El Arbol del Tule

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Tule tree canopy

Tule tree limbs

Tule tree burl

My brother Mark, a professor of geography at Delta State University in Mississippi, recently returned from a two-week trip to the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, where he was surveying cycad populations with some Mexican colleagues. While there, he took the opportunity to visit the world-famous Arbol del Tule (pronounced too-lay), in the small town of Santa Maria del Tule. I prevailed upon him to share some of his photos of the Tule tree with Via Negativa readers. Please click on the images to see larger versions.

El Arbol del Tule

The tree is an ahuehuete (ah-way-way-tay), known in English as Montezuma cypress or Mexican cypress — Taxodium mucronatum. Genetic tests have shown that it is a single genetic individual, not the fused trunks of several trees as some had thought. Tule is a kind of reed; the town was built on the site of a former marsh. According to the Gymnosperm database,

“Ahuehuete” is a Nahuatl phrase that means “old man of the water,” a fit name for a tree that is always associated with swamps, streams or springs (Bautista 2005). The tree is sometimes also called Ciprés de los Panatanos (Cypress of the Marshes).

ahuehuetes in a stream

The ahuehuete is most often found growing directly in the current of streams and rivers in Mexico. It’s a close relative of baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), the most visible difference being the virtual absence of cypress knees. Like the baldcypress, the Mexican cypress is deciduous, dropping its needles in the dry season.

Santa Maria del Tule

Santa Maria del Tule is a small valley town a few miles east of Oaxaca City. It is easily accessible by local bus. The Arbol del Tule (l) dwarfs the church; a somewhat smaller ahuehuete (r) grows to the right of the church.

Tule tree foliage

Tule tree with tourists

Church at Santa Maria del Tule

The town square is dominated by formal gardens, which include some topiary. One gets the impression from these photos of a rage for order — a natural reaction, perhaps, to the otherwise overwhelming wild presence of the great tree. However, this species has been a literal building-block of civilization in Mexico for a very long time. The Aztecs and other Mexica peoples built cities on shallow lakes by first planting palisades of ahuehuetes, then filling the areas they enclosed with rocks and soil. Tenochtitlan itself was built in this manner, which means that one of the largest cities in the world — Mexico City — had arboreal grandparents, whose bones might still lie buried somewhere beneath it.

Tule tree plaque

Arbol del Tule
Common name: Ahuehuete or Sabino
Family: Taxodiaceae
Genus: Taxodium
Age: More than 2000 years
Girth (circumference): 58 meters
Height: 42 meters
Diameter: 14.05 meters
Volume: 816,829 cubic meters
Weight: 636.107 tons
Source: SEDAF
Town council 1996-98 [those who erected this plaque]

The age and even the exact size of the Tule tree are difficult to determine. The plaque at its base is unlikely to have the last word.

little tree at Tule

This is the smaller tree on the other side of the church, which would be considered remarkable anywhere else. As the aforelinked Gymnosperm database page puts it,

The Tule tree itself grows in a neighborhood that also holds six or seven other very large trees — one tends not to notice them, though, because most are behind walls and not publicly accessible, and because despite their large size (over 300 cm in diameter) they pale into insignificance beside the Tule tree itself.

Tule tree poem by Juan de Dios Peza

Regular readers know of my interest in public poetry. I was happy to see Mark’s photo of an official Tule tree poem, especially since the poem, by Juan de Dios Peza, takes a decidedly via negativistic approach. Here’s the text, along with my quick-and-dirty translation.

El Ahuehuete de Santa Maria del Tule

¡Con qué pompa a la vista
te presentas titan de estas
risueñas soledades!
Si sacuden tu copa las
tormentas sollozan en
las ramas las edades.
¿Qué te puedo decir?
Inspiras tanto que a mí
me basta recoger tu
nombre y darte mi mutismo
como canto ¡Junto a un
arbol así nada es
el nombre!

Juan de Dios Peza
5 June 1994

The Ahuehuete of Santa Maria del Tule

How grand and stately
the sight of you, colossus
of these inviting solitudes!
When storms rock
your crown, all the ages
moan in your branches.
What could I possibly say to you?
You inspire me so much,
I’d rather withdraw your name
and give you instead my silence
in the form of a song: Next to
a tree like this, a name
means nothing!

Juan de Dios Peza
5 June 1994

Mark Bonta prays to the Tule tree

Mark isn’t a terribly religious guy, but he said he found it strange that people would go into the church to worship with such a tree looming right outside. Here he is, as photographed by one of his colleagues, offering a prayer to the Arbol del Tule.

*

Be sure to check out the latest Festival of the Trees at Fox Haven Journal. The September 1 edition of the blog carnival will be hosted by the Spain-based blog Exploring the World of Trees; email links to Dan (treespecies AT gmail DOT com) by August 29.

Carbon credit accounting

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Science is beginning to confirm what many of us have long suspected: that older forests are better at sequestering carbon than younger ones, contrary to what some foresters would have us believe. My father has been wondering lately whether our own few hundred acres of forest are enough to offset the carbon we produce as a family. If you know my dad, you won’t be surprised to hear he’s got it all more or less figured out.

We are coming under intense pressure here in the Appalachians to clear every ridgetop forest for wind turbines, but I suspect that we can make the biggest difference simply by leaving the forests the hell alone. Certainly the best thing we could do for the forests themselves would be to end all extractive uses and employ foresters and loggers to conduct taxonomic surveys and ecological monitoring instead. Considering how much we still don’t know about Appalachian biodiversity, and how much we stand to lose as a result of global climate change, those are the kind of “green jobs” most desperately needed right now.

