Splendor in Indiana: The Dangers of Shrinking Territory

Leaning forward, a fox peered over the edge of a massive rectangular hole cut deep into the earth. The dark gash would soon become the basement of a house about to be constructed a few hundred yards from my property. Just the previous day, foxes had wandered here freely, shielded by 60 foot sycamore, ash, maple, locust, and walnut trees in this small bit of wood they called home.

fox in.gov download
Credit IN.gov

The fox looked puzzled, wondering. Its territory had been dwindling for some time—now, one more piece was obliterated.

For the seven years I lived alongside this forest remnant, I watched as it shrank piece by piece. Like taking bites out of a sandwich, the owner/developer sold chunks of this small forest land, making room for new homes. It was fast disappearing.

The wood behind my house was part of a tiny bit of forest land near Turkey Pen Creek, which flows west into Honey Creek in their journey to the White River (a wide, shallow waterway cutting straight through the city of Indianapolis).

Hugging the meandering paths made by these creeks, tiny remnants of old woods, bits and parcels really, like ours, persist among the roads and housing developments. Fox, deer, raccoons, rabbits, bobcats, beavers, badgers, coyote, mink, muskrat, skunk, turkey, and woodrats all once lived in these woods; they still dwell in Indiana’s larger forested areas. Just a few skirt from parcel to parcel now, though. Tiny copses, territory for a diminishing variety of animal life.

Seen from my back doorstep, the trees of “my” tiny wood formed a dense screen in the summer that seemed impenetrable. But this was only an illusion. The wood was thin, fragile, its life uncertain.

Still, I took great pleasure in this tiny remnant of Indiana woodland.

Of course, before we moved in, developers had removed other wildlings to make way for what would become my home. Indiana’s forest lands have long been disappearing.

According to the  Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), “Indiana was more than 85% forest land (20 million acres)” before swelling human populations from the east overflowed into the territory in the early 1800s. The entering settlers chopped down the forest land’s most valuable “trees first–black walnut, yellow-poplar, black cherry, and white oak.” When these were gone, they removed the rest, and converted the cleared acreage into farms.

By 1903, only “7 percent of the original amount of forest land” (IDNR) remained.

In the last 100 years, groups have begun to remedy this. Both to protect biodiversity and to enable the harvesting of wood products, Indiana’s forested lands have made a comeback. Today, the IDNR says that nearly 21% of Indiana’s land is forested. Programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which has increased privately owned forest lands, have borne good results.

But overall Indiana’s forests—like others in surrounding states—face grave problems.

The remaining forests suffer from reduced diversity. Of the existing forest lands in Indiana today, “Timberland accounts for 96.7%,” according to the IDNR. Planted for harvesting, timber forests are less varied than old growth or reserved forests. Only 3.3% of the 21% is “reserved” forest land–in state and national parks, or federal wilderness areas.

And of both the timberland and reserved forest land, “41% is in unconnected fragments” (IDNR)

Tiny, scattered bits are generally all that is left of the great, diverse forests that once covered 85% of this state. This makes the few large swaths, like the forests in Brown County that I spoke about in my last post, invaluable, for fragmentation puts the entire ecosystem at risk.

While forest bits are better than no forests at all, forest fragments are less safe for flora and fauna and less healthy than big forest swaths. Fewer large trees survive in these tiny remnants. Animals are cut off from mates, breeding grounds, and food sources. Dissecting roads kill countless inhabitants. According to the World Economic Forum, forest fragmentation is the “primary driver of the global extinction crisis.”

thumbnail_CAM00262Forest fragments are also prone to further parcelization, as the wood behind my house illustrated. Fragmentation can lead to permanent land use changes, requiring more political activism to preserve what remains.

When I lived there, the wood behind my former home seemed tired, frail. One winter a great sycamore split down the center, two-thirds of the way to the ground, where it cracked off, tottered backward, and lay splayed. This was one of four large sycamore trees visible from our yard, and I grieved to see it go. Was its loss a freak of nature, or a sign of hidden decay? Would the others go soon as well?

Indiana’s trees face threats on multiple fronts. (The next post will describe other equally serious threats.)

Preserving forests for their own sake, for the animals’ sake; preserving them for our sake, for our children and for their children’s sake; preserving them for all they contribute to the nation and the world, behooves us.

For the sake of the wild woods… biodiversity… future foxes… we need to see ourselves as part of nature, for we’ll win for us all if we can work together to cherish the whole.

Splendor in Indiana

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Courtesy of Pixabay.

