Non-Profit Internet Source for News, Events, History, & Culture of Northern Frederick & Carroll County Md./Southern Adams County Pa.


The Great Forest, Past and Future

Bill Meredith

A century ago, most of the houses along the main street of Emmitsburg had fields behind them where the families raised a garden and kept their horse and a cow or two. That style of life gradually died out; horses were replaced by automobiles, and cows and gardens were replaced by refrigerators and supermarkets. But a vestige of the old pattern still existed in 1968; when we bought the old house on the west end of Main Street, it came with a 5-acre lot.

We planted a large garden in the upper part of the lot. It had been a hayfield, and for the first couple of years a friend who had a farm came in and cut the hay from the remainder of it. However, it soon proved uneconomic to bring the haymaking machinery into town for a small amount of hay which was of not of high quality to begin with, so before long, the mowing stopped. The kids were in scouts and 4-H, and for some of their projects we planted trees… 500 white pines and 500 Scotch pines from the county agent, and 100 each of poplar, dogwood, crabapple, Russian olive and honeysuckle from the Nature Conservancy. The next spring it was evident that the field mice had eaten many of the seedlings, and those that had survived looked very unhealthy. So, like most such projects, interest waned and the trees were forgotten.

Forgotten, perhaps, but not gone. Two years later we began to notice the tops of pine seedlings protruding from the grass, and each year they grew more vigorously; soon they were growing two or three feet per year. The white pines did best; we now have two stands of them that are over 40 feet tall. For a few years we had Scotch pines as Christmas trees; then they became too large for that, and soon after they began to die from bark beetle damage… only a few still survive. The mice ate all of the poplars and dogwoods, but a few of the other hardwoods survived, and are now being propagated by seeds dropped by birds.

Even before the planted trees got established, ecological succession was engaged in providing a natural component to our developing woodland. We noticed it first along the western fencerow, where there were several old black locust trees. Young locusts started sprouting from the roots of the old trees, which extended 50 feet or more into the field. Windborne seeds arrived to introduce box elder, elm, Tree of Heaven and silver maple. Squirrels brought in pin oak, honey locust, catalpa and black walnut. Birds provided seeds for multiflora rose, raspberry, poison ivy, Virginia creeper, Japanese honeysuckle and wild grapes. All of these are basically weed species; they compete vigorously, grow rapidly, and reproduce with abandon, and within 15 years they converted the former hayfield to a juvenile forest ecosystem. Animal life followed the plants; soon the town's normal collection of pigeons, starlings and English sparrows were joined by wood thrushes, towhees, and wood pewees, and this year there is even a sharp-shinned hawk nesting there.

While the rampant increase in biodiversity delighted me, it was anathema to my mother-in-law; on her visits throughout the 1970s, she never lost an opportunity to remind me how neat and clean the lot had looked when it was a hayfield. I managed to convince my wife that mowing the field every summer would be expensive, labor-intensive and unproductive, whereas letting nature take its course cost nothing and required no effort on our part. But I think she was not fully persuaded of its value until our grandchildren began to arrive in the mid-'80s.

As soon as they could walk, I began taking them for "adventures" in the field. To a two-year-old, even a 5-acre woodlot is an immense wonderland. It soon became christened the "Great Forest," a place where we could drop bread crumbs along the path to find our way back, and see all sorts of fantastical things… the vine swing, the tree stump where the King of the Elves held court, Bambi's home, Brer Rabbit's briar patch, the old hollow log, and the place where if you take the wrong turn you end up in Albuquerque. And it also was a place of learning. They learned the tracks of deer, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons and mice in the mud and snow; they became aware of the variety of bird and insect life, and they began to learn names of common plants. They made their first steps toward understanding complexity and inter-relatedness.

Our new house now sits in the space where our old garden was; the Great Forest is just behind it, to the south. The front porch, where we spend our summer evenings, faces north, and hence is shaded. This orientation pleases my wife; she likes to watch people going by on the street, and to talk to any of them who are willing to pause on their way, whether she knows them or not. I enjoy the porch too… relaxing with a cigar as the sun goes down, and seeing the flower beds develop as the seasons pass. But I would prefer a different arrangement.

If I had the power to rearrange the world, I would turn things around so the Great Forest would be to the north of the house. Then I could spend the evenings of my remaining years on the shaded porch, listening to the call of wood thrushes and watching the occasional deer or fox slip across the back of the yard in the twilight as I contemplate the next stages of succession the forest will go through. But even if such a rearrangement were possible, it would be to no avail. Even now, new housing developments are crowding in from the southeast. Within the next decade they will cut off the narrow strip of wooded land that now provides a route for the variety of animal life to travel between my back yard and Toms Creek. The ruffed grouse and wild turkeys I have seen in my back yard will no longer be able to get there. The Great Forest will become an island, an isolated patch of woodland too small to sustain a variety of life by itself; and soon after, some future owner will convert it to yet another housing development.

It doesn't have to be that way, of course. The people of the town and the county are not blind; they can see the sprawl that is resulting from exponential growth, and they could say, "Enough; this must stop!" if they wanted to. But they will not. Under the perversion of the English language that calls this "Progress," the money to be made from housing developments far outweighs the value of educating children to be sensitive to ecological health. And the people should also know… they've surely been told often enough… that when healthy ecosystems are destroyed, the destruction of the human population cannot be far behind. But, then, you can't stop progress….

Read other articles by Bill Meredith