The First 300

The Nature Of Lower Merion

Lower Merion is twice blessed: not only do we possess a rich and wonderful history…as you will soon discover…but that history occurred on a rich and wonderful stage, the land itself. Even today, 300 years after European settlement, Lower Merion is one of the most physically stunning townships in the Philadelphia region. Our roads wind around rolling hills lined with magnificent street trees, we boast expansive forests of oak, beech and tulip poplar, and our clear, clean creeks slice through sparkling mica-flecked stone studded with innumerable garnets.

a short waterfall cascades in steps into a rocky creek
Waterfall on Mill Creek, at the site of John Roberts’ grist mill.

Our land is still rich in wildlife. Here, red fox stalk white-footed mice; there, great horned owls drop silently out of the night sky on unsuspecting skunks. Raccoons hunt crayfish in our creeks, migrating songbirds rain out of the sky to rest in our backyards and preserved open spaces, butterflies gambol in our gardens, and white-tailed deer…No, please, don’t get us started about white-tailed deer.

But while nature seemingly abounds, it may come as a surprise to you that nature has only recently returned to Lower Merion. As nature plays out on our landscape’s stage, we are already deep into Act Three.

Act One, of course, is the pre-Columbian era, when it has been said a squirrel could cross North America from treetop to treetop without ever touching ground. Certainly, any squirrel could easily cross our densely timbered land, with its ancient trees the size of which we don’t see anymore–immense trees in an unlogged landscape. And in that forest lived animals long gone: bear, cougar, wolf, rattlesnake, otter, beaver, weasel, turkey, grouse, even woodland bison. Trout swam in our streams; bald eagles soared over the Schuylkill snaring fish in their claws.

European settlement ushered in chapter two. Immediately, the land was logged, the timber an invaluable resource for building homes, fueling hearths, and establishing safe borders, pushing those bears and wolves away from family. Within moments of the establishment of the Welsh Barony, saw mills were logging Lower Merion. By 1900, Lower Merion was a wholly altered landscape: little virgin timber anywhere, and one could see for miles in some places.

As farms gave way to genteel estates, fields became lawns and the forests stayed away. As more houses were built, the forest retreated. An 1895 list of local birds carefully kept by a Narberth physician showed that deep-forest birds like thrushes, vireos and warblers were disappearing or gone, and in their stead were new strangers, a profusion of farm and grassland birds like bobolinks, meadowlarks and sparrows.

But times changed. After the world wars, farming quickly vanished and large estates became as rare and endangered as barns and silos. The land was subdivided, and we enter the next 300 years in our third chapter of land use as a suburban landscape.

And in that landscape, street trees have grown large and shade-rich, and once farmed places like Saunders Woods, Rolling Hill Park, and the Riverbend Environmental Education Center have reverted back to forest. The deep green woodland is slowly returning. Farm birds like meadowlarks and bobolinks are gone, and thrushes and vireos, woodpeckers and warblers are perhaps more common today than they were in the 1890s.

But it’s not entirely the same. No squirrel can travel the township from tree to tree, nor ever will again. Many of our natural neighbors—that list above—are gone, and will never return. The only trout in Lower Merion are state-stocked and ephemeral; streams like Mill Creek are too hot in the summer (from warm stormwater and lack of streamside forests) to support natives like brook trout.

Our forests are overgrown by non-native species like mile-a-minute vine, Wisteria, Norway maple, and garlic mustard. American chestnut trees were killed by a blight, and wildflower species are declining. Deer proliferate, grazing young trees and shrubs out of the landscape, collaborating with white-footed mice to spread deer ticks and Lyme disease.

The forest has returned, but it is a shadow of its once proud self. That would be a great gift to Lower Merion in the next 300 years: preserving and restoring the nature that remains with us on our beautiful land.