Take a look at this picture. Where is this trail? Oregon? The Boundary Waters? Maybe Shenandoah? Nope, it’s just an ordinary trail in Connecticut. My state of residence for two years now is a surprisingly superlative trail state, with the venerable Blue-Blazed Trails comprising 825 miles packed within the third-smallest state. How does a tiny state that’s #4 in population density manage to have so much trail?
The answer is in the picture, too: all those trees. There’s a lot of trees among the subdivisions and golf courses here. New England is the most heavily forested region in the US, which might surprise you if you know that the southern part of New England, including where I am, is also one of the mostly densely populated regions. There’s a lot of people, but there’s also a lot of trees. [Even if there’s a little less than there used to be, as reported here. ] Today around 60% of Connecticut’s land area is forested, plus a bit more than 60% of its urban areas are covered with tree canopy. That’s the highest percentage of canopied urban land in the nation.
If you want to know about trees + people, this is the place.
What’s really remarkable is that Connecticut is not just forested – it’s re-forested. European settlement started early here – the 1630s – so native forests had about two centuries of being transformed into a patchwork of agriculture and settlement stitched together with those famous stone walls. By 1820, only about 25% of Connecticut was still forested, but all those stones make better walls than farmland, especially compared with nearly everywhere to the west. As farming moved to more promising locations, the forest began to return. Re-forestation began around 1870 – a long time ago.
What that means is that the Re-Forest outside my window wasn’t born yesterday. It’s century-old forest, at least in many places, giving it a maturity and richness that the relatively young forests of, say, the Midwest, just can’t match. If you’re used to these pale copies, the New England forest can be a little…spooky. It’s the hush of leaf mold underfoot. It’s the constant whisper of mountain laurel leaves. It’s the sheer size of forested areas and their single-track labyrinths. But most importantly, it’s the wildlife. Century-old forests, especially when they are large, are good habitat not just for birds and squirrels, but for bears and bobcats and the large coyotes of the East.
You’re never really alone on that trail.
The wildlife of the Re-Forest lives among countless relics of this land’s pastoral past. You can’t miss the stone walls, but there are building foundations, abandoned roads, and the occasional lost cemetery, too. It’s a Life After People vibe that reminds you, on your solitary hike, that lots of other people were here, and now they are gone. It’s easy to let your mind drift to colonists and settlers and start to hear faint footsteps behind you.
That’s ridiculously Euro-centric, of course. For every dead colonist in the Connecticut woods, there’s countless dead Native Americans, which is a morbid way to say that this land was home to humans for millennia before the Puritans landed. Where I live was Quinnipiac land, so you could meditate upon that while you hike, and the apocalypse of epidemic and genocide that followed first European contact.
Millennia of human occupation surely left sign everywhere, but I lack the perspective to see it. In places, indigenous Americans altered the composition of the forest itself, crafting a massive permaculture garden of sorts. Did that happen here? One of the best permaculture candidates in the forest here would have been American chestnut (Castanea dentata), its grand canopy now long gone, reduced to saplings sprouting from ancient roots. Ashes (Fraxinus spp.) are joining the chestnut as I type this, due to the predation of emerald ash borer. This missing forest, these ghosts in the woods, includes the extinct and extirpated, too: the passenger pigeon, the Eastern elk.(There are reintroduced elk in other places in the East, but they are not the Eastern elk (Cervus canadensis canadensis), which has been extinct since 1880.) Gray wolves and cougars once hunted here.
You’re never really alone on that trail, yet you’re more alone than you would have been, once.
You could think time began here with the arrival of white colonists from England (mostly), a false idea but an easy habit of long standing. It’s harder to see it from a different perspective, with not the men with muskets but the continent-blanketing trees in the foreground. The US Forest Service estimates that before Europeans arrived, about 46% of the land that would become the US was forested, around a billion acres. We’ve since lost about 256 million acres of that, and as of 2012, around a third of the US was forested land. Without even getting into the quality of virgin forest vs today’s woods, that’s a lot, an inconceivable amount, of forest that exists only in memory, with some of those memories a century-plus old. Ghost forest.
Along with housing bobcats and passenger pigeons and memories, that forest stored carbon, and of course, it could again. The Green New Deal report by Data for Progress estimates that reforesting 40 million acres by 2035 could offset a whopping 600 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2050.
Forest quality and composition matters in this, but notice that 40 million acres, while a lot, is quite a bit less than that 256 million acres we’ve lost since Europeans arrived. Reforesting 40 million acres would entail restoring forest vegetation to around one in six of every acre that’s not forest now but was in 1630. That seems much more doable.
Would that reduction in emissions make a difference? In a word, yes. Six hundred million tons is about 8.5% of 2017 US greenhouse gas emissions. For reference, the 2025 target set for the US in the Paris Agreement was/is 16% below 2016 emissions. People in the know generally agree that the Paris Agreement’s goals were too little, and of course, it’s anyone’s guess whether the US will ever honor those too-little goals. But still: it’s about half the 2025 targeted reduction, from trees.
Don’t let anyone tell you climate change is hopeless. One answer is right there in the numbers. North America would re-forest itself if we humans got out the way. It tries to do it constantly, in old fields and vacant lots and maybe your unmowed yard. Some forest, missing chestnuts, missing ashes, probably missing lots of other species, could retake the rest of the range of pre-settlement woods, like it has in New England. The trees would inherit the earth.
Imagine that Re-Forest, and ask yourself what other relics might rest beneath that canopy of leaves, like the colonial stones outside my window. Maybe this house. Maybe your house or your street. If we don’t find an answer, through re-forestation or otherwise, to our manmade climate catastrophe, this forest could be haunted by the passenger pigeon, the Eastern elk, and… us.