Enchanted Forest
(A reprint from the Newport Daily News)

  Enchanted Forest[1]
By James A. Johnson/Daily News staff

PORTSMOUTH - A relatively unknown and nearly pristine forest in Portsmouth is getting serious attention as an environmental gem that should be preserved.

Arborist Matthew Largess follows the rushing water of the Lawton's Valley Brook through a tunnel under West Main Road in Portsmouth. The tunnel leads to the Lawton's Valley Forest, which Largess says contains some of the oldest and rarest trees in New England. (Jacqueline Marque/Daily News photo)

The Lawton's Valley Forest, part of Lawton's Valley Canyon at the south edge of Raytheon Co. on West Main Road, contains an assortment of species that are rare to Aquidneck Island or even southern New England. The forest starts on the east side of West Main Road and follows Lawton's Brook, which runs for about a mile and empties into Narragansett Bay.

"This could be one of the oldest forests ever found in Rhode Island," said arborist Matthew Largess of Jamestown. "It's a jewel."

What makes it a jewel, Largess said during a forest tour earlier this week, is the varied species of trees, many of which are rare and very old.

Matthew Largess, an aborist from Jamestown, stands next to a hop hornbeam tree in Lawton's Valley Forest. He said theforest contains one of the largest hornbeams he has ever seen.
(Jacqueline Marque/Daily News photo)

Walking into the forest, a visitor sees the many and varied trees reaching high toward the blue sky. Buds are getting ready to open. The ground is covered with a thick layer of dead, brown leaves that crunch underfoot. There is little brush evident, which Largess said is a sign of an old forest.

The brook rumbles over rocks and logs in its path. Farther down, the rumble gets louder as the water tumbles down a waterfall.

The brook meanders for almost a mile through the tree-lined canyon before it empties into Narragansett Bay. Its mouth is about 200 feet lower than where the canyon begins.

One of Largess's biggest finds was a sugar maple, which he said was probably the largest sugar maple left in the wild in New England. He measured its circumference at more than 13 feet. At 12 feet, a sugar maple is considered a champion tree.

"These types of sugar maples don't grow anywhere else in southern New England," he said.

The tree has to be more than 300 years old, and could be as old as 500, Largess said. Although the top of the tree has broken off, limbs on it are still living.

"This whole area is full of sugar maples," he said. "There are generations here."

Largess said the forest is probably one of the rarest ecosystems on the East Coast. At one time, the forest was the home of Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Largess discovered it about five years ago and has been studying it ever since. He said this forest once was connected to Oakland Forest, which he helped to protect when it was threatened with development several years ago.

Largess hopes to interest the National Park Service and to have the forest named a National Park Landmark. It would be the first in Rhode Island. He said he hopes the land can be added to the Aquidneck Island Land Trust.

The canyon is owned by Raytheon, the owners of the housing complex to the south and the Navy.

Largess is not alone in his preservation efforts. The Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Raytheon Environmental Wildlife Habitat Committee joined forces for a forest cleanup last Saturday. About 40 people spent the day cleaning up the area.

Although the volunteers didn't know each other, they worked together and took out tons of trash from the area, said Brenda Bibb, Raytheon's environmental health and safety coordinator.

The canyon has a great deal of environmental value, she said. She saw wildflowers called trout lilies, which she hadn't seen in years, all over the valley, Bibb said.

The committee has a postcard dated 1890 that shows the waterfall in the forest, she said. The card says Howe called the forest her "Garden of Eden."

Linda Cooper, state outing chairwoman for the Sierra Club, said the forest provides a habitat for varied plant and animal wildlife. Some cleanup volunteers formed a chain to take debris through a tunnel that carries the brook under West Main Road, she said.

"While we were there another time, an owl flew past us," Cooper said. "It took our breath away."

An owl greeted Largess the first time he went into the forest about five years ago. He calls it the Grand Canyon of Rhode Island.

