by Sarah Hatfield
Driving down Route 62 the other day, along the edge of the Allegheny State Forest, I was impressed by the forest, the wildness, the vastness of the treed landscape. The colors, the depth, the contours of the land were appealing. The thickness of the growth was soothing. It was a nice drive.
A Chipmunk is one of the beneficiaries of chestnuts. Photo by Jeff Tome.
Through conversations that followed, my thought process went deeper… All that forest is new, because we cut it all down not that long ago. It is daunting to think of cutting all those trees today. And yet they cut them all with crosscut saws! Just men, in the woods with hand tools and water and mud and gravity and sweat and maybe horses, and an industriousness that has been lost. I can imagine them at the time, looking at the forest giants, working at the pace they were working, thinking “There is no way we will ever run out of giants trees to cut – they go on forever.”
We know better today. Some don’t last forever. As I wander under the canopy of Eastern Hemlocks, their trunks too large to wrap my arms around, I savor the moment. They may be gone in my lifetime. Surviving the timber era, the homesteading era, the encroachment of civilization, the unquenchable human thirst for natural resources, these trees will finally fall to a tiny insect that skipped over oceans on the coattails of humans. I cannot imagine the woods without their looming, shadowy presence.
A cabin made of chestnut wood. Photo by Jennifer Schlick.
I stand at the base of an American Beech, its top snapped off, its bark flaking as it decays while still standing upright. Years dead, killed by another hitchhiking combination of insect and fungus, the skeleton towers over me as a reminder of what once was. I remember the beeches as a child, they stand out in my memory from walks in the woods.
I stare at a stump – old, very decayed, soft under the pressure of my fingertips. “Probably chestnut.” Those giants – and giants they were – are gone. I’ve seen photos, I’ve heard stories, but I have no acquaintance of the tree that once made up one quarter of the eastern forests. It is a legend, it is a ghost. But I hear the stories, and I hope that someday they will overcome the chestnut blight (yet another hitchhiker from abroad) and once again reclaim the woodland crown they wore so well.
These trees sit on a timeline. Their days are numbered, and even if they do survive, they will be different for having done so. Extinction doesn’t mess around – it consumes, it annihilates, it removes forever. None of the trees above are extinct… yet. The American Chestnut is the closest – most young trees are sprouting from old rootstock and the roots won’t live eternally. It reminds me of the story of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, in her cage. Sure, she was still alive, and so therefore was the species. But with no hope of reproduction, no future, she was already extinct long before she died in 1914.
Students look at bird in the Simpson Collection, which contains a Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and Bachman’s Warbler, all extinct.
Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island Galapagos Giant Tortoise, died on June 24, 2012. The subspecies went extinct as a result of human hunting (as did the Passenger Pigeon, just FYI). Like Martha, he was extinct when he was discovered in 1971 as the last of his kind. Estimated to be about 100 at the time he died, humans had 43 years of caring for him, remembering every day that the reason he was the walking dead was because of our short-sightedness. We made him lonesome. That’s a burden.
George and Martha were known, loved, and are both preserved in perpetuity as a reminder. The last Great Auk (killed in 1844) is stuffed and mounted in Iceland. These specimens are symbolic of a species that we wiped out, they are icons of a lesson we have yet to learn. Nature is a tough mother, and she favors the strongest and fittest. Extinction is an ancient and ongoing process that creates a healthier dynamic. Nature is good as what she does. Perhaps the lesson we need to learn is that we are not qualified to step into her shoes.
There isn’t always an endless supply. It may appear so to us, but we don’t know. There is so much we don’t know. Looking at a 200-year-old landscape, I might also have been inclined to think “the chestnuts will always be here, there are so many of them.” I’m sure that went through the minds of people in the 1800s as they stood under skies blackened by flocks of birds, hundreds of thousands strong. “We’ll never shoot them all,” they thought as they fired guns into the flocks, knocked them from the air with sticks, and netted them from trees. But then one day… they were gone.
People remembered. They told stories of the great flocks, the towering trees, the giant tortoises. Sailors regaled their families with tales of Dodos and Tasmanian Tigers (Thylacines), fisherman waxed nostalgic about the tons of Atlantic Cod they piled into their nets. They are just that now, stories. Atlantic Cod exists, but not as it used to. Tasmanian Tigers and Passenger Pigeons joined the ranks of Great Auks, Eastern Elk, and Dodos as animals wiped off the face of the Earth by humans. Today countless species, from rhinos to Bluefin Tuna are teetering on the brink, vying for title of next extinction at the hands of humans.
And yet, extinction does not remove them from our collective memory. As long as we remember, they are still here in a way, a mournful reminder of what once was and what could be. I will never see a landscape dominated by denizen American Chestnuts, whose seeds feed Eastern Elk and Passenger Pigeons. But I know that landscape used to be here. It is when we forget, when the stories are no longer told, that a different extinction takes place.
No longer is the lesson, the beauty, the hope, and the loss woven into our past. There is nothing to mourn when we forget that living, breathing things once roamed here and grew tall and now do not. We lose something more when we lose the memory of what’s been lost. Let’s remember, in as many ways as we can. Through walks and research, talks and art, photography, acting, and imaginative play. Let us not allow the Blue Walleye, the Carolina Parakeet, the Moa, or the Eastern Cougar to disappear again.
Join us for First Friday, January 2, from 11:00am until about noon, for a showing of “The Lost Bird Project.” This short documentary follows the journey of artist Todd McGrain and his brother-in-law as they seek to find the last known location of five recently extinct birds. There is a small fee, $8 or $6 if you are a Friend of the Nature Center. Bring a brown bag lunch and join us after the program for conversation and company.
Audubon Nature Center is located at 1600 Riverside Road, just off Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails and eagle viewing are open dawn to dusk. The Nature Center is open from 10:00am-4:30pm Saturdays and Mondays and from 1:00pm-4:30pm on Sundays. We will have special holidays hours between Christmas and New Years, please check the website, http://jamestownaudubon.org or call (716) 569-2345 for more information.
Sarah Hatfield is a naturalist at Audubon.