Fire on the Snow: A Quick Stewardship Update

With snow calf-deep and near zero temperatures, my forays into the parks have been a bit limited of late.

Text and photos
by Cam Mannino

Luckily, though, our township stewardship crew, led by Dr. Ben VanderWeide, braved the cold and took another step in restoring the Wet Prairie along the Paint Creek Trail. I thought I’d take a minute to quickly share the transformation continuing in that special natural area of Oakland Township.

One of the piles of invasive vines, trees and shrubs after an hour or so of burning

I shared earlier the exciting unveiling of the original bed of Paint Creek, hidden for decades beneath invasive shrubs and vines. A dense jungle of aggressive, non-native plants had taken over the area when the creek bed was moved to accommodate the coming of the railroad in the 1870’s. The restoration work at the Wet Prairie couldn’t be done with heavy machinery because of the fragile, moist landscape of the forest. So Ben and the crew worked with chain saws and brush cutters for weeks, removing invasive plants and carefully arranging the jumble of branches, trunks and vines into tall piles. The 8-10 foot stacks were systematically located beneath holes in the tree canopy to prevent damaging mature trees.

Huge piles of cut invasive plants prepared for burning at the Wet Prairie.

In mid-February, I arrived at the scene and marveled at the site as multiple bonfires had been lit around the forest area, each on a bed of snow. It was a perfect day for controlled pile burning; the sky was blue and the wind barely moving so that the smoke would rise and disperse rather than floating away to disturb nearby residents. For a few minutes, I got close to the merry blazing of some of the fires that had been burning for an hour or so before I arrived. Their heat had definitely taken the bitter edge off a cold day in that work area. Ben told me with a laugh that a couple of crew members had provided hot dogs for lunch the day they burned at Bear Creek Nature Park and a stewardship weeny-roast ensued!

Two of the bonfires burning near the original bed of Paint Creek.

I then scrambled up the ridge overlooking the forest to see what work was left to be done, and to avoid interfering with the fire work or the safety precautions taken by the crew. In the photo below, you can see multiple stacks of wood still waiting to be lit, and one just beginning to smoke along the former path of Paint Creek. It can take a day or two for the embers of these fires to cool completely, which makes winter a great time to burn brush piles.

One stack just starting to burn and three other stacks waiting to be lit.

In the photo below, Ben and another crew member in their fire gear are just beginning to use a propane torch to set a pile ablaze. Smoke began pouring from the top as the fire crackled within the stack.

Ben and a crew member in fire gear working on setting alight a very tall stack.

Once all the fires are completed, the next step in the restoration of this area of the Wet Prairie will take place in the spring when Ben will survey the area to see if the increased sunlight and rain reaching the forest floor have encouraged a flush of native plants. Once he knows which patches of the forest are producing native wildflowers, grasses and trees, he and the crew can carefully treat the sprouts of the invasive plants that will be trying to make a comeback.

I’ll keep you posted on this restoration project as the year moves on. Can’t wait ’til spring!

Stewardship Talk this Thursday: “An Alternative to Boring Midwestern Bluegrass and Fescue Lawns”

Our second winter stewardship talk is this Thursday, February 11, 2021 at 6:30 pm (VIRTUAL). Dr. Dan Carter will be talk about using native species for alternative lawns and landscapes. Imagine short native grasses, sedges, and wildflowers instead of fescue and bluegrass! Winter is a great time to start dreaming and planning for your summer gardening escapades.

Please register at https://oaklandtownship.recdesk.com. After you register you’ll receive an email with a link to the virtual event about 24 hours before the event starts. Keep scrolling to see more information about the event!

Stay safe, and I hope to see you at the talk!

Native plants can be used in all parts of the home landscape, from heavily-used lawns to quiet corners of the yard. Photo courtesy of Dan Carter.

“An Alternative to Boring Midwestern Bluegrass and Fescue Lawns” with Dr. Dan Carter

Blur the separation between daily life and nature by thinking about your lawn differently, and learn how to create home landscapes that allow your lifestyle and nature to co-mingle. This presentation will introduce how North American grasses, sedges, and wildflowers can be used to create alternative lawns and native gardens that are inspired by natural plant communities in the Midwest. Preparation, planting, and maintenance will be discussed.

