ABOUT THE WITNESS TREE PROJECT

Read my blog about my year as a Bullard Fellow embedded at the Harvard Forest, exploring the human and natural history of a single 100-year-old red oak for my forthcoming book, Witness Tree.


First national review for Witness Tree, and it’s a beauty!

February 3, 2017

An update on Witness Tree, the book about my year with the big oak at the Harvard Forest.

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The first national review is in, a starred review in Kirkus Reviews:

“A textured story of a rapidly changing natural world and our relationship to it, told through the lens of one tree over four seasons.Seattle Times environmental reporter Mapes (Breaking Ground: The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the Unearthing of Tse-whit-zen Village, 2015, etc.) first encountered the Harvard Forest as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow, returning soon afterward for a yearlong stay in the woods. Renting a room in a historic farmhouse, she sought out a majestic century-old oak to serve as her lens from which to explore the past, situate the present, and grapple with an uncertain future. Aided by a colorful team of interdisciplinary experts, Mapes tells a dynamic story from multiple perspectives, including from a hammock in the canopy of the tree. Understanding trees simultaneously as utility and commodity, as ritual and relic, as beings with agency and sustainers of life, the author illustrates how they have found their ways into our homes and memories, our economies and language, and she reveals their places in our entangled future. Seamlessly blending elements of physics, ecology, biology, phenology, sociology, and philosophy, Mapes skillfully employs her oak as a human-scaled entry point for probing larger questions. Readers bear witness to indigenous histories and colonialism, to deforestation and extraction, to industrialization and urbanization, and to the story of carbon and the indisputable realities of human-caused climate change. Understanding these phenomena to be intricately interconnected, the author probes lines falsely drawn between objectivity and emotion and between science and wonder, all while examining the nature of knowledge and the possibilities, tensions, and limitations of science. Passionately discrediting the notion that humans and nature are separate, she links this flawed belief to the root of our current ecological crisis and calls for a reimagining of the ways of being together in the world. A meticulously, beautifully layered portrayal of vulnerability and loss, renewal and hope, this extensively researched yet deeply personal book is a timely call to bear witness and to act in an age of climate-change denial.”

Pre order the book and mark your calendar for launches in Seattle, Petersham, and the Arnold Arboretum!

In Seattle, May 2, at the Seattle Public Library downtown

In Petersham, at the Harvard Forest Fisher Museum, May 2

In Boston, at the Arnold Arboretum, May 5.

More events to come.

 

 

The wonder and charisma of animals

November 6, 2016

 

I just returned home to Seattle from a grueling reporting trip to North Dakota for the Seattle Times, where with my colleague photographer Alan Berner we were witnessing the standoff with police from eight states against native people and their supporters opposed to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Time again during our work on the front lines and back in the protest camp, we were struck by the importance of animals.

Alan’s photos captured in our Seattle Times special report  not only pepper-sprayed demonstrators and arrests — but the special role of animals, with their people.

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This photo by Alan Berner of the Seattle Times shows the tender connection between people and horses at the Oceti Sakowin camp, home to hundreds of opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

This beautiful horse for instance — one of many we saw in camp, and on the front lines.

But most spectacular was the herd of buffalo that spontaneously flowed over the prairie as demonstrators were facing one of their hardest days on the front lines, on October 27th, 2016. Demonstrators were outnumbered and outgunned by police from six states in armored personnel carriers, ATVs and using pepper spray, rubber bullets, bean bag shot guns. They were arresting demonstrators by the hundreds. But just then, over the hills came the spirit animal of the Dakota/Lakota people, by the thousands. Tatanka. The buffalo. People screamed. Shouted. Wept. Here they were: their oldest friends, in their hour of need.

