Saturday, February 18, 2012

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Primeval Boreal Forest

The wonderful thing about entering the primeval forest is that you feel it before you really see it. This has been my experience in old growth forests in other places but it is heightened at Lost Brook Tract because of the elevation gain and the remoteness, both having their own attendant sensations that add to the overall effect. Or perhaps it is heightened because I love the Adirondacks more than any place I’ve ever been. Whatever the underlying reasons, it is a powerful feeling.

I haven’t noted exactly where it happens, but somewhere on the way up the bushwhack route the forest changes as one moves beyond the territory that was logged in the early part of the twentieth century. Continuing on into the virgin forest a completely immersive feeling descends. I can’t put it into words very well but I want to say that it is a weight, an immensity, some combination of sight, sound and smell that presses in. Every time I come into the area of Lost Brook Tract I experience a sense of awe, of hushed breathing, even a tiny spark of fear. This is followed by a distinct and exquisite sense of beauty. My wife Amy describes it as being swallowed up.

The first thing you consciously notice in a virgin forest is the remarkable difference in the trees. It’s not just their height; it is the voluptuousness and roughness of their growth. In all respects their sense of scale and age is imposing.This sense of scale is relative, of course. I have spent time in virgin forest in the Olympic Range in Washington where Sitka spruces and Douglas firs routinely top two hundred feet. Even the deciduous trees in my boyhood suburban neighborhood in Northeast Ohio, often exceeding a hundred feet, are taller than the trees on Lost Brook Tract. On the other hand the lowest point of Lost Brook Tract is within fourteen hundred feet of the Adirondack tree line, which makes it a different situation. Tree growth at this elevation is significantly less than at lower climes.

The contrast with the rest of the Adirondacks is dramatic. Elsewhere in the park at similar elevations the larger spruce, balsam and birch trees typically have diameters of six to ten inches and heights of twenty to forty feet, fifty feet at the outside. At Lost Brook Tract our favorite yellow birch has a diameter of three feet. Our “Base Camp” spruce has a two-foot diameter at breast height and a height just shy of ninety feet. At our elevation it qualifies as a monster. These two trees and countless others like them are hundreds of years old.

They look hundreds of years old, too, showing their age with bulging, scaly, bark near ground level and festoons of sizable dead branches much higher in the understory. Take the canonical Adirondack balsam for example, beautifully shaped, growing together in close stands like carelessly sown Christmas trees, with soft branches and needles that are almost pleasant to push through.

That ideal stands in dramatic contrast to a mature balsam in a primeval boreal forest. Standing fifty feet tall with a trunk more like a spruce, uneven in shape, extending brittle dead branches that poke and tear at you and snap harshly under your resistance, there is almost nothing of a Christmas tree about it. Or consider a mature yellow birch, a twisted, dark mass of girth and peeling bark. It is a different tree altogether than a young birch that has opportunistically sprouted in a disturbed area.

The other big difference one notices has a more pervasive and lasting than the trees, at least to me. A boreal forest is a relatively simple ecosystem with only a handful of indigenous plants and animals. Being a closed-canopy forest with a short growing season, harsh temperatures and poor soil there are few plants suited to its understory. I have seen the boreal forest floor described in various sources as “open,” or “poor growing” as contrasted with the “dense,” “lush” or “jungle-like” flora of other forest types. The impression created by these descriptions, evoking perhaps a habitat that is monotonous or comparatively barren, is ridiculous. There are few places I’ve been more verdant than untrammeled boreal forest. That’s because even if there are only a few plant types in the understory, the two major ones are ferns and moss. There’s simply nothing more verdant than ferns and moss.

To the side of our Base Camp Spruce is a moss field. Vivid green, awash with moisture and texture, it is more than a foot deep. I don’t really know how deep as I have not had the heart to defile it by plunging my arm all the way in. A moss field the size of a basketball court winds among trees further up slope. Protected by the constant dampness of the boreal environment, it carpets large swaths of the forest like a sponge, evoking Verplanck Colvin’s descriptive arguments for the Adirondacks as an irreplaceable watershed.

It seems that nearly all of Lost Brook Tract is brushed with emerald. Moss spills over rock shelves, blankets ancient trunks that have been slowly decaying over decades, swaddles the stream bed, flows out of cracks and crevices. We have named some of the mossiest places: the glade, Henderson’s glen. I like to go sit in the glade and perhaps wait for elves. Reclining in silence I think about the wonderful comment Amy made after a bushwhack to Wallface Ponds during which she came across an extensive bed of moss. She said that such magical places should only be found by accident.

This mini ecosystem of ferns and mosses has lived its natural life cycle unaffected by the incursions of humankind. Indeed if the area had been logged there would be only a fraction of the existing moss. The activity on the ground, dislodging and crushing it, and the opened canopy, letting in sun and dry air, would make quick work of a build-up that has taken centuries. That is why such moss fields are mostly found in descriptions in the Adirondack Reader rather than the forest any more. I heard from a fellow hiker that much of the magnificent moss along the Herbert Brook herd path up Marshall was washed away by Hurricane Irene. That is a tragedy; its recovery will take a long time.

The effect that the primeval boreal forest works upon the soul is lasting. Having an experience of how different it is makes it painful to walk through logged forest, to feel the damage to wounded land: the dryness, the erosion, the harsh competition to reestablish equilibrium. To experience the primeval over time is to want more, to need the health and depth and richness of it. It is to feel the age of the forest beyond one’s own life span, deep into a sense of the primitive, as Jack London might say. It is an essential experience.

Photo: Moss field at Lost Brook Tract

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Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.

When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.

Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

5 Responses

  1. JSB says:

    I love the reference to Jack London in your concluding paragraph. I taught London for over 25 years and have always been captivated by his sense of the primeval and the primitive (Ch. 1 of CALL OF THE WILD entitled “into The Primitive”).

    I look forward to your weekly installments as it is refreshing to read what I feel!

  2. Pete Nelson says:

    Jack London was absolutely an influence in my developing youthful love for the wild. Wolves are still my favorite animal and my one wild encounter with a timber wolf remains a highlight of my life.

  3. Unknown says:

    I love each installment of this series, this one in particular. Your vivid writing and evident love for the place makes this a powerful reading experience for us Adirondack lovers. Thank you — and keep them coming!

  4. Harold says:

    I too have thoroughly enjoyed this series of articles. The writing style and vivid imagery it evokes reminds me of why I love the Adirondacks so intensely. Either by intention or necessity I have, on occasion, found myself “lost” in remote areas of the backcountry reminiscent of the Lost Brook Tract. The feeling that you’re standing where few, if any people have stood is a very special experience. My friend and I have often talked of purchasing our own piece of heaven in a wilderness… this article reassures me that we can do it!

  5. catharus says:

    Thanks again for sharing a bit of your sacred space! I can relate very much to the feelings you describe in entering a forest scene seemingly untrammeled my man. I think your wife’s description of being “swallowed up” is spot on.

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