We awoke, on the sixth of last January, to a mountain of ice. All night long trees and branches crashed down as our thermometer probe, encased in ice, registered a steady 32.4 degrees Fahrenheit. That morning an icy mist of rain continued falling, and so did trees and branches.
I sat at our bow window writing and watched a huge red maple tree uproot and smash down at the edge of the woods. The white ash tree near the house, which had thrived and grown tall since our son Dave planted it several years ago, had its main leader and another large branch snapped off under its heavy load of ice. Both juniper shrubs were bowed over at the waist like old men.
Bruce and I went out shortly after nine in the morning to walk in First Field a safe distance from the ice-laden trees. We did have to pass under one large red maple tree that bore an incredible burden of ice, and I commented to Bruce that we probably shouldn’t be under it. He shrugged off my concern, but we had only moved fifty feet away when it toppled to the ground.
“That’s it,” I said. “We’re staying far away from all trees.”
The First Field grasses and dried wildflowers were also covered in ice, and some had dangling icicles along their bent stems that looked like the teeth of combs. Each weed had its own shape; each was a unique ice sculpture. As we ascended First Field hill, which Bruce had cleared of black locust trees several years ago to open up the view, new locust sprouts held icy clusters of buds that resembled quail eggs in size and shape.
Many of the trees on south-facing Sapsucker Ridge were already snapped and/or uprooted, creating huge gaps in the forest, and they kept breaking as we watched. Hundreds of tree branches dangled icicles more than six inches long. On the Laurel Ridge side, only a few trees and branches cracked and fell, including a large red maple and two large black birch trees at the edge of the woods that had smashed down a corner of our large exclosure.
Hour after hour the tree carnage continued. We could even hear the steady cracking, which sounded like continuous gunfire, through the walls of our house, and we felt as if we were under siege. Thankfully, the black walnut trees in our yard only shed a couple branches despite their heavy burden of ice.
Gradually, by two in the afternoon, the temperature rose to 34 degrees, and although ice still entombed every branch, shrub, and weed, fewer trees and branches snapped. Several icicles hanging from the trees even started slowly dripping.
That was enough to encourage Bruce to walk down the road to check on the damage and, as we suspected, discover that the ice storm had been altitudinal. But even where there was ice, the trees were bowed but unbroken. Something more than altitude was involved.
Days passed as we assessed the damage on our property. Almost all of it had occurred on the south-facing side of Sapsucker Ridge from the 1991 clearcut to the Far Field–a stretch of almost two miles and 50 acres in area. The tree species damaged, broken, or uprooted were almost exclusively black locust, black cherry, red, sugar, and striped maple, all of which have soft and/or weak wood except for sugar maple. Margaret’s Woods was a litter of black cherry and black locust trees and branches. From First Field, I peered into what was left of the black cherry, black locust, and red maple forest on Sapsucker Ridge. Bruce estimated that at least half the trees had been uprooted or snapped.
Three days after the storm, when it finally stopped raining, I headed up Laurel Ridge. Here and there a branch had fallen, and beneath it lay a pool of ice shards, but the oaks of Laurel Ridge still stood, and only one pitch pine had snapped. Yet on the south-facing slope of the ridge, overlooking the valley, the same tree species had succumbed to the weight of the ice.
When I reached the Far Field Road, I found a tangle of uprooted trees still ice-covered–the largest of our sugar maples, many of the mature black cherry trees, and most of the red maple trees had been uprooted. Under, over, under, over, one large tree after another, driven by the need to see how bad it was, I soldiered on. My favorite trail was almost unrecognizable. Coyote Bench, although hemmed in by uprooted trees and pushed forward on one side by a fallen tree, remained intact. Those few shagbark hickory trees on our property, which surrounded the bench, lay on the ground. That, too, was a surprise because the combined strength, hardness, and stiffness of its wood have no equal among American tree species. I was saddened to realize that I would no longer have the pleasure of watching gray squirrels gather hickory nuts in late August under those trees.
