This edge between old field and young forest undulates along the vegetated corridor and has coves and peninsulas that harbor diverse plant communities and wildlife. On the old field side there are a variety of goldenrods, field asters, mullein, pokeweed, blackberry brambles, and field grasses. The woodland side has red maple, black cherry, white ash, black birch, and sugar maple in the overstory and Canada mayflower, partridge berry, clintonia, and star flower in the understory. In between these two areas the ecotone (as it is known to ecologists) has species from both plant communities. The young tree saplings have not fully shaded out the old field species within this transitional zone. This woodland expansion into the old field has created an intersection common in the natural world. It is a place where plant species are plentiful and so is the wildlife that will take advantage of the ample cover and forage that these merged areas provide.
Ecotones can form where ever two different plant communities join; adjacent forest types, forest to riverine corridor, young (usually mowed) field to old field, old field to wetland or marsh. The possibilities are nearly endless. Wherever this combination of two plant communities occurs there is are increased numbers of plant species and an abundance of wildlife habitat; nature’s oasis in the wild..
For years and years I have been fascinated by natural intersections. These occur in all facets of the natural world. They can happen botanically, biologically, geologically, atmospherically, and even personally. It is these intersections that often create new habitat, new hope, and even new species. Without them the world would have never evolved or changed.
Intersecting chemicals and intersecting conditions created the first life on this planet we call Earth. Whether you think this was caused by random selection or divine intervention matters not. The fact is that the joining of two unlike entities started the ball rolling that continues on to this day several billion years later.
As I am investigating this old field/young forest ecotone I happen upon some eastern coyote scat. The scat is full of hair and closer examination tells me it is the hair from a cottontail. The low browse found in this edge attracted the cottontail to forage. The coyote was attracted to the area because of the availability of prey and good cover from which it could stalk and hunt. As the plant community matures, and saplings turn into trees, the ecotone will find a new position in the old field.
The eastern coyote is the perfect example of natural intersection. As the western coyote needed to expand its range and moved eastward some took the northern route over the top of the Great Lakes through the Canadian Province of Ontario. This transition and expansion took years and years. Along the way some of the western coyotes bred with gray wolves. This new species moved along, with genetic adaptations and differences, to settle in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. Today in central New England the coyotes that we see are from 20% to 80% gray wolf. This new species, called eastern coyotes by some and coy-wolves by others, are uniquely adapted to inhabit Quebec, the Maritime Provinces, northern New York State, and New England (primarily Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts). Unlike the gray wolf this new species has kept its coyote ability to live close to humans. The eastern coyote is much larger than the western coyote and it has powerful jaws, much like its relative the gray wolf. It can take down white tailed deer and has made an impact on the burgeoning deer populations found in some areas of eastern North America. It is a predator to be reckoned with and has filled a niche long abandoned by larger predators extirpated by our European ancestors that resettled this part of our continent. The eastern coyote is the perfect intersection between two animal species; a wily predator that can withstand human pressure.
While pondering all of this I find a fallen tree where I can sit down and rest. The mossy surface on the horizontal trunk provides some padding that makes sitting much more comfortable. Adjacent to where I sit there is a large boulder, often referred to as a glacial erratic because it was transported by the great ice sheet some twenty thousand years ago and left behind at this location as the ice melted and retreated to the north. The rock might appear nearly lifeless to some but in fact contains a large colony of lichen, another perfect natural intersection, but this time between two different life forms. Fungus and algae (or cyanobacteria) work together symbiotically to form an composite organism that has survived for millions of years. Some believe that lichen is a mutualistic arrangement where fungus provides structure and primary nutrients from minerals and the the algae provides photosynthesis. Others believe the combination is in reality controlled parasitism where the fungal organism enslaves the algae to live on the food produced by photsynthesis. In either arrangement this convergence of two species is a wondrous example of natural intersection.
