By Mark Naida
On an early April morning, lines of fog still hung over the corn stubble that lay in the fields waiting for a plow to turn it under. I saw the fog through a break in the young wall of thin birches and ash trees that divided the interstate from the field.
This line of trees is a sliver of the Northern Hardwood Forest that covers most of Michigan’s lower peninsula. It is what arborists refer to as a transitional forest, a blend between the Southern oak-hickory forest and the Northern Boreal Forests. It is a mixture of trees, where conifers rise out of the same ground as deciduous trees. The hardwood forest is not virgin forest; it is a regrowth. The timber harvest of the 19th century left hundreds of acres of pine tree stumps rotting as their decaying roots lost hold of the topsoil. In their place, fast growing trees like oaks and hickories grew and fixed the soil again.
Where I was headed, the soil has remained fixed for hundreds of years longer.
I-127 runs north through Jackson, Lansing, Mt. Pleasant, and all the way north to Grayling, cleaving forest from field all the way. As I drove northward that April morning, I could see the tree line change color. White flashes of springy birch dotted the early-April trees whose leaves had not yet emerged for the summer. The white birch bark sprung from the silhouette of dark pines laden with dense clusters of needles. The roadsides transitioned from the flat brown of Southern Michigan to the boreal green and white that evokes postcards of the mountainous Western states.
From Michigan’s southern border to the Mackinac strait, the mean temperature decreases 10 degrees fahrenheit. The lower peninsula steadily fades northward to Jack and Red Pines which dominate in the outwash sands near Lake Michigan and Huron. But in one place, the monarchal tree of the north, the White Pine, still looms over the understory.
Hartwick Pines State Park sits off the highway a few miles north of the convergence of I-127 and I-75 which leads north toward the Mackinac Bridge. Approaching the Adirondack-style visitor’s center, I began to understand how this place was different. The building was built at the edge of 49 acres of White Pine Forest, one of the only old-growth groves left in Michigan.
From the windows of the Visitor’s Center, white-breasted nuthatches and tufted titmouses flew toward the window feeders and then retreated into deep shade of the forest. Away from the window taxidermied lynx, golden finches, and coyote cubs leered from their display cases.
Behind the center, the White Pines rise to twice the height of the other trees. Trees like these have dominated this 50 acre plot for 500 years. It is something that strikes awe. The pines loom 50 feet over the deciduous canopy of maples and oaks. Looking up, I saw a canopy of bony and crossed limbs and higher still green boughs shone their brilliant green against the sky. Despite the park’s proximity to the interstate, the trees dampen the vehicular roar and cover it with the rustling of leaves in the spring wind.
The roots of the white pines weave together and do not penetrate deep into the soil. Because of this, the understory is barren. The layers of dried pine needles choke any new vegetation. Walking among the trees whose trunks approach four feet in diameter, I felt infinitesimal.
The path through the old-growth forest is a locus of contrast. The blacktopped path split the old growth forest from a younger stand of maples and oaks whose leaves were ground into litter by the winter and bleached bright by the April sun. But on the other side of the path cool air wafted from the thick shade of the pines and kept the path covered in ice after cross-country skiers compacted the snow all winter along the trail.
Because of the shallow roots, the trees topple easily in winter ice storms. After the snow begins to melt, the park’s maintenance crews take chainsaws and sever the portions of the fallen giants lying across the path, and drag them so that they lay beside the other portion. They are then left to break down through the pine needle beds back into the firm soil.
These White Pines dominated the northern half of the lower peninsula in the early 19th century. In that pre-industrial time, an incomprehensible volume of animal life and arboreal vegetation emerged from the earth. If the deep shade of the Pines did not cover the ground, the shade from flocks of Passenger Pigeons did. There are accounts of flocks covering the skies that measured 28 miles long and 4 miles wide and blotting out the sun. Underneath the trees, fisher weasels, marten, and wolves roamed the understory. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great American poet, could have been writing of this place in his work Evangeline: “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlocks, bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight.”
The industrial age changed this forever. In the second half of the 19th century, the country tripled in size and needed over one billion logs to sustain the rapid growth of the period. Michigan, with 50% more pine than Minnesota, the next largest producer, was a prime target for logging companies. In 1837, Michigan became the 26th state in the Union. Its largest city, Detroit, had only 8,000 people. But Michigan’s abundant natural resources would soon cause that number to increase.
European immigrants traveled to Michigan to fell the White Pines for the burgeoning nation. These young men, called “shanty boys,” were untrained roughnecks whom logging companies offered to feed heartily for dangerous work. The boys slept in long tents on beds filled with grass or conifer boughs and wool blankets near poorly ventilated cook fires. These tents were thick with pipe smoke and reeked of drying socks and kerosene. The men’s heavy breath humidified the tent and caused the lamps and bunks to drip with moisture. It was not comfortable.
In the morning they felled trees and in the afternoon they dragged them to the river by lashing them to large wheels pulled by draft horses. From there they floated them down to ships that would transport them across Lake Michigan to Chicago or Milwaukee for milling. Adventurous young men would follow the logs downstream, hopping from one to another and parting tangled branches with long poles to prevent log jams from clogging the rivers.