Buffalo surge across the Great Plains, just when demonstrators needed them most. People wept and screamed with joy at the sight. Photo by Alan Berner, The Seattle Times

Buffalo surge across the Great Plains, just when demonstrators needed them most. People wept and screamed with joy at the sight. Photo by Alan Berner, The Seattle Times

I was struck all over again at how animals tell us where and how we are in our human lives, and remind us that we are embedded in nature. When I was reporting my book Witness Tree, while at the Harvard Forest in 2014-15, it was the animals that told the story of the change in the New England woods as much as the trees that now cover what used to be farms.

We put a wildlife camera up in the woods to see who would come by the big oak I was studying that year. And what a wonder it was to see the menagerie that had returned to New England, now that the trees are back. Here are some looks at the wildlife camera from the card I downloaded on trip back last September:

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A bobcat cruises down the stone wall by the Witness Tree, the big oak I studied at the Harvard Forest

 

Turkeys graze for acorns underneath the big oak I studied at the Harvard Forest

Turkeys graze for acorns underneath the big oak I studied at the Harvard Forest

A doe strolls across the forest, by the Witness Tree

A doe strolls across the forest, by the Witness Tree

A fox saunters down the stone wall by the big oak.

A fox saunters down the stone wall by the big oak.

Not sure what is happening in this photo but pretty sure it involves a deer or a moose.

Not sure what is happening in this photo but pretty sure it involves a young buck. Isn’t that an antler by his ear?

Returning to the places they were long run out of, whether buffalo of the Great Plains of the native wildlife of New England, animals are our fellow travelers on this earth. They remind us often when it seems we need it most of our place in a wondrous world, far bigger than ourselves.

 

Such a beautiful cover for Witness Tree

August 21, 2016

The folks at Bloomsbury Publishing have been hard at work editing, copyediting, and designing my forthcoming book, Witness Tree, due out next spring. The book is the story of climate change, told through the life of a single, 100-year old red oak tree. I spent 2013-15 researching it first as a Knight Fellow in Science Journalism at MIT and then a Bullard Fellow in Forest Research at the Harvard Forest, where this beautiful tree lives. My day in and day out companion for a year in residence at the forest, its beautiful, wild life is the inspiration and storyline of my book. A living timeline, it tells the story of our changing relationship with nature, and all that has meant for our living world. 

Living with this tree and learning its story changed my life, and I hope it changes yours. To see deeply into the life of one living thing is to see your own life much more clearly.

One of the most fun parts of any book (if it goes well) is the selection of the cover. 

Here’s what soon will be coming to a bookstore near you: 

 

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I think it beautifully captures the glow, the majesty and gorgeous wild life of this single, beautiful oak through which I came to learn, and see so much.

Back with more updates on the project soon, including my trip to the Harvard Forest next month to see my tree, and climb it again along with others during the Women’s Tree Climbing Workshop.

 

A BEAUTIFUL NEW WITNESS TREE HOMEPAGE

June 4, 2015

Enjoy the beautiful new homepage for my Witness Tree project on the  Harvard Forest website, where all the content about my book in the making is conveniently organized in one, lovely spot. The new video trailer about my book project is there, as well as a link to this Witness Tree blog, and the live web cam that’s up and running under the tree. Have a look and enjoy! With many thanks to Clarisse Hart, outreach and development manager at the forest for putting it together, as well as this terrific highlight on the video.

Meanwhile, the big oak is continuing to leaf out. Its leaves are about three quarters developed. They are not quite as fully green or stiff yet as they will be in just a few more weeks. The leaves still have that tender, pale look of new, growing foliage.  Here’s a look on the webcam from this morning: 

WITNESS TREE: THE MOVIE

May 20, 2015

Have a look at this wonderful video about my book in the works, Witness Tree. 

Big thanks to my friends at the Knight Fellowship in Science Journalism at MIT for their work creating this amazing trailer about my project exploring the human and natural history of a 100-year old red oak here at the Harvard Forest for my book, forthcoming from Bloomsbury Publishing.

The crew from the Knight Program made lots of trips out to the forest beginning last fall to make this film, recording in all kinds of weather and even climbing the big oak with me with help from champion tree climbers Bear and Melissa LeVangie of Trees New England.

