by Charles A.M. Meszoely and Lawrence B. Mish*
Even the casual observer cannot fail to notice the great variety of trees in the Great Woods. Oaks predominate on uplands, beeches on slopes and flatlands, red maples in swamps and white pine and red cedar in old fields. Dense brush covers large areas and many of the swamps and flatlands are jungled with greenbrier tangles. One hundred species of trees and shrubs have been identified in the Great Woods. A few beeches are carved with 70 year-old dates and the oldest trees (mostly beeches) are some 150 years old. Among the less common trees are tupelo, hemlock, yellow birch, flowering dogwood, and mountain laurel.
The variety of trees and shrubs is caused by differences in soil types, terrain, surface water and exposure. Time and man are also involved. As cleared fields are abandoned they follow predictable stages in their return to forest. Each of these stages can be found somewhere in the Great Woods.
In much of the Great Woods, the first stage of the return to forest began soon after the farmers left for better paying jobs in factories and mills toward the latter half of the 19th century. Red cedars and various woody shrubs staked claims in the middle of the abandoned fields, while birch, oak, maple and pine slowly invaded from the edges. During the second or intermediate stage a mixture of faster growing evergreens and smaller deciduous trees developed. The final stage appeared as the oaks, beeches and maples grew larger, and forced out many of the evergreens and shrubs. Much of the woods is at present still in the intermediate stage, the transition having slowed because of the extensive lumbering and charcoal operations of the early 20th century.
The wide variety of plant communities in the Great Woods increases the variety of birds and mammals. Pheasant, meadowlarks, woodchucks and field mice prefer open spaces. Red squirrels are found in the pine stands, and gray squirrels, deer and grouse are attracted by the acorns of the oaks. The stone walls are a haven for small rodents such as white-footed mice and chipmunks and the blue jay seems to be everywhere.