Seeing the Forest with an Attitude    Robert Leverett
   May 08, 2002 16:49 PDT 

If some of us on the list seem obsessed with big tree and site lists
and rankings, several good reasons have surfaced in our e-mail exchanges
for having these trappings of interest. Here is a question to ponder.
How do those with plenty of experience either working in or traipsing
around in eastern woodlands come to the conclusion that the forests of
the Great Smoky Mountains are not exemplary? Consider what grows in the
Smokies, first via a recap of the response from Will Blozan to my
question about 20-foot circumference trees in the Smokies.
1. Cataloochee: one tulip, one red oak

2. Greenbrier/Cosby: at least 9 tulips (used to be ten), one red maple

3. Deep Creek (undoubtedly more Jess can provide info on): one tulip

4. West end: one tulip


By my count that's 14 trees plus whatever Jess Riddle knows about
that's not included above. Let's say he knows of just one more. That
would equal 15 trees that reach 20 feet in circumference in the Smokies.
These are forest grown trees. If we drop down to an 18-foot
circumference as the criteria, then the number soars. Suppose we set out
to count all the Smoky Mountain trees that make 15 feet in
circumference. Well, we'd be at our task for a long, long time. But, if
the Smokies are outstanding for large-girth trees, they are
absolutely unbeatable in the height department. We could list
superlative after superlative to make the point, but suffice it to say
that Congaree Swamp NM would be the Smoky Mountains only competitor.

Well, if the Smokies have so many great trees, and they do, then why do
some otherwise experienced people not see them as special? I think it
stems from what I've started to call seeing the forest with an attitude.
Here is an example. When the late Dr. Michael Perlman was collecting
material for his book "The Power of Trees", he interviewed a logger from
one of the Carolinas - I forget which. The logger spoke freely since he
understood Mike to be a psychologist only. In the conversation Mike
asked the logger what he thought of the Smokies. The logger frowned and
stated that the Smokies wasn't a healthy forest and consisted of only
one kind (species) of tree. Now Park naturalists have catalogued 131
species of trees in the GSMNP including some exotics. Our logger friend
seems to have failed to have noticed a mere 130 different species. A
woodsman making such a mistake? What is the explanation? The logger saw
the Smokies through an attitude. Of course, he probably did recognize
more than one species of tree in the Smokies, but symbolically he
acknowledged only one. He blanked the incredible diversity of the
Smokies out of his mind. He wanted to see the Smokies as a waste, so he
conjured up an appropriate image and verbal description to match.

Though not so blatant, others with varying backgrounds as timber
specialists have made puzzling observations about the Smokies. Each has
his/her reasons for diminishing those incredible woodlands. But all see
the Smoky Mountain forests with an attitude. There is no shortage of
examples applicable to other regions. Some of the timber managers of
Pennsylvania see Cook Forest State Park with an attitude - meaning they
don't recognize the exemplary stature of the trees relative to other PA

I'd be hypocritical if I didn't admit to having seen trees and forests
with an attitude. I now find outstanding Sycamores, Silver Maples, and
Cottonwoods in the Connecticut River Valley. Jani and I returned from
Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary a short time ago. I found a Cottonwood right
on the side of a road that proved to be 94.5 feet tall and 14.1 feet
around. A 14-foot Cottonwood is no mean tree. The number of the three
species just mentioned in the Valley that exceed 12 feet in
circumference grows steadily. WEll, why hadn't I seen them before? My
eyes had, but my brain repackaged the images to fit a perception - a
negative one. I was seeing the trees with an attitude, which means I
wasn't seeing them at all. I was seeing a mental reconstruction to fit a

So how does seeing with an attitude relate to tree measuring, i.e. the
latter being a cure for the former. The collection of measurements and
their presentation via a host of lists eventually penetrates the
attitude and opens up the mind to more realistic assessements. Thus one
is less likely to proclaim a mediocre woodland as exemplary and vice

As another possible example of seeing with an attitude, I turn to our
friend Lou Sebesta. Here is a quote from recent Lou's e-mail.

"Yesterday I and a couple of my fellow state foresters and the local
forest ranger did a recon. of the state's newly acquired "Witch's Hole"
lands (approx. 500 ac. or so in the ridge-strewn highlands south east of
the Catskill Mtns.) which includes deep gorges w/ streams and
waterfalls, rocky ridges, etc. Hiking at times was an ordeal and hot,
but well worth it. We came upon a big old, battle worn yellow birch in
the gorge just beneath a 50-60' waterfall that I'd conservatively
estimate at ~ 500 to 600 years old. Such incredibly shaggy bark that the
other foresters were baffled to ID the species. "
So the other 3 foresters were unable to ID the species. New York state
foresters unable to identify Yellow Birch, even if very old? I
encountered the same from a past president of the Mass Forestry
Association. Perhaps all had trained themselves over the years to tune
out the oldest trees in a forest, seeing and valuing only youth. If so,
they were seeing the forest with an attitude, though not necessarily an
intentionally negative one toward old growth treated as a class of
forest. That certainly was the case with the past president of MFA. he
valued the old growth I was showing him.

When we look at forest through the eyes of the artist, the scientist,
the forester, the arborist, the mystic, we pick up different aspects of
the multi-dimensional life forms that we call trees. To see trees as
mere numbers is to dishonor them, but seeing them with the information
that numbers can communicate can keep us from making ourselves look
pretty silly at times. Viva la tree numbers. May the great Silver
Maples, Cottonwoods, and Sycamores that I keep finding in the
Connecticut River Valley, now that the blinders are off, live long and