A brief repost while I’m trying to hook on to a few striped bass with two sons in RI! A fitting follow up to my last entry. Enjoy!
Within the world of ecology, plant community succession is defined as the predictable and orderly progression of plant communities within a given setting such as old fields, forests, and other plant community habitats. In the northeast plant succession may take hundreds of years for an area to succeed from an open field habitat to a climax forest. The many different stages and the great amount of time it takes make it difficult to get a clear look at all the nitty gritty elements of plant community succession, so the only real hope for one to get a reasonable look at this process is to find separate plant communities in their various stages of succession. While it is not too difficult to find an old field habitat, a shrub/sapling habitat, a young forest, middle aged forest, and old forest habitat, it is very difficult to observe each and every change that occurs within a plant community as it slowly, very slowly, evolves from one stage to the next.
A long time ago, I found an old field and decided that I would check in on it from time to time. I knew when I started that I would only observe one human lifetime of changes, but at the time, that seemed plenty long enough. From the beginning I realized there was quite a risk to this simple endeavor as I did not own the property and had no control over its future. As l luck would have it, I randomly chose a spot, that to this day, has been left untouched by human disturbance. For my purposes that has been very fortunate.
My informal study has in no way been scientific. It was only meant to be a random set of observations from which I might learn something about plant community succession. To my complete surprise these observations chaptered bits and piece of my life.
It is the summer of my 26th year. I sit on the edge of this 3 acre old field located not too far off a dirt road. It is late summer. The field is dominated with goldenrods, asters, and milkweed. Some of the agricultural grasses are still identifiable like orchard grass and timothy. The southern end of the field is being encroached upon by blackberries. My black and tan/bloodhound cross dog, Hickory, wanders the edge of the field with his nose to the ground and the loose skin on his face covering his eyes as it rolls forward under the forces of gravity. His partner in crime, Scruggs, an old shepherd/collie mix lies next to me panting away. Scruggs is about 9 years old and happy to stay close to my side while Hickory explores every nook and cranny of the field. Hickory happens upon a groundhog den and starts digging away. This will keep him busy for hours if I let him be.
It is early in the morning, and the low angle of the sun cast long shadows across the field in a westward direction. A few butterflies work the asters for nectar in sunny areas. The honey bees and other wild bees have not yet begun their days’ collection of the nectar from the blooming goldenrod.
A few shrubs and saplings dot the northern edge of this field. They seem to enjoy the shade that the forest surrounding the old field provides. I decide to walk over to this area of shrubs and find a few meadowsweet shrubs, and poplar, and white birch saplings. They are very small, less than feet high. As I wander around this area I intercept a well worn deer trail along the edge of the old field.
I jog down to gather up Hickory digging away at the ground hog hole, Scruggs remains at my side panting more with every step. Hickory is quite excited, sounding off as only hounds can do, a sort of cross between a bark and a howl. There will be no wildlife observations today, his baying can be heard for at least a quarter of a mile. When I reach him his black and tan face is covered with dirt and he couldn’t be happier. Scruggs, my other dog, quickly finds some shade along the edge of the field and lays down to get a little rest. Hickory is very sad that I make him stop his game.
The sun is getting high and it is time to get back to clearing my land, so we head back up to my 72 Dodge pickup truck. As we drive away I can see, through my rear vision mirror, the dogs ears flapping in the wind as I drive towards home, a teepee located in the clearing on my land.
For the past twelve years I stop by this spot several times a year to spend some time and see what I can see. I’m seldom here for more than an hour, and most of the time it is 30 minutes or less. Over the past twelve years the old field has slowly changed. For about three or four years the goldenrods and asters took over more and more of the field. The grasses and milkweed were crowded out, until only scattered remnant islands of them could be found between the mosaic of yellows and purple flowers of the goldenrods and asters. As time passed, the blackberries continued to encroach into the field from the south, and the shrubs and saplings from the north, creating an hourglass shape that could easily be seen from the high ground to the southeast.
A lot has changed in my life since my initial visit. I have a wonderful wife, Maureen, who met me at work and took the time to “find” the true me in the woods. Together we built a cabin to live in while we built our house made of lumber from trees we harvested from our land. The teepee is now a memory. We have created two wonderful children, both boys, and they now occupy most of our time.
On this day I have my one year old son in a back pack and I am holding the small hand of my two and a half year old son as we enter the field. Hickory, my loyal companion, is no longer with us, but Scruggs, surprisingly, at nearly 17 years old is still standing by my side. He walks about 30 yards and lays down to rest, and does his trademark panting. His body is slow, but his spirit is still vibrant, enjoying each day to its fullest. Our new hound, Blue, a bluetick/black and tan cross is scouting the field ahead of us.
I take off the back pack and place my one year old son, Liam, sleeping soundly in a sitting position within the frame of the pack, by my left side. Brendan, my two and a half year old son lets go of my hand and is trying to follow Blue around the edge of the field. The thick vegetation trips him frequently as he tries to make the rounds with our hound. Each time he falls he bounces back up as quickly as he fell down. Scruggs sleeps in the shade.
