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LEWISBURG, Pa. — My colleague moved toward me, a shovel on his shoulder. As he got closer I could see the sweat dripping from his brow, the mud caked on his boots and the glint in his eye. At this moment I was fairly certain that we were having a great morning.
The colleague was Mark Spiro, Associate Professor of Biology and Co-Director of the Bucknell University Arboretum. Mark was checking in with me during our recently organized restoration planting in The Bucknell Grove, the hallowed ground running down the slope from Old Main to Loomis Street. Long appreciated for its large, stately trees, The Grove was getting a bit of a facelift — and more than 50 students, faculty, staff and community volunteers turned up on a Saturday morning to make it happen.
The decades of mowing and leaf clearing on the steeper slopes of The Grove were beginning to degrade the soils in these spots, stealing away nutrients and exposing the roots of its gentle giants. If we didn't do something soon, Bucknell's most-loved trees (some of them oaks more than 230 years old) could start to decline and die — giant by giant.
Mark's idea was simple, and rooted in a relatively new discipline of biology known as Restoration Ecology: If we can restore some of the forest understory that once grew beneath those trees we might not only save them, but return some of The Grove to a more functional and self-sustaining ecosystem. Using the existing literature on natural forest communities in Pennsylvania, Mark and I were able to infer the type of understory shrubs that may have grown with the current group of aged trees in The Grove before the area beneath them was cleared.
Selecting from the list of available native species at a local nursery, we teamed with Bucknell's Student Chapter of the Botanical Society of America to acquire seedlings of one tree species (chinkapin oak) and seven shrub species (black chokeberry, arrowwood viburnum, cranberrybush viburnum, grey dogwood, red osier dogwood, and winterberry holly). The volunteers came later — working in teams to dig the holes, plant and water the seedlings, and dress them with mulch. By lunchtime on that beautiful spring Saturday, we had planted 175 seedlings in selected areas of ground between Old Main and The Gateway Residence Center — in what we hope is the first in a series of planting days that stretches over the next several years.
These fresh additions will provide new floral resources for pollinators and plenty of summer/fall fruits for migratory songbirds and other wildlife. From the broader perspective, their presence should also aid in developing an ecologically functional forest understory community that sustains the trees of The Grove for many semesters into the future.
With some luck, we might even get another 230 years out of those big oaks.
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