South-Central Part Of State, Rutland County. Closest Town: Killington. From The Junction Of U.S. 4 And Highway 100 In Killington, Go One Half Mile North On 100 And You Will See The Sign For Gifford Woods. When You Pull Into The Park, The “Old-Growth Forest Trail” Is Directly In Front Of You (On The Left Side Of The Park Office).
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The Park Is Open For Day Use Year-Round, And For Overnights During The Summer. It Has Cabins, Tent Sites, Picnic Areas, And Trails.
The Back Roads Of Vermont Looked Like Scenes From A Picture Postcard. A Small Bridge Lifted Me Over A Rocky Stream; Around The Corner, I Found A Perfectly Proportioned Barn With A Stone Foundation. A Horse Grazed In The Pasture, Of Course, And Weeds Bloomed Along The Fencerow. A Bit Further Along I Reached The Store Selling Maple Syrup, Watering Cans, Homemade Cookies, And Anything Else You Might Want. Then Came The Village, With Its Mix Of Architectural Styles, The Occasional Perfect Vegetable Garden, And Porches That Looked Like Movie Sets. But Those Apples In The Barrel Would Get Eaten, The Broom Would Sweep, Those Boots Would Be Worn, And Those Birds Would Really Fly.
One More Turn And I Was There, Gifford Woods, Advertised As “Vermont’S Best Known Old-Growth Northern Hardwood Stand, With Many Grand Individual Trees Of Sugar Maple, Beech, Yellow Birch, Basswood, White Ash, And Hemlock.”
The Trail Was Shady, Rocky, And Ferny, And I Saw A Diverse Range Of Species; But When I Started Down It, I Discovered That It Was A Loop So Small I Could See People On The Other Side, Even In The Middle Of A Leafy Summer. The Trees Were Labeled, And There Were Stumps Where Dead Trees Had Been Removed. The Trail Covered One Pitiful Acre. Honestly. I Found Myself Wanting Something Wilder.
Across The Road From The Park Entrance Was An Unmanaged Seven-Acre Patch Of Old Growth. It Had No Trails, And The Snags Were Still Standing. I Never Escaped The Sound Of Traffic, But On The Other Side Of The Road, I Immediately Felt It That Old-Growth Something I Was Missing On The Manicured Trail.
As I Made My Way Carefully Through The Ferns And Fallen Wood, I Wondered Why This Particular Slice Of Forest Got “Saved.” Not Because Of Inaccessibility It Wasn’T In A Steep-Sided Ravine Or Far From A Road. In Fact, Quite The Opposite: It Was In A Particularly Accessible Spot For Vermont.
It Wasn’T Protected By An Owner Who Believed In Preserving Forest. The Former Owner, Walter Barrows, Also Operated A Sawmill And Logged Thousands And Thousands Of Acres In The Surrounding Area. It Might Have Been Saved Because The Large Sugar Maples Were A Source Of Syrup, But I Like To Imagine This Particular Forest Was Saved Because Barrows Felt It, Too. He Was Willing And Eager To Make Money Logging, But He Wanted One Place Where He Could Picnic With A Friend A Lovely Spot, Easy To Get To By Wagon And With A Water View. Beneath The Shade Of The Big Trees, They Could Watch The Birds And The Squirrels While Enjoying Their Food. This Was My Own Little Movie, Of Course, And I Wasn’T Quite Sure Whether To Think Of Barrows As A Villain Or A Hero. Most Likely He Had Shades Of Both, As We All Do. The Final Test, I Suppose, Is That The Forest Still Stands.
We Know How Old The Trees Are In Gifford Woods Because They Were Studied Intensively In 1964 By Researchers Who Used Increment Corers To Determine Their Ages. An Increment Corer Is A Long, Thin, Hollow Metal Tube That Screws Into The Heart Of A Tree; It Removes A Narrow Cylinder Of Wood In Which The Annual Rings Can Be Counted, Starting With The First Ring In The Center. Researchers And Foresters Who Use This Technique Will Tell You It Isn’T Harmful To The Tree, And While I Can Understand Why They Would Think That, I Have Read Enough Evidence To The Contrary That I Would Never Core A Tree Unless Absolutely Necessary. I Would Certainly Need A Reason Beyond Curiosity.
A Cored Tree Never Truly Heals; It Cannot Grow New Cells To Fill The Space. Instead, The Tree Forms A Barrier Of Special Cells Around The Injury In An Attempt To Halt Further Progression Of The Wound. In Some Species, Such As The Conifers, Resinous Sap Quickly Fills The Holes And The Coring Seems To Do No Permanent Harm, But In Other Species, The Hole Creates An Entry Point For Fungal Spores.
The Outside Of The Hole May Close, But Inside, For The Rest Of Its Life, A Tree Will Carry Evidence Of The Damage. If The Researcher Returns In Three Years, The Tree May Look Fine, But Will He Return In Forty Years? If He Does, Will He Be Able To Locate The Cored Tree? If It Has Died After Forty Years Perhaps Hundreds Of Years Before It Would Have Otherwise Who Will Write That Research Paper, Or Take Responsibility For That Tree’S Death?
Forty-Three Years After That Study In Gifford Woods, I Walked Through The Same Forest Wondering Which Of The Dead Trees I Saw Had Died As The Eventual Result Of Someone’S Curiosity. I Wondered Which Of The Ancient Ones Held A Small, Inner Wound. The Sugar Maples Here Were Approaching Three Hundred Years Old, And One Hemlock Was Well Over Four Hundred.
Although I Like To Think Barrows Saved This Patch Of Forest For Aesthetic Reasons, Most Likely It Was Because Of The Sugar Maples. By The Early 1800s, Two-Thirds Of All The Farm Families In Vermont Participated In Producing Maple Sugar Or Syrup. Much Of The Forest Was Being Logged Out In This Era, But Families Would Often Leave A Small Patch Of “Sugarbush” Uncut To Provide Them With This Uniquely North American Sweetener.
Most Accounts Say Early Settlers Learned How To Make Maple Syrup From The Native Americans, Implying Native People Were Involved In This Activity Since Prehistoric Times. Upon Closer Scrutiny, However, This Story Is Suspect. Current Scholarship On Human Utilization Of The Sap Points To Early French Settlers In Canada. While It Remains A Mystery Whether The French Taught The Natives Or The Other Way Around, Whoever Decided To Tap The First Maple Tree Likely Learned It From The Animals.
Birds Called Sapsuckers Peck Holes Into Numerous Types Of Trees To Obtain The Slightly Sweet Sap. These Birds Have A Good Understanding Of How Sap Flows: They Always Make New Holes Above Old Holes, Because The Holes Block The Downward Flow Of Sap, And Therefore The Area Directly Above An Old Hole Produces The Largest Flow.
Sapsuckers Are Most Active During Their Nesting Time. They Catch Insects, Dip Them In The Sweet Sap, And Then Carry The Treats To Their Nestlings Waiting In A Tree Cavity. Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds Don’T Have Beaks Strong Enough To Make Holes In The Bark, But They Often Take Advantage Of The Sapsuckers’ Work And Sip From Their Holes. This Source Of Nutrition Is So Important To The Hummingbirds That It May Be Why Their Spring Arrival Closely Matches That Of The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Often Before Any Woodland Flowers Bloom.
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