Monday, July 17, 2023

Reflections on transitions, Eastern white pines, and fallen giants

“Transitions” is the title given to my featured artist exhibit at the Adirondack Artists Guild Gallery in Saranac Lake. It will be up for the month of July. I’d like to share the story behind 3 of my pieces in the show – and invite readers to come see them. As I get close to the end of my 8th decade, I find myself thinking about the changes I’ve lived through. Major changes in our world (the internet, hurricanes, insurrections) certainly happen and have positive and negative outcomes, but I find myself observing and thinking more about those changes, transitions, that occur in my own small sphere of existence.

How the light changes on a landscape I’m painting. The differences from a spring view to a fall view of the mountains. When do the first wildflowers bloom in the spring. How the weather impacts my world. It makes me wonder how much I have changed – how I went from a foolish teenager to mom and teacher and now artist and old. I’d like to share my experiences at the 1675, or Elder Grove, a section of forest near Paul Smiths. It is a secluded grove of some 25 huge, Eastern White Pines. Those in the know have estimated these trees started growing about 1675. They are nearing the end of their time as living trees.

One of the big white pines, with a small metal tag nailed to it’s trunk, #110, might have been the 2nd tallest member of it’s family in New York State. There is speculation that around 1675, there may have been some kind of major disturbance, like the great blowdown in 1995, that flattened whatever trees were growing in this obscure location near what is now Easy Street, Paul Smiths. With much more sunlight reaching the floor of this devastated section of forest, nature took action. Seeds scattered by squirrels and birds took root, struggling up through windfall and blowdown towards the sun. The one that centuries later was adorned with tag #110, probably pushed up from under a fallen ancestor, bending to the west until the way was clear to reach for the sun.

The first century passed and the fallen trees of the 1675 weather event rotted back into the forest floor. One hundred year old pines, perhaps 18-24 inches in diameter, shot up straight and tall. The somewhat south-facing hillside sloped down towards a wetlands and the trees thrived amid the ferns and hobblebush. By their 2nd century, there certainly were loggers in the area. Paul Smith built his hotel nearby – but these trees were overlooked. They were not far from the stage coach road that led from Saranac Lake to the hotel. They were not close to water – perhaps that saved them.

Drought and forest fires swept the Adirondacks in the early 20th century, initiating the erection of fire towers in an effort to protect what was left of New York state’s once massive forests. The St Regis Mountain fire tower watched over these trees as they dominated their black fly infested woodlands. If trees could tell stories, what stories would these trees reminisce about? I didn’t learn of them until the spring of 2012, when I was invited to take the short walk to see them. It was May, before the leaves came out. I remember feeling like I was in a Gothic cathedral – not that I’ve ever been in a cathedral, but I’ve seen pictures. You could look up and yet not see the uppermost branches of the trees, beams of sunlight filtering down. Approaching one of the massive trunks with outstretched arms, you could just barely hug it. It would probably take 4-5 people to reach around and give it a real hug. Gigantic knees helped buttress the trunks as a typically shallow root system spread all around.

Tree #110 now proudly wore it’s tag, provided by members of the Native Tree Society. It still leaned to the west – its lower trunk split with a vertical slash at the bottom as it strained to remain upright, I came back with my paints and easel on June 12, 2012, walked around a bit, and then chose to set up in front of #110. I’d seen a deer as I passed quietly among the trees. One pink lady
slipper was in bloom. There were 4 massive giants that would fit within my composition. Only the trunks would be in the painting, dominating the foreground. I hoped that the inclusion of the smaller trees in the forest, in the foreground and background, would provide a sense of scale for these behemoths. I spent most of the day painting, until the sun was low in the sky, with slanting rays reaching horizontally into the forest. It was quiet, with just a slight rustle of wind in the tree tops. I packed up my gear and hiked out.


Solitude of Time, 6/23, by Sandra Hildreth ‐ Oil ‐ Linen ‐ 10 x 20

I may have exhibited that painting, naming it “The Solitude of Time” in the summer of 2012, as a member of the Adirondack Artists Guild, a co-op gallery in Saranac Lake, but I was not fully satisfied with it. To me, it was a remembrance of a wonderful early summer day spent in this sacred space in the natural world. I wasn’t sure it was a good painting. A viewer had nothing to help them perceive the size of the trees – what could I add to the painting that would help? I remembered the deer, still in it’s shaggy grey winter coat, that I’d encountered the day I painted the trees. Digging up a reference photo of deer taken in my own yard, I estimated what size it would be, compared to the trees, and added it to my painting. I did not want it to attract all the attention, so it is partially obscured behind a tree. It is there just to tell the viewer this is still a wild place and these are really big trees.

Summer 2012 had its share of life and death. I’d had a wonderful experience of discovering a place where herons had built a nest. (See: ) It was an easy 2 mile hike so I frequently walked in with my camera and zoom lens and had photos of both adults taking turns sitting on the nest, and then in early July, photos and video of 3 young herons. That idyllic portrayal of nature abruptly ended on July 8 when I found the nest empty and abandoned, a dead bird floating in the waters of the pond. After sharing my photos with an expert at the Cornell Ornithology Lab, I was informed they had been far too young to leave the nest and were likely attacked by a bald eagle or a great horned owl. The babies were all gone.