Photo courtesy of Dan Carter

Dan Carter is Landowner Services Coordinator for The Prairie Enthusiasts, a conservation non-profit that protects fire dependent ecosystems in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois. He is also a research associate and former research fellow with the Milwaukee Public Museum and owner of Dropseed Ecological and Botanical Services. Dan is lead-author of several scholarly articles in botanical and ecological journals and his primary hobby has been gardening with native plants since he was a teenager.

Draper Twin Lake Park: Work Begins to Restore a More Natural Landscape

Restoration north of the parking lot in the west section Draper Twin Lake Park

Ask anyone in my family if I’d ever be celebrating the felling of trees and they would look at you incredulously and start laughing. Cam? The original (occasionally literal) tree hugger?!

Text and photos by Cam Mannino

I had a favorite 100 year old sugar maple that befriended me as a child and I spent happy hours high in the branches with my books and snacks. When that tree and others were being felled for a housing development in the field next door, my mother – not a born nature lover – went to bat for those trees, even contacting the governor’s office since “environmental protection” was in its infancy then. But to no avail.

So imagine my astonishment at finding myself standing in the western section of Draper Twin Lake Park with Dr. Ben VanderWeide, our township’s Natural Areas Stewardship Manager, delighting in the scene pictured in this video!!

A Forestry Mower Removing Non-native Trees and Shrubs at the west section of Draper Twin Lake Park



Restoring the Habitat of the Past to Provide for a Healthy Future

The trail to Twin Lake before restoration began

My pleasure, of course, stemmed from my growing understanding and appreciation of restoration. That monster of a machine, a forestry mower, was removing a gigantic glut of non-native trees and shrubs. (See the photo above!) For decades, this natural area of grasses, wildflowers and widely spaced native trees had been farmed. The bare soil, depleted of its native diversity, suffered an invasion when farming stopped in the 1970s; trees, shrubs and other plants from Europe and Asia made the most of a great opportunity. Escaping from farms, flower gardens or landscaping, invasive plants found their way to this habitat. Benefiting from the absence of the competitors or conditions they had to contend with at home, they spread wildly. Our local plants and trees couldn’t compete. They didn’t evolve with these new arrivals and so had no defenses for countering their steady increase. It would take millennia for our native insects, birds, diseases, and plants to eventually evolve and adapt to these new plants, too long for the survival of the many species that depend on them.

That’s where our stewardship crew steps in. Ecological restoration attempts to give our local trees, grasses and wildflowers a fighting chance to thrive. When it succeeds, native plants can then provide for the whole food web that evolved with them. As you can see below, the forestry mower opened up fields and forest, beginning the process of restoring the landscape that nature designed eons ago.

The trail to Twin Lake after this fall’s restoration began

It’s not that non-native trees and shrubs are “bad”; they functional beautifully in their home environments. But they aren’t able to effectively nourish and protect the creatures that live and evolved here in Oakland Township. Butterflies may sip at non-native garden flowers, but their caterpillars generally can’t eat non-native leaves or fail to reach maturity if they do. Birds may eat non-native berries but they almost universally feed their nestlings nutritious caterpillars which are full of fat and protein. Fewer native plants means fewer caterpillars which means fewer birds, a ripple effect that then moves on through the food web. Restoring native plants to an area means lots of nature gets fed and sheltered.

Meet the Most Common (and Pesky) Invasives at Draper Twin Lake Park

Invasive shrubs lining the trail to Twin Lake before restoration this fall

So let’s get more familiar with the highly invasive shrubs and vines that ended up dominating so many of our natural areas, including Draper Twin Lake Park. For the most part, they started out in nurseries which unwittingly (or occasionally wittingly) sold them to landscapers and homeowners as decorative additions to their gardens. Some of the most infamous and tenacious invasive shrubs in our parks include Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), Glossy Buckthorn (Frangula alnus) and Common Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), shrubs that produce plentiful fruits which unfortunately provide scant nutrition for our birds. Generally non-native fruits provide sugars (carbohydrates) for wildlife but don’t have the fats (lipids) that birds, for example, require for migration or winter survival. Research at Michigan State University has shown that birds prefer native fruits when they can get them, but will eat the less healthy non-native fruits if nothing else is available. Once eaten by birds or other animals, invasive trees and shrubs spread far and wide through their droppings.

The fruits of Oriental Bittersweet vines (Celastrus orbiculatus) are particularly pernicious. The outer yellow skins peel back to reveal red fruits, attracting both birds searching for a late season food source, and humans who unwittingly use them for decorative purposes. Birds enjoy the sugars in their fruit during late fall, but since its seeds can last a long time in the guts of birds, the plant can be spread long distances. Once established, the vine climbs quickly, reaching for light in the treetops. As the vine spirals up the trunk, it girdles and slowly strangles the tree. When the vine reaches the crown, its foliage shades out the tree’s leaves, weakening the tree. Its weight makes the tree’s crown heavy and vulnerable to toppling in high winds. It’s a real femme fatale, this vine with its pretty fruits and its deadly growth pattern.

Many invasives quickly form dense thickets in a field or woods through underground stems (rhizomes) or root suckers. Their density chokes out the sun, rain and space that our native plants require. Below is a photo from Bear Creek Nature Park that demonstrates the density that once surrounded a pine tree, killing its lower branches. And on the right at Draper Twin Lake Park, a young oak had the same problem until the restoration began this fall.

Some invasives, like Tree-of-Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), produce giant quantities of seeds which can be carried on the wind and once sown, the trees grow incredibly quickly. Growth of 3.5 to 6 feet each year of its first four years is considered normal! It also releases toxins into the soil to prevent or inhibit the growth of plants around it. In the photo on the right below, Ben placed his hand where the second year growth of one of these trees began! Faster growth means that these trees shade out neighbors and mature faster than others, allowing them to spread quickly.

You might be as surprised as I once was to learn that even some of our common and long-beloved bushes can spread invasively. That’s part of what happened at Draper Twin Lake Park. Ben found huge thickets of non-natives like Forsythia (Forsythia intermedia) from Asia and Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) from southeastern Europe on the western section of Draper; they both probably once surrounded the house when a farm was located here.

The Removal of Invasives Goes Beyond Mowing

Once the forestry mower has done its work, hard work lies ahead. Stumps of invasive shrubs that the mower missed are cut and carefully dabbed with herbicide to prevent re-sprouting. Some, like the persistent Tree-of-Heaven, will require further treatment and periodic mowing to discourage new growth. Oriental Bittersweet can only be removed by cutting the vines and then carefully treating the roots to prevent regrowth. New sprouts will also need to be treated repeatedly for some time, a tedious but necessary process. Some larger trees are treated by a process called “drill and fill” in which holes are drilled around the tree and herbicide is introduced. When the tree dies, it will still remain standing, storing its carbon for years to come and providing shelter for woodpeckers and other cavity nesting animals, like red squirrels or raccoons. The stewardship staff will spread native plant seed to help bring back what was choked out by the invasive trees and shrubs – native grasses first, then wildflower seed in a year or two after the invasive shrub re-sprouts have been controlled. Further down the road, prescribed fires may be used to encourage our fire-adapted native plants.

Winter Wildlife and I Explore the Newly Restored Landscape

On one of my visits to the western section of the park, Ben showed me the remains of a beaver dam and the small pond this industrious builder had created. The dam consisted of a few small trees and some plant material patched together with mud. Though we saw a few pencil-shaped stumps in the area, Ben’s guess is that when the beaver began this project a couple of years ago, it couldn’t find enough small willows or cottonwoods, its preferred building materials, to meet the beaver’s need, so it abandoned the idea. However, the beaver did create a lovely little pond behind the dam. And the little dam slowed the water down enough that Ben was surprised to find much drier footing further south in the marsh while doing a plant survey in 2020!

In the fields east of the trail, a few winter birds kept me company as they sought out frozen insect eggs or larvae in the trees newly liberated from the crush of invasive shrubs.

A small group of White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) browsed between the newly thinned trees in the forest. Deer consume dry grasses, but unfortunately they much prefer acorns and small oak saplings in fall and winter, affecting the quality of our forests. According to a Tufts University website, in winter they also rely on insulation from stored fat and more of the coarse dark hairs in their coats called “guard hairs.” Glands in their skin produce oils that help their coats repel water, an advantage on snowy days.

Deer browsing for grasses, twigs and small trees in the thinned forest after restoration.

