published January 15 2020 in the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily and the Portsmouth Herald and on seacoastonline.com
This past weekend was unseasonably warm. Record-breaking in fact, for New England, with temperatures a good 7 or 8 degrees warmer than past records.
It seemed like everyone was out taking advantage of the balmy weather to take a walk in the woods. I headed up a side trail on Blue Job Mountain and while working my way up a slushy streambank looked across a clearing and saw something I had never seen before. There, in an old broken-off tree stump was a figure, made of wood, that looked to be climbing out of the tree.
The tree must have been felled relatively recently because the wood was still a bright orange-brown, a splash of color surrounded by the snow-covered pines and oaks. It looked raw and newly exposed. Sunlight hadn’t gotten to it yet (ultraviolet rays break down the cellulose in wood, bleaching out the color, giving it a silvery gray sheen). This figure that I, rationally, knew was just a random carving of the wood into human form, looked back at me. I knew it was just wood, but it still was magical. I could see how people from many different backgrounds, from all over the world, have believed that there are spirits that inhabit trees, so for a moment I believed a wood spirit was looking back at me.
Trees have lives that follow vastly different time scales from ours. They usually live much longer than we do and don’t move as we do. They are root-bound. They only move by reproducing, by sending their seeds out ahead of them into new territory. This warm weather was a reminder to me of their vulnerability. How is the rapid warming of our Earth going to affect the forests of New England?
A little over ten thousand years ago, the glaciers were receding and trees were re-colonizing New England. Slowly their seeds were carried or blown north and slowly they colonized the newly formed earth. This is a process called succession. When there is no dirt (as when glaciers had scoured all the dirt from the land), first lichens and mosses colonize bare rock, break into it and build soil. Then grasses and small plants move in, followed by shrubs, followed by fast-growing, light-loving trees, followed finally by the trees of a mature forest – the beech and maple, pine and oak of our temperate, deciduous forests.
Now, as conditions shift, as it warms, many of these trees need to move north or die. According to Mass Audubon’s “Effects of Climate Change on Woods & Forests,” a general rule of thumb is that “most tree species can colonize habitat beyond their existing range at a rate of 100 km in a 100 years (about 62 miles per 100 years). Some species will be able to move that fast, but warming temperatures will likely require forests to shift by 400 to 600 km (about 250 to 370 miles) by 2100, a rate faster than most species can tolerate.”
One of my favorite types of tree spirits are the Dryads. I first read about these as a child in the classic Bullfinch’s “Mythology.” According to Bullfinch, Dryads are nymphs or spirits, bound to particular trees, caretakers of the trees.
“Dryads or Hamadryads, were believed to perish with the trees which had been their abode and with which they had come into existence. It was therefore an impious act wantonly to destroy a tree.” I guess the caretaking days of my Dryad were over. Her tree had been felled by age or a wind storm. Perhaps that is why she was stepping out of the tree?
Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of her Nature News columns online.