Nature 101

Exploring the forest landscape: pillows and cradles

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This week, Nature 101's Paul Basham explores forest landscape trends that happen over time, specifically, the cradle and pillow phenomenon.

Hiking along the woodland trails in the Concord area, you may come across shallow depressions next to an elevated mound of earth. These curious contours of the forest floor have an interesting history and are called "cradles and pillows."

When a massive tree is blown down, its roots are ripped from the ground, leaving behind a hole (known as a cradle). As the years pass, the tree trunk and roots disappear from decay, but the dirt and stones that were clinging to the roots remain in a pile (known as a pillow). As you walk through the forest, be on the look out for these cradles and pillows that have been decades in the making.

Along the trail, you may notice some trees that have recently been blown down. Imagine what this area would look like in a hundred years after the tree has completely rotted away. In your naturalist detective's eye, you have witnessed the creation of a future cradle and pillow.

Take another step in your imagination and picture what a time lapse film of a New England forest would look if 500 years were compressed into five minutes. You would see trees leaping out of the earth, reaching for the sky, fighting for their place in the sun, and, in lightning speed, falling back to earth to become part of the soil. You would see a brief glimpse of time when the forest is cleared to form a pasture bordered by stone walls, and then see the resilient forest reclaim the land when the pasture was abandoned.

When standing in one spot along the trail, you may see several cradles and pillows within a small area. These may have occurred at the same time while a hurricane was passing through. While we see the forest in still life, its topography is constantly changing. Falling trees are always plowing up the earth and creating more cradles and pillows.

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