As 18th-century European settlers undertook the first public land surveys of New England, they often relied on trees to mark the corners of each survey section. These so-called “witness trees” stood silent watch over the landscape during centuries of dramatic change, and the concept forms the basis of a forthcoming book by Seattle Times reporter and 2013-14 Knight Fellow Lynda Mapes.
In the book, Mapes explores the impact of global climate change through the experience of a single, centenarian red oak tree situated in the Harvard Forest – a 3,500-acre ecological research site in rural Petersham, MA, operated by Harvard University. The oak, while not itself an actual survey marker, has nevertheless witnessed in the last hundred years substantial shifts in land use, natural disasters, and record increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. By closely observing the phenology of trees and other plants (the periodic changes in their physical characteristics as they progress through the seasonal cycle), researchers at the Harvard Forest are identifying a trend toward longer growing seasons. Climate change, they believe, is a contributing factor.
Mapes developed the book concept during her Knight Fellowship, in part through interactions with researchers at the Harvard Herbaria. She was awarded a 2014-15 Bullard Fellowship by the Harvard Forest, where she has taken up residence for the year to continue researching and writing the book. Witness Tree will be released in 2016 by Bloomsbury Publishing.Throughout the year, the 2014-15 Knight Fellows and I have made several visits to the Harvard Forest – both to learn more about the research taking place there and to produce this short documentary film about the Witness Tree project. To explore further, visit Mapes’ Witness Tree Blog or check out a near-real-time image of the tree itself on the Witness Tree webcam.