Thoughts in a Forest on a Warm January Day

It is January 7th. The forest I walk in is quiet. The first light of dawn creeps over the horizon and filters through the forest on this high ridge chasing the dark into corners and crevices that even my imagination can not locate. The leaves that once filled the voids between branches in this forest now lay on the ground. Their decomposition will feed plants during the growing season. I look across the landscape. I can see much greater distances through the defoliated trees. The barren forest gives me a different perspective. It is as if I am getting a glimpse of the heart and soul of these woods.

I feel alive and thoughts bounce around in my head like a steel ball in a pinball machine. And yet despite these random thoughts I see so much beauty around me. The sun is low in the sky. Tall vertical hardwood trees cast long shadows. Old stone walls, covered with still green lichen, dissect the forest giving me a sense of space and time. Leaf litter disturbed by the hooves of last night’s white tail deer form a trail leading to a hemlock grove. The deer likely lay quietly watching me. I like being seen and not seeing. It makes me feel comfortably insignificant.

It is early January and there is still no snow. Yesterday it was nearly 50 degrees. And although I find the travel through this steep and difficult terrain easy as compared to how it would be with two feet of snow I wonder what these changes will mean for this forest I love. Humans are funny that way. When we love and care about something we worry about what might happen. At least that is what I do; worry and make plans to ease my mind.

Since the beginning of the 20th century the interior, mountainous, landscape of New England has been undergoing a gradual but total change. As agricultural pursuits waned in the latter 1800′s land previously used for grazing, mowing, and crops went fallow. Large areas of land, once rich with sheep, cattle, mowed fields, and crops ready to be harvested turned to fields of goldenrod, aster, milkweed, mullein, and a variety of old field plant species. Huge tracts of brambles, primarily blackberries, appeared on mountainsides, along rivers, and over hill and dale. The brambles were replaced with shrub communities for a decade or two. Silky dogwood, arrow-wood, hazelnut, alders, elderberry, gray dogwood, and other shrubs filled the landscape and out competed the old field plant species. Eventually saplings from the few nearby tree stands invaded the shrubby fields. Capable of reaching for sunlight and shading the shrubs our landscape transformed to forest. In the late 1800′s New England was 80% cleared land, by the 1990′s 80% of that same land was forested. It was a complete reversal of ecological fortunes.

The transformation did not end there. Young forest began maturing into older forest. In the 1970′s and 1980′s the forest industry became a major industry in the six New England states. Logs commanded a high price and there was money to be made for landowners, loggers, log scalers, lumber mills, and the forest supply industry. Lumber became a significant commodity. A source of wealth for few but a legitimate income producer for many.

Much of the New England forest is deciduous or mixed conifer and deciduous. Temperate deciduous forests are not as common on this planet as one might think. The northeastern one third of the United States and southern Canada, western Europe, and eastern coastal areas of the far east hold the majority of temperate forests on this planet. Temperate forests require unique temperature regimes and both cold and warm seasons. Temperate deciduous trees can survive 100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures in the summer but require average day time temperatures in the 70-80 degree range. They can survive winter temperatures as cold as 40 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) but really need averages to be in the 15-30 degree range for sustainable health. They also require plentiful water. The deciduous forest is very water dependent. Temperate deciduous forests need rainfall that is greater than 30 inches on average, but prefers something in the 40 inch per year range. It also likes precipitation in the warmer seasons to be evenly distributed. Extended drought for several months for several years in a row can wreak havoc on a mature temperate deciduous forest.

Central interior New England wears the temperate deciduous forest much like many people in New England wear a Red Sox hat. We identify with the forest as we do our favorite team. It as much a part of our history and identity as our neighborhoods, our families, and our local histories. It as a big part of who we are. We are surrounded by trees, although some do not seem to notice, and their erect nature towers over us. Perhaps we should see them as our Eiffel Tower or Empire State Building. Perhaps not. Perhaps we should just recognize them for what they are; magnificent trees.

