Nashville, In. -- Hidden at the end of a muddy back road off State Highway 46, a clearing reveals the fruits of a conservation group’s labor. A thicket of trees and vegetation grows undisturbed in a parcel of donated land. Some of the trees wear the black lick of flames that have preserved life through destruction.
The Nature Conservancy in Indiana is working to teach Hoosiers about native flora and how fire helps keep their habitat healthy.
For the past 33 years, the group has held its nonprofit Spring Wildflower Foray in Brown County. Volunteers lead visitors in wildflower and natural area hikes and birding tours over three days.
Linda Watkins and her husband, Larry, have traveled from their North Carolina home to Brown County for the past 25 years. She says Indiana is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes she’s witnessed.
“The people who do not get out in nature don’t know what they’re missing,” Watkins said. “If we didn’t have this, where would you go? I love the nature so much. It gives me energy. It makes me feel connected to the earth”
Dan Shaver, project director for the Nature Conservancy Brown County Hills Project, says learning about the state’s natural resources is important for Hoosiers.
“Nature is part of our heritage,” Shaver said. “Indiana was once 85 percent forested. Now, it’s only about 20 percent forested. A lot of people don’t get a chance to get out and explore what our forests used to be like.”
Shaver says that’s why he volunteers to lead the Fire and Flowers hike during the Foray. He wants people to know the natural processes that occur and allow the state’s flowers and trees to thrive.
“Fire is considered a natural disturbance in the central hardwood regions, so for thousands of years fire helped shape the forest,” Shaver said. “There are certain plants and animals that depend on the disturbance created by that fire.”
Shaver says fires in Brown County happen naturally every three to 30 years. The last fire to affect their preserve happened just over three years ago, and some oak and hickory tree seedlings are just now growing.
“The fear is if you don’t have that disturbance from fire, over time, you’re going to lose that oak composition in your forest,” Shaver said. “In a lot of places, you have a lot of big oak trees, but you don’t have a lot of baby ones. And so our emphasis is on growing these baby oak trees so that we’re preparing for the next generation of forest.”
Shaver says fire doesn’t just affect trees. Fires in the area directly affect the food chain for migrating birds and other wildlife.
“The timing of the leaves emerging in our forest and the return of migratory birds is pretty critical,” said Shaver. “There’s a whole group of songbirds that spend their winters down in South America and make their way up here. They fly across the Gulf of Mexico nonstop for 18 hours. They want to nest and breed in Brown County for the summer. ”
As the oak and hickory trees start to emerge, caterpillars, moths and other insects provide the fuel for the birds while they make their way further north. According to Shaver, this year has been particularly tough for wildlife and plants due to a long winter season. Native wildflowers are about two weeks behind their usual growth in the preserve. Cleft phlox, toothwort, Spring beauties and trilliums are beginning to bloom and take their place in the ecosystem.
Watkins says she’s found her own treasure trove of wildflowers close to the area where she’s staying.
“There is a park not too far from where I live that has a wonderful variety. I take pictures of them all the time, and people don’t even know it’s there. I call it my secret garden,” Watkins said.
Shaver says more people should spend time in the great outdoors.
“It’s a chance to connect with nature,” Shaver said. “You can get out there and get your feet dirty. Get a close up look at a plant, and see those things that most people miss”