Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Following the Trail of a Giant: Alfred W. Crosby

The downside is that spring has been taking its time coming to South-Central, PA. It's snowing heavily again tonight. I've made the best of the sunnier days, however, to get down into the many ravines and valleys along the Susquehanna to search for signs and sounds to prove that, in fact, it is on the way.  The upside is that I've had more time to see into the woods and read the lay of land - one of my favorite things about winter.  During these weeks of exploring the deep places, the field of environmental history has lost a founder, Dr. Alfred W. Crosby (b. 1931), who greatly influenced how I look and think about land through the lens of biology and culture.

A "catwalk" trail follows a narrow ridge.

Crosby's work inspired and launched the whole new field of environmental history that includes ecology and biology as important frameworks for research and  interpretation.  His books The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972) and Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900 - 1900 (1986) changed how I see the landscape around me. His work ignited my passion for environmental history.  By the time I graduated from high school in 1978 (and thanks to a progressive teacher in biology and evolution), I'd read and written a critical essay about Crosby's ideas of invasion biology  in The Columbian Exchange. What we see today, I summarized, is not pristine North American "nature" but the result of biological processes introduced by multiple waves of human invaders.

A wagon ford (foregound) can usually be found just before a creek's steep descent.

The myriad trails and pathways I take to access the deep ravines of the River Hills  can be made out clearly in the leafless landscape. Catwalks, the rocky, narrow ridgetop paths made by Susquehannock and earlier native peoples allow for winter views into these valleys and out across the river. Catwalks follow the spines of rocky ridges and the edges of cliffs formed by the great uplifted bedrock, sharp and boulder-filled. They aren't very safe for anyone on horseback, but their persistence as trails today show that we are still using them. Local  hunters still use catwalk trails for harvesting deer that move through the valley bottoms. I've done so myself.  Original human hunters, Indigenous people arriving after the retreat of glaciers, were the first wave of human invaders. Their mark on our landscape includes what we no longer see: wood bison, mastodon, ground sloth, giant beaver, and other megafauna that were ill adapted to human hunting pressure.

A trench ravine closes in quickly and any hope of a road is lost.

Well into a second wave of human invasion during the age of European discovery, Crosby argued that long before European settlements were established, introduced diseases had already moved rapidly ahead of them, wiping out up to 90% of native people. Diseases hit particularly hard those who lived in dense camp clusters and towns, which tended to be along rivers. Smallpox and the flu were particularly vicious, he asserts, reaching epidemic proportions long before settlers arrived. There was much evidence in our region of a plague-type epidemic: rapidly abandoned villages, empty camps, deserted horticultural sites.

A massive hemlock towers out of a deep ravine.

Crosby was very interested in how diseases traveled among both vulnerable human and non-human populations. The way was made clear for the tens of thousands of Europeans who followed the explorers because disease had preceded them. Benjamin Franklin boasted that by 1760 there were a million more "native" Britons in America courtesy of the 80,000 or so immigrants who began the process of colonization a century before. Crosby reshaped the idea of colonization in both its human and biotic history as the concept of ecological imperialism. 

Wilson Run Gorge

"These lands had to have a temperate climate, the migrants wanted to go where they could be more comfortably European in life style than at home, not less. To attract Europeans in great numbers, a country had to produce or show clear potentiality for producing commodities in demand back home in Europe - beef, wheat, wool, hides, coffee - and its resident population had to be too small to supply that demand. And so it was that so many Europeans poured into cornucopian North America, into Australasia, and into southern Brazil... bleaching out whatever Amerindian and African traces might have existed." (1) 

Otter Creek Gorge.

Crosby divided waves of Eurasian and European migrants according to how, when, and why they arrived. Eurasians crossed land bridges and introduced new hunting technologies. Europeans sailed to the New World and counted those who came for new economic opportunity or religious freedom. By 1750 up to 80% of new arrivals from Europe were indentured servants, military/naval conscripts, prisoners, and enslaved peoples from Western Africa. Economic opportunity led to exportations of products and resources back to Europe.

A trail so steep that switchbacks are marked with a triple blaze.

What was the environmental cost of ecological imperialism? The loss of native people are the saddest and cruelest chapters of Crosby's work,  but he speaks also about the exchange and demise of native animals for European oxen, horses, hogs, and poultry - even the honeybee. I've done some research on a once-common species of American bumble bee succumbing to introduced pathogens from domestically raised, packaged, and accidentally released European bumble species for a growing greenhouse industry in Canada and the Northeast. The exchange/demise is still occurring and disease is still the main factor.

What is missing?

