Scouting the big ones

Go ahead and call Rob Messick a tree hugger: He won’t be offended.

On a damp Friday, we stood beside the Blue Ridge Parkway a few miles north of Mount Mitchell, eyeing a heavily wooded slope that plunges 600 feet in elevation in less than a half-mile. There’s no trail at this point, just a slick reddish cliff to your back and open sky dead ahead. While I wondered whether a hang glider was an option for our descent, Messick glanced at the topographical map of this wilderness to double-check how far down we needed to go to view the giant, ages-old white oaks and tulip poplars he planned to show me.

Below us lay approximately 5,000 acres of near-virgin forest — the third-largest old-growth tract in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests, according to a recently completed study in which Messick participated. (The Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains the most total area of old growth — 175,000 acres, which is about one-third of the park, compared to the Nantahala/Pisgah total of 77,418 acres.)

During his five-year search for old trees on these public lands, Messick has clambered on hands and knees up 50-degree slopes, sloshed across unnamed streams in remote coves, and stood eye to eye with a pair of ambling black bears.

“I don’t think ‘tree hugger’ is a derogatory term anymore,” he said, while conceding that a prime motive for the study — sponsored by the Western North Carolina Alliance, the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition and the Sierra Club — is persuading the U.S. Forest Service not to log old-growth timber lands.

A mere 7.5 percent of the Nantahala and Pisgah lands still contain uncut forests, Messick noted. He continued, “I’m not against logging on private land. I’m all for good forest-management practices on public land, including recreational, hunting and research uses. But we do need to consider backing off [logging in] these places that have intact old-growth forests, high-quality water sources or endangered species. Why should we treat these old-growth forests any differently from the Smokies? [We should] revere them [and] give them some respect.”

Further pondering the tree-hugger label, Messick offered, “At first, you fall in love with big trees. Then you get interested in the system that makes a forest — the soil, the elevation, the herbs, the shrubs, the other trees. The old trees are like these huge umbrellas sent up by the soil to maintain our environment.”

Then he joked, “I knew a guy [who] kissed trees. He had quite a romance going.”

Red-spruce cathedral

A city boy raised in Raleigh, the 40-year-old Messick nonetheless looks the tree-hugger part with his black bushy beard, faded jeans and backpack. And he drives an old Nissan that’s long since exceeded its mechanical limits. “My friends tease me, claiming my only regret is I can’t teach [the big trees] karate so they can fend off loggers,” he admitted the day of our adventure.

Messick did much of the field work for the Nantahala/Pisgah study — which involved visiting, surveying and cataloging almost 500 old-growth forest communities in some of the roughest terrain in WNC. (Aware of this region’s history of staunchly defended property rights, he emphasized that the Nantahala/Pisgah study covered only public lands.) And although the modest Messick is quick to mention the dozens of volunteers who braved bad weather and rugged terrain to complete the project, he and his team conducted 330 of the site visits.

But that brief phrase doesn’t begin to describe the amount of effort involved.

At our first stop on this gray Friday, Messick had parked at the access to the Big Butt Trail along the Parkway. He wasn’t looking for a nice little trail, just the dark-green crowns of red-spruce giants puncturing the steep canopy of trees upslope. We left the inviting trailhead and loped up the road a ways. Rainwater from a week of frequent thunderstorms gushed and gurgled over rocks, down stream beds and along drainage ditches by the road. A car whisked by, and Messick turned to leap a roadside stream and head into a tangle of trees.

The way was so thick with tree limbs, I had to duck my head like an old bull and fix my gaze on the ground — brown and spongy from hundreds of years of fallen pine needles, crumbling rock and downed trees. I skirted slippery rocks covered in moss, and leaf-strewn ground that seemed firm till you stepped there and found yourself knee-deep in a rocky hole.

Messick warned me that fallen trees can be hazardous are also hazardous. “They’re more slippery than rocks, by far,” he cautioned.

Naturally, I slipped and fell soon after the warning, making the mistake of stepping on a slick remnant of bark in the years-long process of returning to the earth. There was nothing left of the wood, its fibers already mingled with forest-floor detritus. “Learning how to fall is part of good field work,” Messick commented. He looked around as I brushed off my behind, wondering out loud, “Where are the big boys?” Messick was scouting the woods as if he were home and merely searching his living room for his keys.

