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At Least We Can Give Thanks for a Tree

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As far as the climate (and, truthfully, much else) is concerned, 2023 has felt like one nasty jack-in-the-box moment after another; there have been a record number of billion-dollar natural disasters in the United States and much worse in the rest of the world. That may explain why I was so pleased a few months ago to read a short article in a Syracuse newspaper about something both unexpected and quite unreservedly lovely: this past July, in the remote Moose River Plains Wild Forest, in the Adirondacks, a young botanist named Erik Danielson found the largest Eastern white pine known to exist. Indeed, it is the largest tree of any kind known in that great wilderness, and ever since I read about it I’d been hoping he might be persuaded to take me for a look. Earlier this month, with a dusting of snow on the ground, he led a small group of enthusiasts on a two-hour bushwhack into the forest.

Danielson, aged thirty-three, is a self-taught botanist who works for the Western New York Land Conservancy, helping to, among other things, identify rare and endangered plant communities. “I’m particularly interested in mosses and liverworts,” he said, and, indeed, we’d barely left the dirt road between Indian Lake and Inlet, New York, before he was bent over a carpet of green. But, in his spare time, Danielson is a big-tree hunter, at work for the Gathering Growth Foundation, on a book about the big trees of New York. He’s part of a small band that has systematically sought out the patches of old-growth forest that were left across the East after the rapacious logging of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. I’ve known some of these sleuths for years—I spent a pleasant day a quarter century ago with one of Danielson’s mentors, another autodidact tree-lover named Bob Leverett, measuring white pines in a state park in the Berkshires. I’ve visited forest patches in the Carolinas, Vermont, and New Hampshire, but much of the remaining Eastern old growth is confined to the Adirondacks, the vast and sparsely populated quarter of New York that rises north of Saratoga, south of Quebec, and between the Mohawk and St. Lawrence Rivers, Lake Champlain, and Lake Ontario. Though the region is high and cold, with a short growing season, it’s also protected and empty, as long as you stay away from the scenic High Peaks around Lake Placid. I’ve often wandered there for days on end seeing no one.

Danielson was alerted to this particular corner of the Adirondacks by a hunter, Matt Kane, who posted a picture of a giant white pine on a Facebook group this year. Kane had been researching the logging history of the area, which came into state hands in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when it was still largely virgin forest. In 1950, a huge storm—still known as “the big blowdown”—toppled most of the trees there, and though the area was officially protected wilderness, the state allowed a controversial “salvage logging” of downed trees. For the first half of the hike, we followed, in places, an overgrown former logging road. Danielson has tools that his predecessors lacked, most notably lidar scans—basically, a Light Detection and Ranging aircraft pulses a laser down at the earth, measuring distances so accurately that it can build a 3-D picture of any area. “I was processing the canopy height model, and you could see that there had to be trees that were a hundred and forty to a hundred and sixty feet tall,” Danielson said. “In the Adirondacks, that’s very tall. And what made it really exciting was that it was a large area—it looked like five hundred or five hundred and fifty acres. Usually what you find are very small clusters”— such as the eight-acre Elder’s Grove, near Paul Smith’s College, where the state’s onetime tallest pine, Tree 103, fell in 2021.

Sometimes, as with the Elder’s Grove pine, these giant trees are situated conveniently near a road. Not in this case. We clambered along the remains of the logging road until we came to a sizable brook; you could plot a theoretical course across the rocks, but, as is often the case, theory succumbed to practice, and I slipped and got my boots wet (thank science for Gore-Tex). Across the brook, the forest began to deepen, and so did Danielson’s story (though it gave way at regular intervals to short seminars on bronze grape fern, which comes in two forms, and Northeastern sedge, “which looks a lot like yellow sedge except for some details”). He was describing his July expedition to us. On the first day, he found a very big white pine, but barely had time to catalogue it. “It felt so remote,” he said. “Usually, there are some signs of hunters, but here I didn’t even see a beer can.” He hit on a small brook, and followed it up through a quiet forest, scrambling across giant deadfalls—“nurse logs” sprouting hundreds of seedlings. “I was in a kind of ecstatic state, especially after I saw that waterfall over there,” he said. “Then I glimpsed an extra-large trunk through the trees and, as I got closer, it wasn’t getting any smaller.” Foresters, charmingly, measure the size of trees by D.B.H., or diameter at breast height, which is calculated from the circumference. He added, “When I wrapped my tape around it, it was 16.39 feet”—one of the largest ever measured for a white pine. (This tree’s D.B.H. is more than five feet.) But base circumference does not make a big tree—indeed, most really wide white pines are comparatively squat. “Looking up at this one, though, I could tell it was tall,” Danielson said. He crossed a gully to a small glade where he could get a clear view of the crown and, using a hypsometer, measured the tree’s height at a hundred and fifty-one feet and six inches.

That’s not the tallest pine we know about—last year, Danielson, not surprisingly, had measured the post-Tree 103 New York State height champion, on the other side of the Adirondacks, near Lake George, at a hundred and seventy-four feet. But many tall trees, including that one, are relatively skinny. This Moose River Plains pine, which he named Bigfoot, is a solid pole heading up into the sky. He could tell that, even at eighty feet, it was still forty inches in diameter, and he was able to conservatively estimate its volume (of the trunk and the main branches) at fourteen hundred and fifty cubic feet—reportedly, a record for the species. Indeed, Danielson says there are fewer than a dozen known, living, and verifiable specimens of white pine larger than a thousand cubic feet.

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