Crosby brings attention to European naturalized weeds and grasses we can count among our biological inventories. "The eastern third of the United States and Canada, where half the population still lives, though it has been over three and a half centuries since the founding of Jamestown and Quebec, is the Neo-European seedbed of North America." (2)  On a spring day, even in the remote bottoms of these deep gorges, I can find in abundance black mustard, plantain, thistles, nettles, nightshade, dandelion, groundsel, dock, knot-grass, and mullein. Add to these, up on the cultivated plateaus of farmland and forest, all the forage crops including white clover. European flora (weeds) according to Crosby, "moved with amazing speed, sometimes bounding ahead of the settled frontier." (3)

An early-mature woodland at the edge of a ravine - this was once open pasture.

Crosby recast the human migration history of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast as a great biological invasion and his ideas were unsettling for some established historians when Ecological Imperialism was first published. His work continues to have its critics especially among those who revere European dominion narratives and who hold history against certain ideological qualifiers. There can be no denying, however, that the spread of infectious diseases was the monumental consequence of European migration to North America. By some biological invasion histories, we are still under-estimating the numbers of native people whose deaths were attributed to smallpox. Crosby can be considered a giant among historians for his work on pathogens and contagions, but there is so much more.

Bug and Amos lead me up an old wagon road, to a steep switchback, and on to a catwalk trail.

Among his other works - some of which blew my head off when I first read them - are his books America's Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (1976). This work informed my own research into the ecologies of industrial warfare, landscape of war, and WWI.  Crosby's book inspired the excellent centennial documentary Influenza 1918 shown on American Experience, PBS. Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History (2002) inspired some new venues of research into the effects of biological and explosive weaponry on farmlands in my dissertation work.

Steep gradients in the river hills valleys ensured a healthy crop of mills and small factories in the 1800s.

Crosby's work inspired my fascination for the technologies of European societies that enabled exploration and exploitation across such a large global landmass. My interest in milling technologies, hydro and wind power, navigation, surveying, and time-keeping are the direct result of reading his book The Measure of Reality: Quantification of Western Society, 1250 - 1600 (1997). I remember sitting in an old gristmill-turned-nature center where I once volunteered, so totally engrossed in this book that I didn't notice the had sun set and someone had locked me in. I had to call someone with keys to come let me out. After that I got my own set of keys. Of course, this led me down a huge rabbit hole to explore the technologies, sciences, and maths of other cultures and their chain of impact on Mid-Atlantic natural history. It was a busy year of reading that had me thinking hard about going for my doctorate in agricultural history and landscape studies. Hence, my early PhD work with native bumble bees, agricultural technologies, and European imports...

Bug and Amos listen politely to a quote by Alfred Crosby.

Thinking about the influence Alfred Crosby has had on me as an environmental historian and backwoods wanderer, I looked down at my tired pups who have accompanied me on all six weeks' worth of ravine hikes. "We will content ourselves with one last archaeological trench," quoting Crosby from The Measure of Reality.  "Trench" seemed to a much safer term to use around coonhounds as compared to rabbit hole. Each ravine, every gorge, holds evidence of past cultures' impact on the land and the fact that I can see and interpret that evidence, rooted intellectual and physically in the environmental and biological consequences of colonization, we'll continue to follow the trail of the giant.  Rest in history, Dr. Crosby.

An "archeological trench." 


Crosby, A. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge University Press, 1986.

 (1) "The lands had to have temperate climates...." pg. 298.
 (2) "The eastern third of the United States..." pg. 149.
 (3)  "The weeds could move ..." pg. 162

American Experience "Influenza 1918" is available to stream and includes interviews with Alfred Crosby. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/influenza/

Smithsonian interview with Crosby on the Columbian Exchange.

Obituary, Alfred W. Crosby,

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

PA Ferncliff Wildflower Preserve

For Lent I've decided to take as many dawn walks as I can up until Easter.  Lent as a fasting period to prepare for the High Holy Days in the Catholic Church has its roots in early Christian traditions, but the word itself is derived from the Old English lencten and means the lengthening of days, the coming of spring. Like many Christian holy days and periods of religious observance, the forty days of Lent are overlaid upon cultural traditions that predate Christianity.  Among Celtic traditions the late winter fast was a period of rationing the last of the winter stores and a time of anticipation for spring's warmth and light.

A dark, rainy, foggy start to forty walks at dawn on Ash Wednesday: Mason Dixon Trail on the Susquehanna
To honor the Lenten fast today people give things up such as certain foods, not-so-healthy-behaviors, and conveniences. Many of my friends are going offline or doing without certain social media. Some friends are taking on something new that may challenge an old routine or way of thinking. I chose this year to take on forty walks at dawn. It is now the first Sunday in Lent and so far I've done five dawn walks starting in the dark and ending with enough light to enjoy a view.

