The natural world exists in a constant state of flux. This dynamic equilibrium often slips beneath our notice, in part because we’re led to believe that nature is stable and that only human involvement tips the balance. But zoom out, take the long view, and we see that nature never sits still.
Over billions of years, worlds form. Over millions of years, plants figure out how to create flowers. Over thousands of years, glaciers march back and forth across continents. Over hundreds of years, new volcanic islands take shape. Over decades, forests fill in old agricultural fields. Over years, young songbirds disperse across new territory. Over months, apple trees bloom and inflate their fruits. Over weeks, weather fronts sweep across the landscape. Over days, mountain rainfall trickles through soil and rock to reach an underground stream. Over hours, moles dig fresh tunnels beneath a suburban lawn. Over moments, fireflies signal to mates.
Ecologists hold that patches of land, when stripped of vegetation by natural or human processes, recover by shifting through a fairly predictable series of plant and animal communities. This principle is known as “ecological succession.” A chain of successional stages transformed the Hawaiian Islands from barren, new-formed lava rock into lush tropical paradises. Succession happened when abandoned agricultural fields gradually reforested and became Calvin’s Ecosystem Preserve.
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Fifty years ago, my grandparents bought a parcel of land along the Lake Michigan shoreline, just north of the Grand Haven channel. My grandfather designed and built a cottage, a summer hideaway for his wife and six children. For the past five decades, that cottage has been a summertime lodestone that draws together my big, boisterous, buoyant, beloved family.
I’m at the cottage now, gazing out the lakefront windows with my computer on my lap. Swollen-bellied clouds fill the September sky, blue-grey with rain. Only a few fishermen brave the chilly wind to watch the whitecaps from Grand Haven’s north pier. A hulking freighter, the Manistee, slides quietly into the river channel.
If I stand at the water’s edge in front of my cottage and walk a mile inland, I’ll pass through an arrested timeline of ecological succession. Michigan’s western shoreline is a corrugated series of sand dunes stretching inland, a diorama of successional stages displaying how a barren sand heap can become flourishing woodland if given sufficient time.
My dog and I just made that pilgrimage, though we skipped the bare-sand first stage. We walked through cool drizzle along a road that snakes inland, roughly perpendicular to the shoreline. We passed the next stage, low hills colored gold-green by beach grass. We skirted steeper, higher dunes rimmed with cottonwood trees and anchored by scrubby shrubs.
At last, we reached the final successional stage, wooded hillsides bristling darkly with pines and maples. The sand there is augmented with rich, decaying organic matter, turning the ground a dusky brown. The smaller, grassy dunes are still windswept and mobile; these high, forested hills have changed little since my mom and her siblings explored them five decades ago.
Each stage, each set of dunes passes the land down the line to more, larger, and longer-lived plants and animals. Each collection of plants anchors, nourishes, or shades the next. Even the final stage’s ecological makeup is fluid. Dynamic equilibrium—the ecosystem is stable, but never still.
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I graduated this spring with a biology degree and a hazy idea of where I wanted to be in ten years. These days, I’m job-hunting while I intern at a park near my home in Ada, MI. I’m stepping out of one life stage and teetering on the edge of the next, swept up in the flux of life’s ecological succession. I may not know what shape the coming stage will take, but I hope for one thing: a life that’s stable, but never still.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.