We continued up, dodging moss-covered boulders and a patch of thornless blackberry and joe-pye weed. The smell of wet pine filled my nostrils, and Messick pointed out a fallen red spruce. Its wood was as rust-red as the dust on Mars, and the week’s rain had plumped it like a sponge. One sign of a virgin forest is trees felled by nature — their root pits sometimes ripped from the earth but long grown over, leaving a “pit-and-mound,” commented Messick.

Seasoned naturalist that he is, the largely self-taught Messick pointed out the difference between the red spruce and Fraser firs that share this grove: Red-spruce needles have an almost square shape, compared to the longer, flat needles of the Fraser fir. He fingered the delicate branches of a young red spruce and added — with an echo of that old eat-anything-in-the-woods guy, Euell Gibbons — “The biggest difference is the taste. Red spruce is sweeter than Fraser fir.”

I nibbled red-spruce needles, pondering the almost sweet hint of rosemary that masked the turpentine flavor lurking underneath. It was almost good enough to eat. Then I tried the Fraser fir — and couldn’t spit it out fast enough to get rid of the nasty Pine-Sol twang.

We laughed and moved on.

The forest breathed with running water under the canopy of tall trees, and Messick mentioned, “This is what Asheville drinks.” We were just a few thousand feet above the city’s North Fork Reservoir, on the fringe of a 22,000-acre forest that City Council members protected with a conservation easement a few years ago.

Messick spoke of old-growth forests as communities, each distinct in its flora, elevation, soil, lack of water or abundance of it. Red-spruce forests favor elevations above 5,100 feet. They often harbor dense “herb” growth — such as ferns and mosses — and tend toward wet conditions. Maples and other hardwoods may be present but aren’t dominant, dwarfed by the red spruce.

Messick stopped to touch the wide green leaves of a sapling. “Ah, mountain maple!” he exclaimed. It boasts longer stems than the more prevalent red maple — which thrives in almost every type of Western North Carolina forest, unlike the high-elevation-loving mountain maple, according to Messick. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where an old-growth study was conducted a few years ago, researchers found a red maple that was more than 140 feet tall and about 7-and-a-half feet in diameter, he reported.

But this red-spruce forest had its own special majesty: a damp landscape of ferns, moss, lichens, mushrooms, the occasional yellow birch with its pale peeling bark, a 2-foot-thick yellow buckeye tree clinging to the huge rocks draped over a gurgling brook, fallen trees disintegrating in the dampness, and bell-topped Indian pipes poking out of the spongy ground. Meanwhile, overhead, “You’ve got a cathedral of red spruce,” Messick said.

Rain peppered the top of the canopy as we gazed up at the big trees. Several were so big around you couldn’t hug them if you tried. The water seeps down below, the trees filtering it and releasing sugars into the earth that feed the mushrooms, ferns, mosses and other plants, Messick explained as I considered the vastness of this mini-universe. Falling leaves decompose in the streams, feeding the microorganisms that feed the insects that feed the fish. “We’re really just at the beginning of understanding the systems that make this environment work,” he continued. “These systems are what fascinate me.”

They’re also what he’s seeking to protect.

Although about half the lands in the study area are protected by the U.S. Forest Service, many of the old-growth areas remain vulnerable to logging, Messick reported.

Of oaks and bears

After exploring the damp reaches of the red-spruce forest, we head north on the Parkway, through the fog of rain clouds and into McDowell County. Messick wanted to show me a midelevation old-growth community.

“There are 30 different types of forest communities in WNC,” he said on the way to mile marker 347. Many of them tend to contain acidic soils that support dense thickets of rhododendrons and hemlock groves. But the rock base in the Nantahala Gorge area tends to release calcium into the soil, limiting undergrowth and promoting more alkaline-loving species of trees such as yellowwood, which is rather rare in WNC, Messick explained.

Where we were going — the wild slopes that surround Mackey Mountain — is also prime bear country. In an early foray into the area, Messick recounted, he had wandered through the woods, coming out on an old logging road, “and two [black bears] were just walking along, side by side. We just looked at each other and I backed up, real slow.”

Given the recent death by bear attack of a woman in the Smokies, I entered the woods with a little trepidation, despite Messick’s assurance that bears are generally afraid of people. In any case, the steep slope held other, more immediate challenges: We were forced to hang onto rhododendron trunks to keep from sliding all the way down to kingdom come. The terrain was what study volunteers came to call “rhodo hell.”

Given that my mother and I once spent an evening lost in the Middle Prong Wilderness, I couldn’t help remembering that Messick had stashed his map in the car.

