It’s a great time for a long walk and a close look

It’s a great time for a long walk and a close look

A thing to love about the outdoors at this time of year is that the “wide open spaces” have become considerably more so over the past few months. With cornfields cleared, leaves fallen and the thick green haze of forest understory thinned to nearly naked, you can gaze a good bit farther no matter which direction you turn. There are things to notice now in the woods that you might well have missed on an August walk.

At the height of summer, it’s easy to feel you’re miles from anything on Ohio’s trails, but while traveling those same routes in the early winter, I’ve often been amused at how closely one path passes another. The truth is — especially here in Northeast Ohio — you are seldom very distant from civilization no matter how far down the trail you roam. With the leaves down, you can see the truth right before you.

Bare limbs offer a chance to discover uncovered treasure. On a recent hike in Wooster Memorial Park with my family, one of the greater topics of discussion was the trees — those that were and those that are. The story of last summer’s derecho — a sustained straight-line windstorm of epic proportions — will be written across the canopy and upon the forest floor for generations. Many of the trees that survived will tell a story of their own. Bent, leaning and shorn of limbs by the falling bodies of their neighbors, these trees will do exactly what trees do when circumstances change. They’ll adapt.

Now is a great time to pick a favorite section of trail in an area affected by the storm and pay close attention to what you see. Are there trees leaning on trees, trunks snapped off near the top with healthy growth below, tilted giants that appear ready to give up the ghost with the next passing disaster? Take note. They’re the ones to watch.

I’ve got a chunk of park trail picked out with all of those things, and I’m paying close attention and taking pictures. I’m planning for the long game, the one that takes 10, 20 even 50 years to unfold. What I hope my pictures will show are the incredible (albeit incredibly slow) effects such an event has on individual trees and on the forest ecosystem in general.

Beginning with the first buds of next spring, a whole new world is about to unfold. Those gaps in the canopy, as unsightly and unsettling as they may be to those of us who knew the way the woods used to be, are about to become portals through which new life will spring. With unimpeded sunshine penetrating the whole way to forest floor, the ground is about to receive a dose of energy it hasn’t seen in hundreds, if not thousands of years. Seedlings and saplings will stretch upward to revel in the newfound light, and seeds “banked” in the forest duff will sprout eagerly with their first real shot at light and life. The walking wounded — those trees bent under the weight of another or twisted and tangled but still rooted and breathing — will begin to turn toward the light and make their play for a spot at the top with odd and distinctive curves and shoots.

It is true that some understory plants will suffer, wilting from the heat in the very spot where the shade of giants once provided a cool, moist medium, prime habitat for the wildflowers of spring and summer. Others species will soon fill the gap, and just into the shadows the wildflowers will stake a new claim. I hope you’ll be there to watch!

For comments about this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com. You also can follow along on Instagram @railtrailnaturalist.