Mt Holyoke    Robert Leverett
  Aug 03, 2002 12:12 PDT 

       Thursday I had the privilege of participating in the Envirothon
sponsored by Hampshire College. As one of the designated naturalists I led a
group of 11 standout high school seniors who came from as far away as
Alaska. We followed the trail up from the Half Way House to the summit of
Mt. Holyoke (942 feet) and then beyond to a burn site. With the temperature
over 100 degrees on the rocky summit, I got a case of heat exhaustion. It
took a couple of cold packs and plenty of water, but I got down under my own

        The trail from the Half Way House to the summit goes through a swath
of old growth that I hadn't previously mapped. In fact, there is a strip of
old growth that generally follows the escarpment all the way to Mt.
Norwottuck and beyond to Long Mountain. The strip isn't unbroken, but may be
over 100 acres when taken all together. The ridge line runs for over 7
miles. Assuming that the swath of old growth runs for half the total
distance and averages a mere 250 feet in width, we arrive at 106 acres. Even
this may be too much, but I seriously doubt there is less than 75 acres in
the strip for the whole range. Ages of the trees that I saw are yet to be
determined. Dr. David Orwig of Harvard Forest and I will visit Mt. Holyoke
on Aug 23rd to take cores. Oh my goodness, I hope it is cool.

        From visual inspection, the ages of the hemlocks, northern red oaks,
chestnut oaks, and black birch appear to vary from 150 to 250 years.
However, the black birch on the trail from the Half Way to the Summit House
are some of the oldest I've seen. There may be plenty over 200 years old.
The old growth in the Holyoke Range starts at the steep section of the
mountain and goes to the ridge top. However, the best of it is usually near
the base of the escarpment where protection, soil depth, and availability of
water are at their highest.

        Aging trees by eye on rocky ridge tops is always a risky
proposition. The abundant light from frequent disturbances and a relatively
low canopy allow for initially faster growth. The overall harsh conditions
then lead quickly to stunting and aging. Very old looking red oaks can be
175 years old instead of 300. We'll just have to wait and see.

    Just past the Half Way House on the way to a Taylor Notch and down the
ridge grow some extraordinary trees of the environment. I spotted a tall
white ash this past Thursday and went to measure it along with some
surrounding hemlocks. The trees proved to be as good as they looked. Two
hemlocks I measured proved to be (114.1, 8.2) and (115.1, 8.4). The ash
scaled out at (117.3, 7.2). The data pairs includes height and girth. there
are red oaks and sugar maples that will just reach 100 feet in the area. My
guess is that the Rucker index for Mt Holyoke will prove to be between 100
and 105.

Mt Holyoke   Robert Leverett
  Aug 23, 2002 15:55 PDT 

    Rising to a height of 940 feet above sea level and 840 feet abruptly
above the Connecticut River, the views from the summit are stunning. Thomas
Cole, the great pasinter from the Hudson River School saw fit to paint the
scene from the summit. The Holyoke House at the summit was once an inn.
Built originally in 1821 and rebuilt in 1851, history oozes from every crack
in the building.

    There is a lot of natural history to enjoy in the Holyoke Range. The
basalt ledges are very scenic and the vegetation is varied. And now, we have
a historic forest we can tell visitors about. Today, Mike Smythe, the Park
Supervisor, Dr. David Orwig from Harvard Forest, Susan Benoit of Friends of
Mohawk Trail State Forest and Friends of the Holyoke Range, and yours truly
cored (Dave did) hemlocks, black birches, and nortehrn red oaks. We got
plenty of ages in the 200 year age range and a couple around 250. We haven't
even scratched the surface. There's a lot of work to do.

    In terms of big trees, yes, we found some dandies. The following lists
the best.

        Species         Circumference        Height

        HM                11.9'                    99.5'
        HM                11.5'                    116.3'
        HM                  9.6'                    112.2'
        BB                   6.4'                    101.1'
        BB                   8.6'                      89.4'

    The hemlock is the second tallest I've measured in the Connecticut River
Valley region. The black birch is also the tallest in the Valley.

    Mt. Holyoke is loaded with old black birch.

