Only 100 yards from our house is a fairyland. This isn’t a Disney creation, just another marvel of Mother Nature.
It’s a place carpeted with soft moss, rough with humps and hollows, lichen dripping from thin branches gray with age. A phalanx of sharp-tipped dead branches discourages exploration and bushwhacking. In spring the spongy ground oozes water. This dry fall we led our three and six-year-old granddaughters into this mysterious realm. We headed down a very old woods trail to an opening of several acres that was once a large beaver pond. The six-year-old soon struck off back into the woods, investigating the micro-treasures that little ones discover as we oldsters walk right past. She was soon building a little fairy house in the mossy alcove formed in the middle of a clump of trees.
By now you’ve divined that our fairyland is a Northern White Cedar swamp. The whole swamp covers about 30 acres. Our property boundary bisects the swamp in one direction while a small brook wanders through in another. A lobe of the swamp oozes off to the north, crossing a road and more or less connecting with another swamp complex on the next brook.
The big old beaver pond is the heart of a chain of intermittent impoundments that stretches down the little brook for half a mile or more. Beavers have likely been plying their trade here for centuries, very possibly millennia. Four decades ago they were active in the big pond, their dam stretching from a knoll that protrudes into the swamp, across the brook, and tying into a slight rise in the swamp bottom. If you weren’t looking for the old dam, you might not realize it was there. A long stretch of the dam now melds into the forest floor with trees growing out of it.
No beavers have resided in the big pond for a few decades; hence the pond is now a large puddle surrounded by a beaver meadow with swamp grasses and sedges growing amidst the stark, gray, 20-foot high needles of dead cedar trees. In one spot a few dozen stumps are witness to an enterprising farmer cutting fence posts. The stumps are a couple of feet high, the tops at the water level of the pond when beavers kept it full. I assume they were cut in the winter at ice level. That’s the only time of the year when it would be feasible to haul anything back through the swamp up to our farmstead.
While my granddaughter was busy creating her fairy house, I pushed deeper into the dense cedar trees, wondering whether any human had ever really disturbed the deep recesses of this swamp. I soon discovered a real fairy castle. Mother Nature has completely covered a stump with at least three different species of moss. From the moss tower rose three different colors of mushrooms, including bright red ones standing guard.
A little farther into the trees is a noticeable mound surrounding a very large, very old stump that has almost entirely rotted away. A few big white pines dot this landscape, having taken root on a dry spot amid wetness. This stump must have been one of those. Looking closely nearby I found the remains of a few cedar posts laid in a small pile, covered with a thick layer of moss. At least I assume that’s what they are. I don’t know if the pine died of its own accord or perhaps that same farmer felled it that winter when he was cutting posts. Whatever his enterprise, it is now lost in the mosses of time. I once took a core from a seven-inch cedar in the heart of the swamp, took it home, and counted the rings with a magnifier. It was 150 years old. I don’t find cedar stumps deep in the swamp. I think humans have pecked around the edges cutting a few logs and posts, but I don’t think they’ve ever cut the whole swamp. In the middle, I think this swamp may be true old growth.
Forty years ago, Peacham’s unofficial naturalist was Thelma White, who lived down on East Peacham Brook. An educator and wonderful person, Thelma was one of our early acquaintances. Not long after we moved in, Thelma appeared at the door with a Harvard researcher. She asked if they could walk down into the swamp so she could show him an endangered plant that she knew grew down there. About 10 years ago one of Vermont’s premier naturalists, Liz Thompson, agreed to come walk the swamp with me. Her sharp eyes and agile brain registered a host of unusual plants and she quickly analyzed the conditions that have led to this assemblage of organisms. Aside from the physical elements of the bowl where the swamp sits, a major influence is the pH of the groundwater that seeps in from all sides. Liz tested one seep that has a pH of 7.6, a sure indicator of calcareous bedrock. Northern White Cedar thrives in higher pH soil. By contrast, Peacham Bog, just five miles to the west, sits over granitic bedrock and is very acidic (low pH).
Northern White Cedar lives in swamps, but it also thrives in dry soil. It grows at an infinitesimal rate in a crowded wet swamp, never getting very big at all. Upon a hillside in good soil, it grows steadily, and 18-inch cedar trees are not uncommon in Caledonia County. These remarkable trees can live a very long time. In Vermont, some cedars are over 200 years old. Way down at the southern edge of their range, in Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia, a Northern White Cedar died 30 years ago and was found to be 1,600 years old!
The story goes that in 1536 the explorer Jacques Cartier’s expedition to eastern North America suffered badly from scurvy (lack of vitamin C). Savvy natives showed the ignorant Europeans how to make tea from cedar, which promptly perked up the crew. From then on, this magical tree became Arborvitae, the Tree of Life. Nurseries sell Arborvitae in various forms, often straight Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), or sometimes a hybrid of two or more species.
Northern White is not the only cedar species. Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana - a juniper, not really a cedar) grows sparsely in low areas of southwestern Vermont, and close to Lake Champlain, but not here in the NEK. The cedar clapboards and decking that you can buy at the lumberyard are sawn from Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), which grows very tall, very big, and very straight in the Pacific Northwest, especially British Columbia. It is superior in lumber quality to our Northern White Cedar, which is small and generally full of knots. Even bigger than Western Red Cedar is Alaskan Yellow Cedar, which grows in the Pacific rainforest to prodigious size and age; a few have lived 2,000 years.
All cedars are known for rot resistance, although you will notice that cedar fence posts rot around the outside below ground level in the first 10 years. It is the sapwood that rots, which generally is only the outer inch of the post. The heartwood remains sound for many more years. As an aging human, I get comfort from that fact.
Tim McKay is a conservationist, tree farmer and woodworker in Peacham.