Growing an old-growth forest

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

rock oaks

What the numbers from all the studies tell us is that nature-shaped forests are far more diverse woodlands than those manipulated by humans. The complexity of old-growth environments may turn out to be their most important attribute in terms of being self-regulating autopoietic forest systems.
–Robert Leverett, “Old-Growth Forests of the Northeast,” in Wilderness Comes Home: Rewilding the Northeast, C.M. Klyza, ed., Middlebury College Press, 2001

A couple weeks ago, my mother gave a short walking tour to a couple of guests who were seeing our woods for the first time. “It looks like something out of the Lord of Rings!” they exclaimed. I guess if you’re used to looking at younger forests, the portions of Plummer’s Hollow that have avoided lumbering since the mid- to late-19th century might look pretty impressive by comparison. Our forest doesn’t yet meet even the most minimal definitions of old growth — for example, a median age of half of the dominant tree species’ maximum longevity in the majority of stands — but it does exceed by several decades the average age of private or public forests in Pennsylvania, and is beginning to acquire a number of standard old-growth characteristics that add up, perhaps, to a general impression of enchantment.

The older trees get, the more character they develop. And even apart from the age of its individual members (or at least their aboveground portions), a more mature forest is qualitatively different from a younger one. More and more species of lichens, fungi, insects and other key organisms form increasingly complex food webs. Though foresters are wont to think of old growth in terms of individual stands of large old trees, forest ecologists will tend to stress the age of the over-all forested landscape. The longer a forested landscape goes without being clearcut, or completely leveled by a catastophic disturbance such as a large tornado or a canopy-destroying fire, the more structural complexity it acquires. Icestorms, diseases, strong winds and insect invasions take their toll, while shade-tolerant tree species bide their time in the understory, waiting for a gap to open in the canopy.

Young forests tend to consist of trees of just two to three species, all about the same size, and with very few rotting logs or standing dead trees (snags). In the northeast United States, natural stand-clearing disturbances are quite rare, but the dominance of industrial forestry has made this kind of forest the norm, and more diverse forests like ours the exception. However, it would also be very unnatural for extensive sections of a Pennsylvania forest to resemble Mirkwood in The Hobbit, or Fangorn in The Lord of the Rings. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination, an old forest seems to have consisted almost entirely of old trees, but in most places around the world, some kind of landscape-level patchiness would develop as various small-scale disturbances create openings of various sizes. The nature and frequency of these disturbances — what ecologists call the disturbance regime — is as important as climate, soil, and species mix in determining the character and compostion of the forest.

American chestnut tree

Our over-riding management goal for the wooded portions of the property — close to 600 acres — is to grow an old-growth forest. But what will future old-growth look like? Chances are it will not resemble the forests that covered Pennsylvania in 1600 to any significant degree. Several species of keystone ecological importance are extinct, such as the passenger pigeon; regionally extirpated, such as the cougar and the gray wolf; or reduced to a pitiful remnant by an introduced disease, such as the American chestnut. Like most upland forests in the Appalachians, our mountain was once covered by these tall, slow-growing, long-lived trees; now their sprouts (as in the above photo) are lucky to reach 30 feet before succumbing to the blight. The loss of their nut crop — more copious and far more dependable than acorns and hickories — must’ve had a huge impact on many species of wildlife.

And that’s just one example. Many other native tree species are falling victim to introduced diseases and insect pests, including dogwood, eastern hemlock, butternut, American beech, and various species of ash. The composition of the shrub and forest herb layers are changing dramatically as new, exotic plant species move in. The soil itself has been fundamentally altered in many if not most parts of Penn’s Woods, first by massive erosion following the wholesale clearcutting of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then by acid deposition and, most significantly of all perhaps, the introduction of non-native earthworms.

I’m increasingly reluctant to dwell on these issues with first-time vistors to Plummer’s Hollow, though, just as I haven’t blogged about them very much. I think it’s better to let people be inspired by a vision of something special and enchanted, even if that vision might seem a little naí¯ve, than to try and give them a crash course in unpleasant environmental realities. I do tend to stress the impact of white-tailed deer, because that’s something we have at least a chance of ameliorating, and our 15-year-old deer hunter program in Plummer’s Hollow is beginning to show some dramatic and positive results.

scarab beetle larva

Why manage for old growth? A survey of available literature suggests that, while every forest is different, generally speaking, large tracts of old-growth forest in Pennsylvania should be unexcelled providers of:

