The earliest forest known to have grown on earth, so far as the rock vaults have divulged, was in the Valley of Schoharie Creek in the Catskill Mountains, about 50 miles southwest of Albany, N.Y. Its tree stumps reappeared in 1869 after 330 million years of interment.
Heavy rainstorms bringing flash floods in the late fall were nothing unusual in the experience of the farmers of Gilboa. With crops in, they had only to snatch pumpkins out of the field, check the livestock, and sit it out sleeping and eating around the potbellied stove. In October 1869, a cloudburst hit the Gilboa area, the likes of which could not be recalled by the oldest inhabitant. The storm dumped water on the mountainsides faster than the leaf-mold of the forest floor could imbibe it. During the night Schoharie Creek rose, flooded the fields, wiped out the dirt road and carried away the bridge.
Next morning, the storm over, people shrugged their shoulders and set about reparing the damage. Suddenly somebody caught sight of large tree stumps on a stony ledge across the creek. Only the day before that hillside ledge had been covered with scrubby bushes -- nothing more. From a little distance it appeared that timber trees had just been cut down, leaving their stumps. But surely this was more a fairy tale than the story of Rip Van Winkle! Even more surprising, when boys climbed up for a look, they brought back the news that those were not real stumps, they were solid rocks that only looked like tree stumps. The village folk had something to talk about. . . .
A few years later the phantom stumps vanished under another landslide as suddenly as they had appeared, and all that was left of them were a few tall tales and some forgotten notations in an old file up in Montreal. Then, in 1920 , bulldozers began tearing down hillsides in that area to build a dam across Schoharie Creek for a reservoir for New York City's water supply.
Its construction doomed the village of Gilboa but caused the miraculous stone stumps to reappear. There were now hundreds of them scattered for a mile along the valley where the mountain sides were excavated. All the trees had been sheared off at about the same height, which told scientists that the forest had been destroyed all at once by a sudden calamity. The trunks had bulbous bases and they were encased in slate, showing that they had been growing in mud. Nearby sandstone indicated that the forest was close to a seacoast -- 30 million years beforem the old Coal Age forests, which had been considered the most ancient forests of large trees on earth.
Stone imprints to twigs, leaves and seeds were unearthed around their trunks, and these told of a forest of fern trees, the larger ones about 40 feet tall, with trunks 4 feet in diameter. They had light feathery foliage, spraying out from the tops of feathery foliage, spraying out from the tops of heavy trunks, and they resembled the fern trees in New Zealand today. The mysterious trees were named Eospermatopteris,m Greek for dawn-seed-fern.
These trees grew in an age before roots, as we know them, had evolved. The gilboa trees held themselves upright with heavy straps about 9 feet long which radiated from the base out into the mud and acted as holdfasts. They flexed with the motion of the mud. The solid stone trunks showed no traces of wood rings and were probably pithy like palm trees. They were covered with a matting of tough fibers ridged with a good imitation of bark. These were fern trees that reproduced, as ferns do, with naked spores, but they also bore tiny lumps that may have been primitive seeds. If so, here is an exhibit of fern trees experimenting with seeds in an age when real seeds that would revolutionize life on earth had not yet evolved.
What would it have been like to walk in the world's first forest? Probably we, who enjoy the liveliness of a forest, with its colorful flowers, and birds and its sweet earthy scent, would have felt a depressing sense of desolation, as though we were walking in a forest after a fire. There would have been no dense shade cast by the high feathery foliage, no gay mottling of light green and shadowy patches. The sense of emptiness would have been increased by heavy humidity where only the drifting mist was moving among the trees.
There would have been no ground cover of club mosses, partridge berry, or wintergreen; no bush, no herb, no blade of grass. The silence would not have been broken by the hum of insects, splash of frogs, twitter of birds, scramble of squirrels on bark, or the crackling twigs as a deer leaped.
However, the floor of the strange forest would not have been utterly emly of life --nightmarish giant centipedes and scorpions would have slunk out of the slough and scuttled along mossy fallen tree trunks and the dryer patches of mud. Horseshoe crabs would have been familiar creatures in that forest. After plowing through underwater mud, a huge female horseshoe crab would have staggered out to find a sun-warmed spot to lay her clutch of eggs.
By some weird fluke of fate, horseshoe crabs became a fixed point of evolution. While their beaches came and went during millions of years of shifting lands and seas, generations of this ridiculous animal pursued the ways of their ancestors. We see horseshoe crabs today not much changed from those that inhabited the world's first forest, along bays and beaches of the Atlantic shore, on Cape Cod, in Great South Bay at Fire Island, and among dunes around Cape Hatteras. The horseshoe c rab will always remind me of a boy caught without his clothes, trying to sneak away under an upside-down basin.