The Way the Land Moves Us: Natural History of the Singleton-Mathews Farm

As preparation for our January trip to Peru, our class has been visiting a large property a few miles off campus owned by McDaniel College. Below, Christina, Sami, Sadie, Luke, and Dani share what they found.

Smiling tree

A group of McDaniel explorers spent the night at The Singleton-Mathews Farm in Westminster, Maryland. Sixteen of us explorers were on a mission to uncover the three secrets and opportunities that the farm has: the past, the natural history, and the future. As we woke to the gentle misting of the rain, the earth felt alive. The forest was bustling throughout the entirety of the cool night. Although, the rain made our plans feel disrupted, the natural world was not disturbed; it was refreshed through the hydration. The natural history team embraced the day and began our work uncovering nature’s story.

Land Over Matter
While spending time at the farm, each of the McDaniel storytellers had a unique experience. Whether it was our interactions with living creatures or the beautiful scenery, we were moved by spending time at our farm. This video demonstrates a snapshot into our interaction with nature.

Stratification: The Layering of the Forest
Forests are comprised of a diverse set of characteristics. A key component that lends itself to forests is the layering of the vegetation. The canopy is the upper most layer of the forest. This consists of large trees, growing tall above the rest. The next level is the understory, which consists of smaller trees. Below this level is the shrub and then herb layer. The herb layer consists of wildflowers and small species of plants. We saw species such as poke berry and golden rod. Finally the little layer: the layer of the forest that gives itself back to the earth and has begun to decay.

Trees are incredible; this a view of the canopy and the understory

The four layers of the forest provide a productive cycle of energy and growth for the entire ecosystem of the farm. In natural systems, the vast majority of the energy is produced through photosynthesis and then some is produced in the little layer, as the decaying matter is absorbed back into the earth. The canopy layer absorbs the most light, as the trees in the canopy are the tallest, largest, and most mature. At Singleton-Mathews, we observed that the majority of the canopy consisted of sycamore trees, and other coniferous trees.

Plant and tree species need the opportunity and environment to disperse and distribute. Above: Golden Rain Tree pods

The understory consists of saplings, juvenile trees, and shrubs which still absorb any light that filters down through the canopy cover, but they are shade resistant as well. This layer is essentially a layer of trees waiting to replace any canopy trees that die. Plants in the understory work together with the plants of the shrub layer, as they are both shade resistant in nature and absorb any remaining light that the canopy did not absorb. The shrub layer is particularly important to the farm, as the low-laying bushes protect the edges of the forest: at the edges of the forest, the shrubs act as a windbreak to the land, preventing the soil from drying out.

The decomposition layer is where all plants end up at the end of their lives. This layer absorbs the least amount of light, but that does not discredit the important work it does. Those dying plants are not done working, even in death. Instead, the decomposition layer is where the organic matter is broken back down to be reabsorbed by the earth, enriching the soil, redistributing the nutrients back into the plants that still live.

the lower layer
Above: decomposition, replenishing forest soil; below: Blue-Stemmed Golden Rod

Coexistence among the layers is what allows the forest to thrive. The lower layers blossom before the canopy in order to grow and spread out. When the canopy fills in, the lower layers fulfill the role of habitat formation for the bustling animals of the land. The species coexist as they move through their roles. Coexistence holds commotion but a foundation for survival.

The Forest Inhales as the Animals Migrate Through
As we walked throughout the property, other species walked alongside us. White tailed deer frolicked through the fields; eastern cottontails hopped their way around the corn maze; red tailed foxes stayed hidden as we moved through the brush. Spiders were plentiful as they swung down on webs and skittered for food. There were bumble bees and wasps buzzing through the air, gracefully bouncing from prospective flowers, to hive, and back again.

Above: a yellow paper wasp hive, with the wasps still active. As the winter draws closer, they will grow to be inactive. Fun fact: wasps have facial recognition abilities similar to humans.