I dare not wander away from Liam, so I am content to observe my immediate surroundings. The old field is now transitioning to a young forest. The saplings have crowded out most of the shrubs, and only remnant areas of goldenrod and asters still survive. White birch, red maple, black cherry, and poplar seem to dominate. Most of the saplings are between 8 and 12 feet tall and are two to three inches in diameter.
The young forest is a thick pole stand. There have been ice storms that have bent some of the white birch and black cherries over, so that even on this late summer day, they form a sort of arch that frames a view of the landscape.
In my wanderings today I see buck rubs on the poplar trees where a male deer has scarred a tree while removing the velvet from his antlers. There is still a well worn deer tail along what was the edge of the old field, but now it is a deer trail that marks the edge of young forest, and middle age forest.
Blue seems to be aware that Brendan is following him around the field, and somehow knows not to wander too far away. Liam starts to cry and I know it is time to go. I pick him up in my backpack and whistle for Blue and as he comes Brendan follows. Scruggs stirs in the shade, gives a long yawn, and struggles to get up. He slowly follows us up to my 75 Toyota Landcruiser. With the boys latched into their seatbelts, and the dogs stowed in the back I drive towards home thinking about how much different things are than they were a few years ago.
As we drive to my little area of study I am, again, thinking about how things change. Brendan is at the wheel of his 1986 Saab, and he is going to drop me off and continue on about his day’s explorations. Liam is playing basketball with his friends in the center of town. In the back of the car Ella, our family Newfoundland dog, and Shadow our hound, a bloodhound/walker hound/bluetick hound mix peer out the windows at the rural landscape. Maureen, is getting some much needed alone time while working in our garden. Our longtime buddy, Scruggs, died a while back at age 19 and Blue met an early and very sad demise as the result of his bad habit of chasing cars.
Brendan drops the two dogs and I off, and we proceed into the woods. Now, in my late 40’s, I let the dogs go ahead, although Ella stays close by, her 150 pound frame not being to conducive to speed, but rather power. Shadow, being a typical hound, runs edge of the field, with his nose to the ground. He picks up a sent and bounds off into the woods. Although I am in reasonable physical condition, I am certainly not as spry as I once was. I can feel my weight on my knees as I descend down the gentle hill in the woods. It is a cloudy day, although I do not expect rain. The low light conditions make the woods dark but his seems to favor the pastel colors of the changing foliage on this autumn day.
The “old field” is now a young forest. The trees are 6-8 inches in diameter and 25-30 feet tall. The understory plant community is comprised of clubmoss, interrupted fern, Christmas fern, Canada mayflower, and other forbs. A few young hemlocks, now about a decade old, have found their way into the forest plant community. I notice a few invasive barberries, a shrub that can dominate the understory to the disadvantage of native shrubs and plants.
The forest has developed some vertical habitats, for instance, I see ovenbirds on the forest floor, chickadees flickering about on mid-level branches, and scarlet tanagers singing from their preferred tree tops. The
Ella barks for no reason, letting the world know that she is in charge, and Shadow being her loyal subject comes running from his pursuits. We head back towards home, a 2 mile walk that we will enjoy on this September morning.
It is early in the Spring, and as I walk into the woods with my two bloodhounds, Cooper and Adia I remember the first time I came here with Hickory and Scruggs. Ella and Shadow have passed on at the result of old age. How much everything has changed in 30 years! The forest, although still young, is showing signs of maturity, the trees now about 40 feet tall, and 10 to 12 inches in diameter dominate the landscape. The young hemlocks are becoming more prevalent and shade much of the forest floor. There are now about a dozen hemlocks ranging from a few years old to about 20 years old. There are still clumps of ferns, primarily Christmas ferns and woodferns, but the clubmoss has become very sparse. The barberry has not yet become a serious problem, it seems to be staying in the same areas and not spreading as I feared it would.
On this day I keep Adia on a leash, and Cooper stays close by exploring the smells and scents on the forest floor. With his head down his loose skin falls forward, making this two year old 125 pound pup look like an old dog. Adia, not yet well trained, would pick up a scent and be off on the trail, perhaps for hours, if she were not on a leash. She is young, vibrant, and has a mind of her own, not the likes of which I have seen since the days of Hickory, my black and tan/bloodhound cross that I had many years ago.
After wandering around a bit, I take a much needed rest on the sideways trunk of a tree that was toppled under the weight of ice this previous winter. The toppled tree has created a sizeable space where sun light can enter and grasses and herbaceous plants will likely find a home in a place that has not seen these plant species for nearly thirty years. I see it as a small rebirth of a plant community I knew thirty years ago!
I think of Brendan, he is now living in Boston working on a film career. I think of Liam, recently home from traveling in South America. I think about how lucky I am to still be with the same woman after nearly 30 years. I think about all of our dogs, and their personalities. I think about how the landscape here has changed, and how much my life has, also. And I wonder where all the time has gone and what is to come in the next 30 years.
Written in 2008 for the Heath Herald.