A sunny dawning on Day 4 of 40: Susquehannock State Park, Lancaster County, PA
To the Celts, the natural world contained life lessons, spiritual meanings, and religious observances. Nature was not separate from humankind, but the home in which people lived - an ecology of relationships with all things living and non-living. Central to the Celtic deities were the spirits that inhabited trees, the holy spaces we now know as sacred groves, and recognized the plant world as having soul and wisdom.  It only made sense to mix my Big Tree theme for the 2018 hiking year with the Celtic-Druid love of trees, so I am trying to be conscious of choosing woodlands, like today's visit to Ferncliff, for these forty hikes at dawn.

Ferncliff, part of the Old Growth Forest Network.
Ferncliff is a Lancaster Conservancy site that has an old road to the river through a deep ravine. Ravines are topographically important in the River Hills region and are notable for containing old growth forest, large assemblages of native wildflowers, and wildlife. I thought Ferncliff would be a good choice, too, for taking (pretty big) new coonhound puppy Amos to see the river up close. The day dawned sunny but by the time the dogs and I had made our drive across the Susquehanna, clouds were banking above the ridge tops. The sun shone through porthole openings briefly now and then and the previous night's beautiful snowfall was melting fast, plopping on us all in fat wet dollops from the hemlocks and rhododendron overhead.

Dark diabase schist forms the stream bottom bedrock.
For a coonhound Amos did pretty good not getting too distracted by all the scent trails and deer paths, while his much older sister Bug insisted on walking any puddle she could find. The deer trails are incised deeply in steep ravine hills and I thought how much these paths are like bad habits we try to shake off during Lent - they usually follow contours of least resistance and are well known to other animals as well. It's easy to follow them. Amos was less interested in the well-trodden paths but very interested in the fallen trees that lay across and beside the old road. He hopped right up and tracked who-knows-what animals that use the trees as pathways. Among coonhound clubs, there are contests and "degrees" for how the dogs perform on track and Amos surely earned his degree in log-walking.

The narrowness of the ravine is apparent here.
Bug has always preferred work the edge of streams so her degree would be as a "wet tracker" and with the stream so close to the path she and Amos had me pulled in two directions as one walked logs and the other waded the stream. Thank goodness for long leads! It got to be a little much so I ended the fun and put them both on a double lead. At least I could walk straight ahead instead of staggering side-to-side.
Ancient rhododendron reach over the road like an arbor.
Ferncliff is a site designated by the Old Growth Forest Network as containing significant mature tree communities. The rhododendron were particularly impressive with thick twisting trunks that reached out to any sunlit patches down through the hollow. Groves of old hemlock, incredibly high tulip poplar, and ancient beech occupy every bend and flat in the stream valley. Ironwood and pawpaw filled the open spaces between the old trees while oaks of several species towered over everything, growing high on the steep land above the stream.

Old growth forest communities occupy the flat stream banks and bends in the narrow ravine.

The snow was not very good for tracking but according to the dogs' noses the sodden leaves and damp earth beneath was perfect for snuffling and snorting. This slowed our pace so much that I had the opportunity to study the rock formations, angular and sharp, showing none of the shapely curves of long exposure to river currents. The ravine is rough cut and raw.

Barnes Run is the stream that cuts this ravine.
Cut deeper with every major flood event with walls steep enough that mudslides and rock fall are part of its wall formation, it is easy to spot slippage slopes that carry heavy runoff down to the stream. The diabase, a type of igneous intrusion parent material, has been squeezed over time and at great depths into sheet-like layers now exposed standing vertically at the surface. These layers pop apart in freeze-thaw cycles. Tablets and tables of it laid in the stream bed having broken off from the outcrops far above, some of it weighing several tons.

A old grove sheltered below a diabase fin.

A slippage slope.

I'd be interested in coming back here every month or so to photograph the changes in the tree cover and the procession of wildflower blooms. Various websites list those plants that wildflower enthusiasts can find here in season, including some interesting orchids.  What caught my attention as we neared a stream ford, however, were some interesting small ferns tucked into rocky ledges. I found spleenwort and rock polypody growing from an almost hidden crevice in a roadside outcrop. How many people walk past this, I thought. I was thankful for the very slow nose-pace the dogs were setting.

Old growth hemlock.

The nose-pace ended at the stream ford and young Amos had to face his first wet crossing. He was very hesitant but being double leashed to Bug he walked carefully alongside her, flank to flank, until we got to the other side. I made sure to give him lots of pats and "good boy!" encouragements and he was pretty proud of himself. Every experience for him is new right now so it's fun to see how he sizes up things like edges, water, mud, and new sounds - like the raucous call of a pileated woodpecker.

"Don't worry," says Bug, "That's just a very large woodpecker."

