December 6, 2019

A Walk in the Pine Forest

Geology is destiny, and geology is a product of time plus luck.  I failed to absorb that lesson back in college, but it was finally made clear when I was recently part of a group taking a hike through the Myles Standish State Forest.
12,000 years ago, Massachusetts was
under a mile's thickness of ice.
Double-click for a full-screen slideshow
It took until the later half of the 19th Century for scientists to understand the role of ice-age glaciation.  Until that time, ‘Noah’s Flood’ (I promise I am not making this up) was the accepted source for the creation of everything from the Great Lakes to Cape Cod.  The notion that the top half of North America was under more than a mile of ice was something we humans couldn’t wrap our minds around. 
Glaciers, we gradually came to understand, advanced and ebbed over tens of thousands of years, finally retreating to the poles and high mountains about 11,000 years ago.  It was a messy business.  Acting as hundred-mile-wide bulldozers, glaciers pushed debris out in front of them, forming moraines when the sheet of ice reversed course.  Cape Cod is visible evidence of that final push, as is Long Island.  The glaciers’ retreat was quite uneven, with glacial remnants settling into low areas scraped out when the ice advanced hundreds or thousands of years earlier.  We call those pockets ‘kettles.’  If they have water, they’re ‘kettle ponds.’
Myles Standish State Forest  survived
as a native plant habitat because the
land was unsuitable for crops.
The inland part of Southeastern Massachusetts got the fuzzy end of the glacial lollipop.  Instead of dumping rocks and silt to break down into soil to support vegetation, the glaciers retreating from the area that is now Myles Standish State Forest left behind sand dozens of feet deep, plus more than its quota of kettle holes, where frost could be found 11 months of the year.
Which is all to say it was rotten farmland.  Settlers came, planted, saw their crops wither for lack of nutrition (sand is notably lacking in nutrients) and water (which just perked down to the aquifer in minutes), and left for greener pastures.  As a result of this benign neglect, the area is a near-perfect repository of the plants that would have been encountered when the first Europeans arrived.  It was pine forest plus scrubby vegetation in 1616, and so it was when the state forest was created 300 years later.
Bryan Connolly, left, provides
an introduction to the Pine Barrens
That near-pristine provenance is why I was part of a groups of about 15 amateurs and two experts walking fire trails through the forest – technically called the pine barrens – on a Saturday morning.  Our leaders were Bryan Connolly and Meredith Gallogly.  Bryan has many titles.  One of them is Assistant Professor at Framingham State University (sadly, being a full-time native plant naturalist requires multiple part-time gigs).  He is also one of the authors of ‘The Yellow Book’; an exhaustive index by region of plants native to the Commonwealth.  Meredith has the good fortune to be the Manager of Programs for an organization called Grow Native Massachusetts, more about which in a moment.  She is one of the group’s two employees.
This kettle, about seven acres in size, has frost 11 months of the year
We, the amateurs, walked and tried to keep up – physically and intellectually – with our two professionals who spoke largely in Latin binomials.  We started with the overview: Myles Standish State Forest encompasses 12,400 acres (19 square miles) of pine barrens; the third largest such preserve in the world.  Apart from some ill-conceived efforts to plant ‘useful’ (read: commercially harvestable) red pines by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, the land is as it was when the Wampanoag were its residents.  The red pines, incidentally, have almost all vanished, leaving behind the native pitch pine that somehow finds sustenance in the sand.  We learned the pines need to burn periodically to reproduce, and forest managers periodically burn areas of the barrens to ensure the next generation of trees.
The really good stuff, though, was underfoot.  What might appear to the uninitiated as ‘weeds’ and ‘brush’ was instead a Noah’s Ark of native plants plus a few uninvited interlopers.  A few plants were easy to identify, like native blueberries and dewberries (a cousin to blackberries).  Otherwise, we were like a gaggle of kids, pointing to plants and saying ‘What’s this?’
A rest stop along the walk. 
Meredith Gallogy in the red hat,
looks up an unidentified plant
We learned to identify white dogbane (Apocymum cannabinum) by its delicate pink flower, and tiny sickle-leaved golden asters (Pityopsis falcata).  We found lots of miniature Baptisia and even a clutch of mayflower (Epigaea repens), Massachusetts’ state flower. 
And it wasn’t all ground covers.  The forest hosts large stands of Kalmia latifolia, the native rhododendron or mountain laurel, and sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia).  They’re especially lush around the kettle ponds.  Over two hours, we learned a lot of botany.
Which brings me to the real reason for this blog entry.  An old friend, sadly now deceased, accumulated enough money that organizations used to come calling asking for donations. To each one, my friend would ask one question: if your organization did not already exist, why would it be started today?
The question flummoxed many visitors because, truth be told, their missions overlapped those of dozens of other organizations.  Other non-profits had long outlived their purpose and continued on because of they were ‘brand name’ charities.  He gave to those that passed his litmus test of knowing why they were in existence, and why what they were doing was unique.
Grow Native Massachusetts is such an organization.  It is now ten years old and came into being at a time when ‘native plants’ was a marketing phrase used by the landscaping industry to foist off things that stretched the definition of ‘native’ beyond the snapping point.  Grow Native Massachusetts has the most comprehensive website on the subject of any I have seen, puts on seminars (especially Evenings with Experts but also smaller events like the one of which I was a part).  In this season of giving, it is well worth supporting.