My left foot loses its tenuous grip on the tussock and plunges into the wet mucky soil below. With my right foot still planted on another tussock, I reach down, grab the top of my boot, and pull hard with the weight of my body, releasing the boot along with a smelly whiff of marsh gas (hydrogen sulfide and methane). Back in position now, both feet on separate tussocks, constantly shifting my equilibrium to balance body and chainsaw, I cut down a black oak growing out of a two-foot tall tussock!
Black oaks are not supposed to grow in marshes, I mutter to myself. They’re an upland species, preferring dry, sandy hillsides. Curious, I sweep the sawdust off the face of the stump and observe a dark coloration in the heartwood. A sign of stress? I turn and stare hard at the small sandy knoll on the edge of the marsh, and then back at the tussocks I’m standing on. Both the sandy knoll, with many black oaks growing on it, and the top of the tussocks, are at roughly the same elevation. That’s it, I think. In this sand-filled valley, an elevation change of a foot or two can make all the difference between a wetland and a dry upland. Unlike the black oaks growing on the sandy knoll with room for their roots to expand laterally, the black oaks growing on tussocks will become root bound and will eventually succumb to the stress.
Satisfied with my analysis of this black oak anomaly, I hear the clinking of metal on metal and turn to see the landowner, Tom Wedel, dragging a logging chain from the tractor toward me. Tom, what do you think about the black oaks growing in the marsh? As only a man who has been on this earth for 80 years can do, he slices right through my analysis with his words - “Plants don’t follow the rules at Wedel Oak Woods!”
Tom and I are working on a Landowner Incentive Program (LIP) grant administered by the Wisconsin DNR. The goal of the LIP program is to help private landowners create and manage habitat for species that are rare and declining. The program provides management advice, assistance with management plans and cost-share funding to individuals and organizations for private lands.
In this case, we are restoring a wetland complex consisting of an oblong-shaped “perched” sedge meadow or marsh bordered on three sides by steep, oak-covered hillsides with the fourth side draining into a smaller, oblong-shaped sedge meadow before finally reaching a meandering stream that cuts through extensive prairie grasslands and spring-fed wetlands. Our job is to remove woody brush and trees invading the wetlands and to restore the sandy knoll oak savanna by thinning some of the competing oaks.
The overall goal is to restore the open grassland structure but also maintain small thickets of native shrubs and scattered copses of open-grown oak trees. These wetlands are home to many rare and unusual plant and animal species that rely on this open-nature habitat.
I snake the logging chain around two of the black oak tree trunks and signal to Tom the “all clear” sign. The trees launch off in high gear and obediently follow Tom and the tractor through the autumn-cured bluejoint grass. The man doesn’t tire, I think. His actions purposeful, determined and unquestioned. As if “powered” by the belief he can make tomorrow a better place!
Tom’s words – “plants don’t follow the rules” find their way back into my thoughts. Plants don’t follow our rules, I think. There is so much we don’t know about these rare ecosystems we are trying to save and there are so few of us working to save them. The obstacles are many, and time is short, forcing us to act now on what we do know. We must have faith in our efforts.
I take a moment and visually plan my “tussock” route to the next tree. With water-logged chaps and arms heavy from weeks of saw work, I waddle my way deeper into the marsh, finding strength from a man twenty-seven years my senior!