Slow Saunter through Morgan-Monroe

For the opening weekend of the Spirit & Place Festival, the Indiana Forest Alliance partnered with Indiana Humanities for a Next Indiana Campfires event at Morgan-Monroe State Forest. The group…

For the opening weekend of the Spirit & Place Festival, the Indiana Forest Alliance partnered with Indiana Humanities for a Next Indiana Campfires event at Morgan-Monroe State Forest. The group convened for the Slow Saunter at the Walls Shelter House with Michael Spalding from Indiana Department of Natural Resources. When this shelter was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the ground around it was bare.

Deforested. Clear cut.

In the nine decades years since, the forest has regenerated to a full canopy with numerous species of hardwoods. For the centennial in 1916, Charles C. Deam, the first state forester in Indiana, wrote in One Hundred Years of Indiana’s Resources, “Since we have wantonly spent all of forest resources, is it not right that we should provide at least some considerable measure for a future timber supply?”

All around us in the mature trees, the group could see the answer to Deam’s question. Hiking into the woods, a DNR research control forest for the Hardwood Ecosystem Experiment, we saw evidence of recent logging, but no obvious clear cuts like what is happening in other state forests around Indiana. Along the wide trail, which was a recently used logging road, ankle-twisting tire ruts lurked beneath the fallen leaves. In some areas, a single mature tree was cut down for timber, and in others, a few trees in an area were taken down to open it up. To a forester, these trees are mature and ready to be selectively harvested.

But to ecologists and many other researchers and forest users, the forest is still in the early stages of recovery. A recent ecoblitz, a multi-year inventory in the backcountry areas of Yellowwood and Morgan-Monroe State Forests by the Indiana Forest Alliance, catalogued over 1200 species, an amazing biodiversity. Last fall, a one-day bioblitz at Central Indiana Land Trust’s Glacier’s End preserve in Johnson County discovered a new species of spider unknown to science.

But these ideas around maturity and disturbance and human interference or stewardship also lead to questions about climate change. Many tulip poplar trees in our state forests and beyond are dying from a warm winter in 2012 followed by an outbreak of tulip tree scale and a hot summer. The microscopic insects were essentially draining the poplars of sap. You may remember it almost raining with the sap, covering the ground. That stress has led to a loss of thousands or even tens of thousands of tulip poplar trees in Indiana, as well as millions of board feet of lumber and an important part of the forest ecosystem. Is this an outlier or a new normal? One answer is in the birds, insects, and smaller plants of the forest floor, which an ecoblitz can document each year.

These questions go back to Gifford Pinchot and Aldo Leopold (and even all the way back to The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest works of literature). Pinchot was the first Chief Forester of the U.S. Forest Service and came to be known for his ideas on looking at forests as commodities and natural resources. In “The Birth of Conservation” in Breaking New Ground from 1947, he writes, “There are just two things on this material earth—people and natural resources. From all of which I hope you have gathered, if you did not realize it before, that a constant and sufficient supply of natural resources is the basic human problem.” Leopold was also an early employee of the Forest Service, but his work in wildlife ecology and university teaching led him to take a different view, something he called “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac. “A land ethic, then, reflects, the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

These two competing views have been at the center of ecological thinking over the last century. All around Indiana, we see the outcomes of this thinking on our sense of place. Indiana is known for corn fields, but what are the biological and spiritual aspects of those places? Is it barns, silos, ditches, or fencerows? The people? What about the people who came before? What about the forest or prairie that was cleared to create the fields? What is special about Indiana’s landscape? Michael Martone, Scott Russell Sanders, and Susan Neville explore these ideas in their writing, picking up the mantle first carried by Gene Stratton-Porter and Booth Tarkington and later Edwin Way Teale and Ann Zwinger.

We can experience something of Indiana’s special places in our nature preserves. In Morgan-Monroe, our group hiked down into Sweedy Hollow Nature Preserve. In the small hollow, the ecosystem is totally different than a couple hundred feet up the ridge. The ecosystem is unique to be designated a nature preserve. In Indiana, 2016 marks the centennial of the state parks and forests and the fiftieth anniversary of land trusts. The work of nature preserves, land trusts, state forests, national forests, fish and wildlife areas, and others sorts of conservation areas are linking up many of our fractured ecosystems to return them to the sort of continuity needed for increased biodiversity.

Near the path, a beech tree is scarred only by the scattered buckshot of a foolish hunter’s shotgun, no foolish lovers initials. One of the hikers tells a story about looking for hellbender salamanders in a pristine creek in Kentucky. Another hiker finds a lacewing larva, which covers its body in lichens to attract smaller insects that it can then eat . All around us, all sorts of mushrooms grow on different trees, alive or dead or somewhere in between.

The diversity is astounding if you stop to look. In the “Heredity” chapter of On Human Nature, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1979, E.O. Wilson writes “Each living form can be viewed as an evolutionary experiment, a product of millions of years of interaction between genes and environment. Sociobiologists…attempt to place humankind in its proper place in a catalog of the social species on Earth.” What are the social interactions between the plants and animals and fungi around us? The lichens and their hosts living on bark or rocks for centuries, slowly breaking it down. Or turkey tails and oyster mushrooms and puffballs living on and breaking down trees. What are our own social interactions with the landscape around us?

Social interactions and stopping to look at landscapes are at the center of Annie Dillard’s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, winner of the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. In the “Heaven and Earth in Jest” chapter, she writes, “If the landscape reveals one certainty, it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation. After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor.”

One extravagance we saw was a large rock overhang, which was made partly from geology and partly from clear-cutting, overgrazing, and erosion. We stopped to climb up under the rock shelter and take a group picture, marking our time together in the forest.

Another extravagance is the things we can’t see, the microscopic fungi and mycorrhizae and mycelium and bacteria that do so much of the heavy lifting in a forest. Another extravagance is how intricate and interdependent the ecosystems are, more interconnected than we can ever imagine—even with our research and experiments and theories and stewardship.

What is the legacy of our experience and our roles for future generations? What extravagances can we help restore for the future?