Some Notes on Trees

I woke up thinking about trees.

A few years ago, before the pandemic, when big groups would casually gather in small rooms, I attended an oral history presentation at the Truro Historical Society’s Cobb Archive. Through a program sponsored by the Cobb Archive, for nearly twenty years oral historians have been documenting the experience of Truro’s oldest residents — with recollections going back to the turn of the 20th century. 

One of the things that struck me was answers to the question about what’s changed in Truro. Routinely, oral history narrators commented on the return of trees. Indeed, a common story was how from many points, including the hill above Pamet Valley where my house sits, you could see both Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean from the same spot. Given the forest around my house this seems impossible to me, but old photos prove the point.

When European colonists began overtaking this region in the 17th century, they reported hardwood forests and six inches of topsoil. William Bradford, in his account of the Mayflower’s landing, Mourt’s Relation, wrote about the landscape:

The same day, so soon as we could we set ashore 15 or 16 men, well armed, with some to fetch wood, for we had none left; as also to see what the land was, and what inhabitants they could meet with. They found it to be a small neck of land; on this side where we lay is the bay, and the further side the sea; the ground or earth, sand hills, much like the downs in Holland, but much better; the crust of the earth a spit’s depth excellent black earth; all wooded with oaks, pines, sassafras, juniper, birch, holly, vines, some ash, walnut; the wood for the most part open and without underwood, fit either to go or ride in; at night our people returned, but found not any person, nor habitation, and laded their boat with juniper, which smelled very sweet and strong and of which we burnt the most part of the time we lay there.

By the 18th century, the land was largely deforested due to harvesting of trees, grazing livestock and use of wood for fuel (although there is a theory that part of Beech Forest in Provincetown is actually indigenous forest). Without the complex cover of plants and roots, the topsoil blew into the ocean and bay, and the austere, arid landscape many associate with Cape Cod emerged. 

But things are changing. Even in my childhood, 40+ years ago, I remember a landscape with considerably fewer trees, shorter trees, scrubbier brush. There are vistas I recall, that no longer offer a view. And that’s a good thing.

Post Script / 2 October 2021: I’ve just learned that Cape Cod forests are ranked third most likely at risk for forest fires, and Wampanoag people routinely practiced controlled burns to manage the danger. And the National Seashore continues the practice of controlled burns today.

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Field Guide: Walking & Painting on Cape Cod 
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