The Harvard Forest

  • Post published:12/03/2011
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The Pre-colonial woodlands c. 1700

The Harvard Forest is located in Petersham. That is the first thing I learned about the Harvard Forest, which actually belongs to and is cared for by Harvard University. It is not located in the town of Harvard.

I first heard of the Harvard Forest and the Fisher Museum when I met John O’Keefe a year ago after he had retired from his position at the Harvard Forest. Recently I called O’Keefe because I wanted to know why I suddenly seemed to be seeing so many beech trees in our local woodlands. Beeches are easy to identify at this time of the year because they retain their leaves, even as they turn gold, and then brown and crisp. O’Keefe explained that the younger trees are even more likely to hold on to a good portion of their leaves because they are immature and do not yet produce the hormones that cause the leaves to drop.

When I told him that the trees I saw seemed to be pretty much of an age and were growing in groves he said one possibility was that these young trees were not seedlings but root suckers. “Several years ago many beech trees were attacked by beech bark disease. When the bark on the tree was damaged, stress caused the tree’s roots to send up suckers which grow rapidly.” He further explained that not all those root suckers would survive to adulthood, just as not every seed that germinates would survive to adulthood.

In another discussion with O’Keefe a few days later, he said he had been talking with a forester about the forests in Weston. Although there are only three mature beech groves in the Weston forests, this forester had also been impressed by all the ‘new’ beeches growing in the area. He cut isolated saplings in order to age them and found that they were all about 20 to 25 years old. He was so interested in this explosion of beeches that he sent samples to a lab for DNA testing and learned that they were all saplings, growing from seed.

Beech trees, obviously enough, produce beech nuts, sometimes called mast. The nuts should have germinated near the parent trees, but new groves were sprouting in new locations. The theory? Twenty to 25 years ago is when the wild turkey began its resurgence. Perhaps turkeys carried the beech nuts to more distant locations, much as other birds spread various seeds to new areas.

This is how I learn. One thing leads to another. A call to O’Keefe about my observations of  a beech tree explosion led to information about plant disease, plant hormones, propagation by root suckers, and plant dispersal by wildlife.

Having gotten so much information from O’Keefe in just a couple of friendly conversations, I decided to stop in at the Harvard Forest on my way home from Cambridge last week. Harvard University has managed the forest and used it as a research and educational facility for over 100 years. Originally intended as a laboratory to teach sustainable forest management, the focus of research changed after the 1938 hurricane destroyed 70 percent of the forest. Now research concentrates on soils and the ecological processes that affect forest development.

Since I was not ready to go trekking the trails in the forest that day I contented myself with a visit to the Fisher Museum, named for Professor Richard T. Fisher who founded and directed the first years of Harvard Forest. The Museum is small, but it is famous for the 23 dioramas that illustrate the landscape history of the New England woodlands from before the early colonists arrived, as well as issues of forest management and conservation.

John O’Keefe and David Foster have written a fascinating book titled “New England Forest Through Time: Insights from the Harvard Forest Dioramas,” which lays out in substantive form the history of our landscape and illustrates for the general reader, and landowner, new ways of looking at our woodlands and information about how those woodlands can be managed sustainably, with awareness of the ecological impact.

A scavenger hunt sheet will help children focus on the details of the dioramas while they begin to understand the changes in a woodland over time.

There are education programs for students beyond Harvard, from a summer research program for undergraduates from other institutions including community colleges, who need not be science majors, to a program with the Overlook Middle School in Ashburnham where students gather seasonal budburst and color change information from a webcam set up in the schoolyard trees. This Schoolyard Ecology webcam is the first of four more webcams to be installed in other school locations in the near future. The information the young students gather can be compared with webcams in the Harvard Forest. The whole program is part of a national phenology project. The goal is to study the influence of climate on the recurrence of annual phenomena like leaf budding.

Having discovered the Harvard Forest, or more specifically the Fisher Museum, I am now looking forward to visiting the Forest itself, and learning more from the volunteer guides who are on duty during the good weather. We have an old field white pine plantation that is self seeded, and so far those trees have escaped the dreaded white pine weevil. I am looking forward to learning more and becoming a more responsible forest manager.

The first settlements cleared woodlands

Between the Rows  November 26, 2011

DON”T FORGET – I’ll be reading my book, The Roses at the End of the Road, at Boswell’s Books, Sunday, December 4 at 2 pm. Hope to see you there. AND I’ll be signing books at Tower Square in Springfield on Tuesday, December 6 from noon to 2 pm and 4-6 pm next to the splendid Festival of Trees.

ALSO – if you want to win a copy of my book, and a copy of Debra Lee Baldwin’s Succulent Container Gardens, click here and leave a comment. I will have a drawing on Dec. 7 to celebrate my 4th blogoversary.

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