The Perceived Environment

Often times I find myself pondering obscure and challenging subjects during the winter months. I believe it is a season to slow down, reflect, be thankful for what you have and think about one’s future endeavors. To me, it is the perfect time to gather my thoughts.

Recently I have been thinking about how humans perceive their environment. Urban zones, residential/suburban areas, places dominated by agricultural and so called marginal areas that host a more natural landscape are all examples of land use in modern society.

Everyone should be able to paint a picture of how they perceive these types of land use. Natural areas are regularly served the injustice of being reduced to the description of: Woods, Field or Swamp. Beyond that, the average person is unable to accurately describe the details that make different natural areas what they are. For example: what is the geology, glacial history, soils, is there a disturbance regime? Perhaps more simply, what kind of plants grow there and what animals use these areas and why? A vast disconnect between the general populous and our natural environment leads inevitably to being at a loss on why to preserve something natural. Sad news is, just because it looks nice from your back porch or while driving on the highway doesn’t mean it will get saved, I can guarantee you that. Understanding the natural history, plant & animal communities and geographic significance of our natural areas is key to their preservation. Indiana residents especially suffer from this disconnect as the common misconception is that everything is flat, boring and there is very little that is worthwhile to see and explore (except the occasional adventurous few that visit well known areas like Brown County and Turkey Run State Park). While those areas are exceptional and noteworthy for preservation, there are other areas in the state in need of recognition as well. The bottom line is, when there is understood natural historic significance tied to a local community there will be preservation.

When asked what makes an area Industrial, Urban, Suburban or Agricultural, an average person could think of a wide variety of descriptions that define these types of land use. For example in an Urban area, is it a small or large city, what is the general culture of the area like, what professional sports teams play there, what local attractions does it have for people to do and see, etc.. Industrial sites become familiar in regional communities as they bring jobs. The employment of families and friends provide the needed connection for their accepted presence as well. The general sentiment on Industry, regardless of past or current negative environmental impact, is good because they provide economic stability for the aforementioned urban and suburban areas. When talking with workers or those who live around Industrial sites the mood is generally resentful and bitter. The longevity of Industrial areas in a community is all based on employment and a degraded environment is accepted for financial stability reasons. Agricultural areas work the exact same way, though the satisfaction with the environment is not as resentful because they are less degraded than Urban and Industrial areas.

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A scene from downtown Chicago, a vast Urban environment and virtual ecological desert.

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This photo illustrates different land uses around Lake Michigan. In the foreground is Miller Woods. A high quality remnant portion of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. In the mid-ground just beyond the trees is a lagoon covered in slag with weedy vegetation owned by US Steel. In the background is the BP plant, which represents the ultimate in environmental degradation.

As a society we look at these different land uses on a visual scale of preference, generally from least to most preferred. Industrial, Urban, Suburban, Agricultural and Natural. Within the matrix of all these different land uses reside people and our perceived environment. Therefore we are subjected to a scale of environmental degradation and judge what we see as more or less degraded. Think of it this way, if you live in an urban environment the only way it could be further degraded is if it succumbed to industrial development and is stripped of the convenient amenities that would classify it as a typical urban area. If you live in a largely suburban area, your environment becomes more degraded as it is built up and becomes more urban. If you live in an agricultural area your environment becomes more degraded as it is built up and becomes more suburban. If you live in a more natural setting your environment becomes more degraded as it is turned more into an agricultural area. If the land is a more natural setting and is such that agricultural practices are not feasible a step in this concept can be skipped. When more houses and subdivisions are built the environment becomes more degraded.

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Typical unsightly scene of a suburban environment. Scattered houses obstruct the landscape and severely limit the ecological integrity of an area.

Since we have this variety of land uses we are ultimately subjected to what I will call The Scale of Perceived Environmental Degradation. Whatever environment an individual grows up in is their perceived environment and to them, is the world, and what it looks like. As an individual’s surroundings shift toward becoming more Urban and Industrial the perceived environment becomes more and more degraded. Human satisfaction with the natural environment decreases and we turn to modern conveniences and technologies to appease the dissatisfaction. Because the majority of the populous are now living in an Urban environment it is becoming “the norm” and what is comfortable. It is the world as most people see it. With Urban dominance, natural areas are viewed as foreign and the only connection many can find are with charismatic mega-fauna viewed on television programs, non-native plants with attractive flowers planted by horticulturalists in urban landscaping, scenic sunsets and agriculture fields that fill up with weedy, but showy species like butterweed prior to planting in early spring.

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Rural Southern Indiana. There is, in most areas, a mix between agricultural and forested natural area. This is only because the rugged hills are not easily suited to being converted to other land uses. In areas surrounding Louisville, many of the forested hills are slowly giving way to private residences. This results in degrading the native diversity of forests and the introduction of non-native invasive species.

I have a few personal examples to illustrate this phenomenon. Recently I was driving around “the country” near the historic Baums Bridge, Indiana. The surrounding area is by no stretch of the imagination one of the most altered and completely manipulated areas in the state, and probably the entire country. Thousands of acres of row crop agriculture dominate the landscape within a massive network of drainage ditches so extensive they are hard to comprehend. One of the guys I was with, an older gentlemen who grew up in Gary, observed the surrounding area south of the Kankakee River and remarked, “Wow, this is some wild country out here.” Due to the environment this man grew up in, an area with less homes and more agriculture is perceived as “wild.” In reality, it is extremely far from what it naturally would have been. Because there is little communication of the history of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, even most people who have lived in Northwestern Indiana their whole lives know very little about it. Efforts to save the marshland were snuffed out by financially rewarding politics. Not enough action was taken by the populous to speak out against drainage and dredging efforts. Now the natural history of the area is nearly a lost artifact in time.

