This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
When Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published these words in his epic poem “Evangeline” in 1847, much of the eastern United States was still covered by a vast forest that extended from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River. Around that same time, Henry David Thoreau was exploring the Maine woods, about which he gave the following description, published later in 1864:
What is most striking in the Maine wilderness is the continuousness of the forest. . . . the forest is uninterrupted. It is even more grim and wild than you had anticipated, a damp and intricate wilderness. . . .
In his 1989 monograph A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization, John Perlin tells of early encounters with this North American forest:
An Englishman on a tour of Virginia, shortly after the Revolution remarked that “an immense forest, almost without bounds” covered the state. . . . Another person who viewed the forests west of the Appalachians compared the trees to “a grand assemblage of gigantic beings which carry the imagination back to other times before the foot of the white man had touched the American shore.” . . . The oak commonly had “a straight trunk without a single branch for seventy feet; and from that point to the upper branch it has measured seventy feet more,” according to . . . a visitor to the Ohio country at the end of the eighteenth century.
Among the many birds, including the “princely eagle, and the soaring hawk,” it was the hummingbird that most enchanted the first English settlers. William Wood, describing the New England of the 1630s, called this bird “One of the wonders of the country, being no bigger than a hornet, yet hath all the dimensions of a bird, as bill and wings, with quills, spider like legs, small claws: . . . as she flies, she makes a little humming noise. . . .
But by the mid-1860s, this wondrous world of giant trees and enchanting birds had undergone an astonishing transformation. Perlin documents the rapid cutting down of this forest:
Almost 5 billion cords of wood had been consumed for fuel in fireplaces, industrial furnaces, steamboats, and railroads. [This] meant the cutting of about two hundred thousand square miles of woodlands, an area nearly equal to all the land that comprises . . . Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
In addition, Perlin writes, “approximately 25,000 square miles of forest went to build houses, ships, railroads, bridges, wagons, [and] waterwheels.” And “from 1850 to 1860, 31,250 square miles of timberlands” were lost to farm and pasture land, where livestock consumed any new plants, and with them all their vital genetic diversity. Perceptive observers voiced their concern about the consequences of cutting down the forests: the interruption of the natural water cycle, drought, torrential rains and the floods that carried away the topsoil, the silting up of waterways,
and—noted even then—changes in climate. It is the story of the past 3,000 years, as civilizations rose and fell—or were transformed—as they cut down their forests.
But the forests that remain continue to evolve, as they strive to hold on to the past. I remember a camping trip we took many years ago. One night, we saw small patches of the forest floor suddenly flash with a green phosphorescent light. In the forest there’s a lot more going on than we first see. For example, in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, Peter Wohlleben refers to the work of Suzanne Simard, who has discovered how trees “talk” to each other “using chemical signals sent through the fungal networks around their root tips.” Wohlleben explains:
These fungi operate like fiber-optic Internet cables. Their thin filaments penetrate the ground, weaving through it in almost unbelievable density. . . . Over centuries, a single fungus can cover many square miles and network an entire forest. The fungal connections transmit signals from one tree to the next, helping the trees exchange news about insects, drought, and other dangers.
—what Dr. Simard has called the “wood wide web.” (See her fascinating TED talk at
This summer, around the first week in August, our Green Team is planning to lead a walk through Breakheart Reservation in Saugus, to explore its different habitats and diversity of plants, and to see what a modern-day “restored” forest looks like as it works to put itself back together. There is an easily accessible road that loops around the park, as well as winding trails that bring us to open granite ledges, two beautiful lakes, and wetland hollows next to the slowly meandering Saugus River.
And when we encounter a stand of bright crimson cardinal flowers, we may be just lucky enough to see a hummingbird, like the one that so enchanted William Wood almost four hundred years ago.
John I. Benson,
Delivered at UUCGL, April 8, 2018