The Forest for the Trees

In a northern mixed-wood forest, each tree species finds its most favorable micro-topography to thrive.

a red oak and white pine in a mixed-wood forest
The author’s writing studio sits beneath the shade of this red oak and white pine, two of the tallest trees on the property.
By Philip Conkling
Photograph by Peter Ralston
From our November 2022 issue

My wife and I may not actually qualify as living in “the Maine woods.” However, the mile-long rural road that runs the spine of the bony peninsula where we live is heavily forested, covered by a canopy of arching oak and maple trees, flanked by centurions of pine and spruce. Most of the houses out here are located around the point’s perimeter, which leaves a substantial amount of intact forest. 

Several times a day, the dog and I circumnavigate our two-acre property, passing through what foresters call a northern mixed-wood forest. Aside from our house and barn, which are built next to a large butterfly- and bee-attracting wildflower garden, the rest of the property is dominated by some very old northern red oaks and white pines, many of which are well over a century in age. Underneath these monarchs are red maples, white ashes, basswoods, yellow and white birches, hemlocks, spruces, and white cedars: all part of our piece of mixed woods, where each species has found its most favorable micro-topography, a combination of slope, aspect, and soil depth that varies on each 10th of an acre. In a small ravine that plunges over a ledge, we even hear whispers of Longfellow’s “forest primeval,” with “the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.”

During the last few months, the oaks have dropped an untold number of acorns, which attract a variety of nocturnal creatures. Every fall, you cannot miss the regular plonk, plonk, plonking of acorns falling from the crowns of the oaks. The nuts are full of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates that plenty of animals appreciate, including jays and crows. The dog is especially interested in the scents of the deer that forage here on many nights, but he knows he cannot catch these fleet creatures. Squirrels are more fun, but they know exactly how fast he can cover ground.

The oldest of our white pines are tall and elegant. Because they have grown old within a forest — as opposed to seeding in on an old pasture — they have long since shed their lower limbs, and their crowns are now growing above surrounding trees. They are called super dominants by forest ecologists, and they can live — and thrive — for well over two centuries. These are the trees eagles most especially love, because they provide high perches with broad views over the landscapes and seascapes, where there are myriad prey species to hunt. Ospreys are fond of these pines too, but they need to be very careful in eagle territory lest they also end up as prey, as did one of this year’s juveniles, whose carcass we found on the beach.

Although our mixed-wood forest is alive and well, there is a pest in paradise — the nasty, nonnative browntail moth, whose stinging hairs drive family and friends indoors. Early each spring, we have cut out those oak branches with easily identified white egg cases, where browntail-moth eggs overwinter and their noxious caterpillars hatch in spring. After four years of pruning, we have put a significant dent in their population here, and we have learned that if we turn off our outdoor lights at night — especially during August, when the evening mating flights occur — we’ll at least not attract more.

For the past 50 years, Maine has enjoyed the distinction of being the country’s most heavily forested state, as large swaths of pastureland have reverted to secondary forest. More and more people are moving into these forests, particularly in coastal counties, and it will take both care and careful observation to learn to live lightly in our great, increasingly venerable woodlands.


Down East Magazine, November 2022