Where’s the truth?

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I have been thinking about trees a lot lately, and, coincidentally, so has my forest preserve district.

When I was in college I was taught that the climax forest in my area was the oak-hickory forest.  I interpreted this to mean that if a forest was left alone, it would arrive at a community of trees dominated by oaks and hickories.  Except it doesn’t.  I’ve since learned that nearly all of our native habitats were evolved to be disturbance dependent; lightening- caused fires, for example.  We are also now realizing that Native Americans were exerting control over their world much more than we thought.  

I bring this up because Lake County Forest Preserve District is embarking on a large project designed to increase the diversity and health of our woodland preserves and there has been a LOT of research involved.  Down in Cook county, around Chicago, there are large tracts of woods set aside.  I’ve always thought, “yup, those are woods alright.  So glad someone saved them.”  But they aren’t the sort of place you want to go hang out.  The trees grow too thickly, leaving only bare soil below.  Frankly, they are ugly and lacking much life.  

My personal love for trees is dovetailing with the ecologists’ interest, and so I  have been delving into the literature.  It is fascinating to read really old descriptions of what our woodlands looked like long ago.  You could, for example, ride a horse through at a gallop.  Try doing that today!  We’ve been working for years to cut back the stands of invasive exotics like buckthorn, and life is beginning to return.  However, with more than 50 years of fire suppression, oaks are not regenerating and the species in the forest are shifting to maples and ash.  Is it playing God to thin the ranks a little, let light in so oak babies can grow?  I don’t think so.  Oaks and Hickories support more species than maples do.  Increased species diversity makes the whole thing more resilient to things like exotic insects, disease, climate change.

Here’s a white oak we saved from the brush that was choking it:

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Lovely, isn’t it?  

It nags at me a little, that as I research the history of woods, that the accounts of what once was and how it got that way often contradict each other.  I like my truth cut and dried, and contradictions worry me.  My brother and sister-in-law were just here, visiting from Washington.  She’s a wise one, and she pointed out to me that if 10 people see and accident, you are going to get 10 different versions of what happened, but that doesn’t mean that any of them are lying.  Each of us has our own perceptions and ways of expression.  Oh.  Ok, I can live with that.  Sometimes truth, like balance, is a moving target.  I must remember that no two acres of land are exactly the same, and so there is no one overriding rule for how they should look or how they should be managed.

It’s a beautiful day, so I think I’ll go walk among my leafy friends.

Happy Halloween!

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