Photo: Emily Damstra

I’m sure that you’ve heard of General Sherman and the giant sequoias, or perhaps you’ve been struck with the exotic, other-worldliness of the Baobab trees in Madagascar, or have you pictured Robin Hood under the youthful oak that has become the gnarled old Major Oak in Sherwood Forest?   In early September SONSI members added a new group of awe-inspiring trees to their list after visiting the Niagara Escarpment’s Eastern White Cedars.

On what must have been one of the most perfect days of the year, SONSI members met at Mount Nemo Conservation Area to be lead to these ancient trees by Peter Kelly (co-author of “The Last Stand:  A Journey Through the Ancient Cliff-Face Forest of the Niagara Escarpment.” – more information below).  The paths in this conservation area are wide and well maintained, the causal stroller can take in some spectacular scenery and see a great variety of geology and wildlife.   However, to get a glimpse of trees that were saplings around the same time as Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel it was necessary to take the much more scenic route.   Showing their adventurous side or perhaps a reckless enthusiasm for nature, SONSI members descended from the top of the escarpment to the side of the cliff and proceeded to scale and stagger across its face.   Once a surer footing had been gained it was possible to admire the breathtaking views, made all the better while perching atop a precarious rock.  Along the face of this cliff there is a steep slope down to the ground of tumbled rock shards, tree trunks and bracken, all filled in by tough plants.  Above is a vertigo inducing overhang of rock, pieces of which have no apparent connection to the cliff and are on the verge of plummeting down.  There are Turkey Vultures at eye level soaring around and leading your eye out across the vast, flat expanse of land below.  And then there are the cedars themselves.  The cedars grow in ways that don’t seem logical, they appear to have jutted directly from the side of the cliff or seem to be on the verge of toppling right off the edge, perhaps they are, but in very slow motion.   Nor do these cedars look the same as ones you can see happily growing on a lawn, they are thin, stunted, dense and twisted.  This is of course, due to the extreme conditions that these trees grow in, that they can survive at all is amazing enough but the oldest growing tree in this area has lived for over eight hundred years.   Eight hundred years is a mind stretching enough number, but cedar does not rot, Peter explained that there are trees on the ground in that area that fell hundreds of years ago looking as inconspicuous as any fallen tree.  The oldest he has found lived for about eighteen hundred years before it fell, several hundred years ago.

A wealth of information can be collected from these trees.  A selection of trunk slices from various cedars that Peter has found and studied provided some superb examples.  There was a slice from the eighteen hundred year old cedar, oddly shaped and dense with the tightest growth rings, it felt slightly humbling to hold and contemplate something that had a life so long.  Aside from counting the years of a tree’s life by its rings it is possible to identify patterns within these rings, which could indicate anything from when they lived to temperature changes and cataclysmic events such as a volcanic eruption thousands of miles away.  From the shape of the trunk it is possible to know the chronology of how the tree grew and developed.  There seem to be so many directions and sources of information within these trees, they seem to be very precise environmental recorders.

Thanks should go to Peter Kelly for such an excellent and truly fascinating day.

Peter Kelly is the Research Director at the rare Charitable Research Reserve in Cambridge. Before that, he studied the ecology of the Niagara Escarpment for 20 years and co-authored a book about the ancient cedars called “The Last Stand: A Journey Through the Ancient Cliff-Face Forest of the Niagara Escarpment.” The book is excellent and contains Peter’s stunning photographs as well as his pen-and-ink drawings of the cedars. Check it out!

– Elizabeth

See more photos of this event.

Drawing by Fiona Reid, September 10, 2011