Fall 1998

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A Short Natural History of the

Western Finger Lakes Region


Stephen Lewandowski

Ten thousand years ago, the last glaciers of the Wisconsin series were shrinking back north. As they retreated, they left great grooves in the Silurian and Devonian bedrock formed millions of years before under seawater. We name that bedrock surfacing in broad east-west bands: Salina shale, Onondaga limestone, Hamilton shale, Genesee shale, Portage sandstone, Chemung sandstone, as it appears from north to south

The last glaciers re-arranged the whole landscape. Soils were pushed away, transported, settled out of glacial meltwaters, left in mounds and ridges. Most of the Finger Lakes watershed turned around, plugged by the Valley Heads moraine, now flowing north through the Oswego River system instead of south through the Susquehanna. These are the western Finger Lakes: Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Keuka, and Seneca. The glaciers left flatter, sandier soils to the north; heavier silts and clays in the Allegheny foothills to the south. Elevation ranges from six hundred feet above sea level in the north to more than two thousand feet in the southern hills. Following differences in climate and soils, different forests developed north and south. In the north were chestnut, oak, hickory and tulip poplar predominating. In the south, sugar maple, beech, birch, hemlock and white pine were dominant species. Atop their various food chains, wolves, bears, eagles, panthers, herons, trout and snapping turtles roamed the area.

Ten thousand years ago, Clovis people living in Vine Valley hunted mastodons, mammoths, and caribou left in the hills and marshes of the glacier's wake. Six thousand five hundred years ago the Lamoka people made bread from acorn mast of the white oaks growing here. Six hundred years ago the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or People of the Longhouse constructed their homes of elm bark and planted large fields of the Three Sisters, corn, beans and squash growing altogether.

The first land office in America opened at Canandaigua in the early 1790s, where land was measured, portioned and sold. First settlers to receive this land were often youngest sons of Connecticut or Massachuseetts families, Revolutionary War veterans, or religious zealots. Sometimes all three in one.

Local agriculture has always been diverse. Much of the forests cleared to farm were burned. The villages of Canandaigua, Geneva, Syracuse and Rochester were built from milled wood originally standing as trees on our hills. Deforestation, and farming, reached their height around 1880.

Most of us do not know what a degraded habitat we live in. But precisely because we do not know, all the more reason for us to try to imagine what this land would look like supporting a web of clear, unsilted streams, under a mature hardwood forest with trails following the natural contours, and soils in their full vigor. To look ahead, or behind, we must dream such a land.

1998, Stephen Lewandowski
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