I cross an invisible threshold after I open the silver gate. My key opens the door to a forest woven from Nature’s Grace.
The earth is carpeted with needles and mosses, a family of elegant hemlocks open their arms to the sky with a trust I envy. Rain will continue to bathe dry needles green. Roots will be nourished by the river’s flow.
The silence of this hemlock forest permeates my bones; spreading boughs create stained glass light. All these trees may have germinated roughly around the same time judging by their size. Relatives everywhere. Hemlocks are monoecious, that is, they have male and female flowers on the same tree. Males develop globular pollen packets and after pollination gently scalloped female cones are formed; a pale brown they cascade earthward from the tips of bowed branches. I look for signs of the old ‘mother’ trees, both male and female, who once gave birth to this fragrant forest full of terpenes, and found none. Left alone to thrive, hemlocks are the redwoods of the east, living 500 years or more so traces of the old ones have probably become soil. I place my hands on one ribbed trunk and peer skyward into the blue remembering Richard Power’s words. “If your minds were only a slightly greener thing we would drown you in meaning”. Trees have survived five mass extinctions and are 400 million years old. They will endure, although perhaps not in their present forms.
I am immeasurably comforted by this knowledge. On my way here I witnessed more tree destruction. Thousands hacked to the ground, roots ripped away, soil ruined, beneficent microbes murdered, mycelial skin torn to shreds. A mindless travesty. Only dead soldiers remain waiting to be trucked to the mill.
But not here. I listen and can hear nothing but the rivers flow – water over stone – an ancient rumbling low – pitched sound – music that preceded life as we know it. Perhaps this is why my body becomes the receiver it’s meant to be when I come to this place; I am channeling creation.
Below me, huge granite glacial boulders rise up out of the choppy water like whales sounding through the trees. Nature stitches herself into a living tapestry, growing, decaying, changing always, in the service of life. How comforting it is to be in such presence. A silent thank you rises into moist cool air from my grateful heart.
I pick my way gingerly down the steep mossy bank to the river. This slow descent allows me to examine rugged roots clinging to the slope. I note the plethora of new hemlock seedlings that are taking root in rich duff. Dr. Suzanne Simard’s studies were the first to demonstrate that seedlings are nourished by ‘elders’ who also favor their own kin. Balsam saplings are in abundance too.
A phoebe is hidden somewhere in a tangle of deciduous trees further up the hill alerting me to his presence with a sweet repetitive call … I look around not expecting to find him and discover a nest instead. Ah, avian companions soon to become family.
I force myself to look for wooly adelgid, the Asian aphid – like insect that is spreading through Maine’s hemlocks. I read that quarantine does not extend to our area (4/23/22) although the disease has spread as far west as Minot. Has anyone taken the time to examine our hemlocks? My neighbor in Bryant Pond, whose forest has been decimated by the logging machine, has hemlocks covered in white cotton. Nearby, mine seem healthy for now but for how long? There is no cure for this disease. However, recent studies have shown that hemlocks’ terpene production increases with adelgid infestation and may provide some natural defense to this destructive insect as long as the trees are growing close together like they are here.
I recently made a trip to coastal Maine where all the hemlocks are being cut down as a result of insect infestation. Warmer temperatures on the coast may have hastened the tree’s demise. I also question whether or not general forest health might reduce or at least slow the spread of this disease. My little patch of hemlock forest (along with the other trees) has been left alone for 40 some years, and so far no infestation.
In this cathedral it is the same. Healthy hemlocks everywhere. These stately trees may be older than mine, they are surely bigger, but because hemlocks can remain understory trees for so many years before enough light opens up to let them grow it is hard to know the age of any of them. Their primary strategy for long-term survival is their ability to adapt to low light. And because the trunks split unevenly, foresters had no use for them until recently. Today hemlock are logged along with the rest and used for mulch by gardeners who spread woolly adelgid unknowingly (or carelessly) around their plants. The chips are also compressed to feed polluting pellet stoves, so now hemlock trees are taken along with the rest. “This endless gift of a place is going away.” Power’s words haunt me.
Scrambling up the hill I turn my attention to the mosses. Robin Wall Kimmerer tells us that 450 million years ago mosses climbed out of a sea of green algae onto dry land; they are the ‘mothers’ of all terrestrial green plants including trees! Without roots or a vascular (fluid carrying) system mosses first attached themselves to stone by rhizoids, clinging to any crevice that held a drop of moisture. As they photosynthesized they changed the composition of the atmosphere. Most remarkable, mosses have survived five extinctions too; they are older than trees, but in their case they kept the same shapes! 450 million years and mosses look the same as they did when they first became terrestrial. I am awestruck.
Today we have an impressive 1200 – 1700 (some sources say 2200,) moss species some of which inhabit every continent including the Antarctic. Mosses absorb water and nutrients directly and evenly through their diminutive leaves like a sponge, and during dry spells they stop photosynthesizing. They have two different growth habits. Acrocarpous mosses grow upright almost like miniature conifer trees and their spore producing capsules arise at the end of their stems. Pleurocarpous mosses have branching stems and often create dense mats on the ground. Their sporophytes arise from the side of stems.
As I look around me I see a dense grayish green mat that stretches out under the hemlocks and pines covering relatively level ground, rocks, and decaying logs. I think this carpet might be brocade moss, a fast spreading feather moss. Mosses are usually found in areas where there is some moisture (although they are the first colonizers of disturbed land and you can also find some growing in cracks of concrete city streets!). Most also thrive in poor or sandy substrate. Amazingly, some species can even remove impurities from the soil.
Here at Refuge mosses act like a nursery. Wintergreen, partridgeberry, balsam and hemlock seedlings are thriving along with club and other mosses all tucked in the moisture capturing rug. I promise myself once again that I will devote this summer to learning about each of the mosses I find here and in this general area – an ambitious undertaking I am learning from the research I have already begun.
Next I wander over to an imaginary animal that behaves like a granite boulder. Examining one flank I note the presence of lichens, some are rosettes, others sprawl unevenly over the surface of gray rock. Lichens are ancient beings that are 250 million years old; each one is composed of both an alga and fungus, sometimes bacteria are included in the mix. One photosynthesizes, the other provides purchase, both make up one organism. In some places tiny oval clumps of forest green velvet cling tenaciously to small indentations in mica flecked rock. This strange animal is telling me an ancient glacial story. I run my hand over the nubbly granite imagining a perilous journey to reach this perfect resting place. Where did it come from as it tumbled here under the ice sheet?
I peer at dampened leaves bunched together on the ground listening to papery beech whose old leaves rattle like skeletons on in a light breeze. Gazing around me I note other beech, red oak, birch, maple, a few blueberry bushes, all deciduous trees/shrubs that drop their leaves in late fall except for the stubborn beech. During the summer an emerald leafy canopy will help the hemlocks and pines keep this place cool while negative ions rise out of rushing waters purifying already pristine air…
Dusk brings in a chill and a few drops of rain. It’s time to leave. I’ve been time traveling all afternoon, under the spell of deep time. I say goodbye to the trees, the boulder, my companion the phoebe, and begin my journey home.