One snowy morning, I spent twenty minutes or so tracking a small animal. Its prints lay in a single line, which usually indicates a fox or coyote. Wild canines, unlike domestic dogs, place their hind foot carefully into the track of the front foot on the same side, making a neat row of single, or “direct register” tracks. The tracks that I was following intrigued me because they were much smaller than most that I’d seen. After puzzling a bit, I suddenly noticed that the tracks had no nail prints at the end of the toes. And with that, I remembered that wild canines share direct register tracks with another group of animals – cats! What I’d been tracking was the small, roundish, direct register prints of a house cat! Cats, unlike canines, walk with their toenails withdrawn in order to keep them sharp for hunting – or they may have had them removed by pet owners. I shook my head, laughing at myself for tracking a cat and went back to the trail.

Squirrels and squirrel tracks were everywhere that morning! Their tracks usually appear as a block of four prints like the ones below. I think these belong to the American Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), because the larger five-toed tracks of their hind feet are slightly in front of the four-toed tracks of their front feet; that’s the pattern left when these little guys take off and land, pushing down with the front feet while swinging the hind feet forward. I also saw a larger Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) high up in the small branches of a tree, probably making a meal of the tiny leaf buds.

Down by the Lake, a Little Avian Hysteria

Twin Lake with perfect ovals, possibly caused by warmer water flowing upward and rotating during a thaw-freeze cycle.

Winter silence had descended when I arrived at the dock on Twin Lake one cloudy afternoon. In the deep quiet, I got intrigued by strange ovals on the lake surface. It was fun to imagine a squadron of flying saucers landing on the surface, but I was curious to do some research when I reached home. From assembling the hints I could find online, I’m guessing that they may be caused by rotating convection currents created by warm water rising and cold water falling during a frost/freeze cycle, inhibiting ice formation. But if you have better information, please let me know in the comments.

Suddenly far across the lake, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) began circling high above the trees. I caught one with my camera as it spiraled lazily. Red-tail hawks are believed to mate for life, though they quickly choose another mate if one of them dies. This pair may be nesting in the area since the Wednesday bird group saw two of them in the trees across the lake a couple of weeks later.

One of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks far above the trees across Draper Twin Lake.

Just as I spotted the hawks in the distance, a screech of alarm calls broke out from a flock of American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) nearby. They flashed out of the trees in a large group, flying away to the south. Evidently, the hawks must have gone unnoticed in the forest until they rose into the air to do a little scouting together. Their appearance startled the crows who were too flustered to harass or “mob” them as they often do. My camera managed to catch one in mid-caw after it launched off a limb.

A crow cawing in sudden flight as two red-tailed hawks appear over the treetops.

After the noise subsided, I turned to look at a Muskrat lodge (Ondatra zibethicus) off the side of the dock. Muskrats may have been dozing inside since their metabolism slows way down in the winter. Or it may have left its dry sleeping chamber above the water line, swum down through its underwater entrance and begun cruising slowly along under the ice, searching for a meal. Note that unlike beavers who build their much larger lodges with trees, branches and sticks, muskrats build with mud and cattail stems or other aquatic plant material. This one was also surrounded by graceful stalks carrying the dried pom-poms of Whorled Loosestrife seed heads (Lysimachia quadrifolia). A tidy winter abode, I think.

My Evolving Understanding of “Letting Nature Takes Its Course.”

The path leading back to the parking lot after restoration began

It took me a few years of working in the parks with Ben before I fully understood the beauty and power of restoring our natural areas. I approached restoration suspiciously at first, having grown up with the ethos,”Let nature take its course.” How could altering the landscape through mowing, felling trees and shrubs, and the occasional use of herbicides be good for nature?

Remembering the Landscape of My Childhood

The first step to understanding restoration was noticing what was missing today. One day early on as a Parks volunteer in 2015, I asked Ben what birds might return if we restored the Oak Savannah landscape – grass, trees and widely spaced oaks – that had existed here before European settlement. Among other birds, he mentioned the Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Ah! That name instantly brought back memories of the two-note song of that quail whistling from summer fields around my parents’ home on Lake George Road when I was a child. I live very near my family home now, but I haven’t heard a Bobwhite sing for more than 50 years. The native Big Bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii) that towered over my head as a little girl was replaced by housing and short, green, non-native lawns in my teen years. As ground feeders and nesters, the Bobwhites needed that tall, stiff grass to protect them and their young from hawks and other predators and they no doubt fed off the seeds that fell from those dry stalks in the autumn. The increasing use of pesticides in farming plus habitat loss have both contributed to an 85% decline in the numbers of the Bobwhite Quail since the 1970’s. I miss them.

