damaged. And now I understand how short sighted my initial thoughts were. This forest is more than one tree, or one animal, or one fresh water spring tucked into a hemlock grove in the woods. This forest is a complex ecosystem that has resilience. It can weather the storm without looking back. It will move forward without abandon. The forest seems to have a disciplined intent to survive and is capable of meeting all challenges thrown it its direction. It is perfect.
And that, my friends, is something that we humans just cannot say about ourselves.
Originally written for the Heath Herald, November 2013.