These temperate deciduous forests give us life. They sequester carbon dioxide, combating the gluttonous sins of the human species, they give us oxygen; literally providing clean air to enrich our lungs, our hearts, and our brains. They make our landscape green and they shield us from the wind. Our broad leaf forests provide habitat for a plethora animals including gray squirrels, chipmunks, red fox, coyote, black bear, fisher, white tailed deer, raccoons, opossum, voles, deer mice, and many others. They provide shade for understory plants. Our forest floors are graced with dolls eyes, goldthread, wintergreen, many different ferns, dutchmen’s breeches, spring beauty, cardinal flower, wood asters and nearly countless other woodland wildflowers. The variety of trees growing in our deciduous forests are dependent upon soil conditions and aspect but include red and sugar maples, red and white oaks, white, green, and black ash, black cherry, American beech, American elm, hop hornbeam, American hornbeam, shag bark hickory, pignut, butternut, yellow, black, gray, and white birch, and other less common tree species. Our deciduous forests are living laboratories for those who care to study them, endless playgrounds for those who choose to enjoy them, museums of both natural and human history for those who choose to examine them, and sources of income for those who choose to utilize their economic resources.

Our identities are wrapped within these boundless ecosystems. Those of us who choose to live in New England rural areas are from the forest. We live within shadows cast by tall trees. Their shade provides sanction from the busy, industrious world.

But things change. Some of our ancestors cut nearly endless areas of forest down nearly two hundred years ago. Men and women with crosscut saws and axes ventured to the edge of the woods and took one tree at a time clearing land for lumber, felling trees to make fields, and bringing these natural behemoths to the ground for fuel. The change that is taking place now is apparent and different but no less the result of human activity. Climate change threatens our temperate forests in the present day and age. But this time the threat is different. This time the change may not be able to be reversed. This time the change may result in not only how we live but where we live. Let me explain.

Our climate is warming. The Earth’s average temperature has increased by nearly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last one hundred years. This doesn’t sound like much but this is a mega change when it comes to natural and ecological systems. The 20th century’s last two decades were the warmest the planet has seen in at least 400 years. Eleven of the last twelve years are the warmest recorded since 1850. Arctic ice is melting at both the south and north poles. These cold temperature areas are critical to weather patterns across our planet. Wind patterns, upper atmosphere steering currents, ocean currents, and other weather are totally impacted by our coldest regions. We are losing our corral reefs due to warming ocean temperatures. These reefs are the breeding grounds for many fish and may hold the secret to diverse populations of fish and other creatures in our oceans. And perhaps the worse impact of our warming planet is the thawing of our billions of acres of tundra. As the tundra melts it releases millions and millions and millions of metric tons of methane; a far heavier and more dangerous greenhouse gas than carbon.

We have likely all noticed the changes in weather not only in our region but across our planet. Extreme drought plagues regions like central and western Africa, the south central and southwestern U.S. and large interior regions of Asia. As a result mega fires have cropped up all over our planet, erasing large and vast areas of plant life and habitat for wildlife. Violent storms like tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons dominate our news. Without a question erratic weather has become part of the norm. Flooding in some parts of the world, from concentrated and extended rainfall, has redefined some of our floodplains, made unusable large areas of prime agricultural land, and threatened and extinguished human life and property. And unseasonal storms, like record October snowfalls followed by extremely warm winters, may be viewed as more than a simple curiosity.

And all of this impacts our temperate forests. One study predicted central New England would have the climate of northern Georgia in less than a hundred years. Although this is a wild prediction, at best, in makes one pause when it comes to how it could change our landscape. While it is now apparent that weather and even climate can change much faster than we previously realized, ecosystems cannot. It takes centuries, even thousands of years for our plant communities to adjust to new temperature regimes. If temperatures rise too steeply in too short a time many of our northern deciduous trees will perish. And what will follow? If we wait for trees to migrate north there will be barren landscape dominated by grasses and plants that are capable of really divergent temperature regimes. Our forests will be ripe for wild fires. Some of our wildlife will move on. Certainly black bears and fisher will find different digs more suitable for their own needs. And the remaining trees that haven’t burned will stand for a while, like headstones in a grave yard, until they tumble to the earth; a lost symbol of a once great and healthy planet. Where will we get our clean air to breath? And what will sequester our carbon?

There is still much we can do to curb global warming and climate change. Given it is already upon us there is little doubt that we can not stop it in its tracks. But by conserving energy in every aspect of our lives, by encouraging appropriate alternative energy that REALLY reduces carbon emissions into our atmosphere, by being active in encouraging, even demanding, that our legislators recognize this overwhelming problem and start dealing with it, and by educating everybody we come in contact with about what is going on relative to the changes to our beautiful planet I believe there is still hope. Perhaps we can stem the tide of climate change. Perhaps we can slow it until we have complete and total freedom from our carbon producing lifestyle.

By way of example, in the late 1960′s seventy five percent of the freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams in the United States were not suitable for swimming and did not support good wildlife habitat. In 1972 our federal Congress passed the U.S Clean Water Act. By the 1990′s a complete reversal had already occurred. Seventy-five percent of our lakes, rivers, and streams once again were both fit for human contact, including swimming, and supported valuable and important wildlife habitat. This is proof that legislation can reverse human environmental degradation. There is reason for hope.

