Local forester to speak at Hildene: Dorset's Alan Calfee will lecture on the forests of the Battenkill Valley


MANCHESTER >> More than three decades ago, Alan Calfee heard the call of the forest pulling at him, to help preserve it.

Today, as president of Calfee Woodland Management, LLC, the award-winning Dorset forester and tree farm owner still sees it as his duty not just to protect the woods, but also to educate the public on its history, benefits and vulnerabilities.

To this end, on Sat., April 2, Calfee will be speaking at Hildene, the Lincoln family home in Manchester, as the third part of four talks in the historic museum's lecture series: "The Battenkill Valley: Reading the Natural Landscape."

"The forest as we know it today is less a place, and more a process," Calfee said. "The more we appreciate this distinction, the better chance we have at understanding what it takes to continue effective preservation for our woodlands."

For the past several years, Hildene, once the estate of Robert Todd Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln's first son, has embarked on a refocused mission called "Values into Action." This initiative promotes environmentally conscious stewardship of the grounds and beyond.

Part of that drive is education, according to Hildene's president, Seth Bongartz.

"So much of our focus at Hildene is on our landscape and the benefits of purposeful stewardship that it seemed natural to expand that effort beyond the confines of our property," Bongartz said. "Why do we have the forests we have and why are those forests so different in areas of relative proximity? How does this explain our soils types and why are those soils so varied within the confines of our immediate surrounds?"

Implicit to this, Bongartz continued, is the notion that better understanding of the origins of the Battenkill valley "leads to higher respect and better care for this remarkable wonder of nature."

Calfee will speak about the valley's forests; he said that includes the area from Dorset to Arlington, and parts of the Taconic and Green Mountain ranges. His presentation will include 45 visuals, mostly projections of old photographs.

The first area Calfee will address is known as silvics, which is the term used for the characteristics that define the life history, growth, behavior and ecology of a tree species.

Calfee said he will veer away from being overly scientific, but will use the forest's natural history to describe a tree's life cycle. This includes the environmental and soil conditions that are suitable for its growth, and also things which can harm it.

The next topic will be what foresters call site, or all the various things that make up a tree's habitat: bedrock, soil, moisture, elevation, and other such factors.

Calfee emphasized how today's Battenkill valley looks nothing like it did at the turn of the 20th century. He said a chief reason was the intensive practice of charcoal production logging, as well as farming, which affected significant tracts of land.

"After European settlement, slash and burn clearing was the order of the day leading up to about 1850, when about 75 percent of the land was clear cut and used for agriculture," Calfee said. "Today, it's almost reversed, where only about 25 percent is open land for farming."

Also, Calfee will talk about disturbances to the woods. These can vary from the long and slow process of glaciers, all the way to summer thunderstorms and microbursts.

"Summer thunderstorms are really important to the development of the forest," Calfee said. "One of those very intense downbursts may blow down a quarter acre of trees somewhere in the forest, and create an open gap. That's a place where young trees will regenerate. That's the way this forest perpetuates."

Finally, Calfee will look to the future of the woods, and the implications to humans and nature. He added that forests are crucial, and that the public benefits by knowing how this ecosystem functions.

"The woods produce oxygen, and also filter and produce clean water, as well as sequestering carbon from the atmosphere," Calfee said. "Forests provide biodiversity and habitat for all different kinds of creatures such as fungi and insects, to larger things such as songbirds and pollinators. The life we know on this planet has evolved as forests have, so they are vital to our very existence."

"The Battenkill Valley: Reading the Natural Landscape - The Forests" will take place at 10 a.m on Sat., April 2 in the Center Beckwith Room at Hildene, the Lincoln family home, in Manchester. $5 admission for non-members. Free for members. Info: 802-362-1788, or visit www.hildene.org GNAT-TV will eventually broadcast all the series lectures. Info: www.gnat-tv.org

— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist


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