Sunlight came and went as quickly as the clouds were moving overhead. One minute the valley was in shadow, cold and murky, the next minute it was bright with snow and glittering water.The sound of water dripping from the branches and the playful plops of wet snow slipping from the hemlock was soon absorbed by the sound of the swollen Susquehanna ahead. We climbed the railroad embankment, crossed the tracks, and looked out on the wide river fat with snowmelt from New York and northern Pennsylvania.

Playful sounds of the ravine were soon overtaken by ....
...the mighty thrum of meltwater moving down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake.

Amos stood in awe of the river. His ears stood out an he sniffed the air. He'd seen nothing like it in his six months and was transfixed. He watched the water lap at the embankment and stared intently at logs and debris mats floating by. A gull landed on a drift log and he whined and let out his first real "roo" - the famous coonhound bay that might wake the dead. Startled, he looked at me as if to say "That came out of me?!" Like with all young animals and people, the fun for us grown ups is watching them discover something totally new and thus we see it afresh with own our eyes.

Every child has come to know the name of God
Not the God of names
Not the God of don'ts
Not the God who never does anything weird
But the God who only knows four words
and keeps repeating them, saying
"Come Dance With Me.

-Hafez, Persian poet


Ferncliff is one of many beautiful natural areas under the management and protection of the Lancaster Conservancy. https://www.lancasterconservancy.org/preserve/ferncliff/ 


Monday, February 5, 2018

DE Redden State Forest: Georgetown Tract, 5 Mile Loop

Returning from the annual Maryland Association of Outdoor and Environmental Education conference in Ocean City, I decided to hike the Georgetown Tract of Redden State Forest in Sussex County, Delaware, part of a multi-tract holding of state lands in the area and the largest. In keeping with this year's theme of Big Tree encounters I wasn't disappointed!

Loblolly, Shortleaf, and Virginia Pines.
A sand road double-loops around the forest but first-time hikers be warned - there are no trail markers of any kind except for the educational trail entrances along the loop road. I took a screen shot of the trail system on my phone and checked it at all intersections. I made a 5-mile figure-8 that included the educational trail. Keep in mind that this is a working forest and there are all sorts of management regimes at play from thinning to selective harvest to clear-cutting. It is an education to see the many ways a forest can be managed for lumber, habitat enhancement, or to protect biological treasures.

Pitch Pine, Pinus ridiga

The educational trail section seemed to harbor all the big tree species and from this foot path I was able to spot enormous Pitch, Virginia, and Loblolly Pines, sometimes all in one view. The weather was very grey and photography was a challenge with poor light. The dark trees back-lit by bright but cloudy skies made it hard to distinguish species. I do want to go back when things are blooming and budding as there was so much along this trail in the wet woodlands and slightly higher sandy hummocks that warrant another look.

Boardwalk over wet areas on the educational trail.
Big Tree Champion marked with a tiny ribbon and nail - Pitch Pine, 93'

Bird life was minimal with only a few White-throated Sparrows and Chickadees working the thickets along the road edge. Although I heard Pileated Woodpeckers calling throughout the forest, it was easier to find evidence of their being here by the many de-barked dead pines as they search in winter for beetle grubs. It was cold and dark, so if I was a bird, I'd stay fluffed up and snoozing in some protected hiding place in a Holly or thicket. So I gave the birding a pass. As dark and foreboding as the forest seemed today it's interesting to remember that this, like so much of our Mid-Atantic forested landscapes, was once open farm fields.

Pitch pine cone with a sharp spike per seed scale.

The main 250 acres of state forest complex that holds the old lodge, former stables (educational center), and ranger's office (an 1800s farmhouse in the classic Delaware "Dutch" style) was once a working farm. As I walked through the surrounding woodland I observed all the different ways the forest is managed such as pine plantation for lumber production so densely planted that no understory can grow in its shade...

Pine plantation for lumber, a monoculture.

 ... to selective harvest tracts for loblolly. This tract has a great understory so it will be very birdy come spring migration time in a few months. Deadfall is an important aspect of maintaining a rich insect and predator population, so old limbs and fallen trunks are left in place. Warblers, woodpeckers, and other insect-eating birds help keep insect pests in check.  Soils are enriched by rotting deadfall and wind-thrown trees that help create water catchments in root holes.  Selective harvest forests can be wildlife havens and its clear the foresters here manage for just that. As beautiful pineland habitat, Redden State Forest is on Delaware Audubon's Birding Trail for its rich southern forest bird populations. I can't wait to come back in a few months to stalk Summer Tanagers, Worm-Eating Warblers, Red-Headed Woodpeckers, and Vesper & Grasshopper Sparrows.

Selective harvest tract of Loblolly Pine.
Water basins form in the root hollows of toppled trees.

