In much of the United States east of the Mississippi River, the rainfall levels, temperatures, geological substrates, and genetic endowments are such that beautiful forests tend to cover the undisturbed land. The varied mixes of deciduous and coniferous trees are accompanied by wonderful panoplies of attending microorganisms, fungi, and animals. Forests can spring up on bare ground in this region over the course of less than a century! In other words, forests are the typical climax communities or biomes for this area – barring unusual abiotic disruptions (such as flooding, hurricanes, ice storms, or fires caused by lightening, climate change, etc.) or biotic interference. The latter ‘interference’ might take the form of destructive action on the part of us humans, or some other new species of plant, animal, or pathogenic microorganism. The term “Temperate forests” is also employed for describing these ecosystems, as well as many other more precise scientific characterizations.
At this point, it’s worth emphasizing that the long-lived, woody plants are only the most obvious citizens within these intricate biomes / communities. The forests are composed of closely interacting organisms who work together to create persistent, self-perpetuating sets of interacting lifeforms and abiotic conditions. The general sequence of dynamic relationships results in repeated cascades of species constellations. These appear and disappear on what might once have been ‘open’ land. They can be imagined as a sort of marvelous parade ‘through time’ leading to the emergence of the more persistent, stable climax forest community – until of course, that complex of beings is somehow interrupted and the process begins anew.
These ubiquitous patterns of forest succession pervade and shape our daily lives here in the Northeast. They helps determine the ‘weeds’ by the roadside, the rhythm of suburban mowing, the appearance of raspberries on the forest edge, the quality of the water in our streams and estuaries, and the kinds of birds we hear singing, or mammals we see moving through our backyards and state parks. Forest succession is a particularly sophisticated, vital and beautiful pattern.
To go beyond a superficial appreciation of forest succession, attention to detail is required. And this attention must be combined with either a long memory or good access to the collective memory embodied in science texts and / or historical artifacts. As a Pattern existing in both space and time, forest succession is a product of various important phenomena and processes including Energy and Matter Flow, Cycling and Conservation. It also embodies relationships between Structure and Function; Cause and Effect; Scale, Proportion and Quantity; Systems; Stability and Change – in other words, all seven of the Crosscutting Concepts highlighted in the current Next Generation Science Frameworks.
Because Forest Succession is so complicated and because it unfolds across long swaths of time, older students (with more science training) will be best prepared to grasp its intricacy and sweep. However, with thoughtful guidance and humane logistics (particularly in terms of student to teacher ratios and established, long-term interactions between teachers, children and the sites being studied), even very young people can begin to appreciate this vital and fascinating phenomenon.
The accompanying illustration (adapted from “Yankee Lands,” a land use curriculum developed by the Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene, NH ) can be a helpful visual complement to youngsters’ field studies and discussions. You can increase its eidetic potential by encouraging students to interact with the images. They can apply colors or perhaps add animals to the illustrations. Even better, they can reinterpret the cycle of forest succession through their own original art work. The activity page here could simply function as one of many initial references. Students, individually or in teams, could research and create original drawings, collages, or paintings of the key stages and actors in forest succession. The resulting art projects, (fine examples of STEAM project-based learning) might be accordion-fold books, letter sized drawings, or large, team-created murals or posters. These can not only demonstrate youngsters’ understanding of the concepts, but they can be shared / exhibited in real space or electronically for other members of the larger learning community .