  • Breeding habitat for a wide range of birds whose populations reach their greatest density in old growth, including winter wren, Acadian flycatcher, black-throated green warbler, Blackburnian warbler, magnolia warbler, Swainson’s thrush, brown creeper, and blue-headed vireo
  • Habitat for embattled native fish and other organisms endemic to forested, cold-water environments, including the prized brook trout as well as a number of state threatened and endangered species
  • Habitat for the federally endangered Delmarva fox squirrel (now absent from PA), and possibly optimal conditions (especially with the spatial patchiness characteristic of old growth) for two other endangered species–small whorled pogonia and Indiana bat–and cerulean warbler, a candidate for listing as threatened on the federal Endangered Species List
  • Excellent, perhaps optimal habitat for species in danger of extirpation or facing steep declines in Pennsylvania such as northern flying squirrel, green salamander, sugar maple longhorn beetle, yellow-bellied flycatcher, and eastern woodrat
  • Optimal habitat for many sensitive, slow-dispersing wildflowers that may require over 150 years to fully recover from the effects of clearcutting
  • Optimal habitat for top carnivores such as northern goshawk, barred owl and (arguably) fisher, plus some presently absent or of uncertain occurrence in Pennsylvania: pine marten, gray or red wolf, eastern cougar, and lynx
  • Optimal conditions for salamanders (top carnivores and likely keystone species in the forest litter) and essential refuges for these logging-sensitive organisms
  • Optimal conditions for some forest-dwelling bats such as eastern red, big brown, silver-haired and hoary bats
  • A full complement of native ferns, mosses and liverworts
  • A full complement of native forest lichens
  • A full complement of fungi, including mycorrhizae and other soil microorganisms essential for forest health, nutrient uptake by trees, and recovery after a disturbance
  • Structural diversity, including pit-mound microtopography, nurse logs for tree seedlings, habitat and runways for small mammals and herps, and standing snags
  • Superior masting by many trees, such as white oak, red oak and American beech
  • A full complement of native forest insects and other arthropods
  • Functional and genetic resistance to insect pests
  • Functional and genetic resistance to disease
  • Formation of unique biogroups of trees–interspecific communities with distinct physical and physiological traits–through root grafting and and the formation of fungal bridges (shades of Tolkien!)
  • Seed banks with a full range of genetic variables for commercially desirable tree species
  • Timber of unparalleled quality
  • Baselines for scientific research, including on strategies for successful recruitment and stand replacement
  • A full range of natural soundscapes
  • A source of aesthetic and spiritual values unattainable elsewhere
  • The creation of optimal forest soils through accumulation of humus in the O and A horizons, periodic mixing of horizons by uprooting, and the formation of macropores
  • Groundwater purification and storage (old trees use less water for growth)
  • Flood control through maximal absorptive capabilities and stream bank stabilization
  • A dependable source of coarse, woody debris essential to the ecological functioning of streams in forested ecosystems
  • Clean rivers, bays and oceans though maximal prevention of siltation
  • Drought prevention through transpiration to the atmosphere
  • Sequestration of carbon dioxide
  • Amelioration of local, regional, and global warming

For more on Pennsylvania old growth, see here.

Quest for the Lord God Peckerwood (Part 2)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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Part 1 was here. Two additional photos here.

One of the two most surprising things about the area where Gene Sparling, Bobby Harrison and Tim Gallagher had their first sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker is how close it is to two major highways, Arkansas Rt. 70 and U.S. Interstate 40. “This is about as remote as our mountain in Pennsylvania,” my brother points out as he parks the car at the end of a gravel road at the edge of Bayou DeView in the Dagmar Wildlife Management Area. Yeah, except our road isn’t this nice.

The other surprising thing is how enthusiastically local folks have embraced their source of newfound fame. Yes, Virginia, there is a Lord God Peckerwood. He lives in the hearts and on the shade trees and lampposts of half the inhabitants of Brinkley, Arkansas (see maps here). Since the town’s restaurants and motels have depended on revenue from hunters and fishermen for so long, I guess it didn’t require too great a leap of faith for them to roll out the welcome mat for birders, too.

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Brinkley was good to us, and we were good to Brinkley. We spent the night in a cheap-but-decent, unaffiliated motel, after a big supper of fried catfish and barbecued ribs at Gene’s Bar-B-Que, where “the bird is the word.” And we’d return after lunch on Saturday to buy ivorybill merchandise at a local gift shop, including t-shirts, a ball cap, a pair of earrings, a pin and a hand-painted ivorybill Christmas tree ornament. I bought the most tasteful of the hats, which features an embroidered likeness of the bird and the message “another chance.” I could’ve bought a hat that wondered, “Where’s dat der peckerwood?” or another that simply asked, “Got Pecker?”

I wish we’d had more time there. I see that our positive first impressions of the area were shared by Pat Leonard from the Cornell Lab, who posted an engaging travelogue of her own visit to Brinkley in September. I’m envious of her canoe tour of Bayou DeView with local guide and life-long resident Chuck Volner.

Heading back, Chuck sums up some of his philosophy: “Everything in nature is beautiful. God didn’t make nothin’ ugly. You look closely enough, you’ll see everything is beautiful.�? Oh look, another beautiful cottonmouth. This one is swimming with its head above the water and glides right next to the canoe.

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But we’re on our own, and being somewhat disorganized, we fail to take advantage of either of the two foot-trails or three water trails that have been set up for birders by the good folks at Dagmar. Instead, we park at a likely looking spot near where, as best I can tell, Sparling et. al. had their sightings, and proceed to do some bushwacking (otherwise known as walking in circles).

That’s when Mark spots it. No, not the bird; the tree. In a swamp full of huge baldcypresses, this tree is enormous. I am beside myself. I’ve visited my share of eastern old-growth, but I’ve never seen trees this big east of the Cascades.

Fortunately, as I mentioned in yesterday’s installment, the water level is low: the high-water mark was about five feet off the ground. So when Mark rolled up his pants to wade across to a nearby island for a better picture, I followed suit, continuing on across a wider channel to reach the island of the giant itself. The water was freezing cold, which gave me some confidence that I might not encounter a cottonmouth, though I’m not sure I would’ve desisted had there been snakes on every log.

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I’m six foot one, at least on rare occasions when I stand up straight. This is an undoctored photo. The tree appears to be close to fifteen feet DBH (diameter at breast height – the standard forester’s measurement). Even if you measure it at the point where it stops tapering, it’s still almost as wide as I am tall. Lord God, what a tree!

The sun shines weakly through a scrim of clouds, which creates a pleasing symmetry: murky sky, murky water. A scattering of red maples and other understorey trees gives a splash of late autumn color, but what most attracts the eye is the great diversity of forms – a hallmark of true old growth. Trees get weird when they get old – check out the photo of “the yelling tree” in Pat Leonard’s essay. My brother marvels at a massive tupelo growing adjacent to an even wider rim of rotten wood: a several-hundred-year-old root sprout off a tree that may have begun life half a millennium before that. I know how old black gums can get from reading studies of Pennsylvania old growth. Only the baldcypresses get older here, I imagine. After a certain point, when the so-called heartwood rots out, it’s impossible to date them accurately, but some dendrochronologists feel that baldcypresses can get to be 2000 years old or more.

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I’m happy – I’ve come for the trees – but Mark isn’t so easily satisfied. I struggle to keep up as he strides off along the edge of the bayou. He scares up a few white-tailed deer, but otherwise wildlife seems scarce. As we head back to the car, a pileated woodpecker lets out a peal of its usual insane clown laughter – kind of like howling for wolves and getting barked at by a coyote instead.

We explore Dagmar a little more by car, passing several other stands of impressive old growth on our way to a quiet picnic lunch. Mark subsequently discovers that field trips to Bayou DeView are the featured attraction of this year’s Eastern Old-Growth Conference, scheduled for Little Rock, Arkansas on March 24-25. Check out the aerial photo on its webpage.

The rediscovery of the critically endangered ivory-billed woodpecker in the cypress-tupelo woodlands along Bayou DeView in eastern Arkansas, which still retains remnants of centuries-old baldcypress and tupelo forest in a heavily developed agricultural landscape, confirms the significance of our remaining old-growth forests and justifies the federal, state, and private efforts to conserve and restore the Big Woods ecosystem of the lower Mississippi Valley.

Other draws for this conference include the old-growth post oak woodlands of the Ozarks, which are apparently as underwhelming as the swamp forests of Bayou DeView are overwhelming. Thanks to the pioneering work of the tree-ring lab at the University of Arkansas, we now know that there are many more remnants of ancient forests in the eastern U.S. than previously imagined.

Why have these remnants of ancient forest escaped public notice? Because they don’t look like what we think an ancient forest ought to look like. I’ll bet a dollar against a doughnut that when somebody says “virgin forest,” you conjure up a park-like place with trunks as big around as Volkswagens.

That’s from an article profiling the head of the tree-ring lab, Dave Stahle, who is also my authority for the probable age of the trees we’ve just encountered.

Stahle and [Malcom] Cleaveland have also done extensive tree-ring work with baldcypress, a species especially valuable to dendrochronology because of its ability to live a long time. Stahle has sampled baldcypress stands in North Carolina that are more than 1,600 years old, and he’s found numerous sites in east Arkansas with trees over 500 years old. One site, on Bayou DeView, has more than a few 1,000-year-old trees.”And that’s just their provable age,” Stahle said. “Most of them are hollow.” Judging from the average thickness of the rings and the diameter of the center rot, Stahle is confident some of these graybeards are 1,300 years old.

Think about that–some of the trees growing right now in east Arkansas were already mature before the Crusades began in medieval Europe. By the time DeSoto tramped through them on his way to fame, glory, and an early death, they were already 750 years old.

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We take the scenic route that afternoon on our way back to Mississippi. Mark has heard that the Pine City Natural Area, an isolated, genetically distinct population of loblolly pine, supports “the last remaining colony of the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain of eastern Arkansas.” The presence of the site so close to the ivorybill area, on top of all the more common woodpeckers that occur here, means that the Arkansas Delta has the highest peckerwood biodiversity in North America.

Navigating with the help of a woefully inadequate map – a page torn out of the National Geographic Road Atlas of the United States – Mark manages to find the right road, and soon enough we spot the dark smudge of a pine woods among the plowed fields. Signs on the trees identify it as a state natural area. Had we driven a little farther, we would have seen the official roadside sign, and two larger tracts, but we pull over by the first, narrow fragment of forest and set off on foot.

Mark is in the lead as usual, scanning the treetops for the holes and sap marks that indicate the presence of red-cockadeds. We notice that many of the trees other than pines have been girdled, no doubt by land managers anxious to have the pines out-compete other species. We don’t see any evidence of recent fires, but I’m sure that prescribed burns are or soon will be an important part of the management strategy here. Natural fire regimes in the southern pinelands featured a fire return interval as brief as ten years. And while the South is one of the few parts of the country where whites carried on the pyrophilic practices of the Indians, many forest ecologists feel that the tendency to set fires in the winter, rather than during the growing season, hasn’t helped the southern pinelands, which have of course also been decimated by agriculture (as is the case here) and sprawl. Their value as timber means that few commercially managed pine forests ever get old enough to provide habitat for red-cockadeds, who excavate nest holes only in trees where the heartwood has begun to rot.

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After a quarter mile, we find the main nesting area, easily identifiable by the collars of sheet metal that have been put up to keep nest predators such as raccoons at bay. “Let’s sit down here and be quiet for a little while,” Mark says. “These are very shy birds.” His daughter temporarily lowers her voice by a few decibels.

A couple minutes later, Luz catches up to us. “Didn’t you see me waving back there?” she asks. “I saw one. It just glided silently from the top of a tree, right after you went through.”

Mark seems to accept this. They’ve visited other red-cockaded sites together farther south, so she knows what the birds look like. Earlier in the day, though, he hadn’t been nearly so accepting when she claimed to have seen an ivorybill, right after we went wading off into the swamp at Bayou DeView. Her description was too vague – she’s not a birder – and after all, what are the chances? “Well, it was big,” she had said lamely, holding her hands about eighteen inches apart. “It flew right overhead… I saw some white on its wings.”

I’m sure it was just a duck.

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All photos here are by Mark Bonta except the first, second and last, which are mine.

UPDATE (Nov. 11): Reuters has a new story on this season’s official search.

Learning from the ivorybill

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall


Drawing by Mark Bowers, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website
(link via The Daily Blatt)

1. Mr. Wile E.

A week ago, when I heard the news about the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker, I was – as I mentioned – afflicted with a sudden and unaccustomed surge of joy and hopefulness about the state of the planet. After a couple hours of reading on-line articles and corresponding with my two birder-brothers about it (my parents being on vacation and out of e-mail reach), it occurred to me to send a message to the listserve of the Pennsylvania Biodiversity Partnership in my capacity as co-chair of the Public Lands Committee of the Pennsylvania Chapter of Sierra Club. After a link to the Cornell Lab and a few other remarks, I concluded, “The message for Pennsylvania is clear: Recover It (old-growth forest) And They Will Return.”

Yes, that’s right. Even in the midst of my jubilation, I couldn’t resist putting my own spin on things. And in fact, it bore satisfactory results: it sparked a good discussion of old-growth on the listserve, and my reaction against my own opportunism led to a half-decent poem two days later.

But Coyote wasn’t fooled. I neglected to mention this at the time, in part because I figured y’all might suspect me of making it up. But it’s true. It was about nine o’clock that evening, and I had been listening to some of my favorite country blues cassettes (remember cassette tapes?) while drinking three or four celebratory bottles of homebrew. (It was, unfortunately, too cold to sit outside.) Then I got hungry, and remembered some leftovers up at the other house, in my parents’ refrigerator. The night was dark. Just as I got to the top of the hill, a coyote let loose from the middle of the field – less than a hundred yards away. The hair stood straight up on the back of my neck. He or she howled a couple of times, then barked like a dog: Har! Har! Har! Har! Har! I scuttled inside, grabbed the highest-powered flashlight I could find, and shone it back and forth across the field, hoping to pick up the eye shine, but the animal had already slipped away.

Now, to appreciate this incident, especially if you’re from out west, you have to understand a couple of things. First, that eastern coyotes don’t vocalize nearly as often as their western counterparts. Second: the eastern coyote is, depending on which biologists you believe, either a brand-new animal here in the east, or a once-eradicated species that reintroduced itself in the latter half of the 20th century. The latter theory postulates that European settlers, being unfamiliar with the North American coyote, simply mis-identified it as the “brush wolf” – which they then proceeded to wipe out as quickly as they could. The problem with that theory is that coyotes are virtually impossible to eradicate. Since they have always played second fiddle to wolves, it makes sense that they would evolve an extremely flexible population ecology: the more you persecute them, the faster they reproduce. Gray wolves, having evolved (at least since the demise of the dire wolf) as top dogs, have no such resilience.

But canids speciate as much by culture as by genetics, which is to say that species boundaries are readily crossed, and only mutual hostility and fear of being eaten prevent interbreeding – 99 percent of the time. A DNA analysis of eastern coyotes did strongly suggest that interbreeding with timber wolves – the smaller subspecies of wolves inhabiting eastern Canada – had occurred in the recent past. But who knows? Perhaps there were a number of regional subspecies in 1600. Some biologists argue that the Pennsylvania “brush wolf” was neither gray nor timber wolf, but the red wolf of the southern Appalachians.

Does Coyote care about all this? I think not. This new/old wild canid has figured out that frequent howling in the densely populated east is not advantageous. Nearly every hunter in this state owns a powerful spotlight, and coyotes may be shot anytime as a varmit. The easiest way to do this, I’m told, is by playing tapes of their howls. Meanwhile – and very anecdotally – I hear from folks in Vermont and West Virginia that an even larger coyote is beginning to appear. It’s probably only a matter of time before wild canids in the northeast switch from opportunistic predation to direct reliance on our hugely over-abundant white-tailed deer herd. I hope.

Of more direct relevance to the ivorybill rediscovery is the fact that the presence of coyotes in the state was officially denied for years – decades, in fact. Even as sightings grew more frequent and the evidence more and more overwhelming, spokespeople for our state wildlife agency continued to deny the obvious. The name of this agency might tell you why: it’s the Pennsylvania Game Commission. It derives almost all its funding from the sale of hunting licenses, and all license increases must be approved by the state legislature. Game Commission folks knew that the interval between official acknowledgement of the coyote’s presence and demands for its eradication would be about two or three nanoseconds, so they stalled as long as they could. When it finally became impossible to deny the obvious – some fifteen years ago now – they announced it as a wonderful new addition to the state’s already impressive roster of legally trapable and shootable critters. They made it sound like such a good thing, in fact, that to this day they are regularly accused by more credulous members of the hunting fraternity of having deliberately introduced the animal, as part of vast and sinister conspiracy between anti-hunters, the Audubon Society, and the United Nations. These are, of course, the same anti-hunters who want to slaughter all the deer in the state. As Dave Berry would say, I swear I’m not making this up.

In fact, I know this guy who knows a guy who drives truck, and one time about fifteen years ago, after a couple beers, he says to my buddy, “You won’t believe what I got in the back of my truck…”

2. How much old-growth is enough?

One of the first two responses to my e-mail to the Biodiversity Partnership listserve raised some interesting questions:

I have been told the ivory-billed woodpecker has been seen by outdoorsmen in the Arkansas area for years. No one of any “authority” believed the people who saw them. Now that some upper-shelf person saw one, it is now for real. Great, but the same can be said for other animals in the eastern US: cougars, badgers, wolves, lynx, Allegheny wood rat etc. come to mind. It is time we get our heads out of the sand and put a little effort into documenting other animals in our midst.

The author, Gene Odato – chief of the Rural and Community Forestry section of the Pennnsylvania Bureau of Forestry – responded to my spin with some of his own. If some of these supposedly endangered or regionally extinct species are, in fact, present, then what do we have to worry about? If anything, we have too much old-growth – and not enough young forests.

I would like to know more about the nature of that forest in the Cache and White River bottoms: year last cut, degree/type of management, etc. That would be very instructive to us all.

I would also like to know more of the management details of the land the woodpecker inhabits. As for PA or any other state: How much old-growth is enough without damaging the lives of the people who depend on the wise use of the forest? The public land such as the national forest and in particular the state forest of PA already manage 30% to 50% of the forest as old-growth. How much more do we need without sacrificing the habitat needs of hundreds of wildlife and plant species that depend on early successional forest, poletimber-sized forest?

I asked my brother Mark to do some digging – something which, as a geographer, birder and conservationist, he didn’t have to be asked about twice. In fact, even before he headed over to Arkansas last Saturday, he fired off a preliminary e-mail in response to some of Gene’s concerns.

All I can say at this point is that Arkansas appears to be quite a bit more advanced than Pennsylvania – after all, its motto is “The Natural State” rather than the “Keystone State.” Arkansas parks are some of the most impressive I’ve seen. It takes some guts or gall to block a bridge across the Mississippi River from this county (Bolivar), the epicenter of cotton production in the US, across to Ark, but they did it years ago to avoid destroying the White River Refuge. Thanks to the White River National Wildlife Refuge, there is no unbroken road along the Mississippi River on the west side of the river through Arkansas. (Where this bird was rediscovered, however, is right off the Interstate, well north.)

I’m just not quite convinced that people up in the northeast can conceive of the size of some of the wildernesses down here, nor understand that the old-growth was logged as recently as the 1940s, and never really completely, at least in Arkansas and Louisiana (Mississippi is a different, sadder story, of course) – the Big Forest, like this side of the river, was mostly wilderness until the end of the 1800s, so analogous to the Big Thicket [in Texas]. There are still several million acres of flooded bottomland hardwood forest in the lower Mississippi River Valley, and probably the single highest biodiversity indices, as well as biomass production. The Mississippian civilizations arose here; Poverty Point mound civilization, living with and off the untold millions of waterfowl and fish and etc. and so forth.

The point is that the region has been all but forgotten by most conservationists – sort of like living in Brazil and forgetting the Pantanal or whatever. The Mississippi, White, Cache, Pearl and other rivers are still free-flowing and undammed. There are still virgin canebrakes (bamboo forests) on private land. I’m already getting a bit impatient at urbanites who pay attention to areas only when Audubon or the Conservancy make them into big destinations. I wrote about listening to local voices in my book on Honduras. Almost no one does that here.

3. Accomodating a “magnificent misanthrope”

The White River flows south, joining the Arkansas just above its junction with the Mississippi in the middle of a huge roadless area comprising some 125,000 acres, much of it still in private hands. The White River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) stretches north along the river from there, joining with the Cache River and its attendant NWR just south and for many miles north of Interstate 40. It was to the latter location that Mark and family headed last Saturday after motoring up the fabled Highway 61, unable to simply cross the river at Rosedale due to the State of Arkansas’ atavistic dislike for Progress.

As his e-mail indicated, the verified ivorybill sightings reported in Science were all along the Cache River, within a very short distance of the interstate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service folks at the Cache River NWR were very forthcoming and were able to answer all his questions, he said: he and his family were virtually the only visitors to arrive there all day. The wildlife refuge had designated special observation points beyond which it intends to restrict access – 5,000 of the refuge’s 60,000 acres have been closed. All the high officialdom were there, braced for an onslaught of crazed birders that never happened. It seems the word had gone out over birders’ listserves to stay home and leave the ivory-billed woodpecker in peace.

The only problem, Mark said, is that no one really knows what disturbs an ivory-billed woodpecker. Various theories are circulating about why the bird has proved so darned elusive for the last half-century. Perhaps, as my brother Steve suggested last week, it has learned and inculcated in its young an extreme wariness toward human beings – “a magnificent misanthrope,” he called it. Mark replied that this seemed plausible – at least based on his experience with some rare birds and mammals in Central America – but added that the White River area, which is now presumed to harbor a breeding population of ivorybills, is formidably remote and difficult of access. Ivory-billed woodpeckers don’t migrate, and the literature says that their breeding territories can be quite small for a bird of that size – no more than a couple square kilometers.

So presumably the male sighted up near I-40 is a dispersing juvenile looking for new territory. What makes this area attractive? It harbors the oldest known stand of bald cypresses in the United States, Mark said – trees over two thousand years old.

Mark went on to say that – contrary to the essay by John Fitzpatrick that I quoted here last week – the forests down there were never completely cut-over. According to the Cache River NWR managers, many patches of older forest remain, though none of them may be “virgin” – the oaks, pines and other valuable trees were, indeed, all taken at some point, but many stands of bald cypress and black gum were not. Thus, the ivorybill probably never ran out suitable nesting trees.

The limiting factor, then, back during the most severe bottleneck period following the end of the timber boom, would have been food. As a woodpecker, the ivorybill has a very high-protein diet (though it does eat lots of fruit, too). According to stomach-content analyses performed in the early 20th century, most of its protein was derived from one family of insects – longhorn beetles. The larvae of these beetles live in the wood of standing dead trees, including oaks and pines – the species that were high-graded out of the swamps some eighty years ago. There must have been some awfully lean years for an awfully small and secretive remnant population of ivory-billed woodpeckers.

Now these trees are recovering – and even better, they’re dying and being left to rot in place rather than being “salvaged,” as would probably happen if it were a Pennsylvania state park or forest. Mark noted that floods and beavers are part of the natural disturbance regime of Mississippi floodplain forests; high waters regularly kill pines and oaks without bothering the true swamp species – cypress and black gum. The NWR managers told him that they adopt a passive management approach to reforestation. The Cache River website lists “Protect and restore the bottomland hardwood resources of the basin” as one of the four, main Refuge Objectives. Management Tools include public hunting and “Water management for waterfowl, wading and shore birds.” In Dahomey NWR on the Mississippi side, Mark said, this includes the occasional dynamiting of beaver dams.

This area of Arkansas – the Big Woods – is wild. It’s home to a healthy population of black bear, and panthers are moving in. The human population is low and dropping at about ten percent a decade, Mark said. The Fish and Wildlife Service people told him that the local reaction to news of the ivorybill’s rediscovery seemed mostly positive, and this isn’t surprising – wildlife watching, hunting and fishing already make a substantial contribution to the local economy. It’s a myth that public opinion changes more slowly in rural areas than in supposedly more progressive urban and suburban areas, Mark said.

4. Disturbing conclusions

Lessons for conservation elsewhere may be more elusive than either Gene or I were originally willing to acknowledge. The fact is, every bioregion is unique; ecologists have learned the hard way that forest succession in the east, where most canopy replacement occurs as a result of single-tree or small stand mortality, is more the exception than the rule. The so-called edaphic climax model first developed in the northeast United States still seems to be a pretty good fit for our region. But in areas of complex physical geography like the Appalachians, natural disturbance regimes may change radically over very short distances – nothing like the broad, virtually flat and geologically uniform floodplain of the Mississippi. And while we do have a few possible old-growth obligate species, present or extirpated – northern flying squirrel, pine martin, sugar maple longhorn beetle – the list is much longer for species that simply do best in mature forests, or in forests with many old-growth characteristics. Features such as standing dead timber, downed woody debris, multiple age classes – including many 150-year-plus specimens – and a healthy humus layer provide optimal habitat for many of Penn’s Woods’ most treasured species, including: winter wren, Acadian flycatcher, black-throated green warbler, blackburnian warbler, magnolia warbler, Swainson’s thrush, brown creeper, blue-headed vireo, cerulean warbler, yellow-bellied flycatcher, brook trout, goshawk, barred owl, fisher and lynx; many slow-dispersing spring ephemeral wildflowers, such as painted trillium and dwarf ginseng; most lungless salamanders, which can take over a hundred years to re-colonize a clearcut; and unknown numbers of native ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichens, fungi and invertebrates.

Actually, this situation is not atypical of forest ecosystems anywhere in the world. At least among charismatic megafauna, the number of species completely intolerant to human disturbance is very small, but the number that depend on the continuation of something very like what they evolved in is – as one would expect – very large. Many advocates for the timber industry like to point to studies that show edge and early-succession species declining, but in some cases these are species native to the Midwest whose ranges have expanded only in recent times as the land was cleared. In other cases they are species that might have been naturally rare, dependent on natural clearings resulting from the occasional stand-clearing ice storm or tornado.

Concerns about balancing the needs of humans with those of other animals are very appropriate. By why should one species monopolize 90 percent of natural resources and dominate virtually every bioregion? There’s something awfully depressing about the idea that every species and natural community on the planet persists only because human beings have decided they can tolerate its presence. This is a far, far cry from the view of Creation expressed by the Voice out of the whirlwind in the Book of Job. To pretend that we can and should manage all of nature is sheer hubris. And a narrow, species-by-species approach to conservation not only misses the larger picture, it ignores the magnitude of what we have lost in terms of sheer plant and animal biomass. The forests of pre-Columbian North America – lightly managed by human beings for millennia, mostly through fire – teemed with wildlife. Seventeenth-century explorers and settlers were nearly unanimous in their astonishment at the great numbers and diversity of fish, foul and game, even though to some it seemed forbidding, a “waste and howling wilderness.” Somewhere along the line, the Biblical vision of wilderness as a place of testing and transformation had been replaced by a fear and hatred of the untamed that haunts us to this day.

Everyone likes nice, park-like woods with great big trees and very little messy understory. Pure stands of old-growth hemlock or spruce can certainly inspire reverence, but they don’t come close to satisfying the ecological definition of old-growth, which includes trees of all ages and conditions – and much more besides. Conservationists err in putting too much emphasis on protecting stands of big trees and not enough on the need to recover old-growth forested landscapes – the natural condition for at least ninety percent of Pennsylvania and most other eastern states.

How much old-growth does wildlife need? All it can get. We need to relearn humility and begin to heed that Voice out of the whirlwind. We need to welcome natural disturbances and recognize them as blessings in disguise rather than “natural disasters” ripe for “salvage.” Many more insect outbreaks and some wildfires on public land could be allowed to run their course. Public and private land managers could do a much better job at grouping and connecting stands of “legacy trees” within timbered areas. Herpetologists tell us that uncut buffers around wetlands of all kinds should be measured in the hundreds of yards rather than in the tens or hundreds of feet, as is currently the practice (if we’re lucky). Most forested headwater areas should never be cut to protect hydrology and downstream organisms, such as our increasingly beleaguered native mussels. And all this presumes success in controlling the biggest on-going scourges of Pennsylvania forests: white-tailed deer overbrowsing, air pollution (including acid rain), and fragmentation from roads and sprawl. I don’t think any of these problems are anywhere near as severe in the Big Woods of Arkansas. But unless and until we address them, biodiversity here will continue to decline.

One way or another, it’s almost a given that Coyote – patron of unforeseen consequences – will have the last laugh.
__________

UPDATE: Mark just e-mailed me with a couple corrections (which I have made), and added the following thought:

The geography of the lower Mississippi valley alluvial swamps (bottomland hardwood forests) is similar in character to the varzea of Amazonia, though of course with the leveeing of the Mississippi River and side rivers, flooding is not nearly as extreme as it once was. However, the geomorphology is very similar, and includes huge oxbow lakes – the largest in the Americas north of Amazonia are in the Delta.

