Saturday, November 29, 2014

Succession and the Bucksport Mill

Note: This program first aired October 11, 2014.
If there is anything you can be sure of in nature, it is that things will change. The natural world is not static and nothing remains untouched by this truth. As soon as mountains are formed, they begin to erode. The temperature falls and rises, ice covered this landscape, not once but many times, the ocean has left its mark too. Forests we experience as known communities are as ephemeral as spring flowers, in the grand scheme of things here on Earth.

Knowing this truth of the world did not make this week’s news from Bucksport any easier to hear. The paper mill that opened there in 1930 formed the economic and social backbone of Bucksport and many neighboring towns. The paper mill that will be closing there at the end of 2014, 84 years later, leaves a hole not only in the tax base but also in the fabric that stitches that community together.

The make up of a natural community is determined by many factors, the most fundamental of which are the external environmental conditions present. If the climate is cold, we expect to see cold adapted plants and animals, if the climate is dry, we expect to see succulent plants or fire adapted plants. When the environmental conditions change, we expect to see the ecological community change as well. On a landscape freshly cleared, whether by wild fire, glacial melt, sea level drop or some other disturbance, we see the successive changes in community composition coming in an orderly procession; fast growing opportunistic species first, more slow growing and complex assemblages later. In classical ecology we are taught to recognize the climax community, the culmination of successional change that started with our blank slate, and progressed to a fully articulated rich and diverse ecological community. The implication is that once climax community is reached, it is self sustaining unless environmental conditions change, thus changing the playing field and potentially favoring species other than those on the climax community cast list.

My father worked at the mill for 22 years, in it’s hay day, when all four paper machines ran twenty hour hours a day, the employee parking lots so full we might not be able to see Dad’s car when we drove by on the way to my grandmother’s house, when men and women took what now seems an old fashioned pride in their work, when unions fought for workers rights and won. That mill lifted my family from the threshold of poverty, gave me amazing health insurance, put my sister and me through college. It was not easy work, but making paper provided a living that supported countless families year in and year out.

Red oaks dominate the forest around my house, they are the prevailing species in the Oak and Northern Hardwood forest climax community that typifies my neighborhood. They provide food for thousands of creatures, insects that feed as parasites on the growing acorns, grackles and blue jays who eat acorns right off the tree, the myriad of forest animals large and small who eat the acorns once they fall to the ground. These animals depend on this tree in an existential way, if these oaks were to die out due to changes in the environment, these animals would need to adapt to a new way of life, new food sources, a new community in an old place.

Bucksport sits now right on the edge of the end of its climax community. Much like we see the changes ahead due to climate change, Bucksport must ready itself for a fundamental shift away from the very thing that has been the organizing structure for the town for the past 84 years. By nature’s clock that isn’t a very long time, but its long enough for a field to turn into a forest. Perhaps the grasses mourn the loss of the sun when the first woody shrubs grow above them and spread their leaves. Perhaps the shrubs cry out their loss when the mighty oak’s branches cover the sky. Change is the only thing worth betting on, we can’t hold the natural communities around us frozen in place any more than we can keep a mill from closing, though it may break our hearts to see it go.

It’s been 16 years since my father died, and the mill’s death spiral started not long after, machines were shut down, shifts were cut. The parking lot got smaller. The truth is, this has been coming for a long time, just like the changes in global climate we as a society, are doing our best to ignore. And just like communities in nature, a new reality will grow in Bucksport, one calibrated to the economic and ecological conditions dictated by not only life in the 21rst century, but by the very people who call that place home.


Want to try your hand at keying out Maine’s different natural communities? Check out this classification key: