Saturday, January 12, 2008

Yard Redemption - Oak Savanna Lost

Can a yard, a city lot in small town America no less, be redeemed? Is it right to speak of saving, delivering, restoring land? I'd like to continue to explore those questions.

This account of Hubbard is by no means unique, although it is perhaps the most elegant. My out-of-state readers probably envision rusting and shuttered factories as the current landscape of Michigan. There are shuttered factories (and working factories), but the landscape, especially the 90% of the landscape that is rural, is nice. Corn and soybean fields are intermixed with hay, pastures, and woodlots. Compared to Iowa or Illinois, field sizes are smaller more often bordered by wooded hedgerows. Residences are more frequent, and basic landscaping is common. Fewer wetlands have been drained in Michigan compared to other states. Michigan has both an East Coast and a West Coast and has more shoreline than any other state in the lower 48. More coastline than California. More coastline than Florida. Michigan is an undiscovered secret.

But it is not an "orchard" of majestic oaks scattered with small prairies and "gemmed" with wildflowers.

I want to continue to stress what has been lost, and continue with pioneer accounts from Kim Chapman's thesis.

"The annual fires burnt up the underwood, decayed trees, vegetation, and debris, in the oak openings, leaving them clear of obstructions. You could see through the trees in any direction, save where the irregularity of the surface intervened, for miles around you, and you could walk, ride on horse-back, or drive in a wagon wherever you pleased in these woods, as freely as you could in a neat and beautiful park." [Van Buren 1884, describing the oak openings settlers saw passing through the southern tiers of counties into Calhoun County]"

To-day for the first time, I saw the meadows on fire. They are of vast extent, running far into the woods like the firths of a lake; and as the wild grass, which they supply in the greatest profusion, furnished the new settler with all the hay he uses for his stock, they are burnt over thus annually to make it tender. These fires, traveling far over the country, seize upon the largest prairies, and consuming every tree in the woods, except the hardiest, cause the often-mentioned oak openings, so characteristic of Michigan scenery. [Hoffman 1835, recounting his impression of a December fire]"

Today we would call the oak openings, "oak savanna." Only 0.02% of the original oak savanna remains today. In other words, for every 4 square miles of savanna, an area the size of my yard (1/2 acres) remains. Enough has been lost to say that the landscape of savanna is lost. Enough remains that we can study it, replicate it, restore it and redeem our land, even our yard.


Turtlyn said...

Wow, that sounds like a beautiful setting. Where can an oak savanna be found to day to visit?

Pcrucifer said...

I'll open that up to other readers to answer. They may know of other savannas. There are several on private land, but on public land: Allegan State Game Area has several, as does the Barry State Game Area and the Flat River State Game Area. There are several on Forest Service land northeast of the town of Newaygo.

Most oak forests in Michigan south of Clare were formerly oak savanna.

IBOY said...

I'm involved here in eastern Iowa in a volunteer group, securing and restoring natural habitats in one county. so far we have about 270 acres, with more to come, and certainly oak savanna restoration is one of our chief goals. The restoration is a huge task, but I sometimes wonder about true long-term viability... are we just creating little artificial "zoos". The savannas will only be maintained by constant management by people: yearly fires, removing invasives, etc. Will there come a day when, for whatever reason, the effort will not be there, and all our work is for nought. Guess I think too much.