An ode to an iconic tree
By Robert Sullivan; Paintings by Lowell Hayes
WE HAVE GATHERED TOGETHER TODAY, in a still-dark grove on the side of a hill, to hear a few words about hemlock. We are a small group and there are not many words. Nothing anyone can say can possibly sum up the long life of hemlock on the eastern seaboard of North America, which began about 30 million years ago and includes a long stretch of time that runs from the early Pleistocene era, as the glaciers came and went, up until the arrival from East Asia of a tiny sap-sucking bug, the hemlock woolly adelgid, which landed in the United States around the time Calvin Coolidge made it into office.
Thanks to the woolly adelgid’s slow move north with warmer weather, the hemlock is dead or dying, half of its vast range disintegrated, the most northern extent on its way out. In just a few years, the forest we are standing in today will no longer be standing. A eulogy is maybe a little ahead of things. The hemlock in our grove are not all dead. And yet this forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, is dying and telling our little group as much when we look around—but also when we listen.
The hemlock that remain are about to offer their own eulogy, a remembrance of their species, as the species leaves the earth. We only have to listen to what the hemlock have to say. Don’t worry—I am not saying the trees are talking or, more worryingly, that I hear the trees talking, though I would be lying if I said I had not done quite a bit of talking to trees. I’m saying I hear the sound of the hemlock trees as they stand dying, a sound I will describe in just a bit. And hearing hemlocks brings me back to questions we face when a species of tree is leaving: What do we do? What has happened before? Are we ready to bear witness?
I’d been to hemlock groves on many occasions, but I’d never really listened to a hemlock forest before. I was amazed, frankly, and I carried what I heard all the way home with me like a catchy tune or something important someone had said. I heard it on the walk from the woods back to my car and on the drive back, when the windows were down and the highways moving, when the windows were up and the traffic bad. Sure, I turned on the radio some, and I got out of the car and bought some coffee at a rest stop, and at some point I listened to the traffic report—as I passed through various eastern cities, small and large, seated on big rivers that had themselves been charged, in a distant way, by little streams that had been cooled by hemlock groves to the north—but I could still hear the hemlock, and still can.
LIKE TRAFFIC, hemlock is not sexy. It is not a celebrity tree, one of the reasons I admire it and often think of what it said. It is an uncelebrated tree in the not-so-celebrated forests of the Northeast—i.e., the non-West. Hemlock is no sequoia, with its own national park. Even when hemlock was thriving it was never expensive, nor coveted by woodworkers the way a woodworker would covet walnut or oak. New England fishermen used its bark to dye their sails and nets. John Josselyn, an Englishman who lived in the colonies for a few years and published New England Rarities Discovered in 1671, noted that hemlock’s turpentine was good for “any Ach.” Hemlock tea, it turns out, is high in vitamin C, and, to return to our theme, anything in any way associated with the common cold is just not sexy.
The eastern hemlock’s humble reputation may also have to do with its habitat, which is vast but out of sight. If absence makes the heart grow fonder, the opposite applies to hemlock: it grows in swamps and rocky slopes and deep ravines north into Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and west into Quebec and Ontario, and then stretches out to Michigan and Wisconsin. In the south, hemlock extends into Georgia and Alabama, as if following the Appalachian Mountains. (Charles Sargent’s classic monograph on hemlock marks the southern reach of hemlock at Clear Creek Falls. Those falls, like the hemlock of Alabama, are gone, flooded by Alabama Power in 1961, subsumed by the current Lewis Smith Lake.) Hemlock tends to grow in the faraway places that are close in. Like nature in our mostly urban lives, it is ubiquitous but can seem to be at a distance.
To a woodworker, hemlock is knotty, coarse-grained, brittle, shunned even as a Christmas tree, the needles fallen as soon as the tree is set up indoors. If woodworkers turned to hemlock, they did so for pallets and boxes, crates and shingles, lathings and paper pulp—stuff we stepped on, shipped, jotted on and crumpled. Loggers were advised to sell it fast and cheap, as railroad ties. I like to think of all the trains that went west on hemlock after the eastern forests were cut over: over the prairies and to the West Coast, to cut down the next forests. A pulp mill on the Olympic Peninsula, Rayonier, helped develop rayon—an inexpensive synthetic alternative to silk—in 1931 with the pulp of western hemlock, a distant relative of the eastern hemlock from back when the continents were lined up differently. (That hemlock is immune to the ravages of the hemlock woolly adelgid.) The Amish used hemlock for framing, and a building roughly made might be covered in hemlock, built with long-lasting hemlock floors, and hemlock sided. Given all the tannin in the bark, hemlock siding lasted, and after hemlock is dead and gone, it will be interesting to see how long its remains linger on the forest floor.
