January 10, 2013 | Volume 118, Issue No. 2

Nature is dynamic, inspiring

Going Nature's Way

For me, there is nothing nicer on a sunny, crisp January day than to put on my cross-country skis and head out on our trails. Each time I am grateful once again for these 20 acres of woods and field that we call home. On Saturday, the temperature hovered near the teens and the snow sparkled beneath my skis. The snow is not deep, but just enough to create this canvas of white that accentuates and delineates the trees and prairie grasses. In the warmer months of the year, there is such an abundance of greenery that it is difficult to really see the actual composition of our forest. Winter is also a time of year when we go into the woods and prairie without fear of ticks. This is a sad and frightening development of recent years that really has curtailed our time in and enjoyment of the property. In the winter, the ticks are, thankfully, sealed beneath the snow.

Now that retirement has given Mike more time to tackle long awaited tasks, he has been spending days in the woods, cutting and clearing all the deadfall that has accumulated in the past 27 years, especially the dead and dying jack pines that were toppled during the ice storm of 1991. In truth, he could spend the rest of his life trying to thin and clean up the damage and not finish, but it gives him great pleasure to do what he can now, and as long as there is snow on the ground he has been able to burn the piles of slash. Nothing feels better than a big bonfire on a winter’s day.

As I ski through the woods I notice that various species of trees grow in clusters in different parts of the property. This is due to "microclimates" — areas where the slope or topography of the land allows for more moisture, sunshine or shade. The trees that proliferate on our property are jack pine, red pine, white pine, red and burr oak, white birch, balsam fir and a few red maple and white spruce.

There is one cluster of big tooth aspen and quaking aspen in an area where a previous owner took a bulldozer and just pushed the existing trees into windrows — a practice I will never understand. This allowed the aspen to move in quickly, which is what they do in disturbed landscapes. We are especially thrilled by the number of healthy birch trees and the abundance of young white pines. The latter has been notoriously difficult to start from seedlings and it was once the most common pine in our state, but after the logging boom of the 1880s the big whites became rare.

We are fortunate to have three or four towering above all the other trees. Scattered throughout our forest, they are probably close to 100 years of age and are the source of the new generations. The new ones got a start before the insatiable white tail deer became residents on our land (after our last dog died). Most white pine saplings have to be "bud capped" in order to prevent the herbivores from eating them top down. There is a large stand of red pines right behind the house that are stately elders and they too have been responsible for reseeding the woods.

I expect this forest will look quite different in another 50 years, because the warming climate will push the coniferous trees further north and this part of the state will have more hardwoods. I am glad I am here now to enjoy it as it is.

There is equal fascination for us in the fields. Directly in front of the house is a tall grass prairie — made up of big bluestem. We did not plant this prairie. It existed in the soil for generations and just needed the right conditions to regenerate. The same is true of the field just to the west. If ever there was a spot that looked fallow and filled with weeds (spotted knapweed in particular) it was this one. For nearly 20 years our horses grazed in this sandy field, and from what we know of previous owners they had horses that did the same. This is nothing like pastureland. The nearly pure sand cannot put out good grass, but it sheltered the seeds of switchgrass, little bluestem and Indian grass, both mid-grass species of prairieland.

It is only in the last two years that we have seen these "new" plants emerge and spread. For a couple of naturalists to witness an example of natural regeneration and return to original condition without any effort (or expense) on our part is a gift. We have burned and mowed the big bluestem over the years trying to replicate the natural conditions of pre-human settlement and we will probably do the same in the other field on occasion, but mostly we will just enjoy the sight of native prairie returning.

We are surrounded by a land that is anything but frozen, although for a few months each year it appears that way. Nature is dynamic and constantly inspiring, and all we need are the eyes to see it.

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