This forest that I wander today has an uncertain future. At my age I should realize that there is no certainty in life. But I just can’t accept the fact that this change is inevitable. I keep hoping against hope that human culture will change. I just don’t know if that is possible. I want this forest to stay as it is, at least for a while, at least until my future grandchildren can see the beauty of these hardwoods. I need to share the miracle of an acorn sprouting a new seedling that will turn into a giant of the forest. I need to teach future generations the art of tracking wild animals in the snow. I need to sit under a tall American beech tree with my own flesh and blood and look up at the sky, watch the wind blow swaying branches, and witness the clouds flying over the tall tree tops. I need to teach my children’s children and others the beauty of this planet.

That is why I am here.

I look out and into the forest, my long thought process has distracted me. I notice a steep bank of clouds  moving in at ground level from the east across this high ridge. My vision into the forest is obscured by the haziness. There is no clear view from this vantage point. The woods are quiet, still, and unforsaken.

Originally written for the Heath Herald in January of 2012.

  • craftygreenpoet

    It is fascinating to see how much woodland or other types of habitat for that matter have adapted to change in the past, but you are almost certainly right in that current climate change is too much change too quickly.

    You’re right too to underline the importance of appropriate alternative energy sources that really cut carbon

  • Wild_Bill

    Yes, appropriate would be the correct word when it comes to alternative energy.  Siting is the biggest issue.  Wind can have serious health effects when sited to close to residential areas.  This has been well documented throughout the world.  Solar also needs to appropriately sited.  Placing huge arrays in the Ivanpah desert within rare tortoise habitat was one of the most horrible sitings I have heard of.  They could have been placed near a large city, perhaps in abandoned shopping centers, to avoid terrible ecological impacts.  Just because its alternative doesn’t mean its green.  But most important we must conserve energy.  Some estimates state that we could easily reduce our total power consumption by 40%. 

  • Ratty

     I think I already see a change in human behavior towards climate change. It still seems subtle right now, but it is there. Corporations only make token gestures right now, but I think they will alter their behavior in more positive ways as we all get warmer. It won’t be their choice, but it will become necessity. It has already become a necessity for them to pretend that they care, soon they will really care. Things will get worse before they get better, but I really do think they will get better. I hope our forests can stay full, but your story points out that they can recover from even being cut down out of existence. One day we’ll all see how much our environment can take before it comes back to full health.

  • Wild_Bill

    Thanks for commenting Ratty and I truly appreciate your optimism.  However, the reasons that forest can recover adequately after being altered is because they have seed sources.  If the seed source is no longer appropriate for the climate then the forest would be in very poor health. 

    Corporate American is actually actively funding advertisements and media propaganda that portrays the idea that climate change is not real.  The reason?  They don’t want to sacrifice any short term profits to something as silly as all out ecological disaster.  Greed, pure and simple.

    And I hope you are write about human behavior.  If the consumer make demands and only buy products, energy, and food that is produced in such a way that it is relatively carbon neutral than there may be hope. 

    We are already experiencing the beginning of some major changes, many of them not so good. Our only hope is to act now.  Immediately.  There is no time to waste.

  • Barbara

    Thoughtful and thought provoking Bill, and beautifully written as well. Love the history lesson – my great-grandfather was one of those who back in the early 1800s started with a cross-cut saw after arriving in Canada with nothing much else other than his axe. He built a lumber company that took most of the lumber from the edges of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron.

    To forgive him, I realize that he didn’t know. There was a seemingly endless supply of white pine. And then my uncle two generations later had to close the company. No more wood close by even to build things like pallets for pop which had become the mainstay of the business – those companies had switched to cardboard boxes and plastic bottles… progress? Maybe.

    So I love your clarion call about it all… about the need to look at how we live, each one of us and to persuade others especially governments and BIG business (big pharma, big oil, big agri-biz) all to take a look at what’s REALLY happening. This call to bring economies back by re-inventing the wheel – manufacturing the same old carbon producing products – has to stop. 

    You in the USA have a wonderful opportunity later this year to make some huge inroads…your political processes must (I hope) undergo a sea-change.

    I’m cautiously optimistic on sunny days about our beloved planet. On others, like today when it’s rainy when it should be snowing, I feel we’re too far down the road to eventual destruction of everything we know and love today. But I know that here and there, there are rays of hope.

