Monday October 24, 2011

WILLIAMSTOWN

Among trees, tallest and oldest are not necessarily the same, but as far as Massachusetts is concerned, the record-holders for both categories live near or in Berkshire County.

Fortunately Robert Leverett, Peter Dunwiddie, David Foster and friends have spent the last decades discovering, measuring, boring and otherwise authenticating these exciting beings, and giving the lie to the earlier belief that no old or tall trees existed anymore in New England, let alone in a state as long settled and hard logged as Massachusetts. Leverett started the process through Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest, in nearby Charlemont, which spawned the Eastern Native Tree Society (ENTS) and more recently, the Native Tree Society, with eastern and western branches. ENTS, no doubt, derives in part from the treelike creatures who speak, move and ultimately come to the rescue in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."

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The tallest tree in the state is a 167.3-inch white pine in Mohawk Trail State Forest, but the oldest pine (269 years) on the 2006 list ENTS has put together is located in the Bash Bish Falls area. The oldest known tree in the state is in the Cold River area in Mohawk Trail S.F., a 488-year-old hemlock. The tallest hemlock in the state is in the Ice Glen, in Stockbridge.

Of the 50 tallest by species, 28 are in Berkshire or Franklin counties. Except for two trees in Wachusetts State Forest, the oldest discovered are all in Mohawk Trail State Forest, Monroe State Forest, Mount Greylock State Reservation, Mount Washington State Forest and Mount Everett State Reservation. The latter list reflects a bias of looking for trees on public lands than can be accessed for boring and can be protected.

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Circumference is also a measure of tree size. ENTS has put together a point system that takes it and height into account. So, for example, the tall white pine in Mohawk Trail S.F. does not score as high on the ENTS scale as a chubby sycamore in Easthampton or a monster cottonwood at Bartholomew's Cobble.

Many of the tallest and oldest in Mohawk Trail S.F. are marked. Even where they are not, clues exist. As Bob Leverett points out, to most people a tree that approaches 100-feet-tall appears very tall -- the problem being that in the forest, it can be difficult to get a view of the entire tree. Older trees, regardless of the species, tend to have deeper ridges in their bark.

Better yet would be to take a tour with someone knowledgeable, as I have several times had the opportunity to do with Leverett. Unaided, the best bet is to go to those places the record trees inhabit. Then, even if you are uncertain about the individuals, you can absorb the aura of old and big in stands that contain such trees. Many people experience a feeling of entering sacred ground, a privileged experience of making contact with deep nature.

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In Massachusetts, those places are Mohawk Trail State Forest and the Cold River Valley (which the closure of Rte. 2 renders largely inaccessible at present). From River Road in Monroe you can hike the Dunbar Brook valley. Leaving the trail in the Hopper on Mount Greylock is discouraged, but trails lead along Money Brook and to Deer Hill Falls. In Mount Washington, the forests in the Bash Bish area and on Mount Everett have trails. Autumn is a fine time to take them in.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.