Student Observations: When You Must See the Forest for the Trees

January 5, 2018

This blog post is the second in a series documenting The Art of Ecology. Read the introductory blog post here.

Teacher’s note: Students at Interlochen Arts Academy come to study arts in seven different arts areas, in addition to taking a traditional high school science, math and humanities curriculum. This blog post represents the work of two students; one, a creative writing major, and the other a music major. Both pieces were written over the course of Spring Semester 2017 through Fall Semester 2017. Very soon, we will begin restoring the beautiful red pine plantation forest on Riley Road on the Interlochen campus. This first step involves thinning the forest of 100+ trees so that new, native tree species can be re-introduced and the forest can evolve. Over the past few months, our students have been exploring the ecological considerations necessary to take this step, and documenting what is necessary for the forest restoration. Having spent more than half our class periods out at the Riley Road forest site, the forest itself has become our second classroom.

Ari, creative writing major: To return the mature pine plantation on Interlochen’s campus to a natural, healthy state, the Interlochen community needs to address several ecological issues. These issues are soil quality, biodiversity and the amount of carbon stored in plantation trees.

The soil in the pine plantation is very acidic due to the accumulation of pine needles. Because of the acidity of the soil, fungi and insects have a difficult time living in it, so very few fungi and insects live in the plantation. Due to the lack of these vital decomposers, many of the pine needles in the forest do not decompose quickly. This lack of speedy decomposition means that the soil has less organic matter in it. When the soil is very acidic and lacks organic matter and decomposers, it is harder for other species of plants that are not pines to germinate, which leads to a lack of plant biodiversity in the forest. The lack of plant biodiversity leads to lack of reliable food sources for animals, which leads to a lack of animal biodiversity. Therefore, to create a forest with good animal and plant biodiversity, the Interlochen community must lower the acidity of the soil and increase its organic matter and decomposer biodiversity.

The pine plantation was planted 70 years ago with red pine (Pinus resinosa), white pine (P. strobus) and Scotch (or Scots) pine (P. sylvestris). Because there are only three pine species in the plantation, the tree biodiversity of the plantation is low. However, because the pines are so tightly packed in the plantation, there is no room to plant other tree species. To increase tree biodiversity, IAA will have to create more space within the plantation to plant new trees. Because the pines drop so many needles that cannot readily be decomposed, there is a thick carpet of needles across the entire forest floor. Many undergrowth species have a challenging time germinating through this carpet, causing a lack of undergrowth biodiversity. To thin this carpet and subsequently increase undergrowth biodiversity, create space for new tree species and reduce needles accumulating on the forest floor, the plan is to remove some of the existing pines. Once some of the pines are removed, native species of trees can be planted which will increase tree biodiversity and enhance the soil in the forest floor. The plantation is surrounded on three sides by local native forest. Seeds and saplings will be transplanted and protected from deer browse to speed the forest conversion.

Over time, as the soil becomes less acidic, soil decomposition will return more organic matter. Native tree and undergrowth species will also provide year-round food for animals, which will lead to an increase in animal biodiversity. The documentation of this process of facilitated succession has begun in IAA Ecology classes, with measurements of soil quality, tree abundance and community diversity. As of Fall 2017, 24 bird species, 44 plant genera or species, and eight species of amphibians and reptiles have been documented in or around the ten-acre plot.

Mitchell, music major: As we spend time in class out in the woods, I am introduced to many new scientific and artistic concepts I had never thought of before. One of these is the relationship between art and ecology, specifically the way in which a forest can be a stage for artistic expression. When the plantation is cleared, there will be tree stumps left behind. My colleagues have come up with many artistic and brilliant ideas for how to make these stumps, and the entire forest, more aesthetically pleasing. My idea was more practical than artistic.

Looking around the plantation, I didn’t see many animals. That seemed natural, because the unnatural monoculture doesn’t exactly make the best home for forest animals. To invite more critters and crawlers to live in the area, I proposed the idea of hollowing out the stumps to make room for the animals to make homes. While the idea is simple by itself, it could be combined with my colleagues’ other more creative ideas to make something practical and beautiful.

I am learning about the effects of monoculture on an ecosystem. I now know that an ecosystem thrives on diversity, and a lack thereof stunts its growth dramatically. The plantation, with just one type of tree, feels more like a desert than a forest. The ground, covered with acidic pines needles, can’t nurture any other plants. The unified canopies of the trees create a wall that blocks out much of the sun, cutting off the plants’ food supply. Incorporating diversity where there is none already is a complicated process, because many species are aided or harmed by the presence of other species, meaning that the order in which the species move in is important. Our next steps are to figure out how to foster the growth of native species in the timbered areas.

This project was generously supported by Wilsonart and The Michigan Council for Arts & Cultural Affairs.