Seeing the Trees

by Jim Eagleman

Mention to anyone your fall experience will include a trip to Brown County, Indiana and you’ll most likely get nods of agreement, smiles, and maybe even a few shouts. A Hoosier fall can’t be fully appreciated without a car ride along our beautiful ridge-tops, forested hills, and ravines. Every curve or view through the county’s woods greets you with new color, light, and texture. Does the autumn of the year occur anywhere else in Indiana? Of course, but here you get a chance to take it all in with views of 15 to 20 miles from cleared overlooks and pull-offs, or from the turns and curves along the park and county roads.

Fall shades of reds, yellows, oranges, and tans every year, long credited as the county and park’s “claim to fame”, are trademarked with this rolling terrain and hazy horizons. No wonder we witness the onslaught of crowded Nashville streets, businesses, and county roads. Everyone love a spectacular fall.

I enjoy the vista views and scenic overlooks as much as visitors—watching changes from morning to evening, day to day. A view from a favorite park vista makes me stop. I look to see if shaded areas from clouds overhead stretch on to nearby slopes, or if bright, sunlit hillsides allow the common turkey vulture to soar, the warm thermals giving it lift. Chips and calls from a nearby bush could be a migrating warbler, and I move to see. A colorful, morning view is highlighted with intense sun, but the same view appears muted and drab by four o’clock. Conversely, long shadows by late afternoon make some mundane tree colors explode. “Your park vistas are spectacular!” says a visitor with a camera. “Yep!” I wave back.
It’s this mixed-deciduous, young Brown County forest I’ve written about many times that continues to inspire. Intrigued by the story of abuse and loss of forest cover and curious, I accumulated sufficient material to author a Master’s thesis in the early 1980s. In it, I documented how tremendous quantities of trees were first cut off this landscape and what happened to the timber. Piankeshaw, Wea, and Delaware, among others were the first Native Americans to inhabit southern Indiana, and occasionally used fire to create seasonal gardens in forested bottomlands and flood plains. They wintered in southern Indiana caves and hunted deep forests of large timber for deer and bear. Their impact on the resource (and a few remaining lodges) were barely noticed by arriving farmers.

Homesteading ventures soon brought in settlers— timber-clearing well underway by the mid-eighteen hundreds. They found trees in their way, since they had come to farm and scratch out a living on these hills. With extensive land-clearing, and farming in and around tree stumps, woodland species soon dwindled. Overhunting and habitat destruction prevailed.

In time, landowners moved out. The Brown County Game Farm project and a neighboring state park incorporated abandoned farmlands as wildlife habitat. Early Department of Conservation employees reared captive game birds here, along with other animals, releasing them onto similar cut-over and brushy lands throughout the state.

But restoration success in the late 1920s was discouraging. Natural mortality on woodland wildlife took its toll. In time, managers learned it was manipulation of the habitat, not turning loose pen-reared animals that helped replenish depleted populations.

A deed transfer from the department’s Division of Fish and Game to the Division of Lands Parks and Waters in 1940 combined acreage and created the tract that became (and since has been) the state’s largest state park.

The CCC era (mid-to late 1930s) brought in workers who completed roads, lakes, and shelters. Planting many walnut, spruce, and pines also helped curb erosion on abused slopes and ravines.

Word is out that Brown County, Indiana is the place to go. Do visitors come here knowing the past use of this forest? Do they care it first started out as a game farm, and hunter dollars helped pay for it? Probably not, and it won’t make a difference or bring them back. Nor do they know, or care, that trees once considered a liability to the first land-owner are now our best assets! What is seen and remembered is the uninterrupted views, the long shadows, the bright mornings. Fall accentuates this young forest’s natural beauty—we’ve come to expect it, almost taking it for granted. It’s certainly a bonus for all of us who live here and a reason why many come.

And as if on cue, with November fall colors fading, I’ll hear another statement from a happy visitor:” I bet this place is pretty in winter!”