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Screen shot of the area surrounding Baums Bridge. The area is extensively ditched and a ground truthing would undoubtedly reveal many more private ditches created to further enhance farming and further enhance the degradation of anything natural. The area is rural by all accounts, but still very far from natural. Notice the ancient oxbows of the Kankakee River that was dredged and straightened in the early 1900’s. This whole area would have been a mixture of wet prairie, open marsh and bottom-land hardwood forest.

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Same screen shot to show the extensive ditching.

Another recent conversation I was having turns to the opposite spectrum of the phenomenon. Where one sees their perceived environment becoming more degraded. The last example was one seeing and acknowledging an area as less degraded than their normally perceived environment. I was speaking with someone in a vast suburban area of northern Indianapolis. She was describing how many homes and subdivisions are being built up in “the country.” This is an area in the Central Till Plain of Indiana and is dominated by massive corn and soybean farms as well. Frustrated with the situation she remarked, “I can’t believe all the houses and subdivisions being put up, I mean, you have to farm something!” I have to admit I agree with her, but it fits right into the The Scale of Perceived Environmental Degradation. At one time the land was natural and more than likely native Eastern Deciduous Hardwood Forest. Back when the area was being cleared for farming I’m sure there were individuals expressing, “you have to leave something as woods!” Not a lot was done to save much land permanently though as the landscape is mostly agriculture with small woodlots that host very little ecological significance. Now the area is slowly giving way to development and being more permanently destroyed without recognition to it’s historic natural environment.

Screen shot to show the area described in the northern Suburbs of Indiana. In the East half of the photo is the ever growing town of Westfield. To the west is vast acres of agricultural land and small woodlots. Neither of the current land uses represent anything remotely similar to what was natural but we instinctively prefer to see the one more similar to what is natural.

Screen shot to show the area described in the northern Suburbs of Indianapolis. In the East half of the photo is the ever growing town of Westfield. To the West are vast acres of agricultural land and small woodlots. Neither of the current land uses represent the historic natural habitat, but we instinctively prefer to see the one that is less degraded.

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Typical scene in Central Indiana. Vast acres of agricultural ground with very little natural area left. To someone more accustomed to an Urban environment this would look like wide open country, but to someone accustomed to a more natural environment it would be an eyesore of destroyed land. The sunsets sure are beautiful though!

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Prior to the destruction of many of Central Indiana’s Hardwood forests it would have been common to see lush carpets of ephemeral wildflowers like these Blue-Eyed Mary’s (Collinsia verna).

Obviously this is a very complex and diverse subject and not something necessarily new to researchers in the field of land use. Here’s the point though. The more we are disconnected from understanding our natural environment, the more we see it slip away into permanent destruction. We need to communicate the specific reasons for protecting what we have left and we need to identify the areas that are most suitable for restoration efforts. We also need to have local communities involved with saving natural areas. What are the rare plants and animals to save and what are their respective habitats? What different geological areas are in need of permanent conservation but have no existing preserves? What soil types are so dominated by agriculture and other land uses that there are no examples of a healthy native community present? Where are the areas within a matrix of urban development that need to be preserved before they are completely destroyed? How large do natural areas need to be to effectively preserve their biodiversity in perpetuity? The list goes on and on. The good news is there are many passionate people already hard at work to get these questions answered and we’ve already come a long way in preserving Indiana’s Natural Heritage. So, get out and learn about the natural environment! Not what crops are grown in the area or what amenities your city or town have or what industries are present. Learn about how the land was originally shaped and came to be. The land and waters we all have a duty to care for and preserve. The fight for conservation starts with education. We still have a long way to go and need continued support from all parties involved. What are you doing to help?

Thanks for reading folks, I hope you enjoyed the post. Here a few photos to help represent the beautiful landscape of Indiana. Stay tuned for more winter thoughts and when the cold gives way to the magic of spring I will be highlighting various natural areas throughout Indiana.

All Best

-DL-

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Prairie in far Northwestern Indiana that is part of the Dune & Swale community. Robin’s plantain, puccoon, Indian paintbrush and blue-eyed grass all putting on a spectacular show! These areas are typified by dry ridges separated by low wetlands. This is in a very high quality remnant in the midst of almost pure Urban and Industrial development. Any undeveloped piece of ground within this Natural Region of Indiana is worthy of permanent preservation.

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A natural kettle lake in Northern Indiana with completely undeveloped borders. Past drainage has managed to shrink the lake to some degree, but a healthy natural community still exists. Notice the hardstem bulrush (Scirpus acutus) marsh that grades into marl beach prairie fen. Beyond is an upland of deciduous hardwood forest. Many people don’t realize the only natural lakes in Indiana exist exclusively in the northern 1/3 of the state. They often host very interesting plant and animal communities worthy of preservation.

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Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) slough in far SW Indiana. A little piece of the south. Cypress sloughs are so rare in Indiana now that any still remaining should be preserved. Bald cypress is a commonly planted tree, but seeing it in it’s natural environment is restricted to the extreme SW part of the state in the ancient oxbow bends of the Wabash River.

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Another prairie in far Northwestern Indiana that is part of the Dune & Swale community. These areas are typified by dry ridges separated by low wetlands. Moderate quality remnant in the midst of almost pure Urban and Industrial development. Any undeveloped piece of ground within this Natural Region of Indiana is worthy of permanent preservation.

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Massive tract of black oak (Quercus velutina) savanna in far NW IN. High quality. Amazing work has been done to restore this crown jewel property.

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