Monday, June 18, 2012

Amputations and Restorations

Amputations and Restorations

This old bur oak shows its battle scars, its progeny and some quandaries.

Before we cut the tall invasive trees away, the three dead limbs on the right were completely hidden. Over decades, those three now-leafless limbs had been shaded out, essentially amputated, by invasive trees. 

The now-dead limbs grew at a time when this tree had ample light on that side -- perhaps one or two hundred years ago. Now new lower branches are growing where the invasives had been.

This summer great-crested flycatchers and yellow-throated vireos sing from these branches. These birds of conservation concern have repopulated the more open woodland these last few years. The ancient oak may thrive another hundred years, but it won’t last forever. Will another spreading majesty replace this one? What of all those skinny pole trees behind it? They will never be such. We agonize over what to do with them.

Lake County Forest Preserves ecologist Ken Klick suggested thinning. Some axe work is one good thought. But how do we decide which should go? In any case, we’ve been following another approach, perhaps not the best? We’ve imagined that repeated burns might do the thinning nature’s way, and favor the more fire-adapted individuals.  But a highway is close, downwind of this grove on most burn days, so the burns are muted, and few oaks have been thinned that way.

We love hickories, but we also know that they can be overabundant to the point of inhibiting the bur oaks that are the backbone of this ecosystem. We could cut most of the hickories and some of the oaks, as we’ve done elsewhere.

Indeed, one of our principles has long been to thin sufficiently so that the old canopy species can reproduce. Here, in Circle Grove, all the really old trees are bur oaks. They stand around the edge, in a circle. The inner giants may have been cut because they were straighter, or bigger, or they may have died because they were older, or some other history may apply.

In the foreground of this photo, the many bronzy leaves are the tops of young bur oaks. There’s plenty of opportunity for young trees to spread and grow here. Yet these trees are mixed with tall grasses, and the fires burn off their tops every couple of years. They have to start over after each fire. Should we isolate this area from the fires for a few years until the grasses get shaded back and the oaks get big enough to withstand today’s milder fires?

So many questions. Most of them we don’t bother to answer, because there are so many varied conditions even on this 83-acre site that most ‘experiments’ are being performed naturally – and we have only so much time to help. New oaks are indeed becoming sustainable trees in many places.

Yet, if we had time, we’re eager for our work everywhere to be the best, and we need to set priorities. What would you do here? 


Eliezer Margolis said...

So, this is a blog...what if someone wrote a blog and no one was there to read it, to respond to it? This is my first blogging experience. I've never read one before, much less have I responded to one. What is a blog for? This strikes me as an eminently easier question to address than "how should we conceptualize and enact our ecological restoration impulses in relationship to a cherished biome like the Somme Prairie Grove preserve?--how should the relationship be manifest in all of its particularity and differentiation, mirroring the extraordinary, present day diversity of the site in its restoration-in-evolution?" I find Stephen Packard to be a natively philosophical human--a disposition that I'm not all that certain he will be pleased for me to identify with him. Whatever the status of that personal disposition may be, I find that his blog posts highlight a fundamental quandary of deep ecology; namely, what is "our" proper place in the context of ecological restoration projects? We know that we cannot take refuge in a Rousseau-ian conceit that we should just construct ourselves (our behavior) as we currently imagine the first humans to have been in their immersed (see, e.g., David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous), eco-spiritual relationship to the unbuilt, nonhuman (Ur) world. As I comprehend it, the inner engine of ecological restoration arises from our essential biological natures. It arises from our ineffable, animal experience of sacredness at being-in-the-world, and with it comes the intuition and impulse to bring healing energy to what we experience: to heal both the human and nonhuman worlds through concrete action projects like the one that Stephen has been faithfully working at for these past 30 years at the SPG site specifically (but at other sites as well). Where, then, should the wisdom be sought to guide the myriad--and sometimes anguishing--practical and finely detailed ecological restoration decisions that Stephen inquires so profoundly about in his blog posts? I believe that further philosophical consideration, through collective dialogue, needs to be given to this and related questions. This blog is as good a place as any for fostering this dialogue. In a good way, Eliezer (Margolis)

Erin said...

Good questions all...and as I am reading a book by Carl Sagan on the joy of scientific questioning and discovery, and their roles in society, and how they are being squelched in Americans, it's good to know curiosity is not dead. This seems to be a good forum for pondering the more philosophical issues in restoration--less technical and more friendly than your standard list-serve.

I agree with shielding the bur oak youngsters from fire for does seem highly manipulative, but then again, a lot of what we do falls in that category. With recruitment of new oaks being so low, and proper habitat diminishing, I think it wouldn't hurt to throw them a bone.

Rob Liva said...

@Eliezer, great post, admittedly I had to read it through a few times... when you characterize Steve as a 'natively philosophical human', what do you mean? I thoroughly enjoy the idea you share for restoration arising from the 'animal experience of sacredness', could you please expand on this?

@Erin Given that our ecological understanding points to the oak tree as an environmental engineer of habitat for complex communities, I think the stewardship of habitat for oak regeneration is an incredibly important (if not the most important) outcome of habitat restoration in the Midwest.

A technical question arises, what is best for oak regeneration? Many of the high floristic quality natural areas appear to have distinct sets of oak trees, parceled out into age classes. ie. really old, really young, somewhere in the middle. How do we work with nature for the system to move in this direction? Is this even the direction we should guide?

I wonder. An interesting thing about restoration is that the time scale is so large compared to most of the happenings which fill our conscious. This is in part comforting because we ostensibly have a great deal of time to drag through the philosophical questions and implications. The oak trees in this post demonstrate the time scale in a beautiful way, regrowing branches they once grew and more recently shed.

Steve Halm said...

I'm curious about the bur oak regeneration...the bur oaks have to 'start over' every year due to the burns. I assume those are planned burns. How often would natural burns occur in a woods like this without human intervention? If the oaks would be have to 'start over' every year regardless of the planned burns, I'd think that leaving things status quo would make sense.
My gut feeling is to protect them, or at least some of them...I really love oaks....

Stephen Packard said...

Good comments and questions, Steve. When oaks are burned over and over-and-over again they become what the settlers called "oak grubs." These are huge roots (that are difficult to "grub out") with many-sprout "oak bushes" on top. Some "shrub prairies" had great numbers of these, suggesting that frequent burning was a part of the "original" landscape. Indications are that some areas burned pretty much every year and others burned on the average every two, or five, or twenty, or 100 years. Since this site has bur oaks as the major old tree and a wide variety of "prairie" species (and since the 1838 survey showed only widely scattered trees), this site probably burned fairly frequently.

Eliezer Margolis said...

@Rob...(Rob, I am following your example, but is this how one is supposed to direct one's post relative to someone else's post?)

A 'natively philosophical human' is someone who, without formal training in the reading of philosophical texts and the writing of philosophical arguments, is--due to the promptings of their deep individuality--disposed to inveterate reflection on the origins, meanings and logical implications of her acquaintanceship with phenomena of all sorts. A great American pragmatic philosopher, Richard Rorty, was a great enthusiast of this kind of native philosophical inclination. My intent in having used the reference that you asked about was to emphasize my sense that Stephen is disinclined to posture as a philosopher.

I will try to return to the blog to address the really big question that you posed about 'sacredness'.

Thank you so much, Rob, for the careful reading that you gave to my very first blog post. In general, I am delighted to see how the posts are beginning to roll in.

May all be well.