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Getting ready to climb the big oak last March with Melissa, green fleece, and Bear, red fleece. That’s Patrick chugging the last of his coffee, and Rachael.

 

Several fellows in the Knight program this year recorded footage,  including Rachael Buchanan a medical producer at the BBC, who also worked up a beautiful animation segment. Patrick Wellever, former director of multi-media training for the program,  now headed to a great new job at National Geographic, was the film’s mastermind and producer.

I’m doubly grateful to the Knight program because I got the idea for this book while a Knight Fellow in 2013-14 and a guest in the Richardson Lab at Harvard University. That work paid off with a book contract, and a Bullard Fellowship in Forest Research at the Harvard Forest this year, where I have been since last fall, at work on the book.

The trailer captures the project and magic of the big oak perfectly.

I love the combination of experiences in the film, from the climb, to the animation, and some great time lapse of the tree going through its seasonal year, captured from the web cam that the Knight program also provided for my project. The web cam photographs the tree as it winds through its seasonal gyre. Fresh images of the tree are uploaded to the Harvard Forest web cam page every 30 minutes during daylight hours, year round.

The tree looks particularly beautiful today in its fresh new leaves, emerged only a week or so ago. That bit of wiggle in the image is maybe a slug trail, I think, on the cover over the lens. I’ll head over to the tree after I type this to have a look, and wipe it off. Easier than brushing snow off the cover all winter!  But I don’t know…slug trails and black flies versus snow…I’ll have to think about that one…but I know this for sure. It’s always good to be out with the tree.

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A FAST-FORWARD SPRING AT THE HARVARD FOREST

May 11, 2015

Well after all that drama this year’s spring turned out to be, what would you guess….early? Late? Or just about …normal.

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The red oak I am studying at the Harvard Forest for my book Witness Tree is about half into its leaves. This image is from the web cam that uploads images of the tree every half hour to the Harvard Forest home page.

Exactly. Boston saw record cold, and the Woods Crew here at the Forest – my authority on winter — can’t remember a snowier, tougher season. We all thought spring would take its sweet time.

But the big surprise is that spring at the Harvard Forest is right dead on mean average normal for the past 25 years. Not only that, but after a cool April without much happening, in May it suddenly turned and then stayed hot, with temperatures in the 70s and upper 80s,   creating an unusually compressed season. A fast-forward spring. We have shot into tank top weather so fast it seems impossible that there were more than two feet of snow on the ground a month ago. Now here we are with the trees already at least half in their leaves – and some are further along than that.

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A lovely sessile-leaved bellwort hosts a pair of soldier beetles. Now is the time of the spring ephemeral wildflowers, with more species coming into bloom by the day.

“It wasn’t early. It wasn’t late. But it was very compressed, that’s the takeaway,” said John O’Keefe, field phenologist at the Harvard Forest just back from surveying his trees this afternoon, tracking bud emergence and leaf growth.

Usually, it takes about three weeks or longer for all the species he tracks to leaf out. But this year just about all of the 42 trees John tracks in the spring for leaf emergence, from red oaks to beeches, birches, black cherry, red maple, paper birch, trembling aspen and striped maple broke bud within a week’s time.

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Natal leaves emerge on the red oaks, pink and furry. The color and fuzz protect the young leaves from sun scald and drying winds. 

“Everything was primed, and popped at once. It’s been hot, and it’s still hot today, I bet there will be more out now than when I looked this morning. I’ll bet by Friday it’s 100 percent emergence.”

John records bud break when the entire leaf is first visible, to the base of the stem. By his survey today, every tree he checks was in more than 50 percent bud break. The only laggards were one white oak, a white ash, and a red maple – only because it has so many flowers. By the next day the ash was in leaf, too.

