Explore Local, Weekly Expedition Trial Program. April 28

Today we entered a complex woods with a complex history, at McIntire Park. MAP. (Green trail, NW bound)
There is an island of woodland magnificence squeezed by 20th century suburban growth. Clues to its history linger in the landscape, and a couple of vibrant streams cascade through the soaring Poplars…each slowly reclaiming the health and diversity they once new, but still bearing the scars of open fields, agriculture, and storm water run-off.
Now there are meadows of May Apple and Jack-n-the-Pulpit along the streams, groves of spicebush, and a forest of Hickory, Oak, Beech, and Poplar. Children of all ages echo through the forests as there’s a high school athletic field along its Northern margin and a vibrant park to the East.
With Play and excitement, our expedition began. After ten minutes of racing about and picking buttercups and grass, we settled into a circle for an introduction, and to announce the purpose of the day: Creek Walkin’ and critter catching, in a tributary of Meadow Creek.
The day was cool, and the wind had a bite to it, so we were all a bit nervous about diving into that heavily shaded stream. That wore off, and so did the numb feet.
Immediately we encountered a pool of water with fish in it, and a good riffle. Leaning out over the spot was a tree that has had the soil beneath ripped away by floods…the roots 3/4 exposed. I wonder how much longer before this swiftly migrating stream totally undercuts this tree?

We took a small fine-meshed aquatic net into the riffle below the pool…using aquatic maroinvertebrate sampling techniques, we sampled for critters. This involves holding the net in the stream sediment while someone upstream jostles the sand, pebbles, and wipes off rocks. The sampling lasted about 20 seconds. We came up with a crane fly larvae, a salamander larvae, a crayfish, and a few scuds. By that time, 5 of the seven kids were off and running ahead on the trail. So, ahead we marched….through meadows of may apples. What a beautiful day.

Into the creek again. The creek became our trail, and the water and mud became our clothes. The numbness wore off (for those without muck boots), so up the creek we surged, looking for critters under rocks. Nothing changed…crayfish, salamander larvae, crane fly larvae, and scuds.
As the chaotic and improvisational flow of humans ran upstream, climbing muddy banks, balancing on downed trees, …the time approached to corral the group out of the creek and back to the trail. Our momentum up to the trail carried us through may apples and christmas ferns and across and beyond the trail! 3- 6 year olds were leading the way, after all! We continued up into the woods of strange trash, long logs and ever-present Beech trees.
We had circle time, there, off the trail about 50 yards. We played what I call the five senses game. On this occasion we focused on hearing, smelling, and touching…listening for urban sounds, woodland sounds, breathing sounds, sounds of American Beech leaves crunching in our hands. We practiced using owl ears…a strategy for increasing hearing sensitivity in a chosen direction.The fox walk was introduced(as it was introduced to me by tracker Hub Knott). It’s quite a challenge to walk in a beech forest without making a sound!!!! Patience, patience, sensitivity, patience.
There are many powerful stories in the book presented by this landscape. One of them is the chapter that describes how this forest is undergoing significant and unprecedented change. Long ago, there were periodic fires in this area. Trees with thick and fire-resistant bark were able to survive and thrive as dominant woodland species. These included Oak and Chestnut, some hickories and some pines. We must save our homes now though…and this means we must not have fire in these islands of woods here in the city. The result is that we are seeing more and more thin-barked trees…we are inadvertently selecting for the shade tolerant fire prone species, like American Beech and Red Maple. This forest is now a nursery for these trees. In fact, if you can remember it, this next winter have a glance into these woods as you drive by on route 250. You will see the beautiful and even understory growth of beech exhibited in its bleached but resilient winter leaves.
This layer of Beech will continue its march skyward. Eventually, its dense canopy will prevent the germination and/or survival of other large hardwoods, and the Beech will be the dominant large species in these woods. The oak and the hickory could be relegated to the understory! Ironically, and as all things balance out in some way, there is a critter that is attacking Beech trees…the Beech Blight Aphid. Another problem facing the Beech tree is the Beech bark disease. This is caused by a deadly duet…and insect makes a wound, and a fungus invades. So, maybe these things will be controlled by another agent, and we can continue to save our homes from fire.
Back to the trail. We raced ahead for the final stretch before The Bridge. This was our turn-around point…with 5 o’clock nearing.

Bridge time. Sampling, drawing, snacking, chatting.

On our rapid return, the realization of how complex this landscape is settled in. Reading the landscape gives you different interpretations at a fast pace. Most of those downed trees in the woods were pine! There, on the ground, was a prior forest…one that looked totally different…a parent to the present forest…the nursery for all these oaks, poplars, and hickories! Those pines served there purpose in the natural successional progression of forest regrowth…and the fungi continue to break them down into something that could one day support a forest that is similar to what would have been here four hundred years ago (only 500 years to go!).

We’ll all be revisiting this magical place, for generations to come!