Monday, January 4, 2010

Old Trees

By 1830, fifty percent of New Hampshire was cleared for crops, sheep pasture, farmsteads, and other uses. A few pockets of woods were left as a source of fuel. Large, old trees were mostly gone, especially from southern New Hampshire (and the rest of central and southern New England). One hundred years later, most farms were abandoned -- too rocky here; more fertile soil to the west, the railroad, the Erie Canal, the California Gold Rush, and the Civil War drew people elsewhere.

Trees, especially white pine, grew back into the abandoned farm fields. Then the pine were cut. Finally, by 1940, the forests that we see today started to reforest the region. Most trees in the woods are less than 100 years old. On Saturday we revisited a large white pine atop Bald Hill, one that has reached 100+ years. In the early 1900s, Bald Hill was clear of trees, except for one -- this big old bull pine. We walk around its large trunk, gaze up at its massive branches, and marvel at a tree that lives longer than a human lifespan.

Surprisingly, centuries old trees remain in other places not far from here. The oldest black gum tree in the United States, at 680 years, lives in a swamp in Northwood, New Hampshire. Yet, these aged trees are just saplings compared to the giant sequoias and bristlecone pines growing in the West. General Sherman, a 2,500-year old giant sequoia, is 109 feet in girth and nearly 275 feet tall. Sherman's commander, General Grant, is a shade smaller at 107 feet across and 268 feet high.

And then there is the "Chicago Stump," a 3,200 year-old sequoia that was cut down for the 1893 World's Fair, to show people that such big old trees really do exist(ed!). The massive, brittle sequoias shatter when felled, with 50 percent of the wood rendered useless except as matchsticks. The felling of these giants launched the crusade to protect the remaining groves and led to the creation of Sequoia National Park.

Michael P. Cohen writes a fascinating tale here of "WPN-114," a 5,000 year old bristlecone pine also known as Prometheus. In 1964, the year Congress passed the Wilderness Act, Donald Currey, a young geography graduate student studying the Little Ice Age, used an increment borer to age the old bristlecone. The equipment broke or got stuck or did not work for some reason. Currey really wanted to know the age of the tree so he got permission from the Forest Service to cut the tree. Prometheus became a statistic ("WPN-114") to some and a martyr to others, its life ended at 5,000 years.

Old does not necessarily mean big. Recently, researchers discovered a 13,000 year old Palmer oak in southern California. That oak has 70 stems and stands only a few feet tall. Perhaps technically more of a shrub than a tree.

We visit the old bull pine atop Bald Hill a few times each year. Although still relatively young, the pine stands tall and strong and will likely live well beyond our lifetimes.


  1. Ellen, I enjoy your descriptions of your observations and insights. I learn so much here. Keep it up.

  2. Thanks Mark. I enjoy writing the blog, more than my paid work! Glad you visit and enjoy.


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