There are areas that are managed as grasslands where clear-cutting has helped create openings. These openings may serve as future woodland nurseries if replanted or may be kept open as fire breaks or habitat for open land and edge species like white tail deer. I heard a deer go crashing through the woods as I rounded a bend to this open area but I never caught sight of it. If the weather hadn't been so threatening, I would have stayed a while at this meadow to watch for hawks hunting from the young pine woods across the field.

Open grassland from a clear cut.

The decrease in populations of Bobwhite Quail over much of its former range is thought to be the result of the loss of persistent openings such as this, so its always encouraging to see meadow and field being protected for grassland species. Historically, the pine woods of the lower Delmarva region were highly valued. Shortleaf Pine was the most prized wood for furniture, home, and ship building and it didn't take long for lumbering interests to clear the sandy southern counties right up into the 1980s. In many southern states the Shortleaf is receiving special restoration attention, including in Delaware. In 2007 the Shortleaf Pine Initiative began and in twenty-two states multiple agencies and private landowners are working now to re-establish Shortleaf Open Woodland and Savanna.

Open woodlands of mixed pine and hardwood.

A flash of black and white rocketed through a beautiful mixed stand of Pitch Pine, oak, and gum. I knew in an instant that my presence had flushed a large Pileated Woodpecker and only a few hundred feet further along the Educational Trail, I found his project tree. The bright orange inner bark of a dead pine revealed he'd been at work for a few days. Large chunks of pine bark lay scattered about and hunks of inner wood on the standing trunk were blown out by his powerful hammering.  The undersides of the bark pieces showed bark beetle holes and the inner wood showed the tunnels eaten away by beetle grubs.  Standing dead timber is just as important for wildlife as standing live is to our lumber industry. Soon, this beetle grub buffet will host woodpecker cavities for nesting and after that any number of cavity nesters will take over the woodpecker homes. A fine tree indeed.

Pileated Woodpecker project tree.

The big Pitch Pines, black and almost non-photogenic against the darkening skies had captured my attention for the day however. Their massive trunks and wavy, unkempt tops grew this way and that. The wind was picking up and rain drops began to fall. The pine woods began to sing. Donald Peattie in his 1948 Natural History of Trees of Eastern North America writes poetically of this tree -

As long as our forests stand, as long as the trees march down to the sea or climb the wind-swept ridges, its dark plumy crown, its grand, rugged trunks, the strong, sweet, pitchy odor of its groves and the heavy chant of the wind in them will stand for something that is wild and untamable, and disdains even to be useful for man. (23)

Pitch Pine.

Take a screen shot or pic of this map to navigate the trails for the Headquarters (Georgetown) Tract.

Delaware Audubon's Birding Trail contains Redden State Forest and many other pine land habitats to explore.  http://www.delawareaudubon.org/birding/BirdingTrail5.html

Shortleaf Pine Restoration Initiative is a multi-partner project to restore this legacy pineland landscape and the many species of birds, mammals, and reptiles that depend upon it.  http://shortleafpine.net/

Peattie, Donald. (1948). A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. (New York, New York, Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Delaware Forest Service. https://dda.delaware.gov/forestry/forest.shtml

Sunday, January 28, 2018

2018 Big-Tree-A-Week Catching Up

With winter conference season in full swing, my New Year's Resolution to find a Big Tree every week has already suffered from not having the time to go out. But this weekend made up for my two weekends lost so far by making an afternoon of a search to easily accessible/ short walk Big Trees in the Contested Borderlands along the Mason-Dixon Line.

American Sycamore, Planatus occidentalis
At the head-of-the-Chesapeake stands this 117' American Sycamore - literally a hundred yards from my office (when I'm not on the road) at Swan Harbor Farm County Park in Harford County, MD. As a half-day youth birding event ended, I locked up the office to go on my "three hour tour" for Big Trees.  I started by walking two minutes to the east. Voila!

Trunk and crown - a regal old soul!

This particular tree was measured by an old conservation friend of mine, Charles Day, many years ago. Charles introduced me to the work of Aldo Leopold back when I was a rookie ranger in another park north of here. He came through our park to do some measuring for nominations in 1986 and shared his copy of A Sand Count Almanac (1949) with me. Looking up into the crown of this gorgeous white tree reminded me of the Land Ethic, Charles, and the challenging history of the borderlands, which this old tree-soul would have certainly witnessed. Estimated to be around 350 years old, this tree was youngster when Thomas Cresap triggered a regional war between Pennsylvania and Maryland settlers. The furthest south of my Big Tree finds today, it stands at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, where only a few miles upstream much blood was spilled in the early 1700s.

