I like big trees...I cannot lie. So, I decided to make my near-annual pilgrimage with Ariel and her parents to one of southwestern Lower Michigan's finest natural areas, the alluring and beautiful yet Grimmsian Russ Forest, also known as Newton Woods, located near Marcellus in rural Cass County. I first visited the site in the mid-1990s after learning of its existence in Tom Power's Natural Michigan: A Nature Lover's Guide to 228 Attractions, a work that also introduced me to land trusts and the realization that there were organizations dedicated to locating and protecting natural features in Michigan. Heady and heartening. Russ Forest is perhaps best known to local naturalists for its enormous tulip-poplars, or tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera) which can be found scattered throughout the old-growth hardwood forest that is in part protected as a national natural landmark by Michigan State University. One of these ancient specimens, a former Michigan "state champion," was toppled in a 1984 storm. Park lore states this gargantuan spire was 225' tall, although recent work by big tree investigators at http://www.nativetreesociety.org/ estimate the fallen tree was between 130-140' tall, impressive but well short of the sign's audacious claim, and well short of the 170-180' that the species can attain in the protected cove forests of Smoky Mountains National Park. Although the former state champion was history, I was awe-struck by another massive bole on my first visit to Russ Forest, a nearby tulip-poplar that was supposedly 300 years old and 185' in height. Recent more accurate measurements of this tree indicate a height around 134', impressive, but hardly the dimensions of a Michigan sequoia in the Magnolia family.
In 2008, 12 or 13 years after my first visit to Russ Forest, I noticed that a portion of the grand tulip-poplar's lower trunk had rotted away. This was likely in part due to compaction of the great tree's roots over the years by awestruck visitors (myself included) lured to the base of the tree to appreciate its scale up close. I knew the old tree was not long for the world, and this may be my last opportunity to see it penetrate the already appreciable canopy of old-growth beeches, red oak, and sugar maple.
April 18, 2010 brought me back to Russ Forest, primarily to enjoy its incredible display of spring wildflowers, including two species that are largely restricted to southwestern Lower Michigan, blue-eyed mary (Collinsia verna) and wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum). Both species were in full flower, two weeks earlier than is typical due to record-setting early to mid-April heat. After spending time enjoying the wildflowers and trying out my new digital SLR and macro lens on the "lesser" plants in the ancient forest, I turned my attention to the big trees, and walked the trails to the southern portion of the forest, where the towering giant resided. On entering this stand of old-growth trees, the sights of freshly cut trunk segments and the scene of uprooted trees were cause for concern. As we approached the giant tulip-poplar, its forked, slingshot-like upper branches failed to materialize above the canopy. In its stead was a gaping canopy gap and a tangle of uprooted, toppled timber. After climbing over, sliding across, and ducking under the fallen trunks of ancient beeches in the area, we finally found "the tree." In a twist of fate and a middle finger to the inevitable, the twisted, towering ent was not felled directly by powerful winds, but instead fell victim to lesser trees that lost their bearings in a wicked derecho and crashed across the wounded elder's trunk. An energetic spring storm on the evening of April 5, 2010 cut across southwestern Lower Michigan and did what three previous centuries' storms could not: take down the "living relative" of the former state champion, and remove yet another living heir to the House of Liriodendron at Russ Forest.
While an understanding of canopy gap dynamics is central to any course in forest ecology, I am still saddened by the plight of this tree and other big trees on our landscape, trees that escaped the lumberman's ax, the farmer's plow, and the developer's asphalt and bluegrass, trees that have stood sentinel to centuries of change, witnesses to the conversion of the biological landscape to an anthropogenic-technological landscape that bleeds these remnants slow deaths due to the pernicious effects of fragmentation.
I am happy to have stood under this tree and admired its grandeur, and I hope my memories will add a few more decades of growth rings to its slumbering trunk. Godspeed, your majesty.