The Surry Forest

Susan Hand Shetterly, forest
Nejc | PEXELS.COM
By Susan Hand Shetterly
I remember the first time I visited the 2,200-acre woodlot for sale in my town. It was in 2014, and Pam Johnson and I drove in to take a look. We were on the board of the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, and a big chunk of land, less than 4 miles from the ocean, seemed too good to pass up. We loved wild places, and this place had a bit of wildness left. True, the road leaked gravel into piles of slash in the July heat. And the forest looked like forests do when they are logged quickly and repeatedly: firs and spruces pinched tightly together, skinny red maples, poplars, and birches in want of a cull. We got out of the car and trekked farther in, reaching a beaver dam as high as our shoulders, woven with beveled sticks and topped with mud and stones. Water poured over it, sweeping into a tiny sun-washed meadow. Pam was beside herself. “Lovely!” she exclaimed, and she waded into the waist-high grasses declaiming in Latin the plants she recognized.

“English, please!” I said.

“No!” she shot back. “Latin says who they truly are.” I remember thinking that she was disappearing, turning into a waving reed or a frond of the royal fern, spouting Latin as she went.

Land does, in fact, come back. Life returns, and that life is good.

A logging company bought the land before we came up with an offer, but two years later, we drove into the forest again. This time, Pam was ill, but being ill wasn’t important to her that day. The logging company wanted to sell — cheaply, quickly — and she was delighted for this second chance. If the land called out for serious care the first time, now it was a landscape in extremis, with spotty bunches of trees, hills of slash, and the soil rent by the tracks of harvesters. We came to where the beaver dam had towered over the meadow. Both had disappeared under a water-soaked logging road.

“I can’t bear this,” I said.

“But land comes back,” Pam countered. “Time is what it needs.” At the next trust meeting, I argued against buying. Pam argued, passionately, in favor.

We closed on it in the fall.

The next spring, I walked into the woods alone. I stood in the brush, and heard — how could this be? — the air filling up with birdsong. Pam and the birds knew what I had to learn: land does, in fact, come back, maybe not the way it was 100 years ago or even 50 years ago, but life returns, and that life is good.

Several weeks ago, Sandy Walczyk and I hiked past the rock that holds a small bronze plaque in memory of Pam. Sandy is the trust’s new forest manager. She told me that the work she does here is her dream job. “I love getting my hands in it and hiking through it, visiting some of the wetlands that still have beautiful big red maples in them.”

People from the surrounding towns help her plant saplings and clean up brush. They walk the logging roads to spot tracks of moose, deer, coyotes, bears, and bobcats and to listen for breeding birds. This year, they planted 2,700 trees. It’s a place for people who want to heal what’s broken in our natural world. It offers them the work, and it responds in trees.

I followed Sandy into a scrim of pin cherries. We peered through the green mix for the newly planted hardwoods. We found them, their distinctive leaves on tender, beginning stalks: Quercus rubra. Acer saccharinum. Betula alleghaniensis.