My four Big Trees are red-starred - map source: KMusser PSU

Cresap was a scoundrel, gang leader, land swindler, and to some (including me), a terrorist. This tree did not grow in the contested borderlands but being just south of that area the people who lived in Havre de Garce would have been very worried about the violence spreading down river after Maryland gave illegal title to Cresap for 500 acres of prime western Susquehanna land in Peach Bottom (where I live now). It's strange, but even today Peach Bottom can sometimes have a feeling of disunion and foreboding about it. It doesn't help that for the past 12 months, confederate battle flags seem to have blossomed like tulips on both sides of the PA/MD border adding to the ongoing political and racial tensions that began in Cresap's time.

Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus

My next Big Tree involved a twenty minute drive and a short steep walk up through the Harford Bowmen archery range at Susquehanna State Park. The park gets one red star on my map because this tree and the next, a black walnut, are not too far apart as the crow flies. I am wishing I had something to place in front of these trees as I take their pictures, because this double-stem white pine was enormous at its base. Next time I'll bring my red MountainSmith waist pack, but the kiosk and park property sign do bring some sense of scale. The enormous double trunk stems do not compete much with each other for sunlight and they send their limbs beautifully in opposite directions leaving the inside of the V open and airy. But where there are cross-over limbs the sound of wind through that V was like listening to a viola!

Like listening to a wind-instrument standing at the base of the V

This big pine measures 165 inches around at breast-height, just before the trunk branches off - almost 14' around! That's one big wind-instrument! White pines can easily live to 200 years old and it is fun to imagine some browsing deer nibbling off the highest terminal bud of this tree when it was just a sapling. The absence of the main terminal bud forced the adjoining lateral buds to branch, creating this magnificent double-trunk. The old trick of counting branch whorls to gauge the age of the pine clearly doesn't work. Without a core sample, I estimate this old soul to be about 250-275 years old. White pines like it high and cool in these Mid-Atlantic parts, so they are commonly found on ridge tops and higher hillsides that get cooler temps in summer. They were pushed south ahead of the last  ice age and have reclaimed all that ice-covered landscape to north, while in the south the range extends only down through the Appalachian Highlands and just along the coast to North Carolina.

Black Walnut, Juglans niger

A few minutes drive north along the river to the picnic area and I found my next Big Tree in Susquehanna State Park. There are a lot of Big Trees in this park but will require a day of hiking next time. Today I only had a few hours. I was happy to see a picnic table for scale and Lo! this tree has a very nice sign to denote its Big Tree status. According to the stats, this Black Walnut has a circumference of 139 inches - almost 12 feet around. It was said that Mr. Cresap cleaved some guy's skull with a walnut-handled axe in this area, so I kept my eye on the woods for his descendants and as I studied the forest edge for possible terrorists I saw this guy...

Red-Shouldered Hawk

...who kept a wary eye on me. There is a large stick-built nest in a tree a few hundred yards down from the Black Walnut and since I studied red-shouldered hawks in nests some time ago when we did fledgling banding in SC, I think I'll come back to this spot just around bud-burst time in late March and see of this isn't a RSH nest. There's just too much to see here and it seems almost a crime not to spend more than an hour walking around the picnic area.

Trunk and crown of State Champion Black Walnut

My next and last stop for my contested borderlands Big Tree romp was upriver, just north of where I live and centrally located in Cresap's zone of terror.  As peaceful as this land is today, the grounds of the Indian Steps Museum in York County were ground zero for Cresap's Army of thugs to make war on Pennsylvania settlers and native folk. Just upriver in Long Level is where he and his gang built a fort. This PA state champion American Holly looks as if time and age are taking a toll. The weather started to turn cloudy so my picture seemed kind of sad when I got home to review these shots.

American Holly, Ilex opaca
With a nice ring of post and chain around its base and a fancy early 20th century brass plaque, I'm sure that another contender has now taken its place as state champ, maybe the big holly at Longwood Gardens may now have the title.  Check out the newspaper clipping and stats for this declining big tree here: http://www.pabigtrees.com/tree_detail.aspx?tree=TR20101025203701387

Trees have lifespans and though it would be great to imagine them being here to witness all of the human history on this land - the old ones are the exception and a few centuries is the best they can do. Almost 8 feet around, this American Holly is pretty big for its species. There's a trick for gauging the age of slow-growing trees if you have the circumference at breast height (CBH) which always found on the Big Tree data sites.

Take the circumference in inches (90 in.) and multiply by 2.54 to convert to centimeters (228 cm). Tree biologists and foresters have done the math on this one, so trust them - that the slow growing Holly growth rate is about 1.25cm per year. Divide 228 by 1.25 and we can estimate that this tree is approximately 180 years old. You can do this for most tree species if you know their growth rate/year which may be as easy as a Google search, but know that there are many variables and any calculation is simply an estimation.

This Holly was a sapling in the 1830s - about 60 years after the Mason-Dixon Line had been established to bring Cresap's War to an end.  Cresap was captured and tried, then sent packing to western Maryland where he continued to stir up trouble with his self-styled militia group. This tree never met Cresap or his men but has witnessed a lot since then including the night movements of former slaves into Pennsylvania along the "River of Freedom" from the 1830s through the 1850s and the movement of Union troops to Wrightsville where citizens burned their own bridge to prevent confederate troops from invading their river town if the Battle of Gettysburg had ended differently.

A riverside Sycamore, battered and shaped by ice.
Meanwhile on the river, the ice is crashing and tinkling as ice out begins. Time flows on and we and the trees come and go...


Pennsylvania Big Trees http://www.pabigtrees.com/view_tree.aspx
Maryland Big Trees  http://www.mdbigtrees.com/

Thomas Cresap is a conflicted character all by himself and while not even considering events and effects of his tactics to grab land for Maryland, no historian has yet been sure enough to label him anything but slightly mad and always angry about something or someone to the point of violence. He's portrayed as either a patriot or political terrorist, a gang-leading thug or a man of liberty.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Cresap

Thursday, January 11, 2018

MD Elk Neck State Forest: Planting a Biological Garden

This week's extreme cold kept most birds hunkered down except for around my feeders at home and any open water remaining on the Susquehanna so I ventured out to study the forests at the edge of transition. Bundled up against the cold wind I headed over to Elk Neck State Forest in Cecil County, Maryland. Off of Old Elk Neck Road a few miles south of Rt. 40, a new arboretum has gone in and I heard that I could see a very impressive red cedar (Juniperius virginianis) that I could add to my 2018 Big Tree Hunt. But first...

A Maryland Big Tree Champ: White Oak at the Brick Meeting House, Cecil County
On my way to Elk Neck, I stopped the historic Calvert Brick Meeting House, a Friends (Quaker) meeting near Rising Sun, MD, to check out a huge White Oak, Maryland's State Tree. I could really study the architecture of this magnificent oak with a confirmed spread of 130 feet! At 96 feet high and bare of leaves I could really see how the big limbs counter-balanced each other. While I stood gaping at it, I also counted ten species of birds that visited to search for food or hunker on the lee side out of the wind.

Can't wait to revisit this old oak when the leaves come on!

The meeting house just behind has been in continuous use since 1709 and still offers First Day (Sunday) worship on the first and third Sundays of the month. The land was originally ceded to create a Quaker community in the highly disputed borders area by William Penn as a local land grant. The tree, according to the Penn's Tree Committee of the early 20th century, claims that the tree was present at the time the original (then brick) Meeting House was built, over three-hundred years ago. I tried to give the tree a hug but my arms wouldn't go even a fraction of the way around. So, I just gave it a pat. On to Elk Neck State Forest ...

Red Cedar,
On arrival I was greeted by a handsome red cedar. Beautiful! John Bennett, coordinator of the Maryland Big Tree program, kindly sent me the specs on this champion. It was last measured in 2011 and  at that time had a trunk circumference of 8 ft. 3 inches (99 in.) and a height of 67 feet. Now you know at this point, in the below zero temps, my rewilding heart was jumping for joy and keeping me plenty warm as I walked round and round and imagined a grass savanna with a herd of elk cooling off in the tree's shadow.  The tree, minus the elk, scored 174 points on the Big Tree scale.  I dashed back to the car to thaw my camera. Yes. My camera froze.

Broomsedge takes over on old ag fields adjacent to the  arboretum site - looking like it needs some elk.

Humans have been keeping and maintaining biological gardens as long as there has been agriculture - about 9,000 years. The purposeful planting of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers in collections have enhanced our understanding of ancient cultures. They serve, too, as a window into how we value plants as educational, genetic, and aesthetic resources.  Arboretums are collections of trees and shrubs and they have long captured our botanical attention.  There are so many fine arboretums throughout the Mid-Atlantic that it could take a year of weekends to see them all - maybe a 2019 New Year's Resolution?

Black Birch: dark bark

I've visited a lot - from the National Botanical Gardens and Arboretum in D.C., to Longwood Gardens (omg!) in Kennet Square, PA, the Tyler Arboretum in Media, PA, the Morris Arboretum in Philly, and  the Adkins and Cylburn  in Maryland, not to mention the many fine university arboretums in our six state region. There's even a small (but now neglected) arboretum preserve in Holtwood, PA, near where I live. It was part of a the Holtwood Dam preserve and at one time was the pride of the Holtwood community. Professional arborists and a team of knowledgeable foresters took care of the 2,000 woodland preserve and arboretum for many decades. Now, however, after a succession of power company buy-outs and conglomerations, the current owner, Talen Energy, has no interest in maintaining the arboretum, community ball fields, pavilion, nature center, pollinator gardens, and trails. It makes me sad to go there now, because the pride of stewardship is gone, but at least the land is under the management of the Lancaster County Conservancy after the community raised a ruckus two years ago.

