NBS Blog

Reflections on January’s Forest History Walk

Enjoy a reflection from the Sanctuary's inaugural "History of Rhode Island Trees" Wednesday Walk, a series led by Matt Largess of Largess Forestry. Be sure to join a future walk, happening bi-monthly through 2024 in celebration of the Sanctuary's 75th anniversary!

January 17, 2024, was a special day in my forestry career.  It was an honor to lead a tree walk at the Norman Bird Sanctuary (NBS) in celebration of their 75th year of operations. I was surprised and grateful for a large turnout on a cold, snow covered day.  The sanctuary is especially beautiful when blanketed with snow—a rare occurrence these days.

After greeting participants, we headed out from the Welcome Center and began our dendrology (tree identification) class. The first tree we encountered was a Black walnut, Jugulans nigra, the black and fused bark and husks are indicators of this species during the winter. This species isn’t native to coastal Rhode Island and was most likely planted by man or grew from a seed spread by wildlife. The Black Walnut is allelopathic, which means it releases a toxin which surpasses the growth of anything else beneath its canopy.  Further down the trail, we found a Butternut, Jugulans cinerea, which is a rare and native white walnut. I spoke of its nutritional and medicinal value to native Americans.  However, it had a canker, a fungal disease. It was ideal to have both trees next to one other, to see their slightly different bark colorations and differences in the size of their husks.

Further down the trail, we came upon a stone wall, a classic icon in New England, symbolizing its historic farming heritage. Here, we found native Black Cherry trees, Prunus serotina, which are extremely beneficial for birds. I often get calls as an arborist to cut down these trees because of their berries falling on and staining automobiles. Next, we came across another large Black Cherry that had fallen in a windstorm.  It’s roots had been ripped from the ground, due to its shallow root system which causes low oxygen levels, leading to its decline. Our conversation turned to a discussion of the importance of dead trees as nesting sites for wildlife.

As we continued our walk, we came to a closed canopy and a pure stand of Black Tupelo, Nyssa sylvatica.  Indicators of wetlands, this species can be one of the longest lived in the coastal Rhode Island forest. They grow on a mat and are connected to each other through their root system, are extremely hardy and disease free. Due to their dense wood fibers, they are not good for lumber and can’t easily be split for firewood.  Dendrochonologists, have found Black Tupelo to be hundreds of years old. At the end of our walk, we found a grove of Red maple, Acer rubrum, known for its vibrant fall color and the Rhode Island state tree. The Red Maple is the most common forest tree in the Eastern United States, occurring from Canada to the Florida Everglades. We looked at younger trees with smoother bark and older trees with rugged bark. Towards the end of the walk, we found a giant Scotch Pine, Pinus sylvestris, in the middle of the sanctuary forest. This tree originated in Europe but is the most common Pine tree in the world. Norway Maples, Acer platanoides, were noted at the edge of the forest canopy. They are the most common invasive species in Rhode Island.

The group of forest explorers were interesting. I spoke with each participant and was amazed about their knowledge and love of this sacred site. One couple, a coast guard veteran family, had recently moved to the island and hiked every day at the NBS. Other hikers have been coming here since childhood. Staff and naturalists from NBS also shared many interesting facts about the forest. One brought up the discovery of spice bush, Lindera benzoin, common to western Rhode Island, but not on the coast. Every twist and turn revealed a new discovery.

As our time approached the end, we stopped for a group photo and read the poem Trees by Joyce Kilmer.  We live in one of the most beautiful regions of Mother Earth. However, forest preservation can be a tough business. I feel that I am on my path to be an educator to show people the importance of these trees. I will be leading several additional walks. Check the Norman Bird Sanctuary website for further details. This trek through the trees was an emotional and spiritual experience for me. Thank you to the staff and members of the Norman Bird Sanctuary.

Trees, Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Join a future walk with Matt Largess

Explore the calendar to find an upcoming Rhode Island Tree History walk, happening every other month through November 2024.