Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Run in the Woods, Part II

Continued from Part I below...

When the first European settlers arrived in the early 19th century with the intentions of staying, they found a vast ocean of grasses: big and little bluestem, switchgrass, wildflowers such as compass plant, rattlesnake master, purple coneflower, pestemon. In groves and alluvial areas they found a mature forest with several varieties of oak, giant cottonwoods and sycamores, some ash and birch, hornbeam, walnut, and various types of maples. They made detailed land survey records that give us a snapshot of what the land looked like right at the genesis of white settlement in the 1820's and 30's, a period that brought the axe and the plow, the removal of the grasses for cultivation and logging of the forests for building material.

So where does this leave me today on my run in the woods today? Well, I'm certainly looking what is almost entirely second or third growth trees, no prairie (save one native, but tiny hilly prairie remnant in Forest Park), lots of invasive species; in short, a very modified form of any of the natural stages of ecological evolution and the environment as it existed upon contact.

If you want to see the only example of old growth forest left in centrail IL., then take a trip to Funk's Grove, south of Bloomington. The term "old growth" simply isn't in our vernacular. Sure, some large oaks still exist in isolated hollows around the Illinois River, but even its ancient bluffs have been significantly altered. Whereas man made fires and culling used to keep the understory cleared out, we now have an almost entirely closed canopy and a densely forbed forest floor. Newer growth deciduous forest is still there, but the shade tolerant maples, with no burns to kill off their saplings, are outcompeting other species, and in 50-100 years they'll dominate if not thinned and managed and a bed created to promote the growth of the more needy native oaks. Non-native species--too numerous to list--are everywhere.

I try and make no value judgments. The accusing stare of our "roadsides for habitat" are all we need to remind of what is lost. But land, by law of nature, is never static; please take care to remember that we live in the holocene, the current interglacial. Things will change and gain balance as they warrant. We will be outlasted by "nature," for she is nothing if not patient, and blissfully uncaring of our petty temporal restraints.

In the short term it is up to us to decide how our runs in the woods will look and feel. Is a tree a tree? Do enough of us even care or perhaps even notice the difference between a two or three hundred year old oak--a silver maple sappling--a thorn laced honey locust? Big bluestem or Kentucky bluegrass? Perhaps not. But the forest doesn't need us in order to go on. Mark Twain once wrote:

"When I was a boy, I looked into the river and saw my reflection. And I said, "Who's that?" My mother said, 'Samuel Langhorne Clemens.' In 1882 I returned to Hannibal, a celebrated writer and lecturer and steamboat pilot. And I looked into the river again. And I saw the reflection of an old man. And now, I look into the river and I see no reflection at all. We all come and we all go, but not the river..."

And yet I still try and frame my proper place in the world, contemplatitve of all that has been, is, and will be shaped long after my body is again part of the cycle. All on a run in the woods.

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