Walking

Four days after surgery, on the porch.

Four days after surgery, on the porch.

By Mike Blouin

Last June I tore my Achilles tendon playing basketball.  Don’t get carried away thinking that I’m some sort of basketball player – I’m not.  I was playing one-on-one with my friend Chris, who is not exactly Michael Jordan, on a court at our old middle school.  I jumped to take a shot, in a perfectly normal way, and heard a POP.   Next came searing pain and lots of swear words, and the slow realization that my left leg wasn’t working properly.  That evening, my sister Julie and I went on a very expensive field trip to the emergency room.

Ten days later a surgeon sewed the tendon back together.  After the operation I spent two weeks in a spare room in Julie’s Boston apartment.  Since the room wasn’t normally in use, it contained only a few items: a wooden chair, three pink plastic containers stacked against a wall, a rolled-up rug, and a lumpy mattress in the corner.  Its walls were white and bare, and the only window was a skylight.  It had the aura of a dreary whitewashed cave.

For the first three days, I couldn’t leave the room except for short, painful expeditions to the bathroom across the hall.    The constant throbbing pain dissipated after thirty-six hours, but I still couldn’t stand for more than 30 seconds without feeling like my leg might fall off.   So, splint propped on a mountain of pillows, I attempted to entertain myself.  I watched obscene amounts of Netflix.  I called my parents and friends, read books and blogs, and patrolled Facebook like a cop on a beat.  I stared at the ceiling.  I wrote embarrassing, hyperbolic journal entries about my predicament.   At turns, I felt restless, bored, and sorry for myself.   I was split off from the beautiful cornucopia of real things in the real world like never before.

During this period, while trapped indoors in an air-conditioned room in the middle of the city, I read Thoreau’s essay, Walking, on my laptop.  Henry extolled to me the benefits of exploring the outdoors on foot, writing, “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least – and it is commonly more than that – sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”

Henry really knew how to rub it in.

On day four, I made it down a set of stairs and out onto my sister’s back porch.  I spent hours out there, listening to thumping music and squabbling neighbors, watching birds and squirrels, sweating profusely in the early-summer humidity.  It was heaven.  For the next week, as I continued to heal, I made the pilgrimage daily.  Without the porch, stuck in that white-walled room, I might well have gone insane.

About a month after my injury, when I was still on crutches, I was in the midst of organizing a community-centered event for the Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire.  There were to be activities for every type of nature lover: moth collecting, bird watching, tracking, sketching, a plants walk, even a pond exploration.  A few days before the event I got a call from a man named Don.  He wanted to join us for the day, and was looking for activities that were wheelchair accessible.  I wasn’t sure what to tell him – most of the events required long hikes on rough, steep trails.   Don and I talked for a while and determined we could make it work if he wanted to join the tracking or sketching activities.  He called the next day and said, no, he had decided against it.   But he promised he would keep an eye out for future events.

“I won’t give up,” he said. “I’ll keep trying.”

Talking to Don was like a punch in the stomach.  My disability would fade; Don’s never would.  I had often wallowed in self-pity during my temporary isolation from nature; he faced permanent challenges with optimism and dignity.  Of course, Don’s situation is not uncommon:  many face physical, economic, geographic, or cultural barriers that make it difficult to explore the outdoors.  But it had been easier, simpler, not to think too hard about this.

Now, nearly three months later, I’m back outside.  I can’t run or jump yet, but I can walk.  Last week I found a wasp nest hidden beside a footbridge I cross daily.  I watched the wasps for a while, trying to find patterns in their routes to and from the nest.   Later I found copious globs of nectar hidden under the leaves of a fruiting basswood – but only on one tree.  I collected a few leaves, caught a glimpse of three cardinals involved in an apparent love triangle, and walked home, full of questions, feeling tingly and alive.

I’m starting to forget how it felt to be unable to walk, and I don’t think about Don all that often anymore.   I worry that the way I came to see my relationship with nature – as fragile, precious, and privileged – will fade away with my injury.   It well might.  But I’ll try to keep coming back to what I felt and learned these past three months, and try to act with these lessons in mind.   I can’t promise success.  I can only promise I won’t give up.  I’ll keep trying.

