Many of us imagine the Pilgrim settlers arriving to an ecological museum, with the aboriginals serving as curators. In reality, they may have encountered a Miss-Havisham-museum of sorts, simply because the locals had been decimated by a plague.
But we may need another reality check when it comes to the ecology museum about which the aboriginal curators tiptoed. In controlling Lyme-disease-causing deer tick population, these curators were actually exemplary for ecological management practices.
Thomas Morton, author of “New English Canaan,” arrived in Massachusetts in 1624, a few short years after the Pilgrims held the feast that serves as the model for our annual Thanksgiving holiday. We might call Morton one of the early North American travel journalists, and he was not unbiased. In describing the flora and fauna of his new home, it seems that he prefers every North American animal and plant to its (often domesticated) counterpart in England.
We get a surprising glimpse of native ecology, when we read the list of New World trees. Although he says that there is an abundance of cedar, its location is confined: “If any man be desirous to find out in what part of the country the best cedars are, he must get into the bottom grounds, and in valleys that are wet at the spring of the year, where the moisture preserves them from the fire in spring time...”
Likewise, when describing the vines of native grapes, Morton writes that “the country is so apt for vines that, but for the fire at the spring of the year, the vines would so overspread the land that one should not be able to pass for them.”
What is the “fire at the spring of the year”? Earlier, Morton had explained that “The Salvages (sic) are accustomed to set fire of the country in all places where they come; and to burn it twice a year ... The reason that moves them to do so is because it would otherwise be so overgrown with underweed, that it would be all a coppice wood, and the people would not be able in any wise to pass through the country out of a beaten path.”
With no fire hydrants around, there were only two controls on the semi-annual fire, “snow water” in the low spots, and “showers” that extinguished the fire.
Within a few short years of that first Thanksgiving, laws began to reverse the practice, and Morton’s prediction came true: the woods became relatively unpassable.
Centuries later, there emerged an additional consequence of reversing the burning: exploding tick populations, and eventually Lyme disease. Deer ticks have a two-year life cycle, and recent studies show that untended leaf litter is essential for winter survival of ticks. Maybe we should try to give the old curators their jobs back.
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Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business.