Standing on a small ridge of sand my feet sink into white
sugar sized granules as if I had been beached on a desert island in the
midst of a pygmy forest. I am a giant thing amidst these diminutive trees,
but they are themselves surrounded by a tall pine forest. These are trees
that thrive on these dry sand hills depending on their proximity to groundwater.
Some are pond pine, others are sand pine and others taller and statelier
are longleaf pines. Each has come to terms with the sand at my feet the
solar radiation falling from the sky, the fungus in their roots and their
different tolerances for doing with or without water around their roots.
Thickly surrounded by trees it is hard to envision the
connective fabric binding this forest and its apparently dry soil to the
water way beneath my feet, the springs below this ridge and the distant
creeks that tumble into streams and gush forth eventually as wide meandering
rivers. If some have trouble seeing the entire forest through these wooded
hills, then we all have even greater difficulty seeing the water inherent
in the forests because there is no apparent or obvious relationship.
From this wooded ridge the land falls imperceptibly in
relief toward a dry grassland and lower down it converges into a wet prairie
that seasonally spills over into lower wetlands lined with aquatic vegetation.
Slowly the accumulating water from this 1000 acre forest seeps under and
over ground into a sluggish creek that is joined by percolating groundwater
from a small spring gently gushing out along a run until tributary creeks
lined by old hardwood swamp trees pour more swiftly along a stream pushing
sand into mounds around submerged grasses and fallen snags. The small
streams conjoin into rivers because of the relentless flow of the springs
and the seasonal runoff of the surface of the ridge. Seasonally and daily
rising and falling water passes into a wide river where currents meander
between banks of riparian vegetation. A veritable river of lakes and flood
plains is created by the combined power of forested and spring fed creeks,
runs, streams and brooks which all began beneath the sands of a ridge
of forested trees.
So tenuous is this indelible connection among forests,
wetlands, springs and rivers that when a watershed is deforested the stream
flows fluctuate wildly from nearly dry to torrential flood conditions
depending on the duration and acuteness of the rain in the wet season.
Leonardo Da Vinci, in studying the Arno River in the 16th century noted
how deforestation of the Tuscan hills and created uncontrolled flooding
of the river which drained the watershed. The floods destroyed farms and
homes in the flood plains and sent mud, silt and debris into the streets
of Florence during the winter rainy season. The toll in human lives and
property was seasonably palpable. But it took Da Vinci's imaginative intelligence
to see that the rivers have their origins in the well forested or deforested
hills of the surrounding countryside.
Woodlands are the source of water, whether we appreciate
that or not. But a forest is only one in a chain of causal factors that
feed the waters in our streams. These streams that nourish human existence
have origins in a set of landscape features that must remain connected,
or in their unraveling we also lose our clean, flowing water.