Published in Trumansburg Free Press  February 11, 2005

Land & People
A BriefLandscape History of Western New York

by Bill Chaisson 

I had been in the basement of my house several times before I noticed the nature of the central beam.  It had been milled on two sides to give the subfloor planks something flat to lie on and provide a flat surface to lay on the fieldstone foundation without rolling. Otherwise it was still recognizably a tree. Which is   to say there was still bark on it. It was still smooth and gray, and identified it as a beech.

The American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is part of the Northern Hardwood assemblage.  It is usually found growing with sugar maple (Acer sqccharum), red maple (A. rubrum), and yellow birch (Betula lutea). In the Finger Lakes you will find this community growing on well drained, but moist soils in cooler localities, such as north-facing slopes and deeper gorges.

The other dominant assemblage in this region is the Oak-Hickory or Appalachian community. As its name implies, the characteristic trees include white oak (Quercus alba), black oak (Q. velutina, northern red oak (Q. rubrum) and shag-bark hickory (Carya ovata). This group also likes well-drained soils, but is found in relatively warmer 'microclimates' like south-facing slopes and ridgetops.

In the early 20th century there was an active debate in the ecological community about whether the members of these assemblages required one another's presence or were present together simply because of shared preference for the same range of temperature, moisture, soil richness.  Plant ecologist F.E. Clements advanced the idea of a 'closed' plant community, analogous to an organism, with each plant population being as vital and co-adapted as an organ is to the body. H.A. Gleason held the opposite view; his 'open' community is merely a fortuitous 'association' of populations that happen to prefer the same conditions.

The fossil record of pollen eventually showed Gleason to be correct, at least regarding temperate zone plant assemblages. Pollen grains are as identifiable as the trees they come from, and the substance of which they are made, sporopollenin, is one of the most durable natural materials. By the 1970s pollen had been collected from lake and bog sediments all over the United States and Canada. The sediments were dated with carbon-14 and it became obvious that 10,000 years ago, as tree species spread northward after the retreat of continental icesheets, each did so at its own rate.  Maples, which have wind-blown seeds, spread north more quickly than beeches, which depend on animals and birds to transport their nuts. So, once upon a time in the past, there was a Northern Hardwood community here, without any beech trees in it.

The Cayugas were ardent agriculturalists and certainly cleared acres of land, but of course Euro-American settlers cleared almost the entire landscape of trees through the 19th century. There is far more forest in the Finger Lakes today than there was a century ago. Trumansburg's first industry was sawmilling.  Abner Treman himself owned and operated a sawmill.

[In a future column I promise to look into the details of the milling industry in Trumansburg and Ulysses.  An initial question that I have is, did these mills serve only local markets, or was timber converted into lumber and transported away via barge up the lake to the Seneca-Cayuga and Erie Canals?]

You can see these two plant assemblages in their characteristic settings at Taughannock State Park. On the rim, where the soil is thin and conditions are drier, the Oak-Hickory assemblage covers most of the ground, while down in the cooler gorge the trees of the Northern Hardwood group predominate. Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), a conifer frequently found in this deciduous community, is also common here.

All the trees that I have mentioned are 'canopy trees', the tallest trees in the assemblages. 'Understory' trees include sassafras (Sassafras albidum) in the Oak-Hickory assemblage and striped maple or 'moosewood' (Acer pensylvanicum) in the Northern Hardwood community. With the waning of regional agriculture in the 20th century the deciduous forest has returned, but without one of its most impressive 19th century members.

American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was formerly one of the largest of the Northern Hardwood canopy trees. But in 1900 a blight fungus was introduced to this country on Asian nursery stock. By 1940 3.5 billion chestnut trees were dead.  However, the blight does not kill the roots, and shoots continue to come up from old root stock. Also, some trees survive long enough to produce nuts, which supplies new root stock. The chestnut, however, has been reduced to an understory tree.

The Finger Lakes hardwood forests recovered naturally from an Ice Age and from clear-cutting, but it has taken 80 years of selective breeding to develop blight-resistant American chestnuts. If you wish to take part in the restoration, see the American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation website.  If F.E. Clements had been right about plant assemblages, the Northern Hardwood community would have collapsed with the demotion of the chestnut to understory status.  But as it happened, as the chestnuts died, beeches and maples simply took their places in the canopy.  And, unless they have chestnut trim in their houses, most Americans are probably not even aware of the chestnutís former dominant status.

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Last revised:  May 9, 2005