Monday, August 30, 2010

Greener Pastures

Earlier in the summer I participated in a landscape ecology retreat at Medomak Camps - "Reading the Landscape" led by Antioch College's Tom Wessels who has also authored several books including "Reading the Forested Landscape", "The Granite Landscape", and "The Myth of Progress" which are informational and interesting reads for anyone interested in historical evolution of natural landscapes. As I walked through our woods checking pit traps for Spotted Salamanders, I took time to look around and note physical elements that help interpret changes to our own back yard.
This old stump, one of several on this knoll now covered with a thick copse of Red Maple, decayed from the outside, leaving the inner heartwood standing in the middle which indicates it was probably a coniferous tree and very likely a White Pine since there are so many standing on the property today. Unlike pine, hemlock bark has a lot of tannin which makes it rot resistant so it's inside rots first to leave a hollow tube-like structure.
The forest floor is gently lumpy, if that makes any visual sense in your mind, and there are numerous narrow-width stone walls constructed of large rocks. These two features, combined, possibly indicate pasture usage many years ago. As tracts of land were cleared to host sheep and later cattle, large rocks were hauled to the perimeter and built into stone walls to keep the animals in their enclosure or out of nearby crop-fields. Stone walls around crop fields would be built wider and often, as the field got plowed year after year, the smaller rocks that popped up as the result of freeze-thaw cycles would be gathered and tossed on top of or into the middle of the wide perimeter fence. Our stone walls are single course with no small "crop" stones. Natural forests develop characteristic pillows and cradles where trees topple in the wind or fall from decay to leave mounds of organic matter and depressions where stumps pull out of the soil. Pastured woodlands even out over time as the soil is continually tamped by hooves much like the forest around our house.
It's hard to imagine green pastures where the mature mixed forest covers a thick brown mat of leaf litter and woody debris that along with gentle slopes and loose soil provide hospitable habitat for Spotted Salamanders. Though the salamanders use our forested pools to breed in the spring, none have found their way into the pit traps this summer but I keep checking, every morning, to see what insects or other creatures have dropped by to visit - and I look up and around every now and then to enjoy the natural history that surrounds us and our little house in the woods.
Greener Pastures is a tune from the "Reckless Reel" book of tunes by Larry Unger.

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