It’s not just the trees that are booming into spring. The animals and birds are back, too. I saw a lovely garter snake today. On Saturday, visiting students from the Harvard Extension School discovered a yellow spotted and red backed salamander under a log. You can see a video made by Louise Johnson from her visit here. The warblers are out in force, and I’ve seen my first scarlet tanagers, one of the most shockingly red birds in the woods. The wood frogs are long finished calling and the ponds I check are replete with egg masses. The peepers are still going strong, even using a little pond in the cow pasture behind my house.

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Viewed from the walk-up tower above the tree canopy at the Harvard Forest the red oaks are a soft sea of bloom and new leaf.

As I write this, the fragrance of Korean spice viburnum, two floors down outside the back door of Shaler Hall, is drifting in the window to my office which is deliciously wide open to the spring breeze.

Speaking of flowers. Now is the time of the spring ephemerals. Flowers and forest herbs began emerging and blooming a week ago and it won’t be long before the tree canopy closes and the show is over. Ferns are already nearly knee high.

Spring ephemeral wildflowers and herbs take advantage of the sunlight pouring through the tree canopy before the leaves are fully out. The forest floor is receiving its maximum light and sun right now – and more species are in flower by the day.

John began tracking the seasonal timing of the forest canopy and woodland shrubs in 1990. His records have become particularly valuable because he has compiled such a long record by a single observer. This was his 26th spring walking his 2.5 mile survey in the woods.

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John O’Keefe explains his data collection method to visitors at the Harvard Forest. He is tracking his 26th spring at the forest this year.

Phenology – observance of biological events in nature that are influenced by climate – is an ancient practice, with new scientific relevance because it shows the influence of global change on living things. Here at the Harvard Forest, John’s data shows spring on average is arriving earlier, fall later, and winter is squeezed on both ends. The growing season over 25 years John has been observing these woods has extended by about four and a half days, with most of the extension coming with later onset of fall.

 

 

 

AND THE WINNER IS: RED OAK

May 7, 2015

In a Googled world, The Harvard Forest is the land of the long view, the deep dive, a place where researchers look up close at the landscape and its history, to see what the trees can teach. So it is that Audrey Barker Plotkin and I recently went out to take a look at what she had learned at Walter Lyford’s plot.

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Audrey Barker Plotkin locates the red maple, left, and red oak, right, depicted on Lyford’s hand-drawn map. Unique, long term data sets are a hallmark of the Harvard Forest’s scholarship.

Lyford was a meticulous soil scientist at the Harvard Forest, a 3,700 acre research forest in Petersham, MA and a department of Harvard University. He established a permanent 7 acre plot at the Harvard Forest in 1969, where he measured and located every tree over two inches in diameter on a hand-drawn map — 6,000 trees in all. This beautiful, large-scale map is preserved at the Harvard Forest Archives today. It includes every feature on the forest floor in the plot: live and dead trees, stonewalls, boulders, and more.

Barker Plotkin, research manager at the Harvard Forest and her collaborators have been considering the 42 years of monitoring data accrued by now in five surveys of the plot, including the most recent, in 2011. What they found was new relevance in old data, because of the point of comparison Lyford’s baseline provides in a changing world. Since the plot was first laid out in 1969 much has happened – including the acceleration of climate change, and atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide causing it. It’s a change you can see in the trees.

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In a Google world Walter Lyford’s hand-drawn map meticulously noting the features of his study plot is a treasure of detailed, place-specific information.

Barker Plotkin and Kate Eisen of Cornell University – who did her work as part of the undergraduate research program in ecology at the Harvard Forest — published their results in the Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society today. The paper documents their analysis of a 2011 resurvey of the 6,000 trees in the Lyford plot, showing the trees in this mostly 110-year old stand are still growing – especially red oak.

From 1969 to 2011, red oak increased its dominance in this grove to clock nearly 70 percent of the total tree biomass. Meanwhile red maple receded to a lesser presence, as red oak asserted itself over the maple canopy.

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Barker Plotkin checks Lyford’s map to locate two individual trees, using the handy desk of a stone wall — also on the map, of course.

