I’ve just returned from a long weekend in the woods. My family stayed in tents and communed with nature. My son and I took a meandering walk on an unmarked and unmaintained trail. It was fun? I recharged my nature battery. Spending time in the forest is essential to me. Four days in the woods changes you. (Mostly, you are covered in campfire soot!) There is a lot of thinking to be done in the forest. I learned many things. I read the signs on the designated Interpretive Trails. I am like that. Then I looked at the trees around me and was taken to a different time and place. I marveled at the differences in this forest from the one surrounding our campground just across the forest state road.
I had no idea that the trees that I loved in the Allegheny National Forest were mere saplings. Saplings! There is an old growth preserve in Warren County Pennsylvania called Heart’s Content. The Hemlock trees I saw there were so different from the ones I know and love. The Hemlock trees that now profligate in Pennsylvania are just babies. Babies! The old growth trees are about 400 years old. Some of them are dying. The ones that are alive are monsters. They are more like the redwood trees than I would have ever guessed. I didn’t know. The trunks are so large that it would take two or three people to wrap their arms around them.
The ones that grow in the rest of the budding baby forests are lacy, with their needles low to the ground. The old growth trees are so wide and tall that I can barely see the tops. I needed binoculars to see their familiar needles up in the sky. Their trunks are tall and straight and wide and the branches are at the tippy tops of the trees. I did not recognize them. The shape of the tree is entirely different with the massive trunk and high canopy. I had to tip my head all the way back to see the branches. The rest of the forest is just beginning to grow.
It had changed drastically since it was raped and murdered. My entire state has been clear-cut, sometimes more than once; many times more than once. In some areas three or more times the mountains were stripped of all life. They are still doing it. I have seen it. There is nothing as heartbreaking as a clear-cut mountainside or a natural gas well or a hydraulic fracking site. I hope you never have to see it. It is murder to everything in a forest. Everything dies. What grows back is not the same. If it is even allowed to grow back.
There are more oaks in the new growth. They are the “tall trees” not the Hemlocks, not the White Pine, not the Beech Trees. The Beech Tree is a tree that is dying out. There are none in the forest just across the street from the 400 year old beasts that grow with the old Hemlocks. Something is eating and killing the bark. You can see the milky white spots on the bark. They might go extinct like the passenger pigeon. Gone forever.
The new forest is all oak and maple and Hemlock. The old forest was Hemlock and Beech and White Pine. There are two trees that are entwined in a 300-some year old embrace. A Hemlock and the Beech grew up so close together that their trunks are like one. They have grown together, best friends. The Hemlocks now have no Beech trees to live symbiotically with. This is one of the last areas on the entire East Coast with wild, ancient White Pines. It looks so different now.
The signs in the Park informed me that the ferns that I always considered to be classic PA forest are an invasive species that has drastically changed the forest. The dense ferns prevent any seedlings from sprouting. I always thought the ferns looked prehistoric, like they were a part of this place forever. They were not. The deer eat all the saplings but not the ferns.
The deer have very few natural predators now that the pumas and bobcats and Nittany Lions have gone underground. They are few and far between and simply cannot kill all the deer. The bear don’t care for the deer as much. They have berries and honey and easier, slower prey to catch. The omnivore is the king of the forest. Bears can eat whatever they want to eat, whatever is in season. They like to dine in campgrounds and small town dumps. Why chase a deer while you can feast on all the things humans don’t eat?
It’s disappointing to learn that your forest is nothing like it used to be. The changing face of nature has been forced by man. My trees are babies, but they are growing. There are so many things growing in the forest! The forest is still flourishing, albeit differently. Perhaps if we leave them alone, these trees will one day be 400 years old. My great-great x9 grandchildren will see what my great-great x9 grandparents saw when they arrived here. And even if it is vastly different, at least they will have 400 year old Oak trees to marvel at.
My forest is not what I thought it was. It is much, much younger than I thought. It is a different place than I knew yesterday. I still love the Allegheny Forest. I will always be happiest in the forest. I am already planning my next camping trip in my precious baby forest. Things change, we can’t stop that. But we can stop clear cutting and let the baby trees we have now grow!! Twenty acres of Heart’s Content is not enough. Soon we may have no 400 year old trees in the forest. And it takes 400 years to grow another one. We have to start now! We have to STOP now. Stop. Let the forest grow! Stop Fracking with my Forest!
The forest ninjas are coming for you.