Published in Trumansburg Free Press December 8, 2004


Land & People
Old Growth and Second-Growth Forests

by Bill Chaisson

One of the original names for the patch of land that we now call Trumansburg was 'Shin Hollow'. Supposedly the name came from the tendency of tipsy patrons of McLallen's Tavern (another early name for the village) to bark their shins as they found their way home in the dark after closing time. What were they tripping over? Tree stumps.

The virgin forest of the Finger Lakes was essentially clear cut in the latest 18th and early 19th centuries. We could whinge on about the Christian existential fear of wilderness, but there were practical reasons for cutting down the forest. The wood was used to build houses, barns, fences and tool handles.  It was burned as firewood for warmth and for cooking, and in smithies to harden iron for tools.  The cleared acreage was farmed.

But 'essentially clear cut' is not as clear cut as 'clear cut'. Some individual trees were spared from the ax and saw.  Single trees sometimes escaped because they were left in pastures as shade for the stock, and others remained in fields as cool resting places for the farmer and his plow horse. A tree might be left at a crossroads, again as a rest stop, but also as a landmark and a sign post.

But of more ecological interest and romantic appeal are the uncut stands of trees that can be called 'virgin forest'. Much more widespread, though still very rare are the areas that have been logged only once, usually in the early 19th century. All of this forest has been placed under the rubric of 'old growth', but the un-cut stands are called 'first forest' to distinguish them from the once-cut stands, which are technically 'second growth'. However, if the second-growth woodlands have certain characteristics, particularly a certain number of trees 150 to 200 years old, they are called 'old growth'. According to the New York Old Growth Association (NYOGA) at http://www.championtrees.org, less 

than one quarter of one percent (0.25%) of the aboriginal forest remains in New York state, most of it in the Adirondacks and the Catskills.

No virgin forest remains in the Finger Lakes, but there are patches of old growth, including Henry A. Smith Woods, across Rt. 96 from the Trumansburg Fairground. NYOGAís David Yarrow visited Trumansburg twice in 2003 on ìscouting tripsî and his preliminary conclusion is that Smith Woods has many of the characteristics of a very old second-growth stand, probably nearly untouched since first European settlement. What was he looking for? (1) Specimens of many tree species that are dominant in typical climax forest. (2) Trees of all ages: seedlings, saplings, mid-age trees, mature trees, old trees, fallen giants. (3) At least four trees per acre over 150 years old. (4) Trees of great size, with shaggy or balding bark, spiral trunks, buttress roots, and other signs of advanced age. (4) Single, straight tall trunks, with lowest branches 40-50 feet above ground. (5) Irregular canopy outline. (7) Irregular forest floor, with pits left by uprooted trees, and mounds from rotting trunks. (8) Snags, dead trees and fallen trees in various stages of decay. (9) Flora rich in lichens, fungi, mosses, and ferns. (10) Minimal signs of human disturbance.

Smith Woods' second-growth identity is given away by the relatively few pits left by uprooted trees. Plowing probably smoothed much of the area in the early 19th century. And signs of human disturbance range from the remains of a hearth in the northeast corner of the stand to the mats of periwinkle, an introduced groundcover, in the southwest corner. Otherwise a walk through this small forested area may be the closest you will get to experiencing a landscape like that of the prehistoric Finger Lakes. For maximum effect I recommend going while there are leaves on the trees (to buffer the sound of traffic) and follow the ground down to a place near the middle of the stand where water seeps out of the sandy substrate forming a small wetland of ferns, moss and alders. Sit down and listen, smell and imagine that once this went on for miles and miles.

Hibernian Weather Channel Productions

Last revised:  May 9, 2005