Scientists solving riddles in an ancient wetland

New Jersey's Bear Swamp maintains 88 acres of primeval ecosystem

October 10, 2002|By Kirk Johnson | Kirk Johnson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MILLVILLE, N.J. - The 17 tree lovers shuffled, bent over, fighting their way through the low-hanging vines and branches, resplendent in their vapor trail of insect repellent, swamp and sweat.

They were on the hunt, looking for the biggest, oldest trees in the Northeast, and on this day at least, New Jersey - known more for its turnpike than its timber - seemed a likely place to look.

"Holy mackerel!" a voice bellowed from up ahead. "Look at the size of this black gum!"

Every old tree, no matter where it has taken root, is a mystery story, a testament to time and perseverance wrapped in the riddles of growth rings and scarred bark.

But the story of Bear Swamp in New Jersey, which has been talked about in tree-hugger circles since at least 1908, has at times seemed more like legend.

Rumors have abounded of great shaggy-barked Methuselahs, holdovers of a lost world before Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, perhaps even before Columbus.

The handful of biologists and old-tree enthusiasts who had been allowed here onto the privately owned property over the years said the forest was almost certainly ancient, with little evidence of human impact.

So on a recent Saturday, having once more negotiated permission from the owner, a sand and gravel mining company, they were back, aiming this time for the hard numbers.

Seeking answers

Armed with hand-crank tree borers to take cores and a global satellite positioning system to mark the exact coordinates of each sample, the group hoped to emerge with the definitive word on what the swamp was or was not.

How had it come to be spared? What might it offer to the increasingly important science of climate reconstruction, which uses tree rings as calendar markers for drought and cold and atmospheric upheaval in the past?

But things did not turn out quite as the expedition participants had imagined. The global positioning system did not work, for starters, partly because there was too much canopy overhead.

The satellite, in other words, could not make out the trees for the forest.

And most of the trees, especially the biggest, oldest-looking ones, were hollow, making a precise count of their growth rings, and thus their ages, impossible.

What was left only deepened the mystery of the swamp itself. Of the dozen or so trees tested, the oldest, a black gum, was 400 to 550 years old, based on the partial core, scientists at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory said. Certainly, there are many trees older than that, especially in the West, where bristle-cone pines can live for more than 4,000 years.

But scientists say that tree species in the Northeast generally do not live much past 600 years; in arboreal terms, it is a live-fast, die-young culture. Much of the Pine Barrens - perhaps New Jersey's most famous forest, just north of Millville - is dominated by the pitch pine, which typically lives only 200 years or so.

88 acres

Bear Swamp, scientists say, offers context: a particular kind of forest of native lowland hardwood, and the human story of how and why it was left alone. With an estimated 88 acres of old-growth trees, a vast majority untested for age, it is also big enough, they say, to offer biological diversity.

These are not just a few old trees that somehow dodged the ax, but an old and apparently intact ecosystem in a place where most people would least expect to find it. The legend lives on.

"The evidence is that this forest was never disturbed in any way," said Dr. Stevens Heckscher, a conservation biologist with the Natural Lands Trust, who has tromped perhaps a dozen times through these woods. "It's truly primeval, something that most people would not think could occur in New Jersey."

The main reason Bear Swamp survived the centuries, Heckscher and other forest experts say, is apparently that no one wanted what it contained.

Through the Colonial and early American era, when forests were mainly appraised for the board feet they held, and then through the paved-over era of suburbanization and sprawl that followed, Bear Swamp moldered on in its mossy, tree-bearded silence. The land was too boggy and low for farming, too thick with species once derided as trash trees to be worth cutting down.

In other words, this is not exactly a piece of intact old North American nature, but the leftovers.

Chris Walbrecht could not care less. Walbrecht, a member of the Bear Swamp expedition, became charmed as a boy by the mystique of old bark when he was chopping wood on his family's dairy farm in upstate New York.

An embedded bullet

Inside one split log, he found a bullet imbedded deep in the wood. He showed his father, and together they counted the rings that had grown over and around the wound, tracing the entry mark back about 80 years.

Walbrecht, now an organic vegetable farmer on eastern Long Island, was enthralled with the way the tree had, in a way, suspended that moment in time - one errant shot in the woods.

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