The road, once green and leafy in the summer, was open to the sky. The slope above and below had been stripped of most of its trees. Our small exclosure fence was smashed down on all four sides by fallen trees. Even as I stood numbly surveying the damage, a flock of chickadees foraged in the remaining trees, and a brown creeper called and fed on a tree trunk. Life goes on for those that are left even when Nature resembles a mad logger.
Sapsucker Ridge Trail was almost as bad–large black cherry trees, striped and red maples were the main casualties. In areas where there were oak trees, not one was affected. A solid mass of branches and upended trees on a carpet of ice blocked my way, and I made little progress getting through it. Then I noticed that the top of the ridge was clear of fallen trees and ice, and I worked my way over to it. On the north-facing slope overlooking the interstate and the town, not a tree had fallen.
The Norway spruce grove, at the top of First Field on Sapsucker Ridge, was intact even though branches were still bowed down by ice. This is always the coldest spot on the mountain and the last to melt after a snow, yet only a few branches had broken. But spruce boughs are built to withstand heavy loads of ice and snow.
Icicles hung from Alan’s Bench, and the field grasses still glittered in ice. “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” sang a white-throated sparrow, one of many that had taken refuge in the grove.
Walking down First Field I looked up at what was left of the trees of Sapsucker Ridge, and on later walks, along Greenbrier and Ten Springs trails, in the old clearcut, found that mostly black birch, striped maple, and black cherry saplings had been destroyed by the storm, putting the land almost back to where it had been after logging in 1991. But with deer numbers down, we could look forward to years of excellent blackberry picking.
“Look at it as an opportunity,” our eldest son Steve told me six months later as he hiked through the area with me and his baby daughter Elanor. Elanor had been born in early February, and we had gone out to Wisconsin to await her birth, leaving most of the trail-clearing to some our hunter friends, who willingly pitched in during the remaining mild days of January and later in the winter and early spring after we returned.
Now Elanor was seeing our woods for the first time from the sling on her Dad’s shoulders. To her undiscriminating eyes, and to those of many much older humans, the green forest looked fine. The broken and uprooted trees had leafed out, a blanket of grapevines and hay-scented ferns covered the open areas above and below the slope along the Far Field Road, and red maple, black locust, striped maple, and black cherry seedlings had germinated or stump-sprouted. Already several black cherry stump sprouts were almost five feet tall, and black locust seedlings had grown a foot.
On Sapsucker Ridge, among the black cherry, striped maple, and red maple tree seedlings, dozens of pokeweed and pilewort Erechtites hieracifolia plants covered the disturbed areas. Pokeweed even grew on the root mounds of the larger, uprooted trees. Both pokeweed and pilewort are native plants that thrive in disturbed and/or open areas, and pokeweed provides berries for wildlife in the fall. So far none of the invasives I feared, which had sprung up in the clearcut back in 1991—ailanthus, Japanese barberry, arbor vitae, or multiflora rose—had appeared. Perhaps Steve was right. The same species that had lived in the broken forest were already claiming the area again.
More and more, though, the story here is the weather. We have lived on the mountain since August of 1971. In the last two years, we have had three damaging hurricanes, including one that cut away part of our access road, and the worse ice storm in living memory. All have been classified as “one hundred year events.” Before then we had one other hurricane, Agnes, in 1972, and a several less-damaging ice storms. Could the sudden ferocious weather events be coincidence or climate change?
Whatever the cause, I only hope we can hand on to our sons and granddaughters a land as verdant with native trees and shrubs and wildflowers as we have had. Steve, who has an excellent memory, pointed out that the trees in our oak forest are much bigger than those of his childhood here thirty years ago. And he reminded me, as we passed a fallen pasture oak, killed by the gypsy moth invasion of 1981, that it had harbored a rare, possibly new species of beetle he had collected on a previous visit.
Nature continually teaches us that from the dead, the living emerges once again in a never-ending cycle, and that resurrection in the woods is a constant miracle.