Driving from Boston to Cape Cod, there is a palpable shift in the landscape’s character midway through Southeast Massachusetts. Urban development gives way to suburban towns, an obvious change of pace. Yet there is also something subtler that is less obvious to the untrained eye.
Right around Carver or Kingston, southbound travelers reach a transition zone—an ecotone—between the realm of Northern Hardwood Forest and the beginning of the Atlantic Coastal Pine Barrens. The composition of the trees becomes heavily pine and oak. The forest floor is littered with dry needles, and scrubby shrubs make up the understory.
The natural range of the Pine Barrens begins in Southeastern Massachusetts and extends across Cape Cod and Long Island into Southern New Jersey. The pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is the characteristic tree of this habitat, with long, thick needles and scaly bark. The underlying soils are sandy, and thus drain well and are nutrient poor. The lack of fertility helped the pine barrens largely survive agricultural conversion—hence the name ‘Barrens.’ Many of the ponds found within these forests are Coastal Plain Ponds, unique ecosystems unto themselves, and are home to many species not found anywhere else on the planet. Unlike the soils however, the ponds were valuable to settlers for the material found within: iron. Many of them were dredged as people extracted the iron for industrial uses, and now some of the species found there are critically endangered.
As the population south of Boston boomed since the 1980s along with sprawling development, many of these special forests were destroyed or broken up into fractions of their original grandeur.
A visit to the 322-acre Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve, now owned and protected by Northeast Wilderness Trust, is a real world example where people can see this pattern play out right in Kingston, MA. The Preserve lies within a 550-acre block of forest. Some of the remaining forest is state and town land, some is protected by The Wildlands Trust, yet the rest is private land under threat of development. What’s more, this patch of forest used to be eight times its size, until large developments ate away at the edges starting in 1995, and Route 44 was built right through the middle of the forest in 2004. In effect, the forest block was split in two. South of the highway lies Muddy Pond Preserve and its adjacent forest, while the Kingston Town Forest and Camp Nekon form the forest to the north. These two habitats are now connected only by a single, concrete tunnel running underneath the road.
There are numerous effects of building a road through a forest, and they all have dire consequences for wildlife. Roadkill is one of the more noticeable ways that roads hurt wild creatures. We may glimpse lifeless larger mammals on the sides of roads, but smaller creatures are impacted too. Amphibians cross roads during rainy spring nights to lay their eggs in ponds and pools, and nocturnal insects are drawn to the lights of cars. Raptors also frequently fall prey to automobile collisions when they are drawn to roadkill.
And then there is what’s called the ‘edge effect.’ When a road or new development is built, the edge of the woods next to it change, even if it looks relatively the same at a glance. But the characteristics in which those species have evolved are immediately altered. Temperature, air flow, and light change because of the adjacent opening. The noises of people and cars scare away more sensitive creatures, pushing them further into an ever-diminishing forest core that eventually will not have room for them all. The patterns of water flowing over the ground are disrupted, and the water itself will carry more salt and chemicals that come with an urbanized landscape.
What’s more, the incremental building of roads and residences over our short lifetimes may not appear to add up to much, but when combined, each new road makes way for more access points to the forest. Over multiple generations, what may at first seem a slow and harmless process amounts to what we see today: small, disjointed patches of forest with few, if any, dark and quiet places for wildlife to safely live out their lives or for people to find peace and solace.
A visit to Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve suggests not all is gloom and doom. There is a redeeming glimmer of hope in that these forest patches do still exist; we have not yet lost them completely. Standing at the center of the Preserve, the not-too-distant hum of traffic on Route 44 is muffled by the polyphony of frogs, birds, crickets, or cicadas. Hope for this forest grows when we consider the dedicated and passionate people working to revitalize this land and reconnect or protect the few other forest patches that we are at risk of losing to development.
At the Preserve in early spring, when the earth has just barely softened and ice still rims the pond, salamanders, toads, and frogs emerge from the leaf litter. They head to the dozens of vernal pools scattered across Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve, drawn by their ancient instinct to find water, breed, and lay their eggs. As the season warms and many of these pools dry up, spring wildflowers dot the ground and painted turtles dig their nests. Come late summer, endangered plants found only in Atlantic Coastal Plain Ponds bloom from the shallower waters. New England Boneset puts on a show of lacey white, and Plymouth Gentian unfolds to reveal stunning, tropical-pink blossoms. As fall sets in, highbush blueberry lights the shoreline with blazing red, and the inner needles of the pitch pine turn yellow and prepare to drop. As birds and butterflies migrate south, some stop to rest and refuel in this rich, verdant refuge.
The signs of human impact are nevertheless present. The tires of ATVs and dirt bikes have ripped gashes in the earth where water stagnates and plants no longer grow. Trash and litter have washed their way in from the roads.
Rewilding—the process of giving land back to wildlife and wildlife back to the land—is a worthy cause in and of itself. It becomes all the more potent when we understand the history of this once expansive ecosystem, and the fact that it is still at risk. Yet we people can, and do, take action to allow the land to heal. For even in its smaller state, this beautiful, vibrant place still provides immeasurable value for nature and people alike. Joe Falconeiri, Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Southern New England Land Steward, is working with schools and other conservation organizations to begin the rewilding process while spreading the word of wilderness’s unmatched values.
Students and volunteers have hauled out all sorts of trash from the Preserve (including Jeep parts and air conditioners) and have dragged tree limbs and deadfall to shut down old trails and prevent illegal trespass of motorized vehicles. In just the first year of developing these partnerships, more than 75 students have joined Northeast Wilderness Trust on the ground to lend a helping hand and connect with wild nature. Dozens of adults have joined hikes, nature walks, and volunteer days, too.
A New Wilderness Ethic
The Muddy Pond Wilderness Preserve proves that wilderness does not have to be out in the middle of nowhere. Natural beauty and grandeur does not just belong in National Parks or on Planet Earth episodes. If we choose, we may bring the values of wild nature to the habitats in our backyards. Anyone can choose to treat the land with respect, to approach it as a source of life and wonder, rather than as a resource waiting to be extracted. Muddy Pond exists to uphold exactly those values, on the ground and in real time. Students from nearby high schools and middle schools have a chance to meet the habitat natural to their region, gather data for scientific studies, and make a hands-on impact in the rewilding of this land.
Perhaps they will return as adults to see the tire tracks grown in with baby pitch pine, the forest floor free of refuse, or a rare bird taking off in flight. These wilderness champions are redefining the type of relationship we people want to have with our environment to be one of reverence, wonder, curiosity, and humility.
Photography: Muddy Pond and forest by Harry White | Plymouth Gentian by Natalia Boltukhova | Students cleaning up litter by Joe Falconeiri | Student with toad by Jan Doyle