By Emily J. Weitz
Touch trees. That’s the great lesson that Jackson Dodds, a certified arborist for 16 years, learned from his teacher, Alex Shigo. Now, Dodds scampers about the forests of his native East End, touching trees and letting himself be moved.
We set out on a misty March afternoon to hike the Long Pond Greenbelt trail just off the Sag Harbor – Bridgehampton Turnpike. But we didn’t get far before Dodds crouched down to examine a pile of leaves at the base of a tree.
“I like to stop and explore,” he says. “Often I don’t get too deep in [to the woods] because it’s so exciting to see what’s right here. There are entire ecosystems on a given part of a tree.”
Dodds, who will share his knowledge during a public hike this Saturday, points to the lichen, the green growth on the side of a white oak tree. Even though people might think these growths are a sign of decay, Dodds disagrees.
“Lichens lives in harmony with the tree,” he said. “They have a symbiotic relationship. Nature is perfect before we start messing with it.”
Most of what we see as we tread softly through the woods is just waking up.
“A couple of days ago, about 10 a.m., I just felt everything pop,” Dodds says with excitement in his voice. He gestures to a bayberry bush and shows how the buds are just forming on the branches. Then he cuts off a small sample and breathes it in.
“It smells sweet,” he says, offering a whiff to me. “People make candles out of the waxy berries. Being an arborist, you use all five senses.”
As we pad along the damp trail, we are surrounded by red oaks, white oaks, and black oaks. Eastern red cedars and a few beeches also curve around each other, struggling to find the sunlight.
“This is all second and third generation growth,” Dodds says, explaining that much of this forest was cut down for fire wood, home building, and to clear the trail for the old railroad that used to run to Sag Harbor.
As we near the pond, Dodds points out the high blueberry bush and the clethra which, when it opens up, will draw butterflies and bees to the water’s edge.
“Lots of people think bugs are the enemy,” says Dodds. “But insects are nature’s little workmen. They kill the weakest of the plants, and the stronger ones grow. It’s survival of the fittest.”
As an arborist, much of Dodds’ work is on private properties, and he finds that people want too much intervention. Out in the woods, he is enthralled by how perfectly everything is allowed to grow, thrive and die in its own time.
“Homeowners want perfection,” he says. “They don’t want spots or bugs. It’s great job security, but it weakens the cycle of the plant. Bugs and disease are indicators as to the health of the plant.”
We pass a patch of wintergreen, and Dodds slices off a small branch. He takes a deep breath and hands it to me.
“The season is upon us,” he says happily. “When it comes up, it’s in the proper balance.”
We come upon a white oak tree with one trunk splitting in to two. One of these trunks has been long dead.
“I could spend three hours talking about this dead piece of wood,” Dodds says.
Quickly, though, we are distracted by a black cherry and a sassafrass plant up the path.
“Nature is opportunistic,” he says. “Sassafrass grows aggressively. See how they’re very spread out? They’re growing towards the water.”
I look down the wooded slope towards the pond, which is reflecting the skeleton silhouettes of the trees in earliest springtime.
“In an irrigated place, sassafrass doesn’t need to grow like this. But in a natural setting, they’ll just spread their roots and grow like crazy.”
Dodds takes out his pocket knife again and cuts a sliver from the black cherry tree. He hands me the damp bark, and as I breathe it in, it’s sweet and earthy.
“Touch trees,” he reminds me with a smile.
Jackson Dodds will be guiding the general public on a similar hike, sharing his knowledge of local trees and shrubs, this coming Saturday, March 31 from 10am to noon. For reservations call the South Fork Natural History Museum (SOFO) at 537-9735, or the day of hike, contact Jackson at 603-1236.