Looking for Old Trees

Here’s a segment from my essay “A Week in the Wild at Medawisla” from the Winter/Spring 2020 issue of Appalachia journal that never made it into the published version:

Sometimes the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. All week I had been looking at the forests and wondering about them. From the ponds, they were an impressive, unbroken, roiling ocean of green, but when I walked through the trees and saw their small and medium size, I was sorry they weren’t more impressive. A book I picked up in Medawisla’s lounge, “Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England” by Tom Wessels discussed the history of logging and I was struck by the loss of the white pine. White pine, now on their second or third growth in the area, used to be the giants of the East Coast, towering 150-feet or more above the ground. A grove of white pine, let alone a single tree, would be an awe-inspiring site. I couldn’t imagine it.

And then I saw one.

Late on a humid afternoon in Boston, I decided to drive to Walden Pond for a swim. Afterwards, I was in an exploratory mood, so on my way into Concord, I decided to visit the Hapgood Wright Town Forest. I had been by it many times, but never stopped to visit. To my surprise, a map of the forest had an “x” for a site labeled “Old Growth Pine.” A brochure said it was 50 inches in diameter and would have been a good size even in Thoreau and Emerson’s time. It was only about a 15 minute walk away. I had to see it.

The trail went around a small pond and alongside a swamp, where it narrowed and a few planks assisted with the muddy sections. I first glimpsed the trunk from about thirty feet away – so much thicker than any of its neighbors. When I arrived, I looked around in disbelief – there was nothing even close to this one in size. This was it alright. It had its own audience of ferns. I walked up to the tree and felt its coarse bark. And when I looked up the trunk, I nearly wept at the beauty. Branches splayed out in the crown and through them I could barely see the light fading from the sky. Even fifty feet up, the trunk, now split in two, remained elephantine. It was a universe unto itself. Had I waited a little longer, stars would have hung and shone in its branches.

I circled around it, looked up and down. And when it came time to leave, I couldn’t. And when I left, I came back to stand again in its presence. But the mosquitoes were hungry and darkness began to fall so I tore myself away. Not before vowing to return in the daytime, and fall and winter and every time I was nearby. Just to visit this wise old master of the Earth.

I thought of how long it took to grow an old forest; and I hoped that a century or two in the future, a paddler on one of the secluded Roach Ponds, would find a grove of old white pines and walk among and around them, and be impressed with a people who thought it important to conserve large tracts of forest for now and the future.