My office at present is on the 5th floor of the Guilford Building on South Elm in Greensboro. I love it downtown. I look to the north out of my window and see downtown proper and beyond. Though I can’t make out individual trees in the distance, there is a lot of green out there.
A while back I had an office in a building near the corner of Westridge Road and Battleground Avenue. There was a parking area that backed up to a gas station, to one neighbor’s back yard, and to a side road called Nathaniel Street. There was a small buffer of a few feet between the parking lot and each of these different bordering pieces of land.
One day while sitting in the parking lot I wrote the following. I call it “Guilford Trees.” I was speaking at first of the small little spaces of trees surrounding the parking lot.
In these rather small spaces a variety of typical local trees are reaching and stretching for sunlight. There is a young sycamore maybe 8 inches in diameter, the trunk completely white, that has bent and wound its way to its spot in the sun. From it hangs many of last fall’s sycamore balls. There are a couple of sweet gum trees, each with its component of unfallen sweet gum balls dangling as they do. There are several young tulip poplars growing tall and straight trying to outrace as it were all others to the open sun. There is a loblolly pine tree (most common tree of my hometown), several Virginia pines, a few maples, a red oak, a dogwood, a white oak, a black locust, and a small hickory tree.
300 years ago before settlement by European colonists, many of these same kinds of trees would have made up the mature forests of the rolling hills and stream bottoms of what is now Guilford County.
It is highly likely that over the course of time well over 95% of the land in Guilford County has at some point been cleared for crops. What has not been cleared for crops has been logged for wood. There are no known stands of “virgin” or even mature climax forest in Guilford County.
In fact, most of the land has been cleared several times over again. The remaining forested parts of our county, even in the creek and river bottom lands, contain second third or even fourth growth forest.
The early settlers who came down from Pennsylvania and Virginia came to an area almost absent of a local Indian population. The Saura Indians based in the present Eden area to our north and Randolph County area to our south had at one time roamed and hunted and even farmed freely in what is now Guilford County. Because of pressure from marauding Iroquois tribes the Saura had fled from the area before it was setled. Yet, they had left their mark. The first settlers were surprised at the number of open fields filled with tall grasses that would reach up to the height of a man’s chest riding on a horse.
But mostly the land was continuous forest. Early settlers cleared the forests for crops lands, usually using poor farming techniques, and either cleared more land or moved on when the soil was depleted or eroded away. Fields would convert back to forest, which future farmers and settlers would clear and log again.
Not only were the forests cleared for growing crops, but the trees were needed for fuel for fireplace and furnace, as well as for building supplies – for wheels and casks and barrels and furniture. Many trees were cut and exported for use by the military or by industries growing up around the country.
Most of the forests we have today are in the midst of various stages of the process of plant succession. Thus on a hike around Lake Brandt one might come across (even in a thickly wooded area), a large oak tree with old branches spreading out horizontally, a sure sign of a tree having grown up in an open space with no competition from neighboring trees, and with no need to waste resources in a race to the top of the canopy. Likewise, amidst stands of mixed hardwood and pine woods one will come across a row of old red cedars, marking no doubt an old fence line dividing field from field.
Had we been able to walk into what is now Guilford County 250 years ago we would have found largely mature hardwood forests, though even some of those forests would have grown up from fields cleared by Indians long before. These mature piedmont forests would have been characterized by a dense high canopy made up primarily of white oak, chestnut, hickory, southern red oak, and tulip poplar, the lower part of the canopy itself perhaps a hundred feet high. At ground level the field of view would have been dominated by large tree trunks spaced much farther apart than we are accustomed in our woods today. Tree trunks would have exceeded two feet in diameter for the great white oaks, and up to four or five feet in diameter for tulip poplars. The forest floor would have been relatively clear of brush, with somewhat of a park-like feel. Under this think canopy would have been scattered dogwood, sourwood, ironwood, redbud, beech, and other smaller trees.
Creek bottoms would have been dominated by huge sycamore trees up to six or more feet in diameter, along with massive tulip poplars, with great beeches and maples on the bluffs.
Through these forests ran many well worn paths, some used by Indians, and many packed and cleared of undergrowth by traveling herds of buffalo. It is hard to believe that in our little section of North Carolina, as recently as 250 years ago, there would have been an abundance of buffalo, wolves, elk, and eastern mountain lions, in addition to the common animals we still see today. It was a wild and often dangerous place!
Clearing this land was not for sissies, but cleared it was, in time almost every single bit of it.
Today we have the privilege of watching many forests coming to regain some of their earlier splendor. With agriculture waning in economic significance, there is the likelihood that if we can set aside enough of the tracks of land that are left, maybe our children and children’s children will have even more opportunity than we had of knowing what it would have been like to wander a piedmont forest of long ago.