We have evidence that Squire Boone once owned a piece of The Parklands property—his signature crosses one of our deeds. We have no evidence, however, that he, or his more famous brother, Daniel, ever set foot on the property. We can piece together, though, from a number of sites in The Parklands, some aspects of what the landscape would have looked like during the Boone brothers’ time. For ecologists and environmental historians, we call this the presettlement landscape—the landscape conditions before European-American settlement.*
We begin The Parklands search at William F. Miles Lakes. Tucked into the woods where the new Louisville Loop trail passes the canoe launch, is a colossal white oak. The tree surpasses three feet in diameter. The texture of the bark and the shape of the canopy branches suggest the tree is over 200 years old. Tree-ring information confirms that the tree is in the neighborhood of 225 years. White oak can be found in dry upland sites, and, as is here, rich, moist bottomland sites.
Near the high point of the road in William F. Miles Lakes are two sites. On the west side, the side with Floyds Fork, a handful of chinkapin oaks grow along the near-vertical slope. Though not large—perhaps 16 inches in diameter, the trees are twisted and contorted showing they have lived through many a broken limb. They also survived land-clearing by settlers due to their inaccessibility and poor form.
On the east side of the road one can find a number of oaks and hickories that, in some ways, did not survive the ax. These trees, with two or more trunks, are called coppiced trees. (You can read about coppicing in an earlier Field Notes story here.) These trees resprouted after being cut in 1913. Therefore, the original trees that were cut date back to the early 1800s or earlier. This shows us that the presettlement forest here was comprised largely of oak and hickory.
Moving south we find a handful of sizeable old trees in southern Beckley Creek Park. Several chinkapin oaks near the Legacy Commons are over 200 years and one probably approaches 300 years. A twisted blue ash might near 200 years. A grove of sycamores along the Fork in this area contain the largest trees in The Parklands, some over 5 feet in diameter. Their age is uncertain, but the trees are clearly discernable, and still quite large, in an aerial photograph from 1937. Undoubtedly, the trees predate the photo by at least 100 years. (You can read more about sycamore ecology here.)
Pope Lick Park contains a number of relics. Along Floyds Fork is a mature riparian forest that, because it is so flood-prone, has never been cleared. Nevertheless, the large silver maples, American elms, hackberries, and sycamores are probably younger than 200 years. But the composition of species is probably indicative of the presettlement landscape. John Floyd Fields, where today there are soccer fields, was formerly a vast wetland system evidenced by several drainage ditches along the peripheries. Though we have no indication of what species were there, the fact that the area was drained at least tells us it was too wet for farming, suggesting a swamp or marsh ecosystem.
In the uplands, away from the floodwaters of Floyds Fork, we find 40 acres of outstanding hardwood forest highlighted by ancient American beech trees. The trees have broken tops and crooked limbs and range from two to four feet in diameter. Trees here approach 300 years old with most dating over 200 years. The stand is not an old-growth forest, as other species have been logged out—oak stumps show logging occurred around 1950, but for a variety of reasons the beech trees were spared. Similar to Miles Park, these uplands also contain a few twisted chinkapin oaks growing on steep-sided bluffs above the Fork. These trees also probably date back to the 1700s.
In Turkey Run Park there are just a handful of ancient trees but one in particular provides an important piece of information. On a chinkapin oak that approaches 300 years old, the branching structure shows us that the tree initially occurred in a closed forest. The tree was later released and grew for a century or more in the open, and then was engulfed in forest once again. This tells us, at least at this site, the landscape was covered in closed-canopy forest, not an open savanna-type landscape as has been suggested for portions of the Bluegrass Region.
Also telling in Turkey Run Park is the role different directional aspects play on vegetation. The north-facing slopes contain a number of ancient American beech trees (the Pope Lick Park beech trees are also north-facing) while the warmer south-facing slopes contain a few chinkapin and red oaks that range from 100 years to over 250 years. This observation is inline with the respective species’ regional site preferences for warmer or cooler sites.
In the far south of The Parklands, at Broad Run Park, we find not a huge ancient tree, but a diminutive little flower that lives for only one year—Kentucky gladecress. The flower has rather strict growing requirements: it needs full sun, periodic disturbance from animals or fire, and rocky ground of dolomite that stays wet in the spring. Largely for this reason, the plant is rare and endangered. But occurrences of the plant in The Parklands are, according to Deb White, with Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission, relic glades that would have occurred prior to European-American settlement. Thus, here the forest was broken by a very dry, open, and rocky plant community.
When we assemble these fragments of the ecological past into a more complete story, we find a landscape mosaic of different ecological communities. We probably would have seen a forested landscape dominated by oaks and hickories on warmer and drier sites, and beech and maple (among other species) on cooler and moister sites punctuated by open glades on the steep, (fire-prone) south-facing slopes where dolomite occurs near the surface. The broad bottomlands would have held rich diverse forests in the drier areas and extensive wetlands in lower sites, both forested swamps and some open marshes. We have little way of knowing exactly what species would have grown in these wetlands because all regional analogies have been converted to agriculture.
Undoubtedly, there are more relicts of the Boones’ days than are shared here. Many of the coppiced trees, we will probably find, date to the early 1800s—during the original land clearing. But at least with these relics of the ecological past, we can see firsthand some of the living reminders of a time period that seems so far away.
*It is worth noting that there are other, equally valuable, sources of information for uncovering the presettlement landscape. The writings and narratives of early travelers and explorers provide an outstanding resource. Much information for the Bluegrass Region has been compiled by Julian Campbell, a botanist from the Lexington area. His work can be found here.