On our walk, Barker Plotkin and I used a Xeroxed portion of Lyford’s map to find a classic example of this dynamic. She unrolled the map on a boulder (also on the map) and crooked her head back to point out a pair of trees, one a big red oak, and the other a red maple tucked under its canopy.

“If you want to see how great oak is, this is a pretty good place,” she said. Both trees had been measured and mapped in Lyford’s original survey. That enabled Barker Plotkin to see the maple had grown half as much as the oak over the 40-year period. And the oak were still surging ahead.

That’s the small, two-tree picture, but the value of it is that these two trees, watched over time, tell a planetary story. The tale of two reds – red maple and red oak – revealed by the long term research plot is that in the absence of some sort of major wipe out storm or other disturbance, red oak will continue to increase in size, and the stand will keep packing away the carbon it pulls out of the atmosphere for at least another century.

Red oak is the workhorse of the forest: its biomass more than doubled in the intervening years since Lyford’s initial mapping – compared with a 48 percent increase in all the other species. Part of the surprise in the data was how strongly red oak is still growing, even past its 100th year. It could even keep right on going, barring as storm or other major disturbance, maintaining their dominance and packing away carbon into their 200th year and beyond.

These oaks are literally eating into the carbon dioxide emissions people are putting into the atmosphere. Trees use carbon dioxide for their food source, to create sugar using the energy of the sun in the process of photosynthesis. Every atom of carbon a tree takes out of the air and tucks away in the form of wood, leaves or roots is that little bit less carbon in the atmosphere, trapping heat energy that’s changing the seasons, and the climate.

But just how is it that red oak dominates its grove? Partly, it’s red oak’s style. In a forest, red oak grows in a straight shot to the canopy then spreads a large crown with big strong branches. Red maple takes a more bulbous, contained form. The red oak simply overshadows it – literally. Researchers in the Richardson Lab at Harvard University have also found red oak is honing its performance in response to higher carbon dioxide levels and longer growing seasons caused by global warming. Red oak is increasing both its water use efficiency, and growth.

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Audrey Barker Plotkin heads out to the Lyford plot at the Harvard Forest, with a photocopied section of Lyford’s map.

I am studying a big oak at the Harvard Forest that’s a textbook example of the red oaks in the Lyford plot. While not in the same part of the forest, its life story is the same: it sprouted in what was a pasture cleared by Europeans from the original forest. The pasture was abandoned in about 1840, and then grew in to white pine, cut intensively in the late 1890s. The oak I study today is part of the mixed-hardwood forest that came in after the pine was slicked off around 1900. It’s the third growth forest that comprises most of the Harvard Forest today – and red oak is its dominant tree.

Red oak’s witness and role as the industrial economy roared to life, and people left these pastures and farmlands to grow back to woods is the story I tell in my forthcoming book, Witness Tree. It’s a story about not just one red oak, but our relationship with nature, and the role of trees in our changing world.

 

 

THE FINE ART OF PAYING ATTENTION

May 2, 2015

JOHN HANSON MITCHELL is a master of the fine art and deep pleasure of paying attention. Author of Ceremonial Time, Fifteen Thousand Years on One Square Mile, a landmark in American natural history writing, among other books, Mitchell also was the editor of Sanctuary, the splendid magazine published by Mass Audubon for 34 years until it was (to me, inexplicably) discontinued last year. You can read a collection of his natural history essays from Sanctuary here. 

 

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asked author John Hanson Mitchell if we had the right to do what we are doing to the planet with climate change and he answered “…the judges are the animals.” Note the animal sketched in his journal, and the animals on the window sill at his home.

 

 

When I began work on my own book, Witness Tree, last year about the human and natural history of a single 100-year-old red oak at the Harvard Forest, I knew Ceremonial Time, a classic in the genre of deep observation of one place – think Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, or Henry Beston’s The Outermost House — was a must-read for me. It had been in my house, and my husband’s before mine, for many years. I tucked the slim paperback with its venerable, yellowed, crackly pages amid the books we packed when I headed to the Forest last fall to begin a year’s sabbatical year away from my job as a reporter at the Seattle Times, to write the book while a Bullard Fellow in forest research funded by Harvard University and based at the forest.