I had a busy schedule, including a 3 week hiking and painting trip to Glacier National Park, and then the Adirondack Plein Air Festival in August, and a trip to Yellowstone in the fall. I knew there had been a major windstorm, with much damage, near Paul Smiths, Lower Saranac Lake, and other locations in the northern Adirondacks. I didn’t make it back to the 1675 Grove until December 16, when I was shocked to see #110 had been snapped off about 12 feet above the ground. It’s massive trunk prone on the forest floor. What force must have been generated to take down that giant. How loud was the “snap?”

The somber environment was heightened by the light dusting of snow that outlined every contour of the broken tree. I managed to set my camera up and use the timer in order to get some photos of myself next to the remnant of the once magnificent #110. There was an exhibit coming up that involved self-portraits – I now knew what I was going to do for it. I finally had a way to show the real size of these trees. I said my goodbyes and made my way out. My self-portrait with #110 was completed as a pencil drawing – one of my children will inherit it, and it will let my grandchildren know how much I loved nature.

1675 Grove, #110 (Self Portrait), by Sandra Hildreth ‐ Pencil ‐ Paper ‐ 16 x 12 ‐ Not For Sale

1675 Grove, #110 (Self Portrait), by Sandra Hildreth ‐ Pencil ‐ Paper ‐ 16 x 12 ‐ Not For Sale. Adirondack Artists Guild website photo.

Fast forward to the spring of 2023. I had not been to the 1675 Grove for several years, but did attend the Big Tree Fest at the Paul Smiths VIC. Part of the programming was a panel discussion about the value of big trees. Everyone who passed high school biology learned about the carbon cycle. Plants take CO2 out of the air and put oxygen back in to it, sequestering the carbon, releasing it when they are ingested or burned. This is important now more than ever as we face the impacts of climate change. We know now we shouldn’t be leveling the world’s rain forests. But here is a very powerful piece of knowledge I learned at the Big Tree Fest. Foresters have methods to measure the volume of a tree, mainly to be able to compute the board feet of lumber that it contains. A tree trunk, especially pines, is basically a tall, tapering cylinder. I’m not going to try and explain the equations, but the calculations will show that a tree that is 2 feet in diameter at the base, and 50 feet tall, will contain X number of board feet of lumber.

A tree 4 feet in diameter and 100 feet tall – twice as big as the first one, will contain twice the board feet of lumber? Nope. 4 times? Nope. 8 times! The same mathematical process can be applied to calculate how much carbon a tree has taken out of the air. A mature tree will sequester X cubic feet of carbon (or however it is meant to be measured), and an old tree, double in size, will have the capacity to contain 8 times the amount of carbon. Not only do we need to stop cutting down all the forests, but we need to rethink forestry practices. Clear-cutting is discouraged, or banned in some cases, and more commonly now, some of the mature trees are selectively chosen to be left growing, as shelter for the new trees planted. But maybe some should never be cut. Like the 1675 Grove, perhaps we need to allow old growth forests to develop. Let those massive carbon-eating machines pull as much CO2 out of our polluted air as possible.

forest painting

Regret (1675 Grove) 5/15/23, by Sandra Hildreth ‐ Oil ‐ Linen ‐ 12 x 16

Inspired by the Big Tree Fest, which also included a walk through what is believed to be old growth forest on Paul Smiths property, I went back to the 1675 Grove with my paints on May 15, to the spot where #110 rested in peace. Only now a 2nd tree of the quartet originally painted 11 years ago was down on the ground, also snapped off 12-15 feet from the base. With regret, I set up my easel and painted, swatting at the black flies in between brush strokes. My title for the painting is “Regret”. Others have also come down, so nature is obviously charting a life-ending course for these historic trees. There has been insect damage, disease and rot on the inside, maybe even lightening strikes, and the aging trees seem doomed. The leaning trees leaning more – it’s only a matter of time.

But at the same time, more light is now reaching the forest floor. The seeds from the hundreds of thousands of pine cones that fed generations of squirrels now might have more opportunities to sprout. Perhaps there is a seedling now, with the strong genes of the 1675 Grove in its cells, struggling towards the light from its protected spot beneath the fallen trunk of #110. Maybe my
descendants will look at my self-portrait, read about the 1675 Grove, and come see the next generation of massive white pines towering above them, wondering why some are crooked and leaning.

Preparing for my July exhibit, I spent some time studying “The Solitude of Time”, the 2012 painting of the 4 trees. I removed it from the frame and worked on it some more, increasing the contrast and changing the deer to a summer coat. All 3 of my Elder Grove pieces are included in “Transitions” and in this case, tell a story few people in our time have been able to witness. I invite you to stop in at the Adirondack Artists Guild ( ), 52 Main St., Saranac Lake, and see what other stories my paintings tell.

Related Content:

Almanack post from Jan 2022:

Charlotte Hall’s poem:
tree.html Tree Society post about the 1675 Grove:

Other blog posts:

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Sandra Hildreth, who writes regularly about Adirondack arts and culture, grew up in rural Wisconsin and is a retired high school art teacher. She lives in Saranac Lake where she was spends much of her time hiking, paddling, skiing, and painting. Today, Sandy can often be found outdoors Plein air painting - working directly from nature, and is an exhibiting member of the Adirondack Artists' Guild in Saranac Lake. She is also active in Saranac Lake ArtWorks. Sandy’s work can be seen on her website

One Response

  1. Linda Ramirez says:

    Beautifully written as is your work Sandy.

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