The Sunken Forest
In Sailors Haven on Fire Island, between the dunes that protect it from the Great South Bay to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the south, lies the Sunken Forest. It’s a 40-acre astonishment.
Between 200 to 300 years ago, wind-blown seeds from a dune plant such as beach grass or seaside goldenrod fell on the bare sand and miraculously took hold. Roots and stems became branches and leaves. Behind the dunes, the burgeoning forest was spared from erosion. But grow any higher, its trees would be truncated “by the shearing effects of the salt-laden winds.”
Although “sunken” behind its barriers, the forest kept replenishing itself. Dead twigs fell to the ground and began decomposing. Concurrently, “salt-spry aerosols,” or minerals carried by the breeze, provided its plant life with nearly all the nutrients they needed.
Today, the forest is mostly comprised of white sassafras, American holly trees, and shadbush. In his Ecological Studies of the Sunken Forest , Henry Warren Art described what makes it extraordinary:
[American holly] achieve[s] its greatest dominance on the entire Atlantic barrier island chain in the Sunken Forest. [Moreover, white sassafras and shadbush occupy more area in the Sunken Forest–23% and 19%, respectively–] than in any other maritime forest reported in literature.
It also has the eerie feel of consciousness. Like when you walk along the planked trail, a series of eyes turn on behind you. Of course, when you pivot, there’s nothing to be seen. But maybe the temperature drops a few degrees. A tree suddenly has a few less leaves than it should. Insects don’t look like insects at all. The whole place is colorful, but reads black and white. That sounds like a squirrel, but it might be a hawk.
Photos by Rick Stachura. The Sunken Forest in Sailors Haven, Fire Island. August 21, 2014.
Author’s Note: This story was originally posted to my old Tumblr site on August 34, 2014.