As I sit here, a fresh spring breeze recharges my batteries and a blue sky overhead brightens my spirits. My mind wanders to a more personal intersection. I think about what a personal miracle it was for me when I met my wife Maureen. Two separate lives that were channeled on two parallel paths. The odds of us meeting might seem as if they were pretty slim. And yet one evening in one of our first heart to heart talks where we held hands and gazed into each others eyes we realized that we had come close to meeting each other previously. It was at a large university where I was doing fund raising for the American Indian Movement. As I spoke to the group my wife sat amongst those attending. Most were students. At the time she thought me too serious, and certainly not a candidate for a future mate ( but she remembered me!). That opportunity was lost. We would not cross paths for several years. Even the event that actually put us together almost did not happen. Years later I had interviewed my wife and several other qualified people for a job working with disadvantaged youth. Our interviewing committee had selected Maureen. I called her to offer her the job but she declined as she had been offered another job. I was unusually disappointed and in fact could not put my finger on why I felt so let down that she did not take the job because we had several highly qualified candidates. Just as I was about to call our second choice Maureen called me back and asked if the job was still available. I wondered how she could be so indecisive but didn’t dwell on this thought and told her we would glad to have her on board if she was willing to accept the job offer. This was, without a doubt, the most critical few moments in our lives. Somehow there was a guiding force, perhaps some sort of spirit guide or universal magnetism that brought us together. To my way of thinking it was a natural intersection that led to a wonderful life, wonderful children, and lifelong love.
With the conclusion of this fond memory I stand to walk over to a brook that flows east. The waters from this stream will join three other rivers, each one larger than the previous until it eventually drains into the Connecticut River which is the largest river in New England. The Connecticut River is some four hundred miles long and drains into the Atlantic Ocean near Old Lyme Connecticut. This intersection between fresh water and salt water is one of the most glorious overlaps between two different ecoystems. It is a place where the crossover between fresh water and salt water is the host to almost countless species. This intersection provides an important gateway for salmon, striped bass, american eels, and shad to enter habitats that holds the specific elements for successful breeding. Numerous macroinvertebrates live off of the plentiful nutrients swept into the seas by this might river at the crossroads of river and ocean. These intense colonies of benthic invertebrates provide forage for larger insects, fish, and mammals. These places where rivers and ocean converge are one of Earth’s richest habitats; certainly amongst the most valuable natural intersections on this planet.
To the north of the brook there is a vernal pool. This pool is the birthing place for spotted salamanders and wood frogs. It holds fresh water fairy shrimp and caddisfly larvae. The latter builds domociles are made of sticks and a natural glue emitted by the larvae. They are cylindrical and hollow where the larvae seeks refuge from predation. The stick homes resemble other detritus that lines the vernal pool bottom. Some of the spotted salamanders have hatched and I am reminded of a vernal pool south and east of here where Tremblay’s Salamanders can be found. The Tremblay’s Salamander is a perfect natural intersection. It is a hybrid salamander produced by blue spotted salamander and Jefferson salamanders. The results is an all female genus that when mature breeds with a male blue spotted salamander. The male chromosome from the blue spotted salamander only stimulates the Tremblay egg’s development; its genetic material does not come into play. Only new female Tremblay’s salamander are created from this natural intersection. Silvery Salamanders have a similar natural history. They are created from the same species, a different species as the result is developed, and they are all female as well. It is these oddities that make natural selection and intersection so fascinating.
The day is wearing thin. The sun in the west begins to intersect with the horizon. As it disappears below the edge where earth meets sky intense colors of orange, red, and salmon pink bleed across the sky to create the perfect canvas; a natural painting that cannot be exactly replicated or repeated . This last natural intersection of the day will remain in my mind well into the darkness of night. And tomorrow morning when the new day begins a new intersection will happen in reverse order. Darkness becomes light. The morning twilight created by the rising will sun signal the end of night and delineate the beginning of a new day. And we will start all over again as new intersections produce new hope across this planet and the universe beyond.
Written for the Heath Herald in May 2011.