Sunday, December 8, 2013

Changes in the land

Our town historical society owns an 18th Century farmhouse, full of furniture and artifacts dating from its early years through the early 20th Century, when one of the sons went off to World War I. It's only open to the public by scheduled tour (unadvertised -- you have to know who to ask) and on special event days twice a year.

The curator, a descendant of the builders, is my neighbor. Out here, that means his house is about a mile from mine, although our driveways are much closer. Knowing that I'm deft with a chainsaw and happy to be paid in firewood, he asked me to take down a sickly maple tree on the property. When I met him there, he pointed out a huge tree near the house which the Hysterical Society proudly claims to be the oldest English walnut in the Americas. I couldn't tell you how they know this, or whether we should believe it.

The black walnut is native to North America, but the commonly available nutmeat comes from a species native to Persia which is called the English walnut. Yes, it's complicated. Henry called the tree an "English black walnut" but I think he's just confused. The black walnut does produce edible nuts but it is not commonly cultivated.

Anyway, the English walnut is not a problematic invasive species, but its presence there does remind us of the total transformation of the ecology caused by the English invasion. They didn't just dispossess the original human inhabitants, they radically changed the floral and faunal regime. In fact, much of what we now treasure as endangered nature is actually artifact of the changes wrought since the 1600s. Most notably, these include species that favor the border between forest and open space, of which there is far more today than there was before the coming of the Europeans, but less than there was 50 years ago as pasture has been overtaken by second growth forest.

And yes, that includes your friend Peter Cottontail. The eastern cottontail rabbit benefited greatly from land clearance and of course Peter was famous for raiding the farmer's vegetables. Whether it's regrettable that there are fewer of them now is hard to say. We can't go back to 1500 either. The warming climate is letting the wooly adelgids kills the hemlocks and eventually, the pine bark beetles will get here too. We'll just have to see what happens.

1 comment:

  1. The future looks bleak to me. Yes, we have changed the landscape in every way, and now we are changing the climate, which will have an even more dire impact. I think the thing that surprises me the most is that there is no will to make any changes. When it's too late, it'll really be too late.