Communities in Nature, Revisited

By Allaire Diamond, VLT ecologist

My botany bookshelf holds a tiny antique ‘Tree Guide,’ published in 1914, which promises to be “a friend that knows all the trees…that introduces the newcomer to all his tree neighbors.”

Spend time getting to know those tree and plant ‘neighbors’ and you might observe that they live in ‘neighborhoods’ that share certain qualities. Silver maples and tall meadow rue are found on river floodplains, for example, but not on dry, rocky ridges, where bracken fern and red pine grow together. Factors unique to each setting, such as wind or frequent floods, influence the plants and animals that live there.

Many Vermonters already know these ‘neighborhoods’ as natural communities, thanks to a book co-written by VLT’s own Liz Thompson.

First published in 2000, Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont changed how we understand Vermont’s landscape. We’re about to learn more from a new edition published by VLT, The Nature Conservancy of Vermont, and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

Liz and co-authors Eric Sorenson and Bob Zaino, ecologists with Vermont Fish and Wildlife, have updated the original with new data and added information on climate change, wildlife habitat, and geology.

This is good timing, as I’ve long since dog-eared my copy in the course of my fieldwork at VLT. The book has an uncanny way of making sense of the unusual places I find myself. The second edition’s 97 natural communities, 17 of which are new, help me better describe the land we conserve. That headwater wetland full of buttonbush in Benson? It must be a Basin Shrub Swamp. The sandy lowland forest in Cornwall where fallen hemlock trunks have bits of dense clay clinging to their exposed roots? It’s a rare Sand-Over-Clay Forest.

I count myself fortunate to have gained my natural communities education directly from Liz, and I recently sat down with her to talk about the new book.

Tell us about your history working with natural communities.
LT: My first job out of college, in 1979, was to map ‘plant communities’ on a Nature Conservancy preserve in Maine. In 1984, I became the first natural community ecologist in Vermont, when the Natural Heritage program began here. I’ve been working with natural communities for my entire career, as have Eric and Bob.

Why do natural communities matter?
LT: Natural communities help us understand nature: When people can see patterns across the landscape, they have a better appreciation of nature and a heightened sense of responsibility to protect it. In land management, I’ve noticed that when you can name what’s on a piece of land in a consistent way, then you can better manage the land.

Are there challenges to the concept?
LT: Every place in nature is unique, and the transitions from one kind of place to another are rarely neat, so it’s hard to shoehorn every place you go into a classification system.

What happens when you find yourself somewhere that doesn’t neatly fit into one of the categories?
LT: (Laughs.) I turn around and walk away. No, I’m kidding. We do have those struggles, so we describe what we see, put it in a category that seems to fit best, describe the variation, and suggest more research. It happens all the time.

How has Wetland, Woodland, Wildland influenced conservation in Vermont?
LT: The book has influenced how conservation organizations do their work. VLT recognizes and protects rare and uncommon communities in our conservation work. The Nature Conservancy, watershed groups, local land trusts, consulting foresters, and state agencies all use it.

What makes Vermont’s natural communities unique?
LT: Vermont’s bedrock includes a lot of limestone, which is high in calcium. This nutrient supports high plant diversity in what we call ‘enriched sites,’ such as Rich Fens.

Do you have a favorite natural community?
LT: I really love Silver Maple-Ostrich Fern Floodplain Forests (pictured above), verdant as they are with their gracefully arching maples, robust ferns, and handsome wood nettles.


Come to a Special Event
Wetland, Woodland, Wildland: A pictorial tour

Join Liz and her co-authors as they celebrate the brand new edition of their book, and enjoy a fascinating slide show about Vermont’s natural communities. On Tuesday, November 12, from 4:15 to 6 pm at the George D. Aiken Center, University of Vermont, Room 102. Details here.