Willow Oak: flat-topped furrows

This was my first visit to a new arboretum, a just-planted tree collection, a first for the Maryland's Forestry Service. Now that my camera was thawed and working again, I took the figure-8 path through the mature woods and the open area and studied the newly planted with saplings for their buds, fruit, and structure. I have a fairly large photo file of winter tree trunks that I've been keeping as reference as an ID and illustration aid for years now and this little trail provided me with several more for the collection. Information tree ID signs are found throughout the arboretum (lift up for natural history).

Sweet Gum - alligator- hide scaled ridges

This is an interesting observation: one of the newest arboretums is within an hour's drive of the oldest botanical garden and arboretum in the country at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia. I kept this in mind as I trekked through the snow thinking what a great summer visit to Bartram's place will be. Thinking warm thoughts. Many of the arboretums and botanical gardens in the eastern region of the Delaware/Maryland/Pennsylvania area were started by or on land owned by Quakers in the early 1700s, like the Bartram family.  Many fine Quaker colleges have maintained their own arboretums  like Bryn Mawr and Haverford. Some Quaker arboretums ended up as state parks throughout the region.

Scarlet Oak - stripey furrows

Aside from their colonial and religious founders, arboretums serve as important research sites today in natural history and climate science - although many universities struggle to staff and maintain them. Gropp (2003) surveyed the decline of natural history research resources and found that herbariums, native plant gardens, specimen collections, and campus-based natural history museums are facing daunting financial challenges as funding is redirected towards other biological programs including genetics and microbiology. Though the study is over ten years old, the situation for campus biological collections including arboretums, has not changed. It doesn't look to get any better any time soon. 

Swamp Chestnut - loose and scaly
Persimmon - checkered

Possumhaw - black berries waiting for robins

At the same time that institutions threaten to close or shutter natural history resources, scientists and their associations that work with ex situ collections for conservation work are raising their voices about the importance of living biological collections (like arboretums) as "arks" of preservation. From a study by Havens et. al. (2006):

"Gardens can support habitat protection directly by owning or managing natural areas, or they can contribute to in situ conservation efforts indirectly through research, advocacy, and outreach programs. Stewardship professionals face many practical challenges that can be approached using ex situ techniques. When habitats are degraded and lose diversity, ex situ facilities can provide landscape species for habitat restoration, threatened taxa for reintroductions, and often the skills and resources needed for effective reestablishment of species. Conservation efforts for individual species should, wherever possible, be integrated with regional conservation plans for ecosystems as well as suites of species. As habitat declines in quality and quantity, the species load for ex situ management increases. As a result, gardens and other ex situ facilities will increasingly need to coordinate ex situ responsibilities with habitat restoration."

Hackberry - squiggly!

American Hornbeam -chickadee ladder
Blackhaw - bird beak buds

I have to check with the local forester to discover what the purpose for this arboretum will be and whether the State Forest folks plan to create educational programming around the collection. My conversation with John Bennett about the champion red cedar here prompted an invitation to attend a local forestry board meeting which I did a few evenings after. It was a hoot. I learned a lot and had time to catch up with an old friend of mine from my DNR days (in a previous century).

Pitch Pine - an eager pioneer for old fields
Mountain Laurel - growing wild just inside the woodlot

Whatever the purpose of the arboretum will be, whether educational or ark, it's clear the forest service is investing in it. A clean restroom, great parking, kiosks, benches, and an excellent level, short trail make this a nice place to visit for an hour or two. BUT - I was so cold by the time I walked the whole trail - about a mile total -  I could barely shuffle up to the parking area. The camera had long ago frozen and I was hoping my cell phone camera could capture the one bird I saw here - a Carolina wren. It did. Once back in the car I watched as a young man (also with camera in hand) bolted from his car to take a few pictures of the Black Haw berries. I think he got two pictures before I saw him knocking on his camera and mouthing angry words. Frozen in time...

Carolina Wren


The Penn Tree Committee, a group of foresters and historians who dedicated to finding and documenting the oldest trees in the original grants of William Penn, published a book in the 1980s, "Penn's Woods 1682-1982." This might be a fun book to hunt down and add to the 2018 Big Tree Hunt materials. It places the Brick Meeting House oak at 300+ yrs. of age at the time they surveyed.

Gropp, Robert E. "Are University Natural Science Collections Going Extinct." 
BioScience. Vol. 53, No. 6 (June 2003): 550
Havens, et al. " Ex Situ Plant Conservation And Beyond." BioScience. Vol. 56, No. 6 (June 2006):  525–531.  https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/56/6/525/275402