A Diagram about Forest Succession in the Northeastern United States



In much of the United States east of the Mississippi River, the rainfall levels, temperatures, geological substrates, and genetic endowments are such that, given sufficient time, beautiful temperate forests tend to cover most of undisturbed land.  Varied mixes of deciduous and coniferous trees are accompanied by wonderful panoplies of attending microorganisms, fungi, and animals.  Young forests can spring up on bare ground over the course of less than a century!  In sum, mixed temperate forests are the typical climax communities or biomes for this region barring unusual abiotic disruptions (such as flooding, hurricanes, ice storms, or fires)  or biotic disturbances caused by humans or other unusually destructive species of plants, fungi, animals, or microorganisms.  

At this point, it’s worth emphasizing that the long-lived, woody plants are only the most obvious citizens within these intricate forest biomes / communities. The forests are composed of closely interacting organisms who collectively create persistent, self-perpetuating sets of typical  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, yet somewhat predictable parade ‘through time’ that leads to the emergence of a more persistent, stable climax forest community – until of course, that climax complex is somehow disrupted and the process begins anew.

Such ubiquitous patterns of forest succession pervade and shape our daily lives here in the Northeast. They help 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 streams and estuaries, and the kinds of birds we hear singing in our backyards or state parks.  Forest succession is a particularly sophisticated, vital, and beautiful pattern in life.

To advance beyond a superficial appreciation of forest succession, attention to detail is needed. And this attention must be combined with either a long memory or good access to the collective memory stored in science texts and / or historical artifacts. As a Pattern existing in both space and time, forest succession is the product of various important phenomena and processes including Energy and Matter Flow, plus Cycling and Conservation. It also embodies relationships between Structure and Function; Cause and Effect; Scale, Proportion and Quantity; and 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 most prepared to grasp its intricacy and sweep. However, with thoughtful guidance and humane logistics (particularly in terms of student to teacher ratios and 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 by coloring the various plants and perhaps adding more animals to the illustrations.  Even better, they can reinterpret the entire cycle of forest succession by creating their own original art work. The activity page offered here could serve as one of many initial references.   Individually or in teams, they could research and craft 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 take the form of  accordion-fold books; letter-sized drawings;  large, team-created murals;  or posters. These could not only demonstrate youngsters’ understanding of the concepts, but they could be shared / exhibited in real space (or electronically) for other members of the greater learning community .


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