Heart’s Content revisited

A week later, we return for what we missed. This time we’re prepared: field guides, notes from the scientific literature, lists of what to look for. A sketch pad, a digital camera. Better maps and enough food to tide us over until supper.

We’re thorough. No skipping trailside non-natives this time! Even grasses and sedges merit attention. We agonize about whether this milkweed’s leaves are leathery enough, whether that tiny seedling is Fagus or Amelanchier. We manage to re-locate the bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), but the round-leaf orchid we found last time eludes us.

Seventy-five years ago, someone found twayblade (Listera cordata) here, so we comb every patch of sphagnum for it. Four different times, the tip end of a partridgeberry plant peeking through the moss appears to mimic our recondite quarry.

Gradually, this small patch of ancient forest grows more familiar, though mysteries still abound. Why is the deer browsing so selective? Toward the center of the tract, seedlings of pine, hemlock, devil’s walking stick and cucumber tree grow vigorously; around the margins, they’re chewed back to within an inch of their lives. Erecting permanent deer fencing around the entire perimeter still seems like a good idea – in fact, given that the Forest Service maintains hundreds of miles of such fencing around recently logged areas, it’s difficult to understand why they don’t similarly protect Heart’s Content. Its value as a baseline for ecological recovery efforts elsewhere would be immeasurably enhanced, since everyone recognizes that white-tailed deer overbrowsing is unnaturally severe. If fencing were erected right now, it would still take many decades for the forest to recover a healthy mid-story level.

The return of the natives won’t happen overnight. Some of the rarer wildflowers recorded in the 1930s and not seen since might not return for centuries, or perhaps millennia, without human intervention. On average, herbaceous perennials in undisturbed old-growth forests spread at the rate of one meter per decade. Sexual reproduction often yields very small numbers of seeds with dispersal by gravity or by ants.

Some restoration ecologists believe that widespread reintroduction of soil microorganisms will be necessary to fully restore ecological function to future old-growth forests. Most plants depend upon fungal symbionts to extract nutrients from the soil; when those fungi are extirpated as a result of logging, plowing or other intensive landscape modification, the only way to get them back may be to inoculate with plugs of soil from rare old-growth remnants such as Heart’s Content.

Thus, surviving virgin or near-virgin forests appear to comprise an ark of sorts. But the ark is leaking. Non-native, invasive plants, insect pests and diseases challenge the very ecological integrity of these would-be sanctuaries. Close to a century ago, the American chestnut blight wiped out one of Heart’s Content’s keystone tree species – and who knows how many others went with it. In the last 15 years, virtually all large beech trees have succumbed to another introduced pathogen. Their rotting hulks litter the forest floor, providing not only nutrients but some level of physical protection from deer browse pressure to the seedlings of other species that will replace them. This dieback of a major canopy component has greatly increased the amount of light reaching the forest floor, which has favored the spread of ferns (hayscented, New York, intermediate woodfern and others) over forbs.

But that’s not the only reason the ferns are doing so well here. As in so many forest tracts in northern Pennsylvania, ferns thrive due to their general hardiness: they tolerate light, white-tailed deer and acid rain better than almost any other native species. They are particularly resistant to the heavy metals that accumulate in the soil as a result of the leaching of base cations by sulfuric and nitric acid deposition. High plateau and ridgetop areas – where most forested land, and almost all publicly owned lands are concentrated – are at particular risk for acid precipitation downwind of the coal-burning power plants of the Ohio Valley.

Thus, Penn’s Woods stand to suffer in a major way from the consequences of the Bush regime’s two major environmental initiatives – “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests.” “Clear Skies” is a bid to make the skies dirtier by replacing federal oversight with industry self-regulation – essentially, asking criminals to police themselves. And “Healthy Forests” would lead a further degradation of forest health, by giving rapacious corporations a stranglehold over management decisions on national forests and BLM lands.

Noah’s Ark is a myth – neither a particularly pleasant nor an especially accurate one. The myths of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained may prove almost as problematic. I keep telling anyone who will listen that we cannot restore “original” ecosystems because too many pieces have been lost, some forever, like the passenger pigeon. Others, such as the beech and the chestnut, may take centuries to recover their former glory. And we simply don’t know enough. In fact, we barely understand the first thing about healthy ecosystem functioning. Population ecology is a mystery even for most vertebrate species, except for a few game animals that receive the vast bulk of available funding for research and management. We have no clue about how to reintroduce many types of organisms.

We cannot restore what was; it’s hubris to think that we ever could. An unknown proportion of ecolgical features present in the 1600s were the result of unique climatic conditions; another, sizable proportion were anthropogenic, challenging the Western dichotomy of natural vs. human.

Many missing elements of biodiversity can be reintroduced or recovered. Natural ecosystem functions and processes can be restored. I have already suggested a few, stopgap measures: buffering or physically protecting invaluable sources of biological richness such as Heart’s Content and other rare habitats. We can’t ignore essential political and regulatory changes (in fire-dependant ecosystems, physical removal of highly flammable understorey materials – yes, I mean all the Bushes – can help prevent unnaturally catastrophic, canopy-destroying fires). And we need to start following the prescriptions of conservation biologists to preserve and physically connect large, buffered, core areas.

What narratives can we use, what new visions can we advance? Regular readers of this blog probably already have a pretty good idea of what I would suggest as a starting place: not the Garden, but the demon-haunted wilderness, the domain of behemoth and leviathan. Not with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, but with humility and the elemental power of the whirlwind.

In one respect, the story of Noah’s Ark still has something to teach us: that Creation was not a one-time event. It is on-going – and it can be reversed. Creation, which most of us non-literal types understand to include evolution and involve geological time-scales, depends upon the active participation of human beings who must not allow themselves to forget their fairly humble position in the grand scheme of things. And though I am using religious imagery here, this is not an especially religious argument. Talking about the recovery of wildness strikes many professional land managers and government bureaucrats as so much woolly-headed mysticism. But then, the manager never wants to hear that there’s anything wrong with trying to impose a human agenda upon a thoroughly domesticated landscape. In fact, the bulk of the ecological evidence strongly suggests that unless we soon permit the return of greater-than-human realities such as natural disturbance regimes and large carnivores, far more than Eden might be lost.

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