Nature’s Landscaping

We just got back from a week in Ely taking in the fall colors and doing a little fishing. When looking at nature’s landscaping we realize that we can not replicate it – but you can certainly try. Leif’s October 6th article for the Northfield News, follows.

“A recent trip to a cabin at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness gave me a chance to experience once again the importance of variety and color in creating landscapes of uncommon beauty. The landscapes I paddled through are some of the finest examples of how nature and its processes of change over time can create a tapestry of texture, color, scale and variety that penetrates the soul and fires the imagination.

Just north of Ely, Minnesota, the Echo Trail winds through hills and marshes, and along ridges and lakes. Each year in late September, the various shades of green that cover this landscape shaped by the glaciers of ages past, begin to change to a wonderful mix of greens, yellows, oranges, reds and tan.

The needles of pine, balsam, spruce and tamarack first turn gold and then a rich tan before autumn breezes send them fluttering to the ground, creating a clean, soft, and visually rich cover for the fragile soil of a harsh wilderness. Portage trails between lakes take on an extra dimension as the tawny mat of needles grows deeper. As I carry my canoe from lake to lake, I feel as if I must tread lightly to avoid disturbing the perfect carpet nature has laid on the rocky trail before me. This north country of my dreams shows its softer side even as autumn hints of the long winter to come.

Here and there the pine needles on the trail are covered with yellow, orange and red leaves. Red Maples, Back Ash, Birch, Big Tooth Aspen, Quaking Aspen, Serviceberry, Mountain Ash, Red Twig Dogwoods, Blueberries, Dwarf Bush Honeysuckle and even a few Oaks add constantly changing color variations seemingly without end.

Day by day the shading, texture and density of the forest changes as one leaf at a time the vibrancy of summer’s growth transitions to the dormancy needed for the long rest of winter. First a few leaves find their way to the mosses on the forest floor, then hundreds fly on a gust of wind. Finally a blizzard of leaves comes down to form drifts of color that are the harbinger of drifts of nothing but white.

A forest that only a few weeks earlier was dense and almost impenetrable gradually opens up as the leaves fall. Sunlight finally reaches the forest floor as the canopy thins, but light intensity wanes with each passing day.

A land that seems so timeless and unchanged reveals itself to be undergoing constant change. Variation and constancy are partners in the creation of a landscape of surpassing beauty that is born of endless combinations of a number of basic elements.

Water, rock, wood, vegetation, sunlight, open vistas and changing elevations combine with the passage of time to produce a visual and ecological treasure we know as the canoe country. All across the living planet earth these same basic elements form equally impressive landscapes. Prairies, mountain ranges, sea coasts, deserts, jungles and arctic ice fields all have their own special beauty and unique dynamics of change.

When we contemplate arranging our civilized landscapes we would do well to incorporate the same basic elements and principles that make natural landscapes so beautiful. By incorporating a variety of trees, shrubs and perennials with turf grass, rock, wood, bricks, block, water, shade, sunlight and rich soil, man-made landscapes can be beautiful, durable, satisfying and practical.

When combined with the principle of layering the basic elements of a built landscape we begin to capture some of the lasting beauty of wild places. Spend a little time studying how nature’s landscapes are often comprised of layers or ribbons of the basic elements blending with each other.

Rocky cliffs may taper to smaller ledges. Spruce and pine thickets give way to groves of Aspen and Birch that follow a band of favorable soil down to a wetland where grasses transition to cattails to water lilies and then open water. Red Maples yield to Oaks where soils become thinner, drier and more exposed to the elements.

Scattered sentinel trees stand watch over dense thickets of younger trees competing for sunlight. Mixed stands of Birch, Maple, Pine, Fir, and Spruce overlook pure stands of Aspen.

Even in urban areas thickets of densely packed trees may serve as an important functional element in a certain landscaping situation. Not all trees in the city need to grow out by themselves without touching their neighbors. Mixed varieties in a small, well placed thicket can provide a wonderful mixed texture throughout the year, and a delightful combination color in autumn.”

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