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Get More from the Outdoors: Look for Patterns in the Trees 

click to enlarge Heather's son Jesse skiing in a montane spruce-fir forest at Bolton Valley - HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • Heather's son Jesse skiing in a montane spruce-fir forest at Bolton Valley

If you're looking for a way to become more aware of nature, one simple thing can completely change the way you see the world: Look for patterns in the trees.

Vegetation patterns repeat across the landscape wherever specific environmental conditions occur; ecologists call these "natural communities." Many factors — including the type of bedrock, the amount of moisture, and the grade and direction of slopes (north- or south-facing, for example) — contribute to the different environmental conditions at a particular site. Natural communities are made up of all of the species found in a particular set of conditions, from the tallest tree to the smallest herb, but the trees alone can tell you a lot.

If you and your family hike or ski, a great place to spot obvious natural communities is in the mountains. The bottoms of mountains usually have hardwood (deciduous) forests on their slopes, like maple, birch and beech. As you go above 2,500 feet, they transition to conifers (evergreens), such as spruce and fir. If the mountain is tall enough, eventually the conifers get really short, then disappear altogether. You will likely be able to scroll through some photographic memories of your time on a mountain and agree that these are patterns you have seen. The lines between these communities are relatively sharp and easy to notice.

These changes occur, in part, because as you go up a mountain it gets colder, wetter and windier, favoring conifers. On a few of Vermont's tallest mountains — Mount Mansfield, Camel's Hump, and Mount Abraham — it becomes too cold, wet and windy at the top even for conifers.

There are patterns to see everywhere, not just on mountains. One striking pattern to keep an eye out for at lower elevations is groves of hemlock trees. Because their needles are so dense, the floor of a hemlock forest is quite dark, and very little can grow there, other than baby hemlocks. So other species of trees and the herbs and shrubs that make up the understory are absent.

When you notice that you're in a stand of solid hemlocks, look to see if you're in a shady ravine, or use a compass app on your phone to see if you're on a north- or east-facing slope. These are cooler and shadier than south- and west-facing slopes, and hemlocks do well in these conditions. On south- and west-facing slopes, you are likely to find more oaks and hickories.

click to enlarge An illustration of a montane spruce-fir forest from Wetland, Woodland, Wildland - LIBBY DAVIDSON
  • libby davidson
  • An illustration of a montane spruce-fir forest from Wetland, Woodland, Wildland

If you start looking for patterns such as these and find yourself hooked, consider purchasing Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont. Chelsea Green Publishing issued an updated second edition of the field guide last November. It's written for adults, but even fairly young kids can flip through the book looking at the drawings by Vermont artist Libby Davidson. They capture the feeling of each community so well that when you see the illustration of the community you are in, you will immediately recognize it. The guide explains which conditions likely formed each community, which species of animals and plants you might find there, and good places to visit various examples of each community.

One caveat for novice natural community buffs: Not every patch of vegetation you see is a natural community. Forests need time — decades, in fact — to mature. And some patterns you may notice are the result of human activity, not the physical environments.

For example, if you see a grove of white pines, chances are you're looking at an abandoned pasture. That's because when agricultural fields were abandoned, white pines moved in. Vermont geographer Jane Dorney (janedorney.com) has interviewed longtime dairy farmers and found that management practices contributed to their presence, as well. If you see a lot of white pines growing together, you can look for other signs of pasture, such as barbed wire.

Animal behavior, too, can shape landscape patterns. For example, many abandoned beaver ponds are ringed with conifers. Beavers prefer to eat hardwood saplings, such as aspen and birch, and avoid tannin-rich hemlocks and pines. When beavers harvest all of the small hardwoods and move on in search of tastier lands, the conifers they leave behind grow into a forest that will surround the pond for years to come.

If you and your family start looking for patterns, you won't see them all at once, so remember to temper your expectations. The simple act of looking will make your experience richer. Says Franklin/Grand Isle County forester Nancy Patch (paraphrasing Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum): "You only see what you know, you only love what you see and you only protect what you love."

Heather Fitzgerald teaches field ecology and environmental science at the Community College of Vermont and the University of Vermont.

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