A woman I knew long ago told me that her favorite memory of her home state of Indiana was when the dogwood bloomed in spring among the rolling hills of a region an hour south of Indianapolis called Brown County. When I moved here, I was eager to see these blooming trees for myself. I found more than I anticipated; the dogwood trees of Brown County are part of a fascinating landscape that is as engaging below ground as it is above.

I admit, my first impression of the state of Indiana, after moving here, was that it lacked “impressive” topography. In fact, driving down I 65 from Chicago through miles of flat farmland can be somewhat off-putting. But dig deeper; look further.

Over the years, I’ve been awed by Indiana’s riches beneath the earth’s crust, and inspired by the sublime that lies on top.

The cool term for the study of landforms and what lies beneath is called “Surficial geology.” The Midwest was once under a great lake, and the demise of that lake left skeletons of its inhabitants—fossils—compressed in sedimentary rock, like limestone and dolomite.

0821161609_HDR-1Long after the lake dried, multiple periods of glacial advance and retreat moved other rocks down from Canada, squashed and sliced the northern part of the state flat, and deeply buried the most interesting sedimentary and glacial materials.

This wide, flat plain now provides you with your corn and soybean crops!

In contrast, retreating ice left “tills” and “moraines,” creating ridges and ravines in the middle and southern portions of the state. Brown County lies among them. Here, a massive segment of limestone was uplifted intact and formed into an outcrop called the Salem Limestone. In their book, Stone Country: Then and Now, by Scott Russel Sanders and Jeffrey A. Wolin, Sanders describes this as “a rare, thick-bedded, tight-grained stone that can be quarried in large blocks, cut to any shape, and carved in fine detail.” It is “the largest accessible deposit of premium building stone in the United States,” and was used to build the Empire State Building, Chicago’s Tribune Tower, and San Francisco’s City Hall, for starters. Pretty impressive.

Encompassing a portion of these incredible limestone features are the Brown County Hills—the site of my friend’s beloved dogwoods. These hills include the highest elevations in the state, like Weed Patch Hill, which is 1,058 feet above sea level and part of a geologic feature called the Knobstone Escarpment that moseys south all the way to the Ohio River.

While their elevation may not sound imposing, hill after hill of tree-covered ridges tucked together for more than 300 square miles are exquisitely beautiful. These forested hillsides are also invaluable—according to the Nature Conservancy they are “the largest and most heavily forested land remaining in Indiana.” The whole nation will benefit from their preservation. (Watch for a later post to learn why.)

Photo by Brown_County,_Indiana,_Estados_Unidos,_2012-10-14,_DD_10 (1)
2012 Photo in Brown County, by Diego Delso

If you have seen a dogwood, you’ll know that its flowers lie horizontal, like hands outstretched. During spring in Brown County, clouds of pink and white dogwood flowers float in the understory of tall tree cousins: old oaks and sugar maples; pawpaw, sycamore, black walnut, and ash. Standing at an outlook, they all seem to be competing to crowd the acclivities and declivities of Brown County, hogging the glory.

Beneath their canopy, lilac colored redbud contest with dogwood for attention, along with the occasional bloom of a rare yellowwood tree.

During the spring in Indiana, dogwood and other trees bloom profusely all across the state, in woods and forests, in parks and gardens.

It is my favorite season.

In summer, the trees take on an even green. They provide verticality. They rest in their majesty.

But in the fall, to me the trees become an icon, representing the world within the world not yet seen. The chlorophyll levels drop, and the trees’ true colors appear:

I watch, as nature sheds the even green of summer. Like the curtain rent, Autumn drops its veil of green, freeing star spun colors. Green slides down the stems of nature like heaven’s impenetrable curtain parted, revealing colors hardly dreamt, if not remembered: The sunburst yellows, purples, pinks, and ambers that storm forth each year in autumn.

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Indiana boasts a subtle but brilliant beauty, expressed in its hardwood trees and forests. They embellish the land in every season, but in spring and autumn they inspire awe.

Having grown up on the desert edge of LA, when even the cultivated orange orchards were dug up to make way for expanding developments, I have a special love for the hardwood trees of Indiana, its woodlands, and its scattered islands of old growth forests.

Still, destructive forces are impacting our state today, decimating trees that have graced this landscape for millennia.

If we are to preserve the trees in Indiana, and those in other states with trees and forests like it, we need to care for our forested lands and act to reduce these destructive forces.

Some ways to do so will be the focus of my next two posts.