Middleburgh, New York
Schoharie Escarpment is a line of cliffs crowning the ridge on east of Schoharie Creek valley between the towns of Schoharie and Middleburgh. The ridge rises steeply from 200 feet in the Schoharie Valley to over 1200 feet, and over 1700 feet at its highest summit. At about 1000 feet, a thick bed of durable, weather-resistant Hamilton Sandstone is exposed, forming a ragged line of cliffs. This wall of rock is perhaphs 25 to 40 feet high, usually broken in two levels, and extends over two miles north from the town of Middleburgh. In the aerial photo, these cliffs are seen as a nearly black band that extends up the center. On the topographic map, they are simply labeled "The Cliff."
This rocky, rugged ridge with its sandstone ciffs is exposed to prevailing northwest winds and storms. Soil is non-existent, or thin, rocky and poor. Water is scarse, and seasonally intermitent. As a result, vegetation is sparse and stunted, since few species are adapted to survive these challenging conditions. Most trees are knobby, knarled and diminished in size. This hardly seems the place to search for an ancient forest.
Yet, this harsh, difficult growing environment harbors some truly ancient trees—perhaps the oldest living things in the Capitol Region of New York. Steep slopes and cliffs are one type of area to search for old growth, precisely because they are inaccessible and difficult to log. Also, the trees that do grow in these kinds of sites never reach a size of commercial value, and at any rate, are twisted and knobby, rather than tall and straight. As a result, they are passed over by loggers, and often can reach great ages without achieving giant stature.
This sort of vertical, cliff-face community of ancient trees had first been discovered by the western New York survey team in the late 1980s growing on cliffs and rocky talus slopes of the Niagara River gorge below the Falls. Their findings were followed up and elaborated by a team of Canadian botanists exploring the Canadian side of the gorge (see: Cliffs as Natural Refuges). The cedars in that gorge proved to be an astonishing 500 to 1000 years old, and forced a worldwide reassessment of such vertical cliff communities.
Along the Schoharie Escarpment, the principal trees are red cedar, chestnut oak, hickory, hemlock and white pine. The hemlock and white pine are found mainly in more sheltered and favorable locations, while the red cedars grow right out of the rock of the cliffs. These red cedars were the principal focus of our investigation.
The climb to the cliffs was steep, forcing us to scramble up, hunched on hands and legs in places. We began in a zone of maximum disturbance, with hot sunshine, cleared fields, roadways, fencerow hedges, houses with yards, and mainly non-native species. Quickly we entered the shade of a white pine plantation planted to reforest the lower slopes of the ridge; Hidden in the evergreens was a firepit littered with beer cans and broken bottles. Many of the pines were blown down, falling to the southwest, slanting across the slopes, testimony to the severe wind shear that can sweep down the ridge. Trees require strong roots to survive here.
After a long climb, the pine plantation gave way to a scrubby oak and hickory. Another smaller firepit marked this transition, but this one had much less litter and no broken glass. At the edge of the fire circle, where the pines gave way to oaks, stood a trio of white cedars. One had been cut, and I counted over 90 rings in the 42 inch circumference stump—nearly a century since the last major human disturbance to this forest.
From here to the summit, the trail narrowed. There were no signs of human disturbance except the few feet that scrambled up these last few dozen feet up to the cliffs. Soil got thiner, with larger rocks, many cloaked with ancient growths of lichens. We were crossing from civilization to wildernesss. At the base of the sandstone cliffs a few feet below the summit, a pile of coyote scat announced our arrival in wilderness. The view from here was vast and inspiring, but the immediate vegetation and terrain were extremely rugged and challenging.
The slope was in excess of 45 degrees, and the rocky soil forced us to pay attention to our footing as we shimmied along the base of the cliffs. Although the cliffs were not high—a double row, each about 20 feet high—and were roken at intervals, scaling them was difficult for lack of handholds. We saw many interesting trees sprouting out of rock only 20 feet away, but they were inaccessible on the terrace just above the first line of cliffs.
The trees in this zone were mostly chestnut oak, hickory, cedar and white pine—all stunted, knobby, knarly, with feet carpeted with moss and knees crusted with lichens. Not at all attractive for timber.
After a brief struggle across the steep face of the Escarpment, Fred spotted a promising specimen for an age assessment. A red cedar growing in a niche between the cliff faces was only about 25 feet tall, and sported a modest crown of greenery. Yet, this tree was a survivor. Twice it had blown down in windstorms—flattened by the northwest winds whipping along the cliffs—falling to the southeast acros the niche. Yet, each time, the broken tree had sprouted a new stem and begun growing upward again. A stubborn, well anchored root system renewed this red cedar's struggle to survive in its extreme environment.
Fred used his handsaw to slice off a dead limb near the base of the most recent trunk. The stub from the branch revealed he dark, rich red heartwood that gives this cedar its name. Using a hand lens, Fred slowly counted the hair-thin rings of annual growth, eventualy announcing 144 rings on just over a one inch radius.
Not far from this obviously ancient cedar, Fred spotted a light green luna moth lying on a rocks below of chestnut oak.
Another few yards to the north, we encountered a similar size cedar tree that was dead, without the least tatter of green. After a long shared session sawing at the tough,dense, dry wood at the base of this weathered tree, it was severed. An equally long session with the hand lens resulted in an estimated age of 614 years—the oldest tree we had found yet in our first year of ancient forest surveys.
A 15 minute hike further north along the ridge revealed many more attractive candidates for further tree rings studies. Most of them will require ropes to safely access them and learn their secrets. But clearly our six century tree had much company in its lifetime on this sandstone ledge, and some of these trees may be its elders.