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John Hanson Mitchell’s writing studio, one of several out buildings on his property he has made into personal havens for work and observation.

In his book, Mitchell explores one square mile of America – its life, legends, and 15,000 years of history in what he calls Scratch Flat, an ordinary bit of New England woods and pasture, and his home for more than 30 years. It is one of those books in which nothing happens, and everything happens, and is the story of no place in particular, and therefore everyone’s place – it is about not the grand wildernesses and remote, mystic redoubts of John Muir, but the quotidian places where most of life happens. The places we call home.

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A book-lined retreat Hanson has created in a tiny cabin he built at his property.

So it wasn’t long after I arrived here that I looked Mitchell up, and found him at his home, still in Scratch Flat, on a wet winter day.

What a deeply nested home: the main house was full in an uncluttered way of personal treasures of every sort. But it got better, as Mitchell showed me the collection of outbuildings he has created over the years, one for a writing studio, another a cabin retreat, a third a gazebo for sitting in his carefully tended garden. It is here that Mitchell lives the practice of phenology – the observation of the seasonal progression of nature. Phenology has been rediscovered by mainstream scientists as a way to document the affect of climate change on the land, as seasons change in a warming world. But for most of us, phenology is today what it has always been for people, everywhere: the art and pleasure of paying attention.

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Into the garden, his refuge and place of contemplation. Mitchell uses only hand tools — in part to be able to hear the birds as he works.

 

Mitchell visits the landscapes of Beaver Brook near Littleton, MA, a.k.a. Scratch Flat daily, just as he has for more than 30 years. “It is very peaceful, you can hear the highway on some days, but there are these empty spots here on Scratch Flat…and I go down there and it is total peace. Winter wrens, the pale winter sun, that smoky hazy day like today, it is beautiful with the shades of colors like tapestry. You see more life in the winter, you can see who has been there, fishers and coyotes and deer.”

Watching the progression of the seasons is second nature to him: “It’s how I tell time,” Mitchell said.

The garden is part of how and where he witnesses climate change, in both its day-to-day reality, as seasons change – and how he copes with the fact of it. “You forge on in the fact of it,” Mitchell said. “This thing of a billion other possible planets, that is good news. Maybe it doesn’t matter. The sun is going to burn out. In the history of the universe we are a pretty short-lived phenomenon, the human race doesn’t even register.

“We are pretty homocentric – is that a word?” Mitchell says, looking out the window to his garden. “I just carry on I guess, the garden is getting to be a metaphor for me. I take the long view. The Earth is going to endure.

 “We’ve got, what, 5 billion people, a huge percentage of whom are not educated to these matters here in the United States which is supposedly educated. For Christ sake you have people who don’t believe in evolution, what is it, 41 percent of the population? What hope is there for such a people. And you can quote me on that.” Actually, it’s more than 7 billion people, including 42 percent of 318 million Americans who don’t believe in evolution, according to a 2015 Gallup poll.

Both sanctuary and observation post, his garden is where Mitchell watches our changing world unfold. He works strictly by hand, clearing, tending, pruning and shaping the thousands of ornamental plants he has planted at his property over more than 30 years. “The garden is a place, but it’s also a metaphor. It’s a sanctuary here for me.

“This takes work. I like the work. That is the main existential statement. It is hand work, I don’t use machines. I hate machines. I hate chain saws. I hate leaf blowers.”

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John Mitchell on a visit to the Witness Tree this week, the big oak behind him.

