Thursday May 09, 2013 | 10:49 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

News spread this week about Kennebunk’s plans for removing dead wood at Gooch’s Beach. Storms and waves this winter battered the coast, tossing branches & tree trunks up and down Maine’s shore.

But at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk, the storms did something else. They peeled back much of the sand, exposing what lay beneath.

That isn’t driftwood. That’s the well-defined root system of an ancient tree. And it’s not alone. I took this photo of a small patch further south this morning:

You can see in the photo at least three ancient trees peering out from the sand. Here’s a close-up of one, the denuded stump on top and roots spreading outward:

More stumps and roots are poking out of the sand all over. Gooch’s Beach at Kennebunk holds a marvel -- a drowned forest.

Living in our own small worlds and short lifetimes, we easily forget how ancient the earth is. And how it’s changed in the past, and is still changing today. Hundreds of years ago, what is now a beach was a living, thriving woodland. The ocean would have been hundreds of yards -- even miles -- farther to the east.

In fact, a stump exposed at nearby Middle Beach in 1959 was carbon-dated at 3000+ years old!

These roots and branches poking up out of the ground at Gooch’s Beach are not recent cast-offs. They’re an incredible piece of a lost world. We could learn from them what kinds of trees they were, exactly how old they are. We could study what’s left of their growth rings to learn what the climate was like. How the earth was changing. What it means for us living today in a changing world.

Also, anybody who visits a beach throughout the year knows that beach profiles change with the seasons. Beaches erode in winter storms. Gentler spring and early summer waves restore the sand, tide by tide.

That’s why these organic remains have survived intact for, in some cases, 3000 years. Every time nature exposes them, nature reburies them. It will again.

So I would urge the town of Kennebunk to move cautiously in its beach cleanup. Take the driftwood, sure. But leave the forest. It is an ecological & geological gem. It’s a direct link to the early history -- or even deep prehistory -- of our state, and a goldmine of information waiting to be studied. Ripping out any of it, after it survived so long, seems exceptionally short-sighted.

And if the purpose is to remove any possible hazards for swimmers at high-tide, it should be noted that the town has a very big job on its hands.

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I am deeply in debt to Sharon Lichter Cummins of Southern Maine Old News for links, old photos, and background information! 

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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