Snow fell on the forest three nights ago, heavy wet flakes that snagged on every tiny twig. By morning the forest understory was traced in white, the intricate architecture of limbs revealed in a way it rarely is.
Seeing the forest in this fresh aspect was fascinating, as recently fallen trees and old logs on the ground were also outlined clearly. To my eye, what the coating of snow reveals is the increasing complexity of the understory, and that’s a very good thing for the forest inhabitants.
The image above is from just eight years ago. The entire understory of invasive Privet and Bush honeysuckle on this site had recently been removed, and the Wintercreeper ground cover sprayed with herbicide. Other than the scattered trees it’s pretty bare naked. Many of the larger trees are ash, already declining due to the Emerald ash borer, and have since fallen.
The site in the above image had a different trajectory, due to the presence nearby of mature native Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) shrubs. As it began to fill in with small Spicebush recruited from seed, the decay-impervious fallen Black locust sheltered the young patch from being criss-crossed by deer trails.
Just one fallen tree can enhance the recovery of an entire small pocket of habitat. The spreading limbs of an old tipped-over mulberry shelter blackberries, raspberries, native grasses and plantings of Blackhaw and Gray dogwood. Winter birds congregate here; it’s an island in the deer-trampled landscape.
With most of the invasive shrub removal completed, it’s now possible to see the lay of the land, or wetland in this case. The many ephemeral wetlands on the forest floodplain are beginning to fill, as they do every winter. Before long, Streamside salamanders will lay eggs in the streams flowing to these pools, and the larvae will finish maturing here in late spring.
Another sight that’s become visible recently due to invasive plant removal is the small “canyon” of this forest’s namesake, the south fork of Beargrass Creek. As with so much of the geography of this urban forest, the canyon’s origin is not the result of natural processes – rather the rock was blasted and dug out over eighty years ago in order to channelize the creek. My vantage point for the photo is atop the high ridge of rock debris piled on the floodplain side to contain the waters.
Regardless of its origins, the canyon is a striking landscape feature; one that few visitors know the history of. I share the story whenever I’m here with a group, as it illustrates so well how natural processes will eventually reclaim a site. Which is of course the story of this entire little forest in the city.