OVER THE COURSE OF ITS ROLE in the daily life of humans, the hemlock’s most famous use was in tanning, thanks to its thick, reddish, tannin-rich bark. Animal skins were soaked in hemlock-infused baths. Anyone who has ever fly fished in the Schoharie Creek in the Catskill Mountains has considered the shade-scarce banks of the creek compared with what they must have been before Colonel Zadock Pratt Jr. moved to Schohariekill to build what was, in 1840, the largest tannery in the world. Pratt chose Schohariekill precisely for its hemlock. Old majestic groves surrounded the town in steep ravines—so steep that the area is now surrounded by ski resorts, giving you an idea of the kind of terrain that hemlock loves. As Prattsville built up, it was soon referred to as “The Gem of the Catskills.” In The Catskills: From Wilderness to Woodstock, Alf Evers describes the procession of skins that were brought in from around the world—from California and Argentina, from Honduras and Uruguay—to Pratt’s swamp tannery to be turned into shoe leather. The trees were skinned by gangs of workers called “peelers,” and entire slopes of barkless trunks left to rot.
Pratt served two terms in Congress, founded a bank that printed its own currency with his image on it, and had scenes from his life depicted on a cliff above the tannery. He also had his cranium measured by a phrenologist, who described Col. Pratt as “extravagantly organized.” “He is from these causes, consequently eccentric,” the phrenologist continued. “Each action and motion bears the impress of his mind, which makes him somewhat peculiar, isolated and detached from his species.” Pratt married five times. Three wives died young, the fourth divorced him. The fifth worked in the office of the tanning industry’s newspaper, the Shoe and Leather Reporter, the editor of which claimed the final Mrs. Zadock Pratt had, in his words, “acquired that amiability and flavor of The Swamp that made her attractive to the old tanner.”
Pratt aspired, in his words, “to live with the local people and not on them”—though he eventually managed both. As dead trees littered Prattsville, Pratt hatched a post-hemlock plan based on the theory that forested “hemlock land,” used for dairy production, made for great butter. But the world’s largest high-quality butter town never happened. By 1845, all hemlock within a ten-mile radius were gone, and the town quickly shrank. Pratt commissioned himself a hemlock coffin. In the Catskills, it was well noted that a green hemlock log thrown on a fire crackled like a gun battle. “And when I die let me be buried in a hemlock coffin, so I’ll go through hell snapping” was an oft-heard refrain. Shortly before he died, a flood washed Pratt’s coffin down the Schoharie Creek. In 2011, Prattsville suffered another disastrous flooding, this time the result of Hurricane Irene. It might not have been so bad had Pratt never set up shop, or moved to butter sooner, or just further considered the implications of cutting so many hemlock along steep ravines. A little forest management goes a long way.
IN PREPARING FOR the hemlock’s eulogy, it is important to remember that a striking characteristic of human civilization is its tendency to discount what is most essential to sustaining its long-term existence. Swamps, for instance, are forever being filled in—or “reclaimed,” the old real-estate term for dumping garbage in a marsh. The word implies that it’s always for civilization’s betterment, even if civilization would be better off if the watery guts that clean and nourish our rivers and streams were not filled in.
In my mind, a hemlock forest is the upland equivalent of the undervalued salt marsh at the distant bottom of a stream, a place that gets along despite the encroachment of humans surrounding it, a place that is often a little bit neglected by the powers that be (due to its economic unsexiness, its out-of-the-way-ness), even though it is often cherished by locals, the people who know it best. Like an old swamp in a city, it is a place that, when engaged with, helps the humans get along a little better. Forests, like salt marshes, offer us a chance at a long-term relationship with a landscape, especially when we tie ourselves to them as a resource—an economic, ecological, and, sure, even emotional resource—and especially when we allow them to be forests.
What’s important about a hemlock forest—and what makes its demise important to regions beyond the eastern forests and the boreal forest that covers 1.4 billion acres across most of Canada—is that hemlock is a foundation species, a species that orchestrates the architecture of a large community of species in the forest. Losing hemlock is like losing a conductor and the music, though rest assured the concert hall remains, and there are plenty of people waiting in line to play.
