The Campus Nature Trail is celebrating its 30th year of existence this coming academic year. The group of students who worked so hard in 1984 and 1985 to visualize, fund (via University grants), and then build the trail are now in their late forties and, hopefully, are getting ready to send THEIR kids to Penn State! The Alcoa Foundation has over the years twice contributed funds to help us expand and mark the trails and set up the web site that has become known as “The Virtual Nature Trail.” Alcoa’s help has been critical to the existence and quality of our trail!
I could go on about all of the students who have used the trail for credit and non-credit classes. I could talk about all of the student research projects that have been conducted there! I could talk about the Boy Scout groups who have earned their forestry and environmental science merit badges on the trail or about the two Eagle Scout projects that so greatly improved it. I could talk about the Kids in College classes, the FIRSTE Program nature walks, the Backyard Bird Counts, the Neighborhood Tree Counts, and the Penn State New Kensington Arboretum all of which were centered on the Nature Trail, but you get the idea that it has been an intensely used and very significant teaching and learning resource for many levels of the campus.
What do we see out on the trail? Our first theme (that was described in the brochure that I wrote on a Commodore 64 computer and printed out on a dot matrix printer back in 1984) was succession: the observation that ecological change is triggered by certain species modifying other species’ limiting factors. This was most apparent at the boundary lines between the European black pines that were planted at the top of the trail during the construction of the campus and the mixed hardwood forest (white ash, yellow poplar, black cherry, etc.) that was growing all along the surrounding ridge. The pine forest that was so well established in 1984 is now almost gone because of disease, stress, shading and aging of the trees. The forest floor that was absolutely clear of all undergrowth in 1984 is now a thick vegetative jungle of shrubs, vines, and hardwood seedlings and pole trees. Succession in just three decades has completely reshaped the forest!
The young forest of ash, poplar and cherry is also changing. I was out on the trail yesterday clearing the paths of this wet summer’s plant growth and noticed that oak seedlings (mostly red oaks and white oaks) are growing in great numbers under the mixed hardwoods. They will form the forest that will overtake the ash, poplar, and cherry when we celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the trail in 2084 (September 4, 2084, at noon! Mark your appointment books!).
Kirk Dineley, a student from the early 1990’s who is now an Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmacology at Midwestern University in Chicago, (he’s the sixth person from the right in the back row of the clean-up crew picture) sent me a quote from “Life and Fate” by Vasily Grossman that puts forest succession into the a whole new light:
Once, when I lived in the Northern forests, I thought that good was to be found neither in man, nor in the predatory world of animals and insects, but in the silent kingdom of the trees. Far from it! I saw the forest’s slow movement, the treacherous way it battled against grass and bushes for each inch of soil . . . First, billions of seeds fly through the air and begin to sprout, destroying the grass and bushes. Then millions of victorious shoots wage war against one another. And it is only the survivors who enter into an alliance of equals to form the seamless canopy of the young deciduous forest. Beneath this canopy the spruces and beeches freeze to death in the twilight of penal servitude. In time the deciduous trees become decrepit; then the heavyweight spruces burst through to the light beneath their canopy, executing the alders and the beeches. This is the life of the forest – a constant struggle of everything against everything. Only the blind conceive of the kingdom of trees and grass as the world of good . . . Is it that life itself is evil?
As I have previously written, there is no morality in nature although we can find metaphors for the meaning of our existence in the ecosystems around us. We can see and embrace examples of all sorts of opposing observations: change vs. constancy, cooperation vs. competition, and altruism vs. selfishness. We are a part of all of these and we are, astoundingly, also set apart from them. The debate about whether we can choose our paths or whether we are like the trees in a forest and are simply pushed along in an existence determined by our environment has compelling arguments on both sides. That we can consider this at all reflects, to me, something that approaches truth.
So, Happy Birthday, Nature Trail!! The trails on the campus side of the stream are all open and passable, please go out for a walk and tell me what you see!