Mike Blouin is a 2nd-year graduate student in the Field Naturalist program.  He spends lots of time thinking about people in nature, and the nature of people. 

The Nuclear Option for Dragonflies

By Bryan Pfeiffer

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A Common Green Darner (Anax junius) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

On a crisp, sunny day in September, after what was probably a typical summer for a dragonfly (which involves flying around, killing things and having sex beside a pond), a Common Green Darner took off and began to migrate south. As it cruised past the summit of Vermonts Mt. Philo, with Lake Champlain below and the Adirondacks off in the distance, the dragonfly crossed paths with a Merlin.

The Merlin, a falcon that kills in flight, swerved, plucked the dragonfly from the sky with its talons and began to eat on the wing. As the falcon and its prey continued southbound, all that remained in their wake was a single dragonfly wing, falling like an autumn leaf toward fields at the base of Mt. Philo.

Eagles, hawks, falcons and Monarch butterflies aren’t the only migrants moving south past mountains this fall. Joining them are dragonflies. Although biologists know plenty about the fall raptor and Monarch migrations, we are only beginning to discover, with some creative chemistry, where these dragonflies go and how migration figures in their conservation.

Fly or Die

Most dragonfly species do not migrate. In fact, most are now dead, having already mated during the summer season, leaving behind eggs or larvae to survive the winter. The killing frost will finish off much of what’s still on the wing. But some survivors will leave.

Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

Among the 460 or so dragonfly and damselfly species native to North America, at least five are classic migrants: Common Green Darner (Anax junius), Black Saddlebags (Tramea lacerata), Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens), Spot-winged Glider (Pantala hymenaea) and Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum). Each species is on the move this fall.

Dragonflies migrate for the same reasons other animals migrate: to avoid inhospitable conditions, in this case habitats that freeze or become too cold for the dragonflies themselves or their insect prey. Monarchs go to Mexico. Broad-winged Hawks leave for wintering grounds stretching from southern Mexico into South America. Dragonflies head south to who knows where.

Having studied birds for two centuries, biologists know well their breeding and wintering distributions , even to the point of learning the destination of a particular warbler or sparrow after it leaves us in the fall. Ornithologists catch lots of songbirds in nets and place around one leg a tiny silver bracelet embossed with a unique number – an avian social security number – and then release the birds to the winds. A small percentage of them, still sporting their bracelets, are later recaptured while in migration or on wintering grounds thousands of miles away. Better yet, we’re putting small electronic transmitters on large birds, such as Bar-tailed Godwits and American Woodcocks, and tracking their movements real-time with satellites.

On of my tagged Monarchs before heading off toward Mexico.

A tagged Monarchs before heading off toward Mexico.

We can even track the movement of a single butterfly. I myself have placed little stickers, each bearing a unique alpha-numerical code, on the hind wings of more than 1,000 Monarchs here in Vermont and elsewhere in North America, and then set each one free to fly toward Mexico, where many are later encountered by conservationists searching for the buttterflies once they arrive in Mexico. With each recovery, we learn more about Monarchs and how they migrate.

The “Heavy” Hydrogen

Dragonflies aren’t so obliging. For one thing, we’re clueless about where they go. Monarchs concentrate each winter in stands of Oyamel Fir in mountains west of Mexico City. So we know where to find them and how to protect them. Tagging or somehow marking a dragonfly would be like putting a message in a bottle and tossing it out to sea. Actually, I suspect we’d find the bottle before the dragonfly.

Yet it turns out that we need not tag or otherwise mark these migratory dragonflies because they themselves carry clues about where they have been. If the Merlin doesn’t get it first, we can catch any migrating dragonfly, analyze trace elements in its tissue and determine roughly how far it has flown.

Our marker is water, more to the point the two hydrogen atoms in water. Recall from high school chemistry that hydrogen nucleus normally contains a single proton and no neutron. But a tiny fraction of hydrogen atoms around the world carry one proton and one neutron. We call it “heavy hydrogen,” or