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.