The hemlock forest we will hear eulogize itself today is quiet and dark, like a hemlock forest, and it began sprouting around the time Dolley Madison was first lady. And these are young trees, relatively speaking. Some of the oldest hemlock are close to five hundred years old and still standing in the least touched places in the East, like the Berkshires, in Massachusetts, and the Adirondacks, in New York. But many of them have already fallen—just look at the dying groves in Great Smokies National Park. I hate to separate the country from the city, or call one thing natural and another thing not, but to put it in terms of urban ecology (which to me is related to rural ecology but with higher rents), the rare, old hemlock woods that remain are like the city trees in abandoned lots, or that old retired guy in the last rent-controlled apartment, surrounded by gentrification, holding on, until now.
IT HAD BEEN HOT in New York City when I drove out in the morning to pay some final respects to the hemlock. But when I stepped into the hemlock forest, the temperature dropped; it was immediately and blessedly cooler by ten degrees, like an old church in summer. The hemlock I went to hear are in the New England uplands, and I made the drive in part because the hemlock in the city where I live and in the coastal lowlands are already gone. The Hemlock Forest, a fifty-acre grove in the New York City Botanical Garden—once a cool, quiet place along the Bronx River—is no longer hemlock. Likewise, most of the hemlock on Hemlock Hill at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston have fallen to the punctuation-sized aphidlike insect.
The hemlocks on Hemlock Hill were famously visited by the transcendentalists, notably Margaret Fuller, the transcendentalist newspaper columnist who wrote for the New York Tribune. Although the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 knocked down dozens of the trees, the grove survived, but the few that remain post-adelgid are Chinese hemlock planted near the top of the hill. The hemlock-less peak of Hemlock Hill—now a dry, rocky outcrop—is an off-the-manicured-path kind of place that attracts another kind of transcendental experience. The last time I was there, I saw evidence of a high school outing—i.e., empty beer cans. High schoolers like to be just out of reach of the authorities, the way old-growth hemlock tends to be just out of reach of the ax.
Another transcendentalist who stumbled on some old hemlock in his own backyard was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau climbed Mount Monadnock, just over the border from Massachusetts, in 1844, 1852, 1858, and 1860, always botanizing, always taking notes. Monadnock wasn’t wild and unspoiled like the Maine woods where he also explored; he liked it because it was an old place practically just out back, a pocket of wildness. It was hemlocky, I would say.
I thank Thoreau for leading me to today’s eulogy. By my measure, the world is still a pretty good place if you can call somebody up and get invited to walk in some woods, and that’s what happened when I first called up David Foster, the director of the Harvard Forest. I was thinking a lot about Thoreau at the time, and Foster had written one of my favorite books on the forever-misinterpreted Massachusettsian, Thoreau’s Country: Journey through a Transformed Landscape. Foster’s book begins in the Vermont woods in 1977, Foster just out of college and about to build a cabin. With Thoreau’s journals as company, Foster discovers a discrepancy between the thick New England forest of 1977 and the forest described by Thoreau from 1837 to 1861. Thoreau, it turns out, lived at the peak of New England deforestation—not what we think of today when we think of Thoreau country. He lived among some woods but primarily farms and meadows. The pond-side woodlot where Ralph Waldo Emerson allowed Thoreau to build a cabin was an anomaly: ministers were paid in wood in Thoreau’s time, the trees at Walden Pond being a little like an oil field in twenty-first-century Iraq. Foster’s book helped me access that other time in the landscape, to imagine whole forests coming and going.
This is a trait I admire about foresters: they think big. Some of the greatest thinkers about the American landscape were foresters, including Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, and Benton MacKaye. MacKaye drew up plans to remap the entire U.S. during the Great Depression, and his Appalachian Trail is more than just a great trail; it is a model of locally administered regional planning. When I am thinking about rush-hour traffic, a forester is likely to be thinking about the last ice age, or the birch and oak that will be along one hundred years after a hemlock forest dies—or in the case of the ecologists at the Harvard Forest, a regional plan called Wildlands and Woodlands that seeks to keep our vast (and often forgotten about) northeastern forest productive. Maybe this bigger picture has to do with the roots of the word forest: the place outside the king’s garden, the place beyond.
A REASON THE HARVARD FOREST is a good place to pay your respects to hemlock is that the scientists there are maintaining a vigil. They are using the 3,500-acre forest to investigate, as their mission statement states, “the ways in which physical, biological and human systems interact to change our earth.” The place is also just a little nutty—no offense to the scientist working for decades on experiments that are changing our understanding of the landscape. There is a farm, the old Sanderson place, and walking trails through the postcard-perfect New England landscape almost everywhere you look. But there are also hoses and towers and cameras and monitors that read the vitals of trees, inspect a grove’s breathing. It’s a wired forest.
