On the first 70 degree day of the year we took a UTV ride up to the top of the ridge behind camp, G and I. She’s originally from Wyoming, so she sees the forests around here with fresh eyes. Fresh wonder at the hepatica growing amidst the exposed roots of a monarch red oak, at a sentinel barred owl on a trail-side snag watching somberly as we drove by. We stopped when we could drive no farther and made the final ascent on foot – about a quarter mile up the last knob to the top. The shelves beneath the summit were a mixture of beech and yellow birch – this is southwestern Vermont so the whole mountain is hardwood and white pine – but at the very top there was a smattering of mature red spruce; we could probably count the spruce trees on our 20 fingers. From the valley floor the towering trees look like a little spruce fez perched atop the mountain’s head.
“Where did they come from?” she asked, running her fingers along the fissured bark. “On the wind? Birds?” We hadn’t seen another spruce all day. And while I didn’t really know the answer to her question, having recently read Drew, Alan, and Charlie’s story on forest paleoecology (page 40), and Meghan Oliver’s piece on Alpine Plants (page 32), I ventured a guess that maybe they’d always been there. That after the last glacier retreated, and the land warmed, it was the spruce that first colonized the mountain, and that all the other trees were the interlopers that had spent the last 10,000 years chipping away at their turf.
Whatever the real answer, this idea of seeing a forest as a logical system, and not just a collection of random, individual trees, is the foundation of contemporary ecological thinking and pretty much everything we write about. And it’s not just plants – it’s all of nature. You can look at the New England cottontail as a relic of the past in the same way you look at a copse of conifers on a mountaintop. Three hundred years ago, the settlers set the stage for New England cottontail proliferation by cutting down the forest; 100 years ago, they abandoned their farms and the resulting perfect habitat caused rabbit populations to explode. Trees grew back, habitat declined, the rabbits disappeared. As you’ll read in Charles Fergus’s story on New England cottontails on page 20, it’s quite a bit more complicated than this, but this notion of cause and effect, the sweep of history, and an element of impermanence is at the root of everything we see out there.
I’m pointing out the obvious to this audience. Everything we do in our woods this summer – the trees we cut (or don’t) for firewood or sawlogs; the trout we keep for dinner (or release) – will be done with a system in mind. But this is not so obvious to people outside our tribe. Hence the protectionist philosophies that focus on the individual rights of a trout or a tree versus the population as a whole; or the nursery tag on a Norway Maple pointing out the tree’s individual strengths (shade tolerant!), oblivious to the fact that it has no place in our native forest.
Because many people don’t see the systems in nature, because it’s easier to see individuals, making the New England cottontail the face of young forest habitat is a brilliant PR move. It’s not unprecedented – Audubon’s doing a similar thing with their Birder’s Dozen campaign, which links declining young forest habitat to recognizable songbirds – but it’s another good example of how the conservation community has begun to anticipate epistemological, as well as ecological, realities. If you propose an overstory removal as part of an early successional habitat improvement project, you’re speaking to no one but wonks. If you say nothing and just show up with a feller-buncher to do the angels’ work, you’re leaving yourself open to all kinds of misinterpretation. But if you say, Let’s go save this rabbit, well now you’re getting somewhere. Now you’re opening the door wide enough for others to fit in.
Some will point out that putting energy into reviving a practically extinct rabbit species that’ll probably never have ideal habitat again is a misallocation of resources, akin to the hard reality that in the big picture a chervil-picking party is not going to fix a town’s invasive plant problems. And this is probably true. But it overlooks an even bigger picture: that it’s crucial to engage as many people as possible in conservation efforts. Recognizing how humans organize their thoughts and motivations, how they learn and interact with the world around them. That’s a system, too.