 

Mitchell came to visit the Harvard Forest this week to speak at a conference, and so I took him out to meet the Witness Tree I am writing about. He put hand to its gnarly bark, tipped his head back to enjoy the canopy’s structure, asked about the life of the soil, the doings of the soldier beetles, did I know about them? For to Mitchell, everyone should know about everything in their little patch of the world around them. And for those who don’t pay attention to the great gyre of their small Scratch Flat, wherever it is, well. They are missing out.

“They are missing the scent of fresh cut hay, frog calls,” Mitchell said. “They are missing everything, 100,000 year’s of contact with nature, with the world, the real world. The arrival and departure of birds. I really don’t need a calendar any more, I am really conscious of the seasons. But it is changing, shifting, I have watched the gardens here for 30 years, and we used to get the first frost September 18 on the Equinox, a light frost, then we would get a killer on the 10th of October.

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Looking up to the canopy of the Witness Tree. Just as John O’Keefe, field phenologist at the Harvard Forest has seen the timing of seasons change at the Harvard Forest over the past 25 years of his observations, Mitchell notes later killing frosts in the fall, and on average, milder winters during his 30 years of observations at Scratch Flat.

 

“Now the light frost is in October and the killer is in November, and that is pretty standard for the last 15 years. We used to be a (USDA Plant Hardiness) Zone 4, now it’s 5 and we are pushing 6. I can grow plants here I couldn’t grow 20 years ago. I am growing a tree native to the Smoky Mountains. I should try crepe myrtle.”

And so as the great world spins, and another spring comes, Mitchell is back out in the garden, to work with his hand tools. “I love to scythe, you are on your own time, you want to listen to the birds, and with hand tools, you can hear them. I smell the grass, I just stop a lot and just stare into space.”

I listen,  then have to ask him. For someone obviously so appreciative of nature’s wonder, what about climate change? Do we have the right to do what we are doing to the planet? He stops and thinks about that. Then answers me:

“If the animals could vote, they would say, we have no right. If they could put us on trial they would say we had no right to do what we did, that we are guilty.

“Do we have the right? Who’s to say, who is the judge on that. Right or wrong. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that, because the judges are the animals.”

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Author John Hanson Mitchell at home in Littleton, MA, a.k.a. Scratch Flat, the landscape he memorialized in his book Ceremonial Time. 

 

 

PHENOLOGY: ON THE HUNT FOR SPRING AT THE HARVARD FOREST

April 30, 2015

The tree line is flushed with red maples in bloom; the black cherry is in leaf, and the first ferns and mayflower are making a brave start: spring has arrived at the Harvard Forest.

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Finally, the first ferns push through winter’s forest duff as spring arrives at the Harvard Forest.

The frogs got it started, first the woodies with their weird quacking call, and now the peepers are positively deafening. Last night under a waxing moon I went out into the forest with friends after dinner to follow the peepers’ calls to a pond in the woods. We stood in awe as the season’s first moths cruised the warm night, the moon reflected off the water, and the peepers sang their little hearts out. No bigger than the first joint of a finger and perfectly camouflaged, even with our flashlights we could not see what we heard all around us. So we just enjoyed their night music, eventually returning to Community House here at the Harvard Forest where we all live. The moonlight spilled silver through the trees onto our woodland path.

Skunk cabbage is blooming in the Harvard Forest as spring beings to awaken the forest floor.

Skunk cabbage is blooming in the Harvard Forest as spring begins to awaken the forest floor.

It was a magical coda to one of my favorite things: a day spent in the woods. I was out all afternoon doing the tree survey that John O’Keefe, field phenologist at the Harvard Forest, usually completes in about three hours. John has been doing this survey for 25 years and reads the woods as rapidly as a newspaper. I understood with new appreciation the complexity of phenology: the practice of observing and recording the seasonal progression of nature, as I tried doing his job even for a day.

Making notes on the phenology of the Harvard Forest tree canopy. Documenting  the seasonal progression of buds and leaves on the trees and woodland shrubs is an excellent way to document the effects of climate change on forest ecosystems.