My point is that humans have lived and farmed Amazonia, and seasonally the varzea forest, for millennia, using swidden rotation (slash and burn) which involves small clearcuts. This does not mean the Amazonia (or the Peten in Guatemala, for that matter) are “second-growth”; it means that human populations are low enough that human disturbance regimes are simply another form of forest modification. Indeed, swidden, the world’s oldest form of agriculture (or horticulture), is successful in that it mimics natural treefall dynamics, widely believed to be the disturbance regime that is most important in helping create the awesomely high biodiversity of the Amazon.

When human populations swell and elite/capitalist greed enter into the equation, forests are wiped out. It is all in the temporal and spatial scale at which the destruction is taking place, however: this can quite rapid, or over decades or even centuries. Essentially, does the local human population absolutely depend on a healthy ecosystem, or not? Economics and governance are at the heart of it.

Heart’s Content

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

My second maxim was to follow resolutely even doubtful opinions when sure opinions were not available, just as the traveller, lost in some forest, had better walk straight forward, though in a chance direction; for thus he will arrive, if not precisely where he desires to be, at least at a better place than the middle of a forest.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

The buzzy songs of half a dozen species of wood warblers accompany my surfacing from the shallow waters of an uneasy night’s sleep. What in the world could possess an otherwise fairly sane human being to spend ten dollars a night for the privilege of sleeping on the ground? It’s 5:30 on an overcast Sunday morning in the Heart’s Content campground of Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest, “Land of Many Uses.”

I fire up my backpacker’s stove, boil water and, with the help of a cloth filter, turn myself into a percolator machine: drip, drip, drip at about the same speed the coffee will exit my body an hour later. The trees still drip from yesterday afternoon’s soaking rain.

The mostly full campground is quiet. I can’t get over being amazed at how many people, some of them not even active outdoor recreationists, will go to such trouble to get out in the woods on a rainy weekend. I admit that this is a pretty nice spot, as campgrounds go. Though bordered on three sides by a 45-year-old red pine plantation, the campsites themselves are tucked into a maturing deciduous forest, each with just enough vegetation around it to lend an impression of privacy and intimacy. I think about how most of the time that people spend in public lands is devoted to doing fairly simple things: eating, sleeping, tending campfires, walking or driving around, looking at stuff.

By contrast, the official management philosophy of national forests stresses Multiple Use, with a strong bias toward economically productive activities. In the Allegheny, this includes primarily logging (especially of black cherry, a fast growing, first-succession species prized by the furniture industry) and oil and natural gas drilling. The Forest Service also favors high-impact, industrial recreation, especially on all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and snowmobiles. Yet statewide surveys show that most outdoors-oriented people can’t stand the noise and (in the case of ATVs) the destruction caused by these machines, which represent exactly the sorts of things that the average forest “user” goes to the woods to try and escape. Surveys also show most people are against commercial timbering on public lands, even though its cessation is currently outside the bounds of acceptable political discourse.

I wonder, as I drink my coffee, whether it would be possible to start a movement to counter Multiple Use that would advocate “no use, just appreciation”? I guess the way to sell people on an alternative philosophy like that would be to emphasize the extent to which wild places should be above and beyond all considerations of utility and profit. Then I remember the unofficial slogan of the Rainbow Tribe, which a few years ago held its annual gathering just about a mile from this spot: “Welcome home,” they say. Imagine if that were written at the bottom of every National Forest sign, in lieu of “Land of Many Uses”!

But the forest is a very different kind of place for humans to come home to. When we try and impose our own aesthetic values, the results can be frightening. Leaving the campground for an early morning walk, I cut through the pine plantation and am able to walk in a perfectly straight line between rows of virtually identical trunks to reach the parking lot on the other side of the road. There is almost no ground cover, only a scattering of star flowers and a couple small patches of hayscented fern. From one patch a fawn leaps to its feet and clatters awkwardly away, visible for many hundreds of feet in this unnaturally uniform, Cartesian space.

I’m surprised to see a total of eight vehicles in the parking lot, which also serves a trailhead for the Hickory Creek Wilderness Area, the only area so designated in this national forest (except for a few, tiny islands in the Allegheny River). It’s a fairly unexceptional stretch of forest; the fact that so many people are backpacking through it on a rainy weekend testifies to the magic of the word “wilderness,” with its implicit promise of ultimate escape.

For me, however, the allure was the 120-acre old-growth remnant at Heart’s Content – and the more than 4,000 acres of old growth contained in the Tionesta Scenic and Research Natural Areas, where we planned to spend the rest of the day. We had botanized happily in Heart’s Content for several hours the previous afternoon; now I simply wanted to discover whether it’s possible to get lost in such a small tract of old growth. It is!

When I return to camp an hour later, refreshed by the rich sights, smells and sounds of a natural forest, I’ll be surprised to find I’ve been sapped of enthusiasm for theorizing about forest values – or much else. In fact, I’ll be uncharacteristically taciturn for much of the rest of the day. I realize I may be a little more impressionable than most people, but once disoriented, I find it difficult to re-orient, even after many hours of hiking and successful pathfinding in the Tionesta. A day later, back on my own front porch, things will still seem a little “off” to me; I’ll be struck by the oddness of the straight line of the driveway against the edge of the woods, for example.

I’ll still be puzzling over how, when I left the loop trail in Heart’s Content determined to “walk straight forward . . . in a chance direction,” I could’ve ended up back on the same section of trail I left – still inescapably “in the middle of a forest.”

But unlike Descartes, I am perfectly happy to be here. “Trees, trees, murmuring trees!” sings the black-throated green warbler. The long and endlessly supple call of the winter wren is a rare treat, and I could listen to the piping of the hermit thrush all day. So whence this nameless clutching in my chest, whence this hollow thudding, this clatter of hoofs?