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Old growth, grand specimens drive big-tree hunters

Among the small cadre of outdoor enthusiasts who search out the largest and oldest trees in the forest, some have no doubt had their lives changed by the spiritual awe inspired by a surviving old-growth forest. But few have experienced the complete turnaround of Matt Largess of Jamestown, R.I.

Largess had already spent 10 years logging in Oregon when, in 1998, a condo developer asked him to selectively log 20 acres of beech trees on a former Vanderbilt estate in nearby Portsmouth, R.I. But when he realized they comprised an ecologically intact old-growth forest more than 300 years old, he decided he couldn't go through with it, and contacted scientists who helped build a successful case for its preservation.

Now Largess's business, Largess Forestry Inc., specializes in the care of old specimen trees on Newport estates. ''I used to be a tree clearer until I found this forest, and then I changed completely," he said. ''It's like being an alcoholic and going sober. Or being an atheist and becoming religious."

Largess started his career helping clear-cut ancient Sitka spruce in Oregon in the 1980s. ''Some of those trees were 1,500 years old," he said in a phone interview. ''We used dynamite to blow holes underneath them. I can't even tell you how massive these trees were, 35 to 40 feet around. I started working and living in a forest with mountain lions and rattlesnakes, and six months later it was completely gone. . . . Right when I left, they were logging with lights 24 hours a day because they knew it would be shut down. They had Japanese logging ships, with sawmills, right off shore."

Largess continued logging after he returned to New England until his discovery of the Oakland Forest outside of Newport. He called in New York ecologist Charles D. Canham, who took core samples proving the age of the trees, which helped coalesce community sentiment. Over two years, $1.5 million was raised, largely from local contributions ranging from $25 to $100,000, to purchase the forest from the developers, who said they were surprised and pleased by the public's willingness to purchase the land. The Aquidneck Island Land Trust took possession in 2000.

''That's an amazing discovery. There it was in highly populated Rhode Island. It shows how places can sneak through," marveled Robert Leverett, co-author of ''The Sierra Club Guide to Ancient Forests of the Northeast." ''People didn't know what old-growth should look like. The trees are a little larger, but if they're near the ocean, they're not going to overwhelm you because of growing in suppressed conditions. You can't equate age with size."

Leverett's book was published last year as the first field guide for people who want to visit old-growth forests in New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. These include about 1,000 acres in Massachusetts in many scattered and usually small parcels that were either bypassed by loggers because of difficult terrain or have been allowed to regrow since the 1600s and 1700s.

New England was once home to one of the world's great forests. By the 1850s it was gone, cleared for farms that grew mostly rocks. But after farming shifted to the Midwest, New England's woods quietly grew back. Now there are groves here so mature that even experts sometimes cannot tell if they were ever logged, and so have abandoned the term ''virgin forests" for the newer label ''old-growth forests."

''Once I realized we had trees in the 300- to 400-year-old age range that were off people's radar scope, I decided to document them to make people more aware and to save trees," said Leverett, an adjunct computer science professor at Holyoke Community College and a database developer.

In 1996 Leverett helped found the Eastern Native Tree Society, whose 110 members search for old stands in remote areas and also for the giant individual trees that often hide in plain sight in parks and cemeteries and that occasionally qualify, after much measuring, as ''champion trees."

''We have quite a few fanatics and I'm one of them," said Leverett. ''It's part science and there's a sporting side to it."

In 1940 a nonprofit called American Forests started the National Register of Big Trees, recognizing the largest examples of each species found in the nation, based on a formula combining height, trunk circumference, and crown width. It's updated every two years and most states have followed with their own registers of champion trees.

Boston photographer Barbara Bosworth has spent 15 years photographing many of them for her new book, ''Trees, National Champions," published by the MIT Press. The 70 black-and-white tree portraits emphasize the random man-made landscapes of water towers, farms, and subdivisions now abutting many lone giants.

''I love trees and forests and love to wander through the woods. It's as simple as that. When I learned about this program 15 years ago, I was fascinated. I just started photographing champion trees in Ohio where I grew up, and then just kept going," said Bosworth, whose book includes past and current national champions from 23 states.

She enlisted the help of tree society members and other big-tree hunters in her pursuit of photographic subjects, including Largess, who took her to the country's largest recorded pussy willow, growing in a dense briar patch on an estate near his home.

''If you find the biggest of its kind, it's like the Red Sox winning the World Series!" said Largess.

Like many members of the big-tree hunter fraternity, he spends a lot of time searching swamps because they were seldom logged. ''I'm in the woods in the dark. I come home and my wife asks where I've been because I'm covered with swamp water."

''Big trees fascinate people. They're just very grand and awe-inspiring," said Jan Ames Santerre, a Maine community forestry specialist who measures and confirms champion tree discoveries in Maine and takes Global Positioning System coordinates for them. ''We have lost trees on the list in the past because we weren't able to find them again, usually in the north woods. We're going to try not to lose them again," she said.

''The more I'm in the older forests, the more I run into Indians. They know these places," said Largess. When the Oakland Forest was saved, he continued, ''Wampanoags showed up and thanked us. In their headgear. They had done ceremonies there."

This doesn't surprise Leverett. ''We have Native Americans who do ceremonies. . . . My late wife (Jani Leverett, who died from breast cancer in 2003) was director of the American Indian Movement for Massachusetts. Her father was Choctaw and her mother was part Cherokee. She was from Oklahoma, the Trail of Tears. But we met in South Dakota. . . . We've had some Algonquins, some Lakota here. Mohawks have come from New York and Canada and done ceremonies where large and charismatic trees have been named in their honor."

Leverett has discovered and measured many forest giants, which he names and lists in the society's database. His finds include the tallest tree in New England, a 167.3-foot white pine in the Mohawk Trail State Forest in Charlemont that he named The Jake Swamp White Pine after Mohawk chief Jake Swamp. ''He's been there several times. I decided to name it after him. My wife and I wanted to bring a Native American presence to the area, and the white pine is the tree of peace of the Iroquois Confederacy. We named the 164.2-foot Joe Norton tree after a grand chief of the French Mohawks, the Kanawake. They're near Montreal. He came to a ceremony. It was a way of bringing Native American names to the land again."

The Leveretts' marriage combined advocacies for both Native American culture and old-growth forests in a rare partnership. ''The two of us worked together and traveled easily between our two worlds. Now I've lost my partner. We were married 37 years. It was a great marriage and she was a great woman," Leverett said.

Bob Leverett named a 150.7-foot second-growth white pine The Jani White Pine for his wife before her death, and last year the State Department of Conservation and Recreation dedicated the surrounding 1 1/2 acres as the Jani Grove in the Mohawk Trail State Forest.

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