The land was ours before we were the land's
September 3, 2007 8:10 AM   Subscribe

Witness trees teach us about presettlement landscapes, surveying methods and Native American art forms. Witness trees inspire us, hide in plain sight, have free parking, become forgotten and sometimes become tables. Witness trees are protected by law and sometimes by signs, but not protected from stupidity. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
posted by jessamyn (19 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting post, but that Texas gentleman should have realized a developer would consider $50,000 as just the cost of doing business.
posted by entropicamericana at 8:30 AM on September 3, 2007

Supercool; thanks for the post. Anyone have hints for finding witness trees in one's own area?
posted by washburn at 8:37 AM on September 3, 2007

I've never heard the term "witness trees" before. Here in British Columbia though, culturally modified trees (CMTs) are used to prove Aboriginal title. It's important to identify these trees in the bush if you are a First Nation asserting your territorial rights, and the provincial government needs to protect and record these trees as archaeological evidence of indigenous occupation.

In some places, I have heard loggers refer to CMTs as "can't make timber."
posted by salishsea at 9:03 AM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

It seems that the word "witness" has two distinct meanings here. In the first, the "by law," and some other links, it's a big, marked tree that's used as a survey reference point. In the other links, it's a really old tree that has "seen" a lot of history, without having been used as a survey reference.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:07 AM on September 3, 2007

By the way washburn, that link is for you contains a key to identifying these trees here on the west coast. YMMV.
posted by salishsea at 9:31 AM on September 3, 2007

Yeah I noticed that as well, people seem to use the term witness tree for two things that are not as distinct as they could be.

In surveying it means one very specific thing and in "big tree appreciators" parlance it's a little more broad though even those trees are generally dated accurately. Seems there was a craze at some point for locating and identifying (and maybe preserving) bicentennial witness trees that I've seen on a few state websites, sort of buried. I wonder if there was an intiative at the BLM level or the DNR. The link under Native American Art forms is a pretty deep website based on an IMAX movie they're making about trees on old paths used by indigenous people and the things that got carved into them.
posted by jessamyn at 9:36 AM on September 3, 2007

Non MOF link to BC CMTs, and a nice illustration of how the dendrochronology of stripped cedars works. They've posed a real challenge to archaeologists because they are both an archaeological site and (usually) still alive: it took many years for the BC government to list them as archaeological sites, accorded protection under the law, and even now, their legal protection is largely limited to those pre-dating 1846. (As salishsea notes, they have a strong role as witnesses to tradtional use and hence title in BC (which is mainly not covered by any treaties), but, their legal protection status is ambiguous in that regard). CMTs are also very important cultural signifiers in Australia and in Scandanavia, among other places. This recent PHD (5 meg PDF) summarizes the global significance before focusing on Scandanavia. I've worked on these a lot, and thank you jessamyn! for bringing these other ones forward. Very cool.
posted by Rumple at 9:46 AM on September 3, 2007

Great post; this points out one of the biggest problems with America in general. It has precious little OLD historical landmarks, and the ones that exist are in constant danger of being torn down, bulldozed, etc.
posted by chuckdarwin at 10:29 AM on September 3, 2007

There are only a couple trees in my town that predate white settlement. One is a rather scraggly oak in a parking lot that has asphalt around its base. It is rather sad that trees such at this one are not particularly valued. But then the native americans used to burn the prairie here in order to improve hunting.
posted by Danf at 11:16 AM on September 3, 2007

Such burns typically would not consume trees, usually just the dry grasses.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:38 AM on September 3, 2007

Great post; this points out one of the biggest problems with America in general. It has precious little OLD historical landmarks, and the ones that exist are in constant danger of being torn down, bulldozed, etc.

Not just America: the Last Tree of Tenere was a 300 year old accacia that was knocked over by a drunk Libyan truck driver.

On the subject of Native Americans' impact on plant life: Though natural burns encourage plants that are endemic fire followers or obligate seeders that need fire cues to germinate, the Coastal Native Californians burned Chaparral areas more frequently than nature would have in order to remove the scrub. Frequent burns changed scrublands to grasslands, producing more food in the form of grasses and the animals that foraged on them. So while the burns did not consume trees, they significantly altered the natural landscape; European grasses quickly colonized these areas and prevented the re-establishment of Chaparral even after the burns ceased.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:01 PM on September 3, 2007

Anyone have hints for finding witness trees in one's own area?

Grab a USGS topo map, look for section corners and section lines for heavy black crosses, and go bushwhacking. The crosses represent benchmarkers, and if you've got trees nearby, you'll find witness trees.

During my treks through the heavily-wooded Ozarks I encounter dozens of witness trees every year, and even have two on my property. In this heavily-timbered area, they are almost without exception 2nd- or 3rd-growth trees as it is extremely rare to find 200 y/o trees in this part of the country.

I adore the link on surveyor notes, as these provide an excellent resource for mapping historic vegetation. While the original witness trees may be gone, the notes remain and are being used in some areas to create GIS maps of pre-settlement vegetation. I have an access to a binder of old surveyor notes in the Mark Twain National Forest, and eagerly await the day I have enough time to read them in detail.
posted by F Mackenzie at 2:58 PM on September 3, 2007

quick link: free digital USGS topo maps and other GIS data.
posted by jessamyn at 3:08 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Now that's a useful link! I've only downloaded one of the giant TIFF files; are they all scanned-in crooked?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:01 PM on September 3, 2007

Thanks again for the links. Based on a topo map, I tried running over to find a witness tree in my neighborhood, but there was, alas, nothing there to see.

It seems that these trees should have marking visibly burned into them, yes? I'll have to try again sometime.
posted by washburn at 5:37 PM on September 3, 2007

It seems that these trees should have marking visibly burned into them, yes?

I can't comment on witness trees outside of my region, so this comment may be specific to my area: there will be anywhere from 1-4 witness trees on the perimeter of the benchmark (most often 3). The witness trees may be marked by blazes, but if more recent you'll find yellow metal signs indicating the direction and distance to the marker. The marker will be either a USGS benchmark or a piece of rebar driven into the earth or even a pile of rock. The marker is typically a section boundary, and the witness trees just point to the marker.
posted by F Mackenzie at 6:52 PM on September 3, 2007

Fantastic post, Jessamyn. When I taught in an environmental education program years ago, I got fascinated with this phenomenon. There were several located on the 600 acres of our Central Mass property, left to stand through generations of farming that continually cleared the land between them. Some people also call them "wolf trees," not because they have anything to do with wolves, but because they guard their territory.

these trees should have marking visibly burned into them

I think this really depends on the location and on the land management there. The trees I've seen in New England are all on large forest preserves, in privately owned second-growth forest, all of which was cleared for sheep pasturing or for farming in the nineteenth century. Where two or more historic property boundaries met, you'd often find an ancient tree that clearly predated the era of nineteenth-century farming. It was easy to discern the function of the trees. Old maps showing property lines indicated that they stood on section divisions, and local lore identified them as witness trees, but they bore no specific mark and no governmental body was interested in them any longer. It was their positioning and the fact that they had been left to stand while all other trees in the area were cleared that gave them 'witness tree' status.
posted by Miko at 7:55 PM on September 3, 2007

This all started because I saw this tree when I was out for a hike yesterday and it was very big and seemingly at a boundary line.
posted by jessamyn at 8:09 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

My great grandfather was a surveyor in Texas. He used markers like this, often referenced in old Spanish land grants, to determine the validity of claims.

Great post. Thanks, jess.
posted by homunculus at 9:03 PM on September 3, 2007

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