The presence of pollinators is a sign of a healthy ecosystem. Wasps, ants, hornets, and bees all count as pollinators. At Singleton-Mathews, there was noted active presence of all of these insects. In order for plants to breed and reproduce, they need the aid of the pollinators to transfer their seeds from plant to plant. The absence of pollinators would mean that the land is not fertile and there would be a decline in the vegetation. Many crops require insect pollination as well; fortunately for Singleton-Mathews’ current crop, corn is entirely wind-pollinated. However, should the college decide to expand its food production abilities, many crops–sunflowers, tomatoes, cabbage, eggplant, and many more–and fruit trees require pollination.

As unwelcome as they may be in your home, arachnids are an important part of maintaining the health of an ecosystem. Many species remain active through the winter, which is great for farmers and gardeners and environmental science students. When spring rolls back around and the pests, like mosquitos and flies and gnats and boll weevils, begin to reproduce, the spiders are waiting. Without spiders, the insect population would be through the roof. So, spiders both make it comfortable for outdoorsy workers to be outside, and they also a source of food for many other predatory species: birds, other spiders, lizards, wasps, and many others.

There were spiders all over the farm: in the woods, in the corners of the barn, in the grass, up in the trees.
Wet web
Droplets of rain collected in the web.
leaf bug
This unidentified genus of acanalonia was discovered to be mingling with a green spider on the bark of a very large tree.

And We Will Drink
There are two main ponds on the property that are accompanied by a river. The ponds sit in the valley of the farm and are home to a variety of fish. There is a stream that can be seen flowing elegantly through the forest. Beneath the solid ground there is also an active stream that feeds the ponds.

A very shallow brook, which flowed into the pond by the Farmhouse. Our guide informed us that the cattle that used to be raised on the farm would come to this brook for their watering needs.
One of the two main ponds, next to the Farmhouse. Water lily pads, likely fragrant water lilies, are mixed in with the reeds and the algae on the pond’s surface.

The forest has always lived with the people and has always received the butt end of all our actions. Sections of the land are reserved for agricultural purposes, the effects of poorly managed agriculture pollute the efficiency of the forest, other pollutants like fertilizers and pesticides leak their way into the water sources. These unnatural chemicals seep into the ground and meet the underground stream, which then distributes the chemicals into the ponds. This seepage of unnatural chemicals negatively affects the species living off of and in the land. The chemicals can kill the animals and plants if used improperly, or can lead to mutations in the crops or animals as well. Water is a basic necessity to all living organisms, which is why responsible usage of the pollutants is so essential and precarious.

Corn grown to be manufactured and produced for grain for large animals. Harvest had mostly been finished by the time we camped, but there were some remaining ears to be found in the cornrows.

With Life Comes Death and Decay
Old growth forests are what we consider to be ideally healthful forests. Old growth forests have had a significant amount of time to develop a unique ecological system. An important piece to old growth forests is the layering of the species, as discussed in stratification. Snags play a role in the layering process. A snag is a freestanding, upright, dead tree. These are important in the forest ecology because they provide the foundation for new growth. Firstly, snags offer habitat to a large number of animals, such as raccoons and birds. In addition, when a snag falls, the log can become a nurse log, which provides the nutrients and foundation for new trees and plant life to grow. Insects also have a role in the health of the forest during decomposition.

An example of a standing dead tree: a snag

As well as decomposing trees, animals will also give their bodies back to the land. As an animal’s body decomposes, the soil is fed by the nutrients of its body. Fungi are the key initializers in the decomposition process: digesting the hard matter and turning it into a usable state for the forest. The forest uses living and dead species at all stages, a true example in resourcefulness.

A deer skull overlooks the small grove of young trees. The trees had been planted 15 years ago by the college, next to the Farmhouse.

Trashing the Land

Littering is bad.

