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Mystery Solved

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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The natural world is full of real wonders and mysteries. Why invent them?

Whenever I brought my wife and children camping in Shenandoah National Park, we almost always went to the ranger's presentations in the campground amphitheaters in the evenings. They were always entertaining, the kids always learned something, and once in a while I learned something myself.

One evening in Big Meadows Campground, the rangers were talking about the various ecosystems in the park and how they have recovered to a nearly natural state after having been nearly wiped out by centuries of farming and timbering. One peculiar feature of the area was the Big Meadow.

The ranger said that it was a meadow before the first White settlers arrived in the area, and nobody really knew why. Of course, it remained clear of trees during the centuries that people farmed and pastured their livestock in the area. But even after the park was established and the forests were allowed to recover, as they so obviously had, still no trees grow in Big Meadow. It remains a meadow, and nobody knows why.

It's a mystery.

The next morning, the kids and I were out wandering in Big Meadow enjoying the blueberries. We were also enjoying the sight and smell of the flowers, watching the myriad and varied birds and such. Well, at least I was. The kids were mostly focused on blueberries.

Thinking of the ranger's presentation from the previous evening, I noticed that there were indeed tree saplings out there in the meadow, but none of them grew taller than the blueberry bushes. There were little oaks and little maples, but no big ones. Clearly, this meadow was on its way to becoming a forest.

On the other side of the meadow, nearly half a mile away, was a noisy intrusion into this peaceful natural environment. A Park Service employee was driving an odd machine. It looked like a riding lawn mower on stilts. It had a skirt of chains all around its mower deck to prevent debris from flying around, but it was mowing everything taller than about three feet above the ground.

If there were any grass tall enough for that mower, it would survive. That is the magic of grass. It grows from its rhizomes below the ground, and anything that destroys its leaves - fires, grazing animals, or lawn mowers - does virtually no harm to the plant itself. Grass practically thrives on mowing.

The deck of the mower was set high enough to avoid mowing the bushes and herbaceous wildflowers. Plants like this can not tolerate mowing. Cutting the leaves and stems off the tops of most meadow flowers and berry bushes will kill the plant. So, this mower on stilts was clearly designed to leave these plants alone.

Only one kind of plant was actually being mowed: Trees! That mower was clipping the growing twigs of the young oaks, maples, hickories, and any other woody plant taller than a blueberry bush, and it was killing them.

Umm ... I think I know the answer to the mystery.

Epilogue: I'm not faulting the National Park Service for killing the incipient trees in Big Meadow. This environment is crucial to the survival of open-land creatures in the area, both the common ones and the endangered ones. Natural succession, if permitted, would quickly turn Big Meadow into more forest exactly like the thousands of acres of forest that comprise the rest of the park. Without the primordial expanses of natural ecosystems, and natural fires and rockslides to create more large clearings from time to time, these meadow plants and animals would soon die out. No, artificially managing the environment to perpetuate the full spectrum of nature within a small island of pseudo-wilderness in a sea of man-made landscape is a good thing to do. But why pretend it's a mystery?

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