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Why hunt big trees?


When I recently told a friend that I planned to spend the weekend tree hunting, she looked puzzled, and I knew I was talking to yet another of the uninitiated.

"I'm going looking for Big Trees, the biggest of their species in the state or even the nation," I explained.

"Where do you do that?" she asked, still puzzled.

"In the woods," I answered, unable to resist stating the obvious. My mistake. Now she thought I was kidding.

"Honest, I'm going up to the Nicolet National Forest to try to find a great big black spruce that I remember seeing years ago. If I find it, I'll measure its height and circumference and spread and see if it's bigger than the one that's listed in the National Register of Big Trees. If it is, I'll send the measurement to the American Forestry Association folks in Washington who keep the records."

We talked a bit longer, and when we parted, I think she had a better understanding of what we Big Tree hunters do, though she remained skeptical about why we do it. Such is the reception those of us who take up the tape measure and the clinometer (a device some of us use to measure tree height) usually get.

No two of us have exactly the same motives or find exactly the same enjoyment. Yet there are common threads.

Certainly it's a thoughtful pastime. There are maps to understand and trails to explore. One friend even uses stereoscopic aerial photographs to search for likely areas. He has learned a lot about how topography looks from the air and is currently learning which shades on infrared photos belong to which tree species.

Several other friends spent three weekends trekking through the Porcupine Mountains in Upper Michigan trying to locate and measure a white spruce that was plainly visible from the road across a few miles of forest. Try that sometime - it's not as easy as it sounds. Once you enter the forest, you can't see your object tree anymore, and there are quite a few spruces scattered about. For my friends, finding that spruce became an obsession. They were into orienteering - but for a purpose. It's a skill that a tree hunter needs if he or she is going to search the woods.

For most of us there's a sense of intrigue and discovery. Other searchers have described to me the butterflies in their stomachs when they gaze on a newly spotted tree that holds promise as a champion. The pace quickens as you close in on the trunk, hands fumbling for the tape measure. Frequently the hunter stumbles as he tries to wrap the tape around the trunk. Satisfaction or disappointment ensues when he reads the numbers.

Big Tree hunters are not entirely altruistic. I suspect we're also interested in getting our name into print somewhere, in being first to find the biggest. Freud would have been fascinated. Surely our egos are challenged, and we do compete. Just as the fisherman is not inclined to disclose his special pool in a trout stream, so is the tree hunter secretive. A fellow who lives up in northern Wisconsin requires that locations of the Big Trees he finds not be listed by the record-keepers. I suppose one of his purposes is to prevent others from searching his favorite haunts.

There's also a scientific motive behind the desire to seek out the largest specimens of a tree species. Biologists, dendrologists, and ecologists are interested in the sizes and ranges of plant communities and specific plants. They study where each species grows the best. Records of where the biggest trees grow give scientists clues about soils and climate of a particular area.

Historians, too, are interested in arboreal behemoths. Trees and people are never too far apart, and their histories intertwine like the shade and sunlight under an old maple.

But we Big Tree hunters probably consider the sense of awe inspired by the objects of our search to be the most important motivation. The setting in which we hunt is almost always lovely, be it deep woods or suburban lawns. Such settings frame for us our subject: unique, often massive living things of considerable age. What they have lived through! Old trees have quietly stood by Indians and wagon trains, prairie fires and sod busters, Model Ts and airplanes. No living thing spans such time, or reaches such heights, or achieves such weights.

Standing next to a Big Tree humbles the seeker and maybe helps him or her put "today" into the framework of "forever."
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Title Annotation:National Registry of Big Trees
Author:McGrath, Chad
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1990
Previous Article:Saving something of value.
Next Article:Big trees and dreams.

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