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1 KEYS TO UNDERSTANDING MANY THICKETS Few areas in the United States have inspired such claim and acclaim as the Big Thicket of Southeast Texas; and seldom are such claims so controversial and so contradictory. While the controversies can generally be laid at the feet of those who want to use all its natural resources for personal and corporate profits, contradictions come from reliable, well-intentioned sources as well. Considering the complex nature of the Big Thicket, it is not surprising in this age of specialization that each person who investigates the Thicket sees it in the light of his own experience and interests. The Big Thicket has had many interpreters: The folklorist traces its legends and pins its boundaries down to the bear hunters’ happy hunting grounds in the “Old Hurricane Section.” The promoter envisions hordes of tourists and skyrocketing land values. The lumber man with an eye to the fantastic growth rate of pines, views the Thicket as wasteland and useless ornamentals such as magnolia and dogwood trees taking up space where the more profitable pine trees could grow. The biologist discovers opportunities for the study of ecological succession. Canoeists, hikers, birdwatchers, sportsmen, lovers of wilderness and solitude—each has found in the Big Thicket the fulfillment of his own particular need and has defined it accordingly. 1 2 BIG THICKET PLANT ECOLOGY There are two major keys to understanding the Big Thicket. One: It is not one, but many extensive thickets, both natural and unnatural, interspersed with open woodlands. Two: There are three major definitions of the nature, the location, and the causes of the Big Thicket. Natural Thickets Immense natural thickets occupy topographic depressions, seepage slopes, and filled, abandoned stream channels. In moisture-saturated soil, if a tree grows tall, it cannot retain its footing but falls and contributes to the acidic organic debris where fungi decay it and lichens, mosses, and ferns grow on it. When a large canopy tree falls, the sunlit opening quickly acquires a dense population of acid- and moisture-loving shrubs such as titi (Cyrilla racemiflora), gallberry holly (Ilex coreaceae), wax myrtle (Myrica heterophylla), and various ericaceous shrubs. The dense population of titi in poorly drained areas of the Traditional Thicket gave it one of its names: “the tighteye thicket” (“titi” being corrupted to “tight eye”). There are also natural thickets found in areas that are isolated from wildfire by streams, and where the soil and leaf mulch are too damp to burn. The leaves of some species such as beech (Fagus grandifolia ), magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), and some oaks are actually fire retardant. Thickets of shrubs such as titi, sweetpepper bush (Clethra alnifolia), and azaleas (Rhododendron species), form a band in the seepage slopes between the closed-canopy slope forest and the water of baygalls (see photos 1 and 2). Unnatural Thickets The most common thickets today are artificial ones caused by fire suppression (see photo 2). Under natural control, all land not protected by water barriers is swept by wildfires every few years, especially during drought cycles, allowing only those species tolerant in varying degrees of fire to survive. Without fire, wetland savannahs are thickly populated with moisture-loving shrubs, while the uplands become dense thickets of yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), and various species of non-pyric tree saplings. P H OTO 1 : Natural Thicket (by Geraldine Watson) P H O T O 2 : Unnatural Thicket (by Geraldine Watson) Keys to Understanding 5 With the clear-cutting of the virgin forests, the many small streams, which dissected the land, filled with sand and silt in which water-tolerant shrubs formed dense thickets. The most significant disruptive influence by humans, which creates artificial thickets, is clear-cutting of mature trees. A mature tree protects its territory by casting a shading canopy, thus allowing none but shade-tolerant species, which will not compete with it for light, moisture, and nutrients, to share its space. When a forest is clear-cut, every seed brought in by wind, birds, or animals germinates and forms dense growths of weeds, shrubs, and saplings. Those plants best suited to that particular condition dominate, grow taller and broader, and shade the weaker plant life, thus exterminating all except shade-tolerant understory plants. So long as climate and sea level remain the same, this final condition remains stable and is known as a climax forest. Under modern forestry practice, the clearcut area is planted with pine trees. As soon as they are of a marketable size...


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