Friday, April 29, 2016

Gentle Power

This is the somewhat challenging story of a workday 
at which great violence and tenderness worked hand in hand.

When we head out in spring, 
we worry about trampling the spring flora.

Indeed, in an area like the one shown here,
that we started restoring a few years ago,
we stay on paths whenever possible. 
But in another area, we had a challenge. 
Though the delicate spring flora was up, we still had this one last seeded area 
where we needed to cut pole trees to let in the light. 
Could we do the good without committing a lot of bad? 

Here's a sort of a before and after in one photo. 
The "before" is the all-dried-leaves foreground - a "dead-zone" where we needed to work.
The "after" is all that healthy green, where we worked a year ago.

In the foreground, as in most of Somme East before we began, the oak woods had been so degraded and shaded by invasive trees that the grasses and wildflowers were gone. Grasses and wildflowers support (and, vegetation-wise, are) most of the diversity of the woods. There are just a few species of trees. But the keystone oaks depend on a healthy open turf for reproduction, and that turf is home to hundreds of species of herbaceous plants, which then support most of the species of animals (from mice to frogs to butterflies to indigo buntings to coyotes) that make a thriving woods. In other words, in the area we were going to work - the just-dead-leaves-on-the-ground area - most of the plant and wildlife diversity is gone. Here dense buckthorn was cut years ago, but the pole trees weren't. Just cutting the buckthorn hadn't done much good. The understory was still just dead leaves.

But in the green area (in the top part of this photo) two years ago we thinned the pole trees. See the difference, above? That rich success of some of our first Somme East work inspired us throughout the day. 

A month ago, Eriko and a few others had raked the leaves away and seeded the mix of rare and uncommon open woods seeds we had gathered last fall and summer. 

If we don't cut those invasive trees, the seeds would just germinate and die of darkness. We know this. We've seen it happen. 

Our raked and seeded patches were marked with red flags, so we could avoid them as much as possible.

Our challenge is that little bits of rare flora do survive here and there in our work area.
Can we slash and burn and lug wood to the bonfires without smashing these beauties?
Keep in mind that the trilliums and wood anemones (as above) are a lot harder to restore than much of the summer and fall flora in our seed mixes. We want the survivors to continue to survive and spread, with all this new light we're giving them.

So, as with the seeded areas, we marked the sensitive flora with red flags.
Would the boots of busy chain-sawyers and brush haulers remember and avoid them?

Throughout the morning, we were impressed that the little flags seemed like bullet-proof protection. Yes! It was working.

This day was also our Earth Day celebration. We celebrate with food.
We also celebrate with work. It was indeed a happy day. 

Does this look any good? We try to appeal to every taste.
Unfortunately I didn't get a shot of the Amazing Indian Vegetable Bean and Fruit Salad
that Padmini brought. Kids roasted marshmallows on the fire.
This is a community of many tastes. 

Cecil and Eriko did the planning for the day. They're probably planning more, here, as they enjoy it.
Our community works that we. We often plan next week while we're being happy this week. 

One unexpected surprise was Bob's quiet chainsaw.

We have agonized over this quandary:

Chainsaws get so much more work done so much faster than our hand saws.

But their infernal roar wrecks our appreciation of being in nature - and makes the work more dangerous because it's harder to communicate.

Bob's electric saw solves the problem. We hope to see a lot more of it.

Toward the end of the day we realized we had time to do an experiment that might help us
in the future. Not everyone will be interested in this part.
Feel free to skip to less nerdy photos if you want. 

We wanted to compare seeds planted in the fall with seeds planted in early and late spring. For us late April is late for planting wild seed. We also wanted to compare seed that was simply broadcast with seed that was "raked in" - so the soil would shallowly cover the seeds. The map above records how we can find the three types of experimental patches here.

Here's how some of the patches looked after the raking. 
Was this trillium a casualty? It does look a little worse for the wear.

But later in the day, we noticed that someone had brushed off the chain-saw crumbs
and even installed a little vole cage.

Really? Metal cage? Yet another indignity? 
But the tender-hearted person removed the "intensive care ward" treatment 
after trampling feet had left. 

Indeed, when we checked the delicate flagged areas at the end of the day,
every patch of sacred flora seemed fine.
We had celebrated. 
We had worked sensitively with fire and chainsaw.
We wrought a new and wonderful kind of good.
Somme Woods is healthier and happier,
day after day, week after week, month after year. Praise be.


James McGee said...

I must wonder if the sparse flora and thick shade of pole trees is a symptom of past grazing. I believe you had said cattle had grazed the site and more recently an over population of deer has been a problem. I know lack of fire is an important factor too.

What perplexes me is I have seen locations that have not been burned in a long time which do not have a problem with opportunistic-native or non-native-invasive trees. In contrast, in the disturbed areas along a trail through this same site buckthorn makes a dense hedge. It is possible the opportunistic native trees have trouble colonizing certain areas because it is difficult for their seeds to travel upwind. However, I think there are other important factors occurring.

I have been told that grazing facilitates the invasion of invasive trees and brush in high quality prairies. I wonder if, similar to prairies, intense grazing is the disturbance that has required you to do such intensive triage to restore health to vestal grove along with a lack of fire.

In different locations with lots of pole trees, once the buckthorn is removed a good response has been observed. The response must not have been good enough because now mesophytic trees are being removed too. I wonder if this work is necessary or if fire would shift the balance back to xerophytic oaks given time. I was told that burning without the benefit of additional light causes damage to soil properties. However, I have been unable to find any papers published on this topic.

I have seen where basswoods are being exterminated on north facing slopes. I was told the basswoods were being removed because they shade out the wildflowers. I agree that basswoods do create wildflower excluding shade, but they also provide nectar, nuts, and caterpillars. Such an effort to completely remove a native tree from its expected habitat has made it impossible for me to continue volunteering at certain locations. Such conflicts become a moral problem for me. Any information you could provide which might ease my reservations about such management activities would be appreciated.

James McGee said...

I have found some answers to my above questions on the following website.

Frequent fire (3 times or more per decade) increases soil pH and bulk soil density. I do not think this is necessarily bad, just different. This difference might determine whether a site develops into savanna or oak woodland. Also, fire should be avoided in years when acorn production is good so the acorns are not killed. Finally, it seems low intensity fire is better at selecting for oaks over other species like maple. Fire that is too intense seems to kill the oak seedlings too.

Unfortunately, I do not think the thinning you are doing will promote oak recruitment. To get big oaks you need seedlings. I am not seeing any seedlings in your photos.