Other factors make the forest special, Largess said. It is a climax forest, meaning it is healthy and it has new, middle-aged and very old trees. It also has never been plowed or cleared for farming.

Other trees he pointed out included:
  • An ash tree with a twisted trunk that was a sign of its age.
  • An American beech, a species that is nearly extinct. The only ones around here are in Oakland Forest.
  • A white ash that is bigger than any other such trees around here. He said you might find others but not that size and not in a river bed.
  • One of the biggest yellow birches in New England. A yellow birch takes 50 years to grow six inches in circumference.
  • One of the biggest hornbeams that Largess has ever seen. The forest includes American hornbeams and hop hornbeams. These trees grow in the shade.
  • Red oaks that are more likely to be found at the bottom of Mount Mansfield in Vermont than in Rhode Island.

Largess said he could understand why Howe would make a homestead in Lawton's Forest.

"She was a naturalist," he said. "She loved nature. She lived down here and she wrote about the trees." Largess wonders if she wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" there.

Largess, whose nickname is "Twig," said he started out as a logger cutting down trees. Now he is a tree hugger, trying to preserve them.

"It's been a great ride doing what I do," he said.

[1] Reprinted by permission from "Enchanted Forest", James A. Johnson, the Newport Daily News, 1 May 2004

Earth Day Cleanup Crew at Staging Area Outside Lawton Valley
© 2004, W. Saslow

Earth Day Cleanup Crew in Front of Lawton Valley Falls
© 2004, W. Saslow

 Lawton Valley Links
  Timeline to History
  Lawton Family Arms
  Lawton Valley Revisited
  Battle Hymn of the Republic
  Portsmouth Compact(s)
  Peterson's History o f RI
  Enchanted Forest
  Water Mills (NHS)

    Maud Howe Elliot:
    This Was My Newport

  Arriving Lawton's Valley
  Receiving Visitors
  A Children's Adventure

"A Glimpse of Lawton's Valley near Newport Rhode Island",
A Postcard:
ca. 1909, Robbins Bros. Co.

In My Valley
by Julia Ward Howe

From the hurried city fleeing,
From the dusty men and ways,
In my golden sheltered valley,
Count I yet some sunny days.

Golden, for the ripened Autumn
Kindles there its yellow blaze;
And the fiery sunshine haunts it
Like a ghost of summer days.

Walking where the running water
Twines its silvery caprice,
Treading soft the leaf-spread carpet,
I encounter thoughts like these:­

"Keep but heart, and healthful courage,
Keep the ship against the sea,
Thou shall pass the dangerous quicksands
That ensnare Futurity;

"Thou shalt live for song and story,
For the service of the pen;
Shalt survive till children's children
Bring thee mother-joys again.

"Thou hast many years to gather;
And these falling years shall bring
The benignant fruits of Autumn,
Answering to the hopes of Spring.

"Passing where the shades that darken
Grow transfigured to thy mind,
Thou shalt go with soul untroubled
To the mysteries behind;

"Pass unmoved the silent portal
Where beatitude begins,
With an equal balance bearing
Thy misfortunes and thy sins."

Treading soft the leaf-spread carpet,
Thus the Spirits talked with me;
And I left my valley, musing
On their gracious prophecy.

To my fiery youth's ambition
Such a boon were scarcely dear;
"Thou shalt live to be a grandame,
Work and die, devoid of fear."

"Now, as utmost grace it steads me,
Add but this thereto," I said:
"On the matron's time-worn mantle
Let the Poet's wreath be laid."

Old water mill located on property owned by Dr. Samuel Howe and his spouse, Julia Ward.This mill was powered by the water falling in Lawton Valley.

Samuel G. Howe, circa 1859,
from a photograph by Black

Julia Ward Howe circa 1861
from a photograph

Mrs. Howe In Lawton's Valley
circa 1865, from a painting

Trout Lilies
© 2004, W. Saslow

Lawton Valley Falls
circa 1890

Lawton Valley Falls
Picture Postcard circa 1900

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