Nature Notes:Saving Trees, Saving Us

Two forests dominated by broad-leaved deciduous trees that have hardly been cut over
Known as the Signature Tree, this American beech in Stony Hill Woods — an example of what archaeologists call an “arborglyph” or “dendroglyph” — is inscribed with the date 1908. Alexis Alvey

   The last “Nature Notes” column talked about Montauk’s ancient hardwood forest, the Point Woods. In East Hampton Town there are two other forests dominated by broad-leaved deciduous trees that have hardly been cut over and have been equally impressive during settler, colonial, and modern times.
    They are the woods north of Cedar Street around the Northwest’s Old Orchard Lane and Old Northwest Road in East Hampton and, in Amagansett, the Stony Hill Woods between Accabonac Road and Old Stone Highway on the west and east, and Red Dirt Road and Stony Hill Road on the north and south. The former is rooted in outwash soils left by the last ice sheet, the latter in morainal soils from that ice sheet. The former is quite small, well under 50 acres, the latter quite large, over 500 acres. The former is well developed in terms of subdivisions, houses, and buildable lots, the latter is only slightly developed.
    The Stony Hill forest is unique as far as Long Island’s East End forests are concerned. It is not only rich in species of trees, but it is a mature forest in terms of forest ecology with many venerable beeches, oaks, hickories, sassafras, red maples, tupelos, and black birches, and a holly here and there, some of which are more than 200 years old. It is also well populated with box turtles, yellow-spotted salamanders, spadefoot toads, and a variety of mammals, including deer, raccoons, foxes, long-tailed weasels, gray squirrels, chipmunks, moles, several different mice, and two shrew species.
    Other than the fact that the forest is longstanding and diverse, its next most obvious feature is its diverse avifauna. Just about every songbird species, including warblers, vireos, thrushes, woodpeckers, grosbeaks, and sparrows that breed on Long Island, breed in the Stony Hill Woods. In a 1984 bird breeding survey conducted by East Hampton’s Natural Resources Department throughout the town, the Stony Hill Woods came out number one!
    Unusual breeding birds for Long Island, such as the chuck-will’s-widow, the rose-breasted grosbeak, and the red-bellied woodpecker, will often pick these woods in which to nest. Since wild turkeys were reintroduced in 1991, these woods have become a favorite feeding area for this species, one of the largest American birds, which forages on acorns, beechnuts, and other fruit, as well as insects and ticks.
    It’s one of the very few spots on Long Island where a pileated woodpecker can occasionally be found, according to the observations of John de Cuevas, an amateur naturalist and avid birder who has lived in these woods for many years.
    Its glaciated surface is indented with kettle holes here and there. A few hold water permanently. Most are vernal; they are wet in the spring more often than not. Here is where the yellow-spotted salamanders, Fowler’s toads, spring peepers, gray tree frogs, and spadefoot toads breed after rains fill the depressions.
    Stony Hill Woods sits on perhaps the purest groundwater reserves on all of Long Island. For thousands of years the roots of trees and shrubs have removed impurities found in rainwater as it percolates down into the deep soils. There is nothing quite like a mature forest with an undisturbed litter layer and organic topsoil to purify water. It is certainly one of the reasons why the Suffolk County Water Authority chose to develop one of its drinking water well fields south of Red Dirt Road and east of Accabonac Road. This well field pumps exceedingly pure water to supply most of the water needs of Springs to the north and as much as half of the water needs of Montauk to the east. The Water Authority doesn’t install wells just anywhere, they install them in large watersheds that are mostly undeveloped and promise to stay that way in perpetuity.
    Maybe that is also one of the reasons why the Montaukett Indians camped here, they and the other Native Americans knew not just the ways of fish, fowl, and flora, but were also hydrologists of a sort, even though they didn’t have the high-tech water quality testing devices in use today. I’m not sure how they knew pure water from tainted water. On the other hand, they didn’t muck up the water the way we have, so before white man came to these shores, there was very little in the way of unpotable fresh water to sully one’s circulatory system.
    That may be why the Montauketts, who thought so highly of these woods that they picked at least one American beech in them to produce stick drawings on, termed “arborglyphs” or “dendroglyphs” by anthropologists. In a recent publication by Laurie Billadello, corresponding secretary of the Suffolk County Archaeological Association, she describes one of the Stony Hill Woods dendroglyphs on a living beech that has a 1908 date inscription. According to Alexis Alvey, a landscape specialist and certified arborist, this tree, locally known as the Signature Tree, is 32 inches in diameter. Leighton Blue Sky, director and tribal consultant of the Matouwac Research Center, Montauk Indian Nation, makes a very strong case for protecting this tree and any others like it, not just protecting it as they do on New York City sidewalks with a little fence five feet in diameter around a big shade tree, but without a fence and a very sizable not-to-be disturbed space around it.
    Which gets us back to saving not just the Signature Tree, but the other long-lived trees around it and all of those remaining in the Stony Hill Woods, not just the dendroglyph ones, but all of them. You may not be aware that rainwater in this day and age is not pure. It contains nitrates, other chemical molecules, and heavy metals including mercury. In our hemisphere weather systems move from west to east, so much of our rainwater originates in China and India, two of the top five polluters of our atmosphere. Large trees like those in the Stony Hill Woods are purifying the water.
    East Hampton purchased a lot of open space before and after the community preservation fund came into being, but in the Stony Hill Woods thus far the town has done very little. It was the de Cuevas family and the Peconic Land Trust that put much of the land, more than 250 acres of the woods, aside permanently. There are still buildable parcels within the area to put into permanent open space not only for the benefit of future water quality but for the ecology of the area, the flora and fauna, and also out of respect for the Montauketts and other Amerindians who knew these woods better than we do. There may not be a single local Indian site — camp, kitchen midden, cemetery, or what have you — that hasn’t already suffered insult and injury, including intrusions by bulldozers and other heavy equipment.
    To make one last point, the Central Pine Barrens of Suffolk County were preserved after the fact, but thank God they were. According to the 2011 water quality records for the Suffolk County Water Authority’s wells in that area, the average nitrate level is 3.29 parts per million, more than one-third the so-called safe drinking water level of 10 parts per million. Let’s face it, people have different sensitivities to such chemicals. That nitrate amount may harm people who ingest it, especially pregnant woman and infants. It also ultimately runs underground to the sea, where it mucks up the seawater, killing eelgrass and causing poisonous blooms of single-celled algae that color the water brown, red, or purple.
    A simple prayer: Thou shalt not despoil that land, but thou shall save it forevermore.