And yet despite all the modern appliances, the eighty-year-old dioramas at the forest’s Fisher Museum—eight beautifully crafted depictions of moments in the New England landscape from 1700 to 1930—are better than any 3-D internet experience I’ve seen (trees made of copper wire, the smallest wire, the smallest limb). They tell the story of a forest that, since European settlement, was cut and cleared, grew back, was cut again, and now, in its latest rendition—targeted less by axes and more by invasive species and development—is a system we need more than ever in a warming global environment. A fact I repeat to anyone who will listen: when spring comes and the trees in New England burst forth their leaves as part of the larger eastern forest that runs from Canada to the Carolinas, from New York to Ohio, more carbon is sucked out by the forest in and around New England than by the Amazon rainforest.
As the woolly adelgid moves north with warmer weather, as hemlock die, what will happen to the forest? Will it still suck as much carbon, for instance? These are questions the Harvard Forest is poised to answer as the loss of a foundation species is measured more fully than ever before. Measuring and analyzing the collapse is like having a seat at the Big Bang, a view of a disruptive event that will inevitably bring something new, new systems interacting in new ways. Understanding this kind of death is crucial to understanding how we shall proceed with life in a world where species collapse is less and less a surprise.
A WHILE AGO I HEARD a woman in her eighties lament that she was at an age that meant spending a lot of time at her friends’ funerals. This is our future as North Americans who live among old friends who are trees. In Minnesota, the warming climate—projected to raise temperatures about ten degrees by century’s end—is expected to change the hardwoods and conifers that make up the boreal forest of the Boundary Waters into an oak savannah, featuring stunted bur oak and juniper, prairie grass, and prickly pear cactus: a scene from today’s Kansas. State officials are attempting to plant themselves out of a decline, a move that is especially controversial around protected wildernesses like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Isle Royale National Park. Is it right to put an old forest on life support?
At the Harvard Forest in Petersham, they are not replanting hemlock, so a question sprouts: what will happen when hemlock is gone? We can look at past declines, many of which teach us about what Bob Marshall, the Wilderness Society cofounder and Harvard Forest alum, described as the forest’s “dynamic beauty.” And we can make some predictions. At the moment, the woolly adelgid has a competitor as far as hemlock killing goes: in New England another primary cause of hemlock death is preemptive logging, before the adelgid gets to it. Studies of plots logged in the Harvard Forest to simulate preemptive cuts show us that a lot of carbon is released from the forest floor. Black birch, meanwhile, comes running in, happy to take hemlock’s place.
If you are walking into a hemlock grove with David Foster and his colleagues, everything is put in relation to change. “In many ways you can just look at this as part of the natural flux of the forest,” Foster said to me on the day I went to hear the hemlock’s eulogy. “The trick in thinking of it that way is that this of course is an introduced species from outside the evolutionary history of the system.” That’s the woolly adelgid, who hails, as mentioned, from Asia. “And so it isn’t a particularly natural part of this system,” Foster went on. “But the way the forest is coping with it is the same way that it would cope if this were a native insect or a hurricane or a tornado or something else—the forest wouldn’t get upset, it copes. In fact, the deer are quite happy. Lots of new shoots.”
“There are winners and losers,” said Steve Long, a longtime forest watcher. He is the founder of Northern Woodlands magazine, the author of More Than a Woodlot, and a student of the 1938 hurricane, an adelgidlike devastation whose damage is visible in the Harvard Forest, just as the earlier chestnut blight is visible: today a dead-but-still-standing chestnut leans relaxed against a terminal hemlock. “Black-throated green warblers are here now, and they will go. The conifer structure is what they like.”
If I were to jog out to this place in the forest one hundred years hence—I mean, if I am going to be alive in a hundred years, I might as well be in great shape—and then attempt to describe to children the hemlock forest that once stood on this spot (the cool shade, the darkness, the quiet), I would likely not be able to distinguish the onetime hemlock land from the rest of the forest. “Right now”—by which she meant today—“I would just jog in place,” said Clarisse Hart, a forest researcher and a poet who works at the Harvard Forest. “The ground is so soft.” And she’s right. The lushness is what I ought to recall in that imaginary future: the softness of the ground, the smells—a smell she rightly described as “close and green.” A sharper and more medicinal smell than a forest of fir trees. And then there are the smells of the moist hemlock floor itself and everything it grows: wintergreen plants that decorate the place, as well as a few feet of millions of needles, together offering a downlike softness of accumulated decay.
