How a patch of New England forest inspired a child and a career

310-year-old pine

The sentinel pine at age 310 (or more). (Author photo.)

The Forest AND the Tree

In 1710 — right about the time Queen Anne’s War was ending in Nova Scotia — a pine tree sprouted in the rich woodland soil found near what would later be called the New England coast.

The conditions could scarcely have been better for the tree to thrive. Nourished and protected by others of its ilk, this white pine would grow to outlast them all — not by decades, but by centuries. The sentinel pine, as I call it, was more than 100 years old when a farmer integrated it into a wall he built with boulders gathered and hauled from an incredibly hard-won patch of adjacent pasture. By the late 1940s, long after the pasture had been reclaimed by a succession of beeches, birches, and maples — and well past its 200th birthday, the tree presided over the most significant event of its lifetime — the guarantee that it would live out its days in peace.

Herbert and Eva Brown purchased the land on which the sentinel tree stood in the early 1900s. They so enjoyed walking beneath the majestic pines and swimming in the bordering tidal creek that had once powered the village’s grist mill, that they wanted it protected. In 1949, after nearly fifty years of blissful ownership, they made it so, creating a 56-acre woodland preserve for all to enjoy.

In 1969, I met the sentinel for the first time. The preserve the Browns created (and was subsequently enlarged) bordered my family’s backyard. The summer I turned twelve, I explored the woods whenever I could. The sentinel and its companion stone wall immediately became reassuring landmarks. The woods they stood watch over were magical. I found many childhood treasures there — old glass bottles, a metal bucket with an intact bail and a rusted out bottom that I hung from a branch as a trail marker, a blueberry patch that was all my own for harvesting and a marine clay-lined spring that saved the day when I stepped on a bees nest — (turned out that placing gobs of cold mud on welts was a good idea).

In the winter my friends and I would get off the school bus and don snowshoes — blazing paths through waist deep snow and returning home in failing light were rights of passage (not to mention riding down the creek on icebergs, which we didn’t share with parents until years after the fact, thank you).

The sentinel tree and stone wall have stood by me for my entire life. Just yesterday, more than fifty years since I first started exploring those sacred woods, I went back. Yes, the sentinel tree is still there. Now more than 300 years old, its end is finally nigh. Its bark is cleaving off and only one of its three trunks is thriving. Insects, woodpeckers, snow, ice and wind will soon be taking their inevitable tolls. As I stood surveying the scene, I realized that the sentinel and I were on similar journeys. We have both lived through and seen an amazing number of things. Most of those who nurtured us have returned to the soil — some prematurely. And our turn will come, too.

But those woods provided an environment that enriched both of our lives — precisely what I imagine the Browns had in mind. Surely the sentinel would have been cut down decades ago — most likely in the name of a new subdivision. And just as certainly, I would not have become passionate about the restorative powers of nature and telling the stories of those who ensured we had places to experience them.

In the end, whether standing or fallen, the sentinel will leave its mark for years to come. The stone wall even longer than that. The woods in the preserve will change, too. One tree or one stand at a time, the forest is always in flux. But that’s ok. As long as it’s still there — sustaining us all.

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