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:

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
Maryland Big Trees

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.

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