“It’s sad,” Hart added. She was talking about the death of hemlock, and I agree, it is sad. And it is at this moment that Hart brings to my attention the sound of the hemlock grove.
THE GROUP THAT GATHERED here today is now standing still for a moment, getting ready to just listen. It brings to mind the kind of pause described in the first half of Robert Frost’s poem “On a Tree Fallen Across the Road (To hear us talk).” Humans naturally turn to poetry for help with loss. A good poet, after all, does what the forester does: takes in the myriad details to give us perspective, an entrance into a larger view of time. Frost writes:
The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
Throws down in front of us is not to bar
Our passage to our journey’s end for good,
But just to ask us who we think we are
Insisting always on our own way so.
She likes to halt us in our runner tracks,
And make us get down in a foot of snow
Debating what to do without an ax.
Trees mark time for the humans who notice them, and in this poem the tree interrupts, diverts us into a suspended moment, what a musician would call a fermata. Frost is exacting. His metaphor unites with the natural detail; figure of speech and the reality of the fallen tree converge.
“A Dust of Snow” is what I would call a very hemlocky poem that Frost published in 1923, while teaching at Amherst, which is, by the way, eighteen miles as the crow flies from Petersham. You can read it as a crow startling a man, a note of morbid awareness. But the power of the poem builds as you delve deeper into hemlocks. When you ponder what it means for a subdivision to punctuate forever a northeastern forest that perhaps you hadn’t heretofore noticed, or what it means to end the regrowths and reincarnations of forests that lived previous lives as meadows around the time of Thoreau, or when you discover the efficiency of a hemlock forest—the need for so little light, the characteristic denseness of its canopy, branches from top to bottom, as opposed to, say, a pine, which concentrates its branches high on the tree, toward the sky—the poem grows on the forest-interested reader. Hemlock awareness changes your perception of the poem, and of hemlock. The hemlock-knowledgeable you becomes the poem’s nurse log, primed for succession:
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
The hemlock canopy is a canopy that traps and holds snow, the hemlock growing so slowly as to be on an altogether different clock from that of the birch tree or the fast-growing pine, or the man standing beneath a crow. Nobody is sure how hemlock got its name in North America; there is only conjecture as to its resemblance to the plant called hemlock (although, more accurately conium) that famously silenced Socrates, shutting down his nervous system gradually but completely. Nonetheless, it seems impossible to separate the hemlock tree from the hemlock plant’s poison, for a poet to keep the death of Socrates out of the picture—for death is in the forest, especially a hemlock forest, especially now. But the dust of snow falls from one timescape to another, bridging a gap, adjusting distances and, thus, adjusting endings.
“YOU CAN HEAR IT,” someone in our little group says, and at first I think they mean the quiet.
I listen and at first think I hear the coolness, a stream of cold, rushing water. We look up, through the dense branches and millions of needles and the smallest pinelike cones. Like the dust of snow, or a touch of gray, we see evidence of death: the eggs of the adelgid, white woolly patches, cottony eggs that cover the trees’ fine needles. Needles are brown, and on second glance more needles are white, the adelgids sucking the old trees’ life away. In certain places in the canopy we see what we would not see in a healthy hemlock forest—light from above. (The light on a healthy hemlock-forest floor is 1 percent of the light entering the canopy.)
I keep listening to what I now understand is not a stream. This is the hemlock’s final words, the sound of a thousand dying needles falling, a gentle rain, and it is steady. I can record it, memorize it, lock it in and carry it home. A forest is leaving, going forever, at least our forever. And yet, when I play the sound back in my mind as I head off to sleep, I don’t feel sad, though it is a sad sound. Death is sad, but death is not the end, especially in a forest. Emily Dickinson—who was as close as Frost to the hemlocks I hear today—suggested that a part of us leaves when a friend dies, but she also suggested an estuarine return:
Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.
When I listen to the hemlock’s sad rain, play it over in my head, I feel thicker, like a hemlock, more worn. I feel the still-cool air of the hemlock woods, and I imagine the ground, the cool ground of a forest that will once again undergo a change, a shift, a dynamic transformation that is like so many it has undergone over thousands of years of different lives—a high or a low tide, depending on how you look at it.