Making notes on the phenology of the Harvard Forest tree canopy. Documenting the seasonal progression of buds and leaves on the trees and woodland shrubs is an excellent way to discern the effects of climate change on forest ecosystems.

I have been at the Harvard Forest since September on a Bullard Fellowship in forest research, to work with researchers using tree canopy phenology to observe the effects of climate change on the timing of the seasons, and the forest’s ecology. Scientists in the Richardson Lab at Harvard University do this in a number of ways. John and researcher Steve Klosterman monitor the grand procession of the seasons week by week, watching for leaf emergence, color, and drop in spring and fall. John does his survey on foot, and Klosterman deploys a drone to photograph the canopy on weekly flights.

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Red elderberry were the first plant to leaf out at the forest, and now their flower buds are starting to color.

Andrew Richardson, associate professor at Harvard University meanwhile keeps a constant electronic vigil on the canopy, with web cams he has installed on towers in the forest.

With John away this week it was my turn to do the ground survey, tracking the 75 trees he monitors in spring. It’s actually quite demanding. Are those buds slightly swollen, moderately swollen, or broken and in first leaf? What about the flowers on the maples and the shad bush – are they open? This all sounds easier than it is when the tree canopy is 60 feet up. But what a pleasure, to slow down enough to actually look at a whole tree, in detail, and watch spring unfold tiny change by change. A privilege, actually, in our rushed and digital world. So yesterday I spent most of the day craning my neck at tree branches, and pulling them in close to study their buds.

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A spring azure butterfly visits my boot. Common in the New England woods from late April through September, they are anything but common in their lovely appearance.

Everywhere, there were signs of spring: the first emerging ferns raised their fuzzy, tightly coiled heads through last year’s leaf litter. Mayflower, one of the first spring ephemeral wildflowers, was pushing brave spears up through the duff. The skunk cabbage unfurled big, glossy leaves with a tight hooded maroon speckled flower at their base. The striped maple had cracked their buds and were pushing out tender new leaves.

The red elderberry flowers were just starting to color, and I was aware of a new busyness on the forest floor, as the ants and spiders got to work in earnest. I saw my first mosquito, but the black flies aren’t here…yet.

I was visited by a spring azure butterfly, which basked on my boot. This tiny delicate creature lives up to its poetic name, with a sky blue color and delicate wing span under one inch. Slender and lovely, it is a common butterfly in New England, but a wonder on the wing, a flutter of lavender blue after a long snowy winter of white and grey. Spring azures are commonly seen from late April through September – making my April 29 visitor right on time.

I was delighted to see the woods coming to life all around the big oak I am studying at the Harvard Forest. Entering its 100th spring, I am writing a book, Witness Tree, under contract with Bloomsbury Publishing, about this tree’s century of human and natural history, and what they reveal about our changing relationship with nature and its consequences. With the help of researchers at the Richardson Lab, including John O’Keefe, I am also studying the phenology of the forest canopy and how it reveals changes in the physiology of this tree and others because of climate change.

The first ferns emerge at the foot of the big oak I am observing at the Harvard Forest for my book Witness Tree.

The first ferns and mayflower emerge at the foot of the big oak I am observing at the Harvard Forest for my book Witness Tree.

A branch I collected from the big red oak and stuck in a vase weeks ago at my house has finally burst into its first leaves. Try this: it’s a great way to look at the emergence of leaves up close, and appreciate the incredible changes as they unfurl. At first the leaves on the big oak are no longer than my fingernail, yet their oak shape is fully defined. I look forward to watching them grow up close. But as I surveyed the big oak’s branches in the field yesterday, it looked to me like it could still be weeks before it comes into leaf. You can watch spring unfurl at the forest for yourself in real time on Harvard Forest web cams, including one under the Witness Tree.

There is so much change underway, every day. Phenology is the practice of tracking of those changes, with a whole new relevance in the era of global climate change.

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How lovely to see the first spring ephemeral wildflowers start to come up amid the cracked shells of the acorns that carried the animals through last winter.