Over 300 years ago, long before the American Revolution and French and Indian War, back in the early days of the colonies, the first settlers must have looked upon the vast forests of spire-like trees with awe…and some trepidation. Many explorers and naturalists were delighted to find an assortment of tree varieties which bore striking similarities to European species…American Ash, Chestnut, Mountain Ash, White Oak, and American Beech, to name a few. And how large these trees must have been, for the indigenous peoples had only stone and fire to fell timber with, until they began trading with European explorers (as early as the mid 1500s in Canada).
Aside from trade, the timber market formed the backbone of the economy in the northeast, as the forests seemed like an endless resource to the colonists. One tree in particular was instrumental in the events leading to the start of the American Revolution – and that was the Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus. Virgin pines grew to impressive sizes, similar to their western cousins, Pinus monticola, across the Rocky Mountains. On what is now Dartmouth College in new Hampshire stood an Eastern White Pine that was judged to be 240 ft tall. An early Connecticut settler, Ezra Styles, measured one that had a circumference of 15 ft (about 4ft 9 inches diameter). On the stump of another, he counted 400 annual growth rings.
Pines were important as “mast wood” for shipbuilding. Compared to Riga Fir, which supplied mast wood for the Royal Navy (imported from the Baltic), the wood of Eastern White Pine was not only lighter, but also stronger. It was Captain George Weymouth of England’s Royal Navy who saw the potential in Eastern White Pine forests after exploring the coast and estuaries of what is now Maine in the early 1600s. Before long, pines were exported to England in specially designed ships which could carry timbers 100 ft or more in length.
In 1691, the demand for white pine was high enough that the Crown imposed a claim to all trees over 2 ft diameter that were located within 3 miles of any river or the sea. These trees were notched with a brand known as the “King’s Broad Arrow”. This didn’t sit right with many colonists and loggers, as it significantly encroached on their profit, and negatively affected the local economies. In retaliation, some Yankees would cut the branded trees down at night, or simply beat-up the Royal “mast agents”, whose job it was to enforce the Crown’s policy. A few brave colonists even dressed up as Natives before chopping the pines, years before the Boston Tea Party. Retribution from the British was swift – sawmills were burned and loggers driven from their homes in reprisal for their actions. In short time, the King’s Broad Arrow became as hated as the tax on tea and the Stamp and Currency Acts.
Once the American Revolution began, numerous Patriot flags were embroidered with images of the Eastern White Pine, including the Massachusetts’ Navy flag, Washington’s Cruisers standard, the New England naval ensign, and the Continental flag (which was flown at the battle of Bunker Hill in June of 1775), as well as many other variants. The noble pine had become a symbol for not just New England patriotism, but also American independence.
Unfortunately for the pines, the conclusion of the Revolution didn’t end mass harvesting. By 1850, most of the virgin growth in New England had been cut, and loggers were spreading ever westward to find more. When the regrowth of Eastern White Pines reached maturity, these were also chopped down in a second great harvest between 1875 to 1925. But not all of those pines fell to the relentless swings of the woodsman’s axe. In Connecticut, there exists a grove of second-growth Eastern White Pine and Eastern Hemlock. And today, I had the chance to walk among giants.
Cathedral Pines is probably one of Connecticut’s best-kept secrets. It is a small 42 acre preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy, but if I’m not mistaken, it is also the largest stand of second-growth trees in New England. This is a place I longed to visit after reading about it in the book New England Wilds (authored by Ogden Tanner and the editors of Time-Life books).
Today I turned 24, though my age is just a short chapter in the lifetime of these trees. Many are 200 years old or more, stretching skywards at heights of 125 ft. Standing among them is like visiting grand parents…they have many stories to tell.
They are still standing thanks to J.F.R. Calhoun, a nearby dairy farmer who had grown up playing in these very woods. In 1883, he purchased the 42 acres to save the pines from being cut down by loggers. The property remained in the family until his descendants gave it to the Nature Conservancy in 1967. Tornadoes have damaged the site 1989, but there is still much to see. This massive Eastern White Pine (below) is among the oldest with a DBH of approximately 4 ft.
And up on the crest of the hill, one can see the distinctive folds of the Housatonic Highlands, which merge into the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
The forest is always changing. Trees fall, decompose into the ground, and become nutrition for new growth. Despite all the changes (you could call it “terra-forming”) we have made to the landscape, even after miles upon miles of clear-cut, the trees always return and continue to be our companions. The house you are living in, the warmth of a hearth fire, the welcoming shade on a summer day, and the air you breathe are all things we owe to the existence of trees.
“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world” ~ John Muir