Monday, October 13, 2008

Nature's Silver Lining


January 2007

The storms that have wrecked havoc in Metchosin and elsewhere these past months have many of us busy cutting down dangerous trees that lean toward our houses, clearing and burning branches, dealing with a wealth of firewood and generally trying to regain a semblance of pre-storm normalcy.
Some of our surroundings look much the same as they appeared in October while others are a tangle of uprooted and broken trees, littering the landscape like so many carelessly tossed matchsticks. Our own property lost at least 50 trees, especially hard hit were the beautiful, ancient shore pines up on the windy ridges. Virtually all of our damaged trees are inaccessible and, unfortunately, will not provide any of the firewood bonanza that others are reaping.
Storm seasons like this are relatively infrequent events that serve a purpose that is not readily apparent in human lifespans. The upturned trees, with their roots almost embarrassingly on display, looking awkward and unnatural, do perform a long-term purpose. As the years drift by, the soil is loosened and falls back to earth, mixed without the aid of a shovel or rototiller. The hummocks and hills produced by the slowly rotting root balls create microsites with diverse combinations of moisture, light, fertility and texture that support new and varied plant and animal communities. The bottom of the slope with it’s extra water supply might become home to a small patch of vanilla leaf while the top of the hill might be amenable to the more drought tolerant Oregon grape. The north and south sides of the hill could likewise host separate species, each adapted to take advantage of the new site conditions.
Where trees have come down, new space is opened to light and water and the understory of shrubs and herbaceous plants will often respond with a surge of new growth. Seeds that have been lying dormant for decades, awaiting their chance to germinate, will vigourously attempt to dominate the new situation. In wetter areas, bigleaf maples or alders might sprout quickly before giving way, some years hence, to Douglas-firs or cedars. On a mossy bald that is newly opened to the sun, mosses that favour shade will give way to mosses and lichens that need light. Sun-loving camas might replace shade adapted fawn lilies. Likewise, sunny areas that are now buried under mounds of branches and debris will eventually benefit from the accumulation of soil as the process of decomposition begins.
All those snapped off trunks and downed trees that are not used for firewood will also contribute to the biodiversity of Metchosin. Broken trees will eventually fall prey to rots and fungus that soften the wood and allow woodpeckers, chickadees and nuthatches to excavate new nesting sites- that can later be reused by wood ducks, owls, bats and many other birds and small mammals. Downed trees (also known as coarse woody debris) will slowly settle into the ground and begin the long process of becoming habitat for frogs, lizards and salamanders; supply food to foraging bears; mushrooms to excited naturalists and act as nurse logs to delectable huckleberries or stately firs and arbutus. Downed trees can also create more favourable conditions for fish in streams. Logs across streams and creeks create pools and ripples that trout and salmon use for spawning and summer habitat as well as supplying secure places where aquatic creatures can hide from predators.
If you have some areas of your property that can remain natural, you might consider leaving the new landscape as it has been altered, allowing the slow recovery and transformation that nature has decreed. If your neighbours or family complain that you are being lazy, don’t tell them you are feeling resistant to hard labour, rather, proclaim righteously that you are helping to create habitat for generations to come.
Additionally, not everything needs to be burnt or cut up. Some of those stacks of branches can be remodeled to form “brush piles”, which provide homes to winter wrens and other small creatures. Consider leaving some of the broken trees or if they need to be removed for safety reasons, cut as tall a stump as possible so that it can still be used by wildlife (call a qualified professional for this work). Let the logs lie as they have fallen, to feed the earth and provide homes for innumerable living things.
It can be difficult to appreciate the slow transformation from storm tossed, jarring havoc to increased habitat and biodiversity within our community, but your grandchildren and their descendants will reap the benefits of your thoughtfulness.

Naturescape BC recommends this method for constructing long-lasting log and brush piles:
Log pile:
At the base of the structure, spread bark chips as a mulch. Cut logs to varying lengths and arrange creatively-mostly on end, with a few lying lengthwise. To provide hiding spots amongst the logs, place clay flower pots on their sides or use bricks, rocks, or clay drain tiles. Cover the area with leaves and small twigs and disturb as little as possible. If necessary, add material to the log pile from time to time.
Brush pile:
A foundation of rocks or logs will prevent a brush pile from decomposing too quickly. Pile branches beaver-lodge style, two or three metres high and wide. Although native vines (never ivy or vinca!) can be grown over the pile to green its appearance, you will probably want to add to the pile as it shrinks over time. Don’t disturb or make additions at nesting time. You may have ground-nesting birds (like towhees and California quail) using this safe place to raise their young.

Wildlife and Trees in British Columbia (co-written by Metchosinite Todd Manning and others)
Naturescape British Columbia. The provincial guide. By Susan Campbell and Sylvia Pincott

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