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Resilience and Recovery

There’s something achingly beautiful about a harsh, exposed landscape. The emptiness, the edges— they bring everything into sharp focus. Communities of plants are continually advancing from the edge, which, in turn, allow animals and insects to thrive. The plants have so much to teach us. We just need to slow down, be quiet, and listen with reverence and respect.

The Queen Oak


Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Blue Jay, Photo by Neal Kupferschmid

How did this big Red Oak get here, and how is it growing so successfully out of what looks like pure sand? I would guess a Blue Jay or a squirrel planted an acorn around the time of World War II, some 80 years ago. When we study the form and shape of this oak, we can clearly tell that it has grown in the wide open with no crowding from other trees. In response, the crown of this Red Oak tree has grown unusually wide and spacious, with branches spreading out in all directions to capture energy from the sun. This tree is a showstopper on the dunes. She is the picture of success and strength, exuding power and adaptability, like a regal queen.

Gentle Bees, Native Pollinators

Cellophane bee (Colletes inaequalis), Photo by Heather Holm

The bees that nest on the dunes in early spring are native to Maine, co-evolving with our flowering plants over thousands of years. They’re called Cellophane Bees, and although they nest alone, they will form aggregations, or groupings of nests in one area. That is why we have an area of the Desert fenced off in the spring – to allow these gentle, docile bees to complete their life cycle. We are delighted to provide a high quality nesting habitat for our gentle native bees and their future generations at the Desert of Maine.

Consider this: bees form the basis of an energy-rich food web, and without them many plants would become extinct. They play a vital role in the health of our natural areas, our food systems, and overall biodiversity.

The Recovery Zone - Pathfinder Plants


Pathfinder plants building soil and habitat in a "seep"


Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus), Photo by Iain Stenhouse

The overgrazing (by too many sheep) was the “injury”, or the intense disturbance, that exposed this raw layer underneath this piece of land, and nature is working to heal the wound with pathfinder plants.
Out on the dunes, there is a long skinny area with a concentration of plants. This is called a “seep”, a special type of wetland where groundwater naturally comes to the surface. In this recovery zone pathfinders are leading the way, including rapidly growing White Pines, wicked rugged Pitch Pines, and Gray Birches which produce hundreds of seeds and has the ability to populate itself quickly over a large area. They are all here on the frontlines of reforestation and ecological succession. This landscape—and all landscapes for that matter—are transforming continuously. Disturbances occur, and the clock resets.  

The Magic of Moss: Ancient Plants Lead the Way


Common Haircap Moss (Polytrichum commune), Photo by Iain Stenhouse

None of the vegetation mentioned so far would be here if it wasn’t for lichen and moss. Lichens are curiously complex organisms of fungi and algae working together. The fungi provide the shelter, or the housing, while the photosynthetic algae provide the food, the energy. This is symbiosis: coexisting for the benefit of one another, as one organism. 

These mosses are actually helping to replace the topsoil that was stripped from the farm so many years ago. How? They trap dirt and tiny rock particles (such as shifting sands) and bits of organic debris. Over time they create a moist nursery bed for wildflowers, shrubs, trees, and other pathfinder plants to grow in.


Pink Earth Lichen
(Dibaeis baeomyces)

Gray Reindeer Lichen
(Cladonia rangiferina)

British Soldier Lichen
(Cladonia rangiferina)

The Desert of Maine depends on these lichen for its recovery: Pixie Cup LichenBritish Soldier LichenReindeer LichenPink Earth LichenOld Man’s Beard, and Lung Lichen.

The adaptive abilities of these plants represent true resiliency in the face of great challenge and uncertainty. In her other book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer wisely notes: “plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.”

The Vernal Pool


Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens)


Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus)

A vernal pool is a low, wet area that is important to an array of species, especially amphibians and reptiles. In Maine, vernal pools are used by 15 different species of amphibians and reptiles including:
Blue-Spotted Salamander, Spotted Salamander, Four-Toed Salamander, Eastern Newt, American Toad, Gray Tree Frog, Spring Peeper, Bullfrog, Green Frog, Wood Frog, Snapping Turtle, Painted Turtle, Spotted Turtle, Blanding’s Turtle, and Wood Turtle.


Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus)
Photo by Ray Hennessey

(Antrostomus vociferus)
Photo by Paul Cools

Hermit Thrush
(Catharus guttatus)
Photo by Lang Elliot

Fairy Shrimp
(Eubranchipus spp)

Dozens of birds and mammals benefit from this seasonal water source. Small crustaceans called Fairy Shrimp also reproduce in these seasonal pools.

Seeds & Seedlings: Patience and Hope


An abundance of acorns under Queen Oak

Yes, overfarming was devastating to the local ecology here. Yet – the landscape is recovering, and one day, this will all be forest again. And we can be part of this recovery and of the larger restoration of this planet, the home we share with billions of other species. We, as humans, are not separate from nature – we’re very much a part of it. That’s the beauty of ecology – it invites us to step outside our narrow human perspectives and to see the greater whole.     
We can’t forget the role of patience, and of hope, in our story. The seedlings at this end of the recovery patch tell that part of the story. A seed will wait as long as 32,000 years!! Scientists found and dated a seed at 32,000 years old in Siberia and were even able to make it grow! It was buried by an Ice Age Squirrel! Unbelievable, isn’t it? Is there anything more hopeful than a seed? And what makes a seed come to life? The catalyst is often a disturbance – even just a small one can create just the right conditions for a seed to germinate.

They are the picture of hope. And who couldn’t use a little hope these days? 

In Wildness + Wonder,
Deborah, Your Personal Ecologist



These writings and photographs are an excerpt from Ecology at the Edge, a field guide written by Desert of Maine ecologist and CAE board member Deborah Perkins.

The full guide is now available as a downloadable PDF.

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