The Angels' Share
Puddock Hill Journal #9: Nature Takes Its Toll
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A small natural tragedy befell us this week at Puddock Hill.
While string trimming around newly planted trees on the big pond slope, the guys discovered that a pair of four-foot-tall dogwoods had been severed at their trunks two inches off the ground. We planted these trees just last fall to help form an understory bracketed by high-bush blueberry shrubs downslope and larger trees, mostly oaks, on the upslope. Now our plans had been partially, if temporarily, foiled.
The cuts appeared so clean that a loppers might have been suspected, but no one had been around there with such an instrument in a long time. It seemed a mystery at first.
Then our property manager, Larry, remembered spotting a pair of beavers swimming in the pond last week. He took this video:
Cute, huh? These American beavers (Castor canadensis) remain our No. 1 culprits, although they moved along after just a day. While the pond spillway and nearby creek feature the sound of rushing water, which often stimulates beavers to build dams, beavers who visit us never decide to stay, for some reason. Maybe it’s the scent of nearby foxes or the presence of a large snapping turtle, or maybe it has something to do with the lay of the land.
In any case, a couple years ago we had a visit from beavers that caused considerable damage to several more substantial trees than the ones leveled recently. Those beavers left before we spotted them. We consider ourselves fortunate.
Why? Aren’t beavers native? Shouldn’t we welcome them?
My daughter posed questions like this but then answered herself. We have collectively so changed the balance of nature that we cannot always simply let nature take its course. Even “rewilding”—an effort that goes beyond simply encouraging native species, which I’ll explore in a later post—involves conscious intervention by mankind. To a large degree we are indeed at what Bill McKibben once called The End of Nature.
This small tragedy of the two young dogwoods brought me back to a wetlands class I took at Penn with Sally Willig, a brilliant field instructor. She brought to my attention the role beavers played in North American ecology before the arrival of European colonists. It’s worth visiting this subject for a moment.
Sally directed students to an interview, published by the New England News Collaborative, with Ben Goldfarb, author of the book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. The opening to this article is a show stopper. It reads:
When Europeans first came to North America, there were around 400 million beavers around the continent. By 1900, thanks to the fur trapping industry, that population was down to 100,000. As beavers disappeared, the landscape of North America changed dramatically, and, arguably, for the worse.
Goldfarb goes on to explain that our modern conception of streams as meandering but constricted courses of water is based upon the way they have come to manifest after the slaughter of more than 99 percent of all beavers.
No animal besides humans changes the landscape as much as beavers. Beaver dams, Goldfarb notes in the interview, “store huge amounts of water, they create ponds and wetlands, and historically that’s what many many streams on this continent looked like, like a series of beaver ponds.”
One of the many problems we have created with our own engineering of freshwater runoff (exacerbated by climate change) is stream bank erosion and deep cutting, a prevalent phenomenon that can have cascading effects on natural communities.
In any case, while beaver populations will likely never rebound into the hundreds of millions, they have bounced back somewhat, and in many places we now consider them a nuisance. At Puddock Hill, they would certainly impact our efforts at forest restoration, as the amount of land we’re restoring already qualifies only as fragmentary.
And yet, I am happy to know that there are beavers about, and in the larger picture they have certainly earned their place in the ecological fabric. One might view the collateral damage they do as “the angels’ share.”
As drinkers might know, in the making of distilled spirits the amount of liquid lost to evaporation in a cask is known as the angels’ share, both an acknowledgment and acceptance of the fact that natural processes, in this case evaporation, can sometimes queer our intentions.
We gardeners—indeed, all folks pursuing their passion—tend toward the pursuit of perfection, but it behooves us to remember that our concept of perfection does not necessarily agree with the natural order of things.
Even native critters eat stuff, sometimes the stuff we’re trying to promote. On field trips in forests with reduced deer browse, I have seen hundreds of oak saplings crowding together. We know something will eat many of them, and the others will compete, and eventually one or two will get the better of the rest.
In fact, oaks and other tree species have a strategy for overcoming predation of their young known as a “mast year.” During mast years, which occur approximately once per decade, the tree produces many more seeds than usual. That way, the seeds overcome the appetites of those animals that would eat them in a normal year, with the population of those animals only being present in such numbers as would sustain them during non-mast years.
We had this experience recently with our oldest White oak, pictured here:
This great big tree produced such a plethora of acorns last year that the squirrels couldn’t possibly consume them all, no matter how hard they tried. The tree is on the lawn, not in a natural setting, but if it were in the forest there would have been carpets of saplings in its vicinity this spring, more than any creatures present in normal numbers could eat.
When I think of the angels’ share—nature’s share—I also think of finger galls on Wild black cherry trees, pictured here on the leaves of a tree along the upper big pond path:
These galls are a natural phenomenon likely caused by Black cherry finger gall mites (Eriophyes cerasicrumena). If you don’t take into account the beautiful symbiosis of nature, you might find them unsightly. But the native Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina) is one of the most productive trees in northeast forests. When the mites emerge, they will provide food for birds. Before that, cherry flowers feed nectar to pollinators, which in turn feed birds. When the fruit matures—you guessed it!—more food for everyone.
Depending upon your exact situation, it is best to let nature takes its course. As backyard stewards, we are gardening for the whole food chain, that which we find beautiful as well as that which we might find unsightly or disruptive.
Among mammals at Puddock Hill, white-tailed deer and beavers are our exceptions to the rule. I’m glad, however, that the beavers moved along before I had to intervene.
This week featured grasses and large-leaved native lettuces coming into their own and beginning to shade out (we hope!) some of the invasive species with which we are engaged in constant battle. Broad-leaved rosette panicgrass (Dichanthelium latifolium, formerly known as Panicum latifolium) has become a major player in the barn field:
There is a nice bit of Giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) coming into its own nearby:
Canada lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) is profuse this year, now that the deer have been banished. (That's Virginia knotweed in front.)
And, for the first time ever, I spotted Woodland lettuce (Lactuca floridana) in the woods north of the big pond:
On a different note, the native Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) that we planted close to the house many years ago continues to thrive despite (or maybe because of) aggressive annual pruning. Flower buds ready to burst: