Succession

(This column was first published in the September 9, 1996 Buffalo News.)

Two recent experiences have forced me to sort out some of my ideas about nature.

I just finished reading Sara Stein's book, My Weeds: A Gardener's Botany. Reading it was a delight, but also a challenge. The book is chock full of serious botany; however, the tough ideas are addressed by a prose stylist who relates them to gardening. Stein's more recently published Noah's Garden tells of how she changed her property into a wildflower garden, in effect joining forces with the weeds. My Weeds tells of her prior struggle against them.

Toward the end of her book Stein encapsulates her message: "I appreciate," she writes, "the misunderstanding I have had with Nature over my perennial border. I think it is a flower garden; she thinks it is a meadow lacking grass, and tries to correct the error."

My other experience was an expedition to observe groves of ancient trees with Bruce Kershner and his Old Growth Forest team. Among others on the trip were Department of Environmental Conservation retiring regional director, John Spagnoli, and his replacement, Jerry Mikol.

The giant trees were, of course, impressive and the variety of species was equally remarkable. The forest in Allegany State Park I visited a year earlier contained only three or four. Here there were beech, red and sugar maple, white and chestnut oak, yellow birch, hemlock, cherry, cucumber magnolia, and tulip tree. In fact, as Wayne Cooper, our district forester, pointed out, the mix of species suggests that these forests have not yet reached climax.

What brought the two experiences together was a companion's suggestion that much of this area had been farmland a hundred years ago. Looking about, I found that idea almost impossible to assimilate. There was no clue to such use. The giant trees grew up out of a forest floor completely brown with duff: a soft layer of leaves and needles mulching into rich loam. This was quite unlike the thicket through which we had struggled to reach these open galleries. Here it was easy to walk about. There was no underbrush although the ground was uneven where trees had fallen and were slowly – down chestnuts especially slowly – decaying to contribute their own elements to the soil. How could this possibly have been farmland?

But perhaps that suggestion was on the mark. Certainly we are, as Stein suggests, pulling against Nature. When we farm or garden, we are like archers, stretching a bowstring that seeks its preferred equilibrium. And groves like this represent that preferred steady state.

This was what the first area inhabitants found here and what had been here since soon after glacial ice retreated. When those early intrusive farms were abandoned, probably because the thin soil layer no longer supported crops, Nature immediately went to work. In a single year she turned the tilled fields into weedy meadows. In another her asters and goldenrods began to shade out those beginners. Now she added shrubs like multiflora rose and shadbush and within a decade or two she had erected copses of maples, birches, sumacs, and poplars. The trees in their turn shaded out their predecessors. Only after fifty or sixty years did Nature identify her all-stars and trim her squad. On her final team were the trees I saw around me, the beeches and maples and hemlocks and others, now dominating this Old Growth Forest.

Look around the Niagara Frontier and you can see the earlier stages in this progression as more recently farmed lots now lie fallow.

And realize as you weed your garden or seed your lawn that you are stretching that bowstring very taut.