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LI MOMENT / Monday, 11:05 a.m., Fire Island / Enthusiasm Rarely Seen In This Neck of the Woods

'EEYOW! I gotta stop. This is very old." Barely 15 seconds

into Fire Island's Sunken Forest at Sailors Haven, and already naturalist Bruce

Kershner's eyes gleam like a forty-niner who has just struck gold.

"It's an old growth black gum - a tupelo," Kershner says, leaning over the

boardwalk's graceful railing, pointing out the deeply creviced bark and gnarled

upper branches. "We knew there was ancient holly here, but I was told there

wasn't any old growth black gum - nothing older than a human being's life span.

And yet here it is, right off the bat. This is at least 250 years old."

Kershner, a national authority on ancient forests, is making his last field

trip for two forthcoming guide books, one for the Sierra Club. This is roughly

his 200th expedition in the Northeast, and his 12th visit to Long Island,

searching for primeval forests that the rest of the scientific community not

long ago had believed no longer existed.

He's accompanied by Jeff Fullmer, the genial chairman of the Citizens

Advisory Committee for the South Shore Estuary Reserve Council, a preservation

task force that has commissioned the other guide.

At 5-foot-6 and nimble as a bantamweight boxer, Kershner, 51, is fairly

crackling with energy. "I get charged from nature," the Buffalo resident says.

A scientist, explorer and adventurer, he's the Indiana Jones of forest

ecologists.

Standing beside the black gum, Kershner explains that it indicates the

sunken forest is more diverse in its ancient species and possibly older than

anyone had thought. "Black gum attains the greatest longevity of any hardwood

in the East," he says. "It can live up to 600 years old." This tree "has all

the old growth characteristics."

In a moment Kershner gets to share those secret signs of ancient forests

with a dozen ecology students from SUNY Purchase who have just arrived. Extreme

chunkiness of bark is one indication, Kershner tells them, as is the "balding

away" of bark on the lower trunk. Another is the presence of bizarre trunk

growth that can only develop over centuries.

"This is the only place on the South Shore that still looks like it did to

the Indians, before European settlement," Kershner tells the students.

In fact, Long Island's Sunken Forest is unique. Sheltered from the raw

Atlantic by a system of secondary dunes (making the woods look sunken), it has

somehow been spared the direct hit of a massive hurricane for centuries. Its 30

tangled acres seem all the more expansive because of the many different

ecosystems - including freshwater bog, forest canopy and salt marsh - the

2-mile boardwalk meanders through. It's open to the public year-round.

"By the way," Kershner asks the students, "they call these 'elfin

woodlands' - so did you bring your field guide to gnomes and elves?"

The students move on ahead, out of earshot. Kershner and Fullmer are

enveloped by the trees, and the only sounds are rustling leaves, the occasional

mewing of catbirds and the calming pulse of ocean surf in the background.

It almost seems as if time itself is standing still.

But Kershner's time here is limited, and so he charges along, jotting notes

and taking photos. He darts into the forest from one side of the boardwalk to

the other. "This place is getting better and better as we go. Oh my God, the

tightness of these rings," he cries, pausing to count at a previously sawed-off

limb. "They're as close as vinyl record grooves."

Twenty minutes later the rumble of Kershner and Fullmer's footsteps

interrupt two hard-shelled lovers, caught in flagrante delicto. They come

barreling out from under the boardwalk, making for the woods at the eastern box

turtle equivalent of Mach 2.

"Holy mackerel! The distortedness!" Kershner cries. Forget the turtles -

he's crouching down near the oldest, thickest holly of all, blown over perhaps

a century ago, almost entirely uprooted. And yet branches grow upward along its

entire length like miniature, gnarled trunks, fed by the few tenacious roots

that remain embedded in the sandy soil. The tree is, "conservatively," he says,

about 250 years old.

Toward the end of their journey, Kershner and Fullmer come to a broad,

sunken plaza built around a dozen ancient trees growing up 25 feet, straight

and tall, through openings in the boardwalk.

"Look at this," Kershner says, awestruck. "This is the Cathedral of

Hollies." They stand for a moment, poised between past and present,

contemplating the endurance of nature.

About 1 p.m., the expedition emerges from the forest's western end into

bright sunlight, the Atlantic sweeping blue along the horizon, beyond the

primary dunes. Beneath wind-sculpted hedges they find a weathered plaque

affixed to a boulder.

"A primeval holly forest," Kershner reads aloud. "A sanctuary for wildlife.

A field for study by scientist and lover of nature. A retreat for the

refreshment of the human spirit. Enter here to enjoy - but not to injure or

destroy."

"Comment?" Kershner is asked.

"Amen."

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