The forest is always evolving and changing as the earth develops with human activity. Humans have the opportunity to learn from all the growth in the forest but also the responsibility not to interfere unfairly. Trash, litter, and other straining materials on the land are present on the Singleton-Mathews Farm. The land may absorb the trash as in the picture, but unfortunately this litter cannot be utilized the way the forest needs. Forests naturally decompose old and dead organic materials and create nutrients for new growth; trash does not offer the opportunity for new growth. In fact, some materials can take over 100 years to decompose back into the earth, slowing the redistribution of organic energy.

The Questions We Ask, The Reality We See

The Forest Online storytellers observing the small stream, while Dr. Jason Scullion explains the ecological purpose and importance of the stream.

As we walked on the land, we asked questions and took notes. Is the forest stratified into a canopy? What types of trees do we see? What species of flower is this or that? Are there signs of animal species? Is there a variety of species or only a few? Is the soil rich or deprived of nutrients? How old is the forest? What insects are present? What season are we in? We read books and field guides to learn the land: however, the forest teaches us in utter silence. As we move through the grounded forest we were hushed. We are stopped in our tracks by nature’s embrace, the all inclusiveness of the trees and the birds and the wet leaves below our feet. The earth reaches out for us. As we are touched, we see the constant movement of the living creatures in the still forest. We are motionless for a moment, only to be propelled into movement, into action, on behalf of the land.

An impatiens capensis, photographed next to the stream that cut through the farmland, connecting the various ponds. The spotted jewelweed is commonly found in bottomland soils, ditches, and streams.
Earlier in the night, the rain had fallen. When we woke in the morning, there were drops of water falling off of the ivy vines onto our tents.

The Trees Speak for Themselves, Let’s Speak about Them

Nature made us want to share the farm experience. We spread our delight through pictures, words, and videos. Our team was not the first to be captivated by nature, however. Throughout the course of history, there has been a recurrent theme of appreciation and wonder for the natural world.

The following short poem is by American writer Joyce Kilmer, who gives us an example of the rhythmic combination of words inspired by nature. “Trees” was Kilmer’s most popular work, being praised for its heartfelt and simplistic rhythm patterns since its publication in August of 1913.

reaching out


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with the rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

The Storytellers:
Sadie Allgeier is a sophomore at McDaniel college currently pursuing a double major in Spanish and biology. While only studying these two facets of life, she is intrigued by everything the world has to offer and hopes to explore these passions as she continues her studies and travels.

Luke Fisher is a McDaniel College Cinema student. He has always been interested in the telling the stories that aren’t being told. Peru is a both a chance to learn and share and hopefully he can be a small part in helping the Amazon.

Danielle Fatzinger is an English major excited to go to Peru for the opportunity to listen to and share stories and ideas. She thought the farm was poetic and loved stepping away from technology to immerse herself in nature’s calm, even if just for a night.

Blake Hodges is an Environmental Studies major, music minor at McDaniel College. He was born and raised in rural Southern Maryland and has always enjoyed the outdoors and opportunities to experience new places. He has both a passion and moral obligation to pursue environmental issues, both at home and around the globe. In Peru, he looks forward to broadening his worldview, witnessing a new environment, and building knowledge and experience working with environmental issues.

Samantha Wilson has spent the past twenty years of her life in a rainforest of her own, living in the Pacific Northwest. She has spent the past twenty years watching the logging industry take down the lay of the land and leave it barren and covered in splinters. She believes Perú and its rainforest, Singleton-Mathews Farm and its land, deserve the chance to be revived and utilized fairly. This is her chance to make that revival a reality.

Christina DeJoseph has lived twenty-one years finding peace and inspiration from the Earth. Her love for looking up at the stars and feeling connected to the universe is what drives her to work for the Earth. She believes everyone deserves a chance to experience the amazement of the natural world and the Earth deserves our attention and appreciation.

2 thoughts on “The Way the Land Moves Us: Natural History of the Singleton-Mathews Farm

  1. ldychances

    Awesome! The photographs along with the story makes you feel as if I was there with you on your journey. I enjoyed watching the video and was especially impressed with the underwater scene.


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