Saturday, August 9, 2008

Where the wild things aren't

We care so much about the vanishing wildlife habitat of China that we're happy to spend millions of our tax dollars to bring two pandas to Memphis, encourage those pandas to make little panda babies, and fund the Chinese government's efforts to preserve and restore forests that most of us will never see. That's noble and selfless, right?

But at the very same time, we ignore and disparage and even clearcut the vanishing old-growth forest in our own backyard.

And how do we explain that?

Is it because the Old Forest of Overton Park is home to animals like barred owls and chipmunks and skinks and wrens, instead of pandas and tigers and elephants and bears? Is it because we're talking about a forest in our own backyard, and we assume that our own backyard has nothing new to teach us?

Seen one tree, seen 'em all?

Our daily newspaper has printed several well-balanced editorials about the Memphis Zoo's encroachment into the Old Forest. Each one has mentioned the "139 trees" that the Zoo cut to make way for the Teton Trek exhibit. Almost every news story on this issue has used the word "trees" interchangeably with the word "forest."

For many city dwellers, the difference between "forest" and "trees" is negligible. A tree is the tall leafy plant that shades your yard and drips sap on your car, and a forest is just more of the same.

If you're a nature geek like me, a tree is the tall leafy Fraxinus pennsylvanica that shades my yard and drips sap on my car. But a forest? A forest is a wonderland. And an old-growth forest is heaven come down to earth.

The Old Forest of Overton Park is a complex and ever-changing system of thousands of plant and animal species that far outstrips the collection of any zoo in the world.

Overton Park's surviving forest has never been cleared or farmed. This land has been forested ever since the last ice age retreated, about 10,000 years ago, and is one of the last remnants of a vast ecosystem that once blanketed the Chickasaw Bluffs.

That's not my opinion; it's just the facts.

We've talked about our flawed tree ordinance before, but it bears repeating. When the forest now known as Teton Trek was being cleared, the Zoo cut 139 trees that were 10 inches DBH (diameter at breast height) or larger. Our tree ordinance says that trees smaller than 10 inches DBH do not "exist" for the purposes of the ordinance.

This means that the Memphis Zoo cut 139 trees that were 10 inches DBH or larger.

But this also means that the Memphis Zoo cut thousands of smaller trees. Some of these were understory trees that rarely grow bigger than 10 inches DBH, like pawpaws and hop hornbeams and dogwoods. Some of these were canopy tree saplings, oak and tulip poplar and hickory and ash, waiting for their chance to replace a fallen 200-year-old giant.

The Memphis Zoo also destroyed thousands of shrubs and herbaceous plants. These bottom layers of a forest understory, the part most people know as "undergrowth," contain the majority of plant species that grow in the Old Forest. This undergrowth is also vital habitat for most of our forest's animal species.

Let me take a moment to name a few of the vines, shrubs, and herbaceous plants that I saw on this morning's hike: spicebush, wild hydrangea, river cane, Solomon's seal, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, pipevine, trumpet creeper, wild grape, jumpseed, wild ginger, greenbriar, poke salad, jewelweed, elderberry, river oats, black snakeroot, cutleaf coneflower, tall bellflower, false nettle... and I'm not even a botanist.

Back in early May, we reported on the Memphis Zoo's destruction of forest understory inside their 17-acre DMZ. In early July, the Zoo fired up the weed-whackers. Last week, they escalated to heavy equipment and chainsaws. The Memphis Zoo is destroying a forest understory that took thousands of years to develop.

Why is the Zoo wasting our hard-earned money (remember that the City of Memphis paid for that gas and bought those chainsaws) in order to do -- what, exactly? Gnash their terrible teeth? Roar their terrible roars? Show their terrible claws?

Surely it would be cheaper and easier to just pee on the fence?

Here's a photo of the mayapples popping up inside the Zoo's fence four months ago:

Here's the same spot as it looked today:

Do you think those mayapples are coming back next spring?

A forest deprived of the ability to regenerate itself is no longer a forest. A forest without its understory is just a collection of trees.

Trees are big and beautiful, sure, but it's the little things that matter most. Trees cannot grow without the unseen but constant work of millions of small and ugly creatures.

Next time you're in the Old Forest, take a look at a rotting log and count the different types of lichen and fungi, all hard at work, decomposing. It'll amaze you. Now try to picture the thousands of beetles and termites and other insects that are busily tunneling inside that log, slowly turning a dead tree into fertile loam that will nourish the next generation of seedlings.

Imagine the earthworms beneath your feet, a million worms per acre, munching debris and churning dirt. Look up into the leafy canopy above your head and consider the 200+ species of birds that thrive on the seeds, berries, and bugs that this forest produces.

Think about the bats and flying squirrels, the garter snakes and box turtles, the toads and frogs. Think about the generations of humans who have walked these forest paths before you.

Think about the little things.