Hiking along the shallow north branch of the Au Sable river trail at Hartwick Pines, I could imagine how this went. Pushing the logs into the languorous flowing water, they would have to hope that the log did not get snagged along the way. The water was no deeper than four feet and the river was no wider than six feet in most places. It would be like sending a log down a crooked waterslide.
After clear-cutting a portion of forest, the men left a stump field behind. Looking like a graveyard with headstones stretching all the way to the horizon line, the stump fields diffused the sweet scent of rotting pine into the air. In a dry season, lightning strikes ignited these stumps and piles of slashings. The heat from the fire cooked the ground and sterilized the soil.
In 60 years, the logging industry reduced the White Pine forests of Michigan to charred earth.
The ice covered the path and short piles of snow lay in depressions in the forest floor. The snow had the grainy quality of water that has frozen, thawed, and refrozen into dense crystals.
Before the industrial age and before human civilization, a glacier covered this place. As the ice sheets receded, this place slowly became a forest. 18,000 years ago, the Wisconsin Glacier covered the North American continent under thousands of feet of ice. This ice shelf stretched from the island of Manhattan to the Washington coast and as far south as the Ohio River . As the glacier melted and made its northward retreat, the Holocene age, the post-glacial age, began in earnest. The land left after the glacial melt was fallow and bereft, with undeveloped soils constantly buffeted by the gale force winds coming down from the glacier.
A hint of these distant times lingers in the desolate terrain of Iceland. In January, a friend and I hiked around the southern rim of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe, I had to walk with my back to the glacier due to the 50 mile-an-hour gusts of wind, and even then, I had to hold my hat onto my head. I stood upon a rock two feet off the ground and with a slight hop, the wind blew me eight feet forward. It was so strong I could bend my knees and sit into it like a chair, with nothing but the gusts supporting me. The ground was black, volcanic gravel. No trees grew in that harsh place.
As the Wisconsin glacier receded further north toward the Upper Peninsula, the uncovered earth became tundra, a word derived from the Russian for “treeless mountain tract.” In this biome, grass, sedge, blueberry bushes, wormwood, and dwarf birches clung to the raw soil. Without the benefits of dense soil which could maintain water content, these plants sunk their roots deep through the frozen ground in search of water. In so doing, they exerted tremendous pressure upon the soil and churned it to the sandy loam that lies on top of the bedrock of Southern Michigan. As these plants ground up the soil, they exhaled nitrogen that made the soil rich enough to support large trees. Meanwhile, the spruces and pines of Northern Ohio waited to expand northward, spreading their seeds and dropping their cones a few feet further north at the end of each summer.
Over time, the soils developed and the tundra followed the glacier on its northward retreat. The greening of Michigan began. 12,500 years ago the Lower Peninsula thawed completely as the Boreal forest, made up of spruces and pines, expanded north from Ohio. These trees grew slowly, however, and the faster growing jack pines and oaks arrived a millennium later, the white pine, yet another millennium afterward. The forest did not simply expand as a wall of vegetation. As seeds blew gradually northward, they germinated in the Oak Savannahs where ice-age megafauna flourished. Mastodons, woolly mammoths, muskoxen, grizzly bears, caribou, bison, and beavers the size of black bears roamed the grassland which was dotted sparingly with trees. Aboriginal Clovis Hunters who first populated the North American continent 11,000 years ago hunted these animals on foot at the end of the last glacial age with spearheads made of flint, chert, or even ivory carved from the tusks of their quarry.
As the trees became less sparse and encroached upon the oak savannahs, the megafauna moved northward or stayed and perished as restricting forests hampered these giants. The Clovis people starved as their main food sources departed. Walking through old growth forest, the regular three foot gaps between trees hint plainly at how difficult movement would be for a Mammoth in the forest. The needle-laden understory could provide no food.
Moving far forward to a new time, after the departure of the great beasts, when the Anishinabe people hunted and canoed Michigan’s interior with drinking vessels made of birch park, cedar-framed houses, and duck jawbones which they filled with maple sugar and sucked on like lollipops. For these people, the trees were the essence of life.
In 1535, Jacques Cartier and his men arrived and encountered the Anishinabe. The men disembarked from their boat flushed and bleeding from their gums. They laid on the sandy bank overcome with scurvy. The natives knew what to do. They fed the men a porridge made of cedar bark, full of vitamin C, which revived the aching men. From then on, Cartier referred to the White Cedar, called gijik by the Anishinabe, as the Arbor Vitae, the Tree of Life.
So the trees began to support the white man as they would continue to do until their decimation.
The Monarch Tree of Hartwick Pines State Park once stood 170 feet tall and loomed over even the tallest trees in the park. There is a photograph of three men reaching their arms around its 5 foot diameter, barely able to grab each other’s hands as their cheeks pressed into the tree’s bark. It was over 300 years old in 1992 when a June storm damaged the tree and removed its top forty feet. Due to these injuries, the tree died in 1996 and is still slowly rotting. It now is 40 feet tall, having lost another 80 feet which lay in decomposing splinters around its base. It is a gray gnarled protuberance shaded by the surrounding pines. A wooden fence with a sign declaring it The Monarch still surrounds the stump.
Over the years, young lovers have carved their names into pines surrounding The Monarch. The trees have scarred over and blackened the names at the surface as the trunks continued to grow. Standing close to one tree, I saw names over fifty feet high, a reminder of resilience.
Mark Naida is a junior studying English and French.