Some weeks ago I attended a class on Forest Ecology with Dr. Jim Tobolski of Indiana Purdue University. It’s always astounding to to imagine what the landscape must have been like before the Europeans arrived in North America. Here is just a little of what Indiana looked like at that time.
Indiana forests at the time of settlement consisted of 20 million acres of forests, or 87% of the state. 1.5 million acres of were wetland, primarily in the northeast and northwest, and 2 million acres were made up of prairie grasslands. Another 1 million acres of the state were made up of barrens and glades, where forest fires had naturally occurred.
Some early historical accounts of the virgin forest indicate that the forest was dense with over 40 tree species at a height of over 100 feet and that the shade was so dense little or no sunlight reached the forest floor. It was dark and this produced a feeling of confinement, deep silence and depression for many pioneers.
Black walnuts from 4-6 feet in diameter and over 100 feet tall. Tulip poplars measuring 8-10 feet in diameter and 160-200 feet tall were common and the first branches were often 90 feet from the ground. Bald cypresses were 9-10 feet in diameter and one sycamore near Kokomo was 19 feet. in diameter. In fact, one hollow sycamore on the banks of the Ohio River averaged over 24 feet in diameter and provided room for 14 men on horseback!
About 2/3 of the forest was cut down by 1870. Between 1800-1870 cutting and clearing averaged 7,000 acres a day. And most of this was before the crosscut saw was available!
We asked Jim if he thought we might ever see trees of this magnitude develop on some of the state’s nature preserves. We were told that time alone is not the only factor. Atmospheric and soil conditions are simply not what they once were. We were told that while rain has always been somewhat acidic, rainfall today is 10 times as acidic as it was when Indiana was occupied by the first wave of pioneers.
Remember that Arbor Day takes place the last Friday in April for most of the Midwest. So get out there and plant a tree.