Mt Holyoke   Robert Leverett
  Aug 30, 2002 15:33 PDT 

       The Mt. Holyoke Range continues to produce old growth forest for us.
Today, my son Rob and I combed the west side of Mount Holyoke facing the
Connecticut River has what may turn out to be a 25 to 30-acre swath of old
growth hugging the cliff face and spotty on the top. Tree ages of northern
red oak, chestnut, and white oak, shagbark, bitternut, and pignut hickory,
hemlock, black birch and assorted other species will commonly run between
150 and 250 years of age. Occasionally, a tree will exceed 300 years. The
commercial value of these stunted cliff face forests is near zero, so
cutting was probably never a temptation. What is especially neat about the
area are the many niches and micro-habitats. They abound above, below, and
on the basalt ledges. So there will be pockets of possibly much older trees
to be found. But many trees 200 years old and older is a given. We have a
lot of looking to do.

    Based on what we've confirmed so far, I estimate that the entire range
has around 100 acres of OG, perhaps more. Teasing out the age communities
will be a labor of love. The Holyoke Range OG and that on the adjoining Mt.
Tom Range may well eventually exceed 150 acres. The search area for teh
Holyoke Range covers about 750 acres and they are rugged acres. The entire
Holyoke Range covers between 4000 and 5000 acres. If we are able to document
100 acres of old growth, that will represent a survival of 2.2% of the
range. Considering that only a small part of the 100 acres is of commercial
quality, perhaps 30 acres, that represents 7/10th of one percent that
survived. Remembering that the 30 acres is in steep terain, that is not a
difficult figure to accept.

    Regardless of the exact nature of the impacts of Europeans on the Mt.
Holyoke Range forests, we still have a witness forest that looked down on
the valley for 200 years and more. Quite a exciting prospect and there
rugged little Mt Holyoke has been all along. Plenty of old trees, but
snubbed by Burl-belly because it was in the valley close to lots of people.
Have I learned my lesson? Probably not, but at this instant, I'm feeling
pretty humble.

More on Mt Holyoke OG   Robert Leverett
  Aug 31, 2002 05:13 PDT 

    The great Hudson River School of Art painter Thomas Cole, painted a
scene of Mount Holyoke. For many of us, it is beyond being just a famous
work of art. Cole's paintings capture the spirit of the land. The
impressionistic style of the Hudson River School represents the golden age
of art in America for me. As Cole was capturing the spirit of a place, he
didn't distort its physically features as to make it unrecognizable. Cole
was able to thread the needle between factual representation of physical
features and the soul of a place.

    Well, as I said in my prior e-mail, there stands Mt. Holyoke with its
undetermined amount of old growth, just a stone's throw away from my front
door step. At this point I'm not expecting to find a cach of super old trees
on the range, just a lot of "medium old" trees. I think, if they were there
super old ones, someone would have discovered them previously. Well, I
always think that. Don't we all? But surely someone in the past has aged
trees on the range. The concentration of academics in the area with a
potential interest is staggering. You can see the University of
Massachusetts from the summit of Mount Holyoke. Amherst, Smith, Hampshire,
and Mount Holyoke colleges are also very close by - just with less
ostentatious buildings. Beyond the five colleges, there are four other
four-year colleges and three community colleges within 20 miles distant as
the crow flies. There is a concentration of brain power in the valley region
that surrounds Mt Holyoke that probably surpasses any other similar-sized
area in the Commonwealth.

    So why the confirmation of the OG now? The problem may be the lack of a
model to apply. No one has an age structure model in his/her computer or
even in his/her head for a dry ridge top and basalt ledge forest such as
grows on Mount Holyoke and Mt Tom. We don't know what an old growth forest
covering dry basalt ledges and ridge tops is supposed to look like. Rob and
I certainly saw plenty of old, stunted trees yesterday. A few had great
character, but most were nondescript and that may be the problem.

    I remember when Lee Frelich showed me a dry oak forest, virgin in the
usually meaning of the term, in the upper elevations of the Porcupine
Mountains. A light went off in my head. Whoa, I thought to myself. This
forest would be dismissed by all but the most knowledgeable. It just doesn't
stand out in any way. No big trees. No conspicuously (the operative word)
old looking trees. No large amount of dead wood. Few conspicuous pits and
mounds. The dry Porkies virgin oak forest would have failed every test
perfunctorily applied by a student with a checklist of old growth
characteristics. I knew then that I would have to add new mental models of
old growth that I carried in my head. The development of the dry ridge top,
stunted oak forest is in the process of being worked out. Maybe my friend
Larry Winship of nearby Hampshire College will join Gary Beluzo, Dave Orwig,
and me to develop such a model. Truthfully, I haven't a clue as to where to