    So keep up your urgings Bill – you know I join you as do many thousands of others.

  • Wild_Bill

    There was no doubt in my mind Barbara that you would fully understand the full intent of this writing.  Our culture is so much a part of who we are and it is apparent that we are going to have to make dramatic cultural changes.  I don’t think it is too late to avoid destruction but we will have to live with some very uncomfortable situations that have been solely created by humankind.  The most important issue is to begin changing our ways right now.  Not tomorrow but now.  There is no room for any delays.  Thanks for reading.

  • Al

    Lovely photos – I especially love the second to last one. I also worry about global warming, as it has potentially devastating effects on Colorado. Unfortunately we won’t do anything about it until it’s too late.

  • Wild_Bill

    No where near as good as your photos Al.  It is up to you and me and every other ordinary person to turn this around.  Let us all commit to doing a little something each day.

  • Montucky

    Once again I find that I have many of the same thoughts and concerns about our planet that you do, Bill, although I have become more and more pessimistic. The same basic issues also obtain here in the west, especially in the remaining wilderness and roadless areas that are under constant attack by those who intend to make profit from them, aided by the elected officials whom they have paid for.  Here, the youth in the cities amuse themselves by sliding on $800 skis down mountains that they did not climb, calling that a “wilderness” adventure, and the politicians and business promoters are screaming “create jobs” by cutting down trees that they did not plant and which will not be replaced by nature in the forest for another two centuries, if indeed ever. They call that capitalizing on a “renewable” resource. I personally think that too many of our species have become so arrogant, uneducated, greedy and stupid that they have moved the ecology of the planet into the beginning of a phase that will eventually be incapable of supporting human life.

  • Wild_Bill

    It’s all about money and greed.  But the big issue is that those who partake in this insane fascination with the almighty buck at the expense of our ecological systems fail to recognize that they have lit the fire that may extinguish their own oxygen.  There is little time to put the fire out.  Our only hope is to persistently spread the message.  Hopefully the masses will awake.

  • Emily

    I think this is exactly one of the reasons why you are here, Bill: to help bring attention to details and issues like these that affect our incredible home. I’m reading “Angle of Repose” right now by Wallace Stegner, and his descriptions of the west are SPECTACULAR in their complete wildness. I enjoy modern amenities with the best of them, but I really think I’d give it all up to experience a bit of what the world was like before all this stuff. Thanks as always for an insightful, interesting post. I hope you’re ever the champion of the outdoors. It does well by you.

  • Wild_Bill

    Emily, this is the highest and best compliment you could ever give to me.  And I REALLY like being called a champion!  Just kidding, but it is true that I wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to protecting our planet.  There is nothing for which I have more passion.

    Try a two week stay at a remote cabin without electricity on a wilderness lake.  Make sure you are really isolated.  The experience is absolutely regenerative and I have a feeling that both you and your husband would love it.  I do it every year and sometimes twice.  Of course, I take a lot of time to fish and take pictures while I’m there.  But you would find lots of other wonderful things to do and I’m absolutely positive that you would write about it as it never been written about before.  You are that good.

  • Emily

    You know what, I think I’m going to go add this to my Life List right now. :) Great advice! 

  • sandy

    Keep writing and talking, Bill.  I have been in New England 41 years, and I can see a drastic change in that time. For anyone to say that can’t see it these, is just wishful thinking on their part.  

  • Wild_Bill

    Yes, I’ll keep it up but its up to everyone to spread the word.  There are so many doubters out there, especially those influenced by Fox and other crazy unscientific media sources, it will require real effort to convince the masses.  If we don’t the odds are severely stacked against all of humankind.l

  • Teresaevangeline

    The greatest thing we can do is walk into the woods, love those trees, imbue them with that love and express openly our love for them, as you so beautifully have here. I just returned a short while ago from a walk in my own woods, albeit not deep woods, but some majestic Norway pines and many smaller – about 15 -20 ft. I can see where the deer have walked and bedded down amongst a small grouping of them, where they are provided a nice canopy. I love knowing they sleep out in those woods. Thank you for speaking out on their behalf, the trees and the deer that make the woods their home, along with so many other wonderful beings.

  • Wild_Bill

    I will keep speaking out until I can no longer take a breath.  Sometimes I think I’m speaking to those that already are in step but occasionally someone else may listen in.  I should work on reaching a larger audience I suppose.

    Teresa, you embody all that is right with regard to how we relate to our planet.  You revere and respect that which is wonderful and of course your writing is beautiful and moving.

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