Northern Bobwhite Quail by Robin Gwen Agarwal (CC BY-NC) at iNaturalist.org

Listening to Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, at a Michigan Wildflower Conference in 2019, I was reminded of the moths that used to dance in groups around our porch light on summer nights – or splattered against the windshields of my parents’ car. I suddenly realized that I don’t see as many moths clinging to our porch windows or fluttering in the headlights now as I did years ago. The reason, I learned, was that the caterpillars of most moths and butterflies need native plants in order to feed and mature into adults; my yard, like most of my neighbors, was filled with decorative plants, shrubs and trees native to places all over the world – like Norway and Japanese Maples – but fewer of the ones more common in my childhood. Native oaks and other native trees provide sustenance for the caterpillars of many species of butterflies and moths. Here are two examples of what we may be missing: Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) and Pagoda/Alternate Leaf Dogwoods are the preferred hosts for many insects including the spectacular Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora Cecropia). Oaks are especially generous, hosting the caterpillars of hundreds of species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), including the impressive Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus).

When I was a child in Oakland Township, seeing a White-tailed Deer was a rare treat. At that time, large expanses of active or abandoned farm land surrounded by woods allowed them to stay out of sight. Today development has crowded deer closer to our homes and gardens and on to our roads. The forest floor, once covered in wildflowers like trillium are more often choked with non-native shrubs or vines that take advantage of the open ground left by herds of deer browsing on the tender sprouts of wildflowers in spring or saplings in winter.

So it turns out that I was wrong. The non-native plants that fill our fields and surround our personal property were not a matter of “letting nature takes its course.” Quite the opposite, in fact. The carpets of invasive plants were the effect of humans unwittingly but actively changing our native habit over the last two hundred years.

The Good News? We Can Work to Restore What Nature Created
The trail nears the lake which now can be seen through the trees

So finally I understood that what humans had done could in some measure be undone. True, we can’t completely recreate nature’s original landscape design on any large scale or in such rich diversity. But the people of Oakland Township have made an ongoing commitment to preserving and restoring natural areas here wherever possible. Thanks to them, Ben and his crew are systematically decreasing the invasive plants in our natural areas and giving the plants that nature provided eons ago a chance to thrive again. Homeowners like us are choosing to integrate native plants and trees into our landscapes and turning turf into meadows and wildflower gardens. If enough of us create native neighborhoods, perhaps I will live to hear the whistle of the Bobwhite once more.

That’s why I, an inveterate tree lover, could celebrate the felling of invasive trees that day at Draper. What I was seeing as the forestry mower cleared away the brush was stewardship – restoring and caring for a productive, diverse ecosystem that nature took thousands of years to perfect. As the old hymn goes, I “…was blind but now I see.”

Looking east over the marsh that divides the west and east sections of Draper Twin Lake Park

A Wet Prairie Restoration Mystery: The Case of the Missing Creek…

The Wet Prairie on the Paint Creek Trail surrounded by a tree-covered rim of soil, spoils of historical sand and gravel mining.
Text and photos by Cam Mannino

Yes, I’m returning to the Wet Prairie again even though we visited that special habitat in October. The reason is that another amazing restoration effort has been going on there since late November. It’s revealed something I’d heard about but never actually seen – the original, winding bed of Paint Creek that disappeared about 100 years ago.

A Quick Trip Back to the 1870’s

In 1871, the Detroit and Bay City Railroad Company (which later became Michigan Central Railroad) began work on a railroad line between these two cities with a flag station in the village of Goodison. This line carried both passengers and freight, including farm produce and other products back and forth from Detroit. According to former Parks Commissioner, Colleen Barkham, some time around 1920, a local entrepreneur, Mr. Frier, bought the land that is now the Wet Prairie and other areas along the tracks and began mining sand to ship to industries in the big city.

1963 aerial image with the old route of Paint Creek (blue) and one of the rail spurs for sand and gravel mining (yellow) highlighted. The current restoration area is outlined in red. The core wet prairie habitat is labeled in green text. Image a screenshot from the Oakland County Property Gateway (https://gis.oakgov.com/PropertyGateway/Home.mvc).