These dry slopes were like home to him, though. Messick pointed out the black outcroppings of squaw root, almost hidden in the leaves — a common bear food, though it doesn’t have great nutritional value, he mentioned. Large flaps of green lichen seemed to peel away from the tops of boulders. “That’s mountain tripe,” he commented. “You can eat that, if you get desperate. You boil it — tastes kind of rubbery.”

As we journeyed on down, Messick also tossed out these snippets of history: One of his mentors is Don McLeod, a retired Mars Hill College professor who earned his doctorate cataloging old growth in WNC in the 1970s and ’80s. “He was the real initiator of old-growth field work,” said Messick. And then there’s Mary Byrd Davis, who compiled the first listing of known old-growth sites in the East.

As Messick scouted the terrain for the big tulip poplars that had been spotted in this area, he steered away from the underlying politics to focus on more earthy matters: When I yelped “Ow!” after brushing up against a big-leafed, chest-high weed among the rocks, he deadpanned: “That’s why they call it stinging nettle. Don’t worry, it’ll pass.”

Messick summarized the study methods used for the Nantahala/Pisgah survey: The volunteer project was based on work done in the Smoky Mountains done by a research team commissioned by the National Park Service. The WNC Alliance kick-started the more local project with its Seeking Older Forests Campaign in 1995, asking ecologists, historians, hunters, hikers, fishermen, birders, old-timers, country-store owners, local residents and anyone else who might know about such matters to “nominate” potential old-growth sites. Armed with the list compiled from that effort — plus other sites nominated during the study — volunteers such as Messick made more than 500 trips to the 244 sites that were deemed worth a visit. More than 130 areas were found to contain significant old growth.

What’s the determining factor in labeling a forest “old growth”? Study volunteers looked for such telltale features as the pit-and-mounds and a lack of signs of human interference, such as “skitters” — old logging roads and trails used to remove timber. But the final (and only absolute) test is boring into a candidate tree with a T-shaped auger outfitted with a hollow bit for extracting a core sample (and, later, counting the rings). The study cataloged areas containing a significant number of trees more than 150 years old. “We’ve found chestnut oaks that were over 300 years old, downslope a ways in this area,” Messick said.

He directed my gaze to the old-growth forest around us, tall white oaks that weren’t nearly as big around as the red spruce we’d seen earlier that day, but whose age probably pushed 200 years. “This isn’t a ‘sexy’ old-growth forest, but size isn’t always a good measure,” Messick explained. In this steep, dry forest, white oak doesn’t always grow very fast or big around.

But farther downslope at 3,400 feet — where it was wetter and more dense with shrubs and pesky stinging nettles — we found what Messick called “the monsters” of Mackey. As if he’d discovered gold, he whipped out his diameter tape and wrapped it around a tulip poplar that towered above us. Its craggy bark was shot full of holes, the legacy of woodpeckers. Three-and-a-half feet around, he estimated. “Some of these monsters are over 300 years old down here. This one — 250, I’d guess,” said Messick.

Nearby, we found a black birch that measured more than 2 feet in diameter. Its bark was peeling off in papery flakes. Messick explained that older birches tend to “molt,” and older trees in general are prone to such conditions as “hollowing out” — when water seeps in and slowly eats away at the tree’s heart. One old birch that volunteers bored into, remembered Messick, was filled with so much water (and gas produced by the process of decay going on inside) that the pressure popped the wood core out of the tool like a bottle rocket.

“It took almost 15 minutes for the water to drain out, and it smelled like vinegar,” he recalled.

Messick doesn’t have to say it, but the implication is clear: Many of these old trees aren’t suitable for logging anyway.

Having found the biggest trees we had time to reach that day — and with rain pelting us through the canopy — we headed back up to the Parkway. My arms grew weary from hoisting myself up by rhododendron trunks. My legs were long since drained of get-up-and-go, and my stomach grumbled with hunger. The humidity held the sweat to our skins like a soggy blanket. “You get a hankering for a shower after field work,” noted Messick on one of our water breaks.

But finally, we came out of the trees — a mere 15 feet from Messick’s beat-up Nissan. A car went past, and Messick observed: “Thousands of people drive by these places every week and never know what’s down there. You think of these big trees as something from antiquity that isn’t around anymore, but they are.”

Meanwhile, all I could think of — in between the rumblings of my stomach, crying out for pizza — was Messick telling me at the start of the day, “At first, you fall in love with trees.”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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