2016-05-11 / From the Forest

From the Forest

What Happened Here?
By Ryan Trapani

A week or so ago I went hiking with my friend, Dr. Michael Kudish to Little Pond state campground. Dr. Kudish is a retired professor from Paul Smiths College and as far as I can tell is a full-time Catskill forest historian; his books include The Catskill Forest: A History. Mike wanted to survey a small sector near the trail where he had recorded mountain laurel growing back in the 1980s. Mike’s interest stem from his recent change in thought about Native American influences in the forest. Some species; mountain laurel, oak, hickory, bracken fern, wintergreen, blueberry, pitch pine, and others can serve as indicators of a Native American woods-burning legacy stretching back before European settlement. Although the mere presence of one species does not always indicate fire, the presence of a few or more often does since these plants thrive under such “pyrogenic” conditions.

Today, it can be difficult to decipher human influences inside a maturing Catskills forest, especially one that had been acquired by the State of New York into the Catskill Forest Preserve and re-designated as a wild forest. But, just how wild is (was) this place? According to Merriam Webster, wild can be defined as: a tract or region uncultivated and uninhabited by human beings or an area essentially undisturbed by human activity together with its naturally developed life community.

The patch of wild forest may serve today as an urban refugee rendezvous, but at one time it may have served both Native Americans and some of the latest settled hill farms in the Catskill Mountains. As previously mentioned, Mike’s visit was about finding more information surrounding Native American burning.

It is believed by many that Native Americans burned the woods in order to improve growing conditions for both edible plants and habitat for game species: deer, grouse, turkey, bear, etc. The presence of oak spp., wintergreen, mountain laurel, and bracken fern may serve as some strong evidence towards a pyrogenic legacy, but the jury is still out. In another few decades, the mountain laurel population will mostly disappear beneath the shadow of taller trees: maple, beech, and hemlock. Although shrubs like mountain laurel rarely live beyond 50 or so, their roots can survive much longer. In the absence of fire’s return or clearing of land, laurel may only survive as a note in some forest historian’s notebook.

Species like mountain laurel, blueberry, and oak probably flourished under the Native American’s pyrogenic pathways through the forest. As Native Americans’ influence receded in the Catskills, species less influenced by fire and disturbance may have filled in even more – maple, beech, hemlock, etc. Afterwards, the introduction of agriculture into these isolated hollows and ridges may have served to catapult the presence and legacy of these “sun-loving” species. Mike found out that there was a farm where Little Pond State Campground now is in the early 20th century. The 1896 Beers Atlas does not show a farm there until the very end of the 19th century, but we believe it was abandoned by the early 20th century. On some of the trees, Mike counted rings that were 110 years old; that brings us back to 1906. Many of these “hill farms” were settled last and abandoned earliest, perhaps due to shorter growing seasons; Little Pond sits at about 2,000 feet.

Mike and I walked up the trail a short distance above Little Pond. It doesn’t really appear to be any different than any other piece of paradise inside the forest preserve. Mike asked me, “Do you think this was pasture?” I didn’t really know what to say, but my gut told me it had. The forest floor seemed more compacted – perhaps from livestock – than it should be. I couldn’t be sure. We measured a few mountain laurels. I noted some black cherry growing, indicating the potential for once-upon-a-time pasture conditions. Black cherry cannot grow beneath the shade of other trees. However, a microburst could have provided a small patch opening allowing it to grow. We walked on. And then I saw the red oak on the hill; its lower limbs stretching wide for the sun that now was no longer available. The tree’s form was pyramidal, a sure sign that it had grown alone in a pasture. Still, we couldn’t say for sure; maybe it just got lucky and some of the trees died around it when it was a mere sapling. I walked up to it and noticed some ancient remnants of wooden steps to a deer hunter’s stand. “I bet this guy had some good hunting in the 30s, 40s or 50s when young forest grew in after the farm was abandoned,” I thought to myself. Long gone now: the tree stand, the hunter, and most of the fine deer under the forest preserve’s presently shady condition.

Mike still wasn’t convinced. He might be the most objective person I’ve ever met, but that’s why he’s a great scientist. The adjacent stand of aspen or poplar solidified in my mind that this had been pasture. Aspen might be the poster child for a tree that reclaims cleared land; a pioneer, if you will. It might be the first to reforest a site, but it’s also the first to die off. Lying on the forest floor were some skeletons of this early pioneer; trees that had succumbed to maple’s shade a long time ago. A minute or two up the trail we ran into a stone wall; more testimony to pastures past. Thank god stone can tolerate shade; otherwise they’d all be gone too.

The more I learn about forest history and the ability that humans have to shape the forest we see today, the more these terms – wild, wilderness, and preserve – come into question. I now believe that humans have had more influence over the forests we presently call “wild” than previously, and this belief seems to grow faster than a red oak tree in full sunlight. And not all these influences have been bad. Some of these historical land uses have been good; perhaps more fruitful for tree life, humans, and wildlife. We have to ask ourselves, what are we preserving? If the question and answer are understood, then it should be preserved. But, surely, it’s not plants, trees, and wildlife that require added sunlight in the forest. www.catskillforest.org

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