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Scouting on the Moraine

Posted on: March 2nd, 2014 by sheriffsmeadow

After stopping at Up-Island Automotive and Cronig’s Market for a full tank of gas and a half-price sandwich, I headed for the woods to scout for timber.

Scouting, perhaps, is the most enjoyable activity that one can undertake in managing conservation land. Scouting is simply seeking: roaming and exploring the woods, judging the potential for some certain use, judging the possibility for some plant or animal to be present. Sometimes one rambles on the edges of bluffs, scouting the location for a new trail. Other times, one scouts for orchids, or prickly pear cacti, or sundew. Sometimes one scouts for the potential for a long-distance view.

On this particular Friday afternoon, I visited a portion of the Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary that was given to Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation by Eleanor Moore Irvin. Specifically, I was scouting for white oak trees. I sought a dry, accessible upland area with enough white oaks to allow a few to be cut. The lumber from these white oaks would be used to replace the rotten sills in the Hancock-Mitchell House. These sills are made of white oak, too, yet the island oak trees used for the original sills were cut some 300 years ago.

I pulled my truck off of the Indian Hill Road, parked by a stone wall and ate lunch. Lunch finished, I stepped out of the truck and stepped onto the snow-covered forest floor. Some six inches of snow blanketed the earth in white. For much of this winter, in fact, snow has covered the ground across the island. I laced my boots a bit tighter, tugged on a pair of gloves, and set off into the woods.

I began the scouting expedition by hiking up a woods road. From a gap in a stone wall, this woods road climbs the hills, winds around the corners of stone walls, passes an old, concrete barn, and ascends to ground that is near some of the highest points on Martha’s Vineyard. The road begins in a grove of American beeches. By casting deep shade, and by sprouting new beeches, or “suckers,” from the roots of older beeches, American beeches can slowly claim areas of forest for beeches alone. Stands of beeches are delightful to walk through, especially as a respite after pacing through thickets of huckleberry that untie bootlaces and tangles of greenbrier vines that pierce pants. The beeches here grow in a bit of a rock pile of small boulders.

I walked past the beeches and hiked up the hill, for some distance following footprints in the snow. Beyond the beeches, black oaks, white oaks, sassafras trees and hickories grow in the woods, towering above the stone walls. Meeting at right angles, enclosing what once were paddocks and pastures and livestock enclosures, the stone walls divide the land into a patchwork quilt of woodlots. A lichen crust, colored ash gray and mint green, covers each old stone. On the winter day of my visit, the top stones in the wall wore a topping of snow.

Off to the east stood a tall and solitary northern white cedar, conspicuous in the winter with its evergreen needles. Scattered about, on the tops of ridges, and beside the boulders, grows the tree of the future – the American holly. Here and there, young hollies grow, their lustrous leaves and red berries making a Yuletide scene on the snow-covered hill. Absent fire, and given enough time, the hollies and beeches will eventually take over here, and will make for a splendid forest.

As it turned out, there were plenty of white oaks, and many were close enough to the road to be skidded out without much trouble. The wood of the white oak is naturally rot-resistant, and its lumber is some of the best wood that grows in any American tree. In his masterpiece, A Natural History of North American Trees, Donald Culross Peattie notes that the gun deck of the U.S.S. Constitution is made of Massachusetts white oak, while her keel is made of New Jersey white oak, and her knees are made of Maryland white oak.

Though I scouted for white oak trees, what truly caught my eye were the boulders known as glacial erratics. The boulders lay here and there, on ridges and in hollows and on the sides of hills. Lichens and snow covered the rough rock surfaces. Some boulders lay atop one another, forming small caves and crevices, delightful hideouts for adventurous souls. One distinctive boulder might be considered the “Half-Dome” of Martha’s Vineyard. Only half of this boulder stands upright, while the other half of this cloven boulder lies beside it, prone. Presumably, some thousand years or more of continuous freezing in a crack in the stone sufficed to one day cleave the rock in two, just like an iron wedge in a firewood log.

There were enough white oaks here; I had found my place. Yet on this scouting expedition, as on most, I found much more. I found that sense of vigor that comes from hiking over rugged country. I found that childlike sense of wonder that comes from venturing off the trail and exploring.

And when I looked over the erratics, I found the bright blue waters of Vineyard Sound, and the profile of Naushon, and even Buzzard’s Bay and the mainland coast beyond that. I found a landscape that plunges past fallen logs and sapling hickories and twisted beetlebungs. I found hills that roll past the cellar holes and stone ruins of long-lost farms. I found a land that tumbles down to the shore, where boulders brought here by glacial ice, have finally met the saltwater waves of the sea.

Photographs of Bruce Marshard and his Percheron draft horse, Max, at the Eleanor Moore Irvin portion of Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary. Photography by Alison Shaw. Special thanks to Tom Robinson.

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