“...the idea that closed canopy forests, which most people regard as the normal state of nature, may actually be man-made.”
So writes Andrew Curry in the March 2010 issue of Discover Magazine. Curry’s feature, Where the Wild Things Are, examines an intriguing range north of Amsterdam called Oostvaardersplassen - a nature reserve that is “re-wilding.” Well, of course this got my attention.
It’s the brainchild of Dutch ecologist Frans Vera who is challenging the long held notion that “unspoiled nature” is synonymous with dense forests. The impossible to pronounce reserve has been allowed to go on its own (very little human management) with introduced herbivores to replicate the ancient large beasts that once thrived in Europe. As a young biologist (1970’s) Vera learned about a newly created industrial zone (build a dike, pump out the water, let dry, build) that cratered but the marsh attracted a certain geese that turned the area into a breeding ground. He mused that if prehistoric Europe was one big forest, how had these geese managed? They needed open areas. Add to that, heavy forested areas couldn’t support great herds of herbivores (mammoths and such) known to have existed. With mischief the civil servant championed the battle to protect the reserve and populate it with near relatives of the beasts - wild horses, cattle, and deer.
Left alone, the animals prevented the fifteen thousand acre reserve from forestation. Little trees make good eating! Some hardy trees survive, especially those that like space and sunshine such as oak. But overall the pre-historic park resembles more a giant city park than a forbidding dark forest. The debate is on, but Vera contends this landscape better resembles the pre-human world.
Ah, those pesky humans! They liked to eat the giant animals and did so. Factor in some foul weather, and the great herds shrank. As they shrank the trees began to cover the open areas. Debris fell from trees and occasionally lightning (or maybe a careless caveman) sparked a wildfire - something likely rare prior to forestation.
Interesting thoughts, for sure. The best way to “preserve” nature is to, well, leave nature alone.
It’s not wise to fool (or mess with) Mother Nature.