He called his company Goodison Sand and Gravel, and what made shipping sand feasible then was the handy availability of the train. Colleen, co-chair of the Oakland Township Historical Society, generously shared a photo of the operation from the Society’s archives.

The Goodison Sand and Gravel company loading a freight car with sand somewhere along what is now the Paint Creek Trail, c. 1920. Photo provided from the Oakland Township Historical Society archives

You can see how it worked – the sand coming down the chute from the land above right onto a freight car on the railroad line! Now I had an answer to the first part of the Wet Prairie mystery: Why is the Wet Prairie encircled by a rim of treed hummocks? (See the top photo in the blog.) Apparently, the land in the center of the current Wet Prairie was skimmed off to get at the sand, leaving a bulging rim of soil around the site. Wow. Quite a dramatic change of habitat, eh? Perhaps that explains why the mineral-rich water table that feeds the Wet Prairie’s unusual autumn flowers is so near the surface. The soil above the water table was removed about a hundred years ago!

An Earlier Dramatic Change in the 1870’s

Paint Creek’s current stream bed along the Paint Creek Trail

But there’s more! Back in the late 1800’s, when the railroad track was being laid, a problem arose with Paint Creek which looped and switch-backed across this section of the railroad’s property. No problem, said the engineers of the time; we’ll just move the creek! And that’s exactly what they did. That’s why today Paint Creek runs in a such a neat straight line along big sections of the trail. The narrow bed created for the creek has probably deepened over the years, since the creek now has only a small flood plain to stretch out in after heavy rains or snow melt. So 50 years or so after the railroad’s decision to move Paint Creek, Goodison Sand and Gravel reaped the benefit from an easy means of transporting their sand by rail.

So, where did Paint Creek run before it was moved?

When I learned of the changed path of Paint Creek several years ago, it occurred to me to wonder what happened to the old bed of Paint Creek. Our stewardship manager, Dr. Ben VanderWeide, knew the answer but couldn’t show me; the original stream bed was buried in a monumental tangle of invasive shrubs and vines. But no longer. Ben and his stewardship crew has taken on the task this fall and winter of removing the invasive undergrowth that covered the forest floor where Paint Creek once meandered across a moist forest of Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa). Let me show you the miracle that the crew is performing just north of the Wet Prairie.

Some members of the stewardship crew taking a break from clearing the forest floor west of the trail. From L-R: Grant VanderLaan, Dean Johnson , Jon Reed, Tylor Roberts, and Ben VanderWeide.

Since the 1920’s when the sand was hauled away, the native wildflowers that bloomed on the Wet Prairie had been bathed in sunlight. But over the years, trees began to spread from the forest, providing too much shade for sun-loving species. So restoration required removing some trees that encroached on the Wet Prairie’s sunny expanse. This fall, the stewardship team began an ambitious and arduous effort to clear away that thick layer of aggressive and invasive shrubs beneath the canopy in the woods north of the Wet Prairie. Here’s the type of wild tangles that confronted them – a jungle of privet, common buckthorn, glossy buckthorn, autumn olive, multiflora rose, and oriental bittersweet.

The dense tangle of shrubs and vines that covered the area north of the Wet Prairie and along the Paint Creek Trail

And look what they accomplished just along the edge of the trail!

The area north of the Wet Prairie near the Paint Creek trail cleared of invasive underbrush after restoration began.

What follows that effort is now weeks of hard slogging to remove invasive shrubs deeper into the woods. Because of the moist soil in the woods, small trees, shrubs and vines must be removed without large machinery and then piled carefully into high stacks in clear areas where they can be burned late this winter when the woody material has dried.

A pile of invasive shrubs and vines cut and stacked in preparation for burning .

That work has already begun to unveil the original wandering path of Paint Creek. In December, I finally got a chance to see where the creek once ran. The crew has spent weeks clearing the banks of the former stream bed. Water fills its ancient path through the woods, but not running water. Rising ground water, snow melt and rainfall settle in the old bed, so it’s clear where the creek used to flow.

A section of the original path of Paint Creek winding through the forest

What an amazing sight! I was looking at the remains of the path nature chose for Paint Creek until about 150 years ago! Since the photo above was taken on December 23, a huge amount of work before and after the holiday break made impressive progress. Look below at the piles of vines and shrubs removed and stacked as of Friday, January 8.

Piles of invasive plants will be burned once the woody material dries

A lot of work remains to be done to restore this special, fragile space – more cutting and removal. As shrubs are removed, the crew carefully dabs each trunk with a stained herbicide to prevent it from re-sprouting.

Stumps of invasive shrubs are dabbed with a sponge containing a stained treatment which will keep them from re-sprouting.

Then Ben will wait to see which native plants emerge after the removal of the invasive shrubs that have smothered them for all these years, benefiting now from more sun, more rain or simply more space to grow and propagate. Ben tells me that while pulling garlic mustard in the spring, he saw a large patch of delicate Starry False Solomon Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) beyond the area currently cleared, some Yellow Lady Slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum) and huge spreads of Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) in the wet areas. I hope I’ll be able to visit here with him in the spring or summer to see what else bursts forth after the restoration!

Ben showed me an old tip-up where a huge two-trunked Bur Oak had fallen in two directions – one into the forest and the other across the old creek bed, making a bridge of sorts to an island once surrounded by flowing water in the original Paint Creek channel. The tip-up left a deep hole where the roots were ripped out. Ben tells me that tip-ups can create two habitats – a watery one in the hole below, and a green one above with mosses, ferns, grasses or shrubs eventually growing over the root ball. He’s seen forested wetlands in which tree trunks had decomposed completely, leaving only a hollow in the earth beneath a mossy hillock to indicate the presence of an ancient tip-up.

In early winter the only green I could spot in this woods were stretches of Scouring Rush (Equisetum hyemale), a kind of horsetail with enough silica in it to make it useful long ago as a scrubbing tool. The bright orange disk of a crustose lichen (a composite organism of algae and fungi) caught my eye in winter’s gray light as well as a log sporting a nice collection of Turkey Tail mushrooms (Trametes versicolor). Ben pointed out the fertile fronds of Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) which carry the spores which may germinate to grow new ostrich ferns.

Ben also introduced me to the largest Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) that I’ve ever seen. Cottonwoods can be aggressive trees, spreading like crazy with multiple seeds attached to cottony strands. So they’re not always welcome in areas where Ben is trying to restore an area’s natural diversity. This tree though was impressive. According to Wikipedia, cottonwoods grow quickly to 65 -195 feet, but in most habitats live only 70-100 years, not long in the world of trees. Ben can’t help admiring this one, so it will be left to prosper. Here’s my husband Reg standing next to it to give you a sense of its girth and height.

My husband Reg testing out the girth of a large Cottonwood with one of its sizable offspring in the distance on the right.

A Janus Moment: Imagining the Past and the Future at the Same Time

A section of Paint Creek’s former stream bed

Janus is the Roman god after which January is thought to have been named. He is usually depicted with a double face looking back to the past and forward to the future. How appropriate, then, that this January, during a transitional time at the Wet Prairie, I was lucky enough to imitate him. Standing at the edge of Paint Creek’s original stream bed, camera in hand, I happily immersed myself in imagining the past: the glint of the water wending its way through some large, widely dispersed Bur Oaks with wetland flowers and ancient sedges painting the dappled shade with color. I could picture native Brook Trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), their stippled scales flashing, as they navigated their slender bodies around the island in the creek. Iridescent Ebony Jewelwing damsel flies (Calopteryx maculata) may have darted above the surface, delicately landing like dancers on surrounding greenery. I wondered about the indigenous people who may have picked their muddy way among these trees and what they might have noticed and enjoyed along the creek.

Today as the stewardship crew gradually clears away the smothering snarl of invasive shrubs, it feels to me as if the oaks and the huge cottonwood can breathe more easily, bathed in more sun and rain. I let my thoughts turn to the spring, when the Lady Slippers and that patch of Starry Solomon Seal bloom again unhindered by overhanging vines and shrubs. And I can’t help hoping that seeds that have waited for decades will wake in the warming earth once more and begin their cycle of growth. Today Paint Creek may be bustling its way beyond the busy trail to the east, but its ancient bed will still gather water from the sky and earth when it can. Moistening its surroundings, it will now have a chance to once again nurture the diverse community of native plants that shared its habitat for centuries. What a gift that will be to all the native grasses, sedges, wildflowers and wildlife – and us as well! And what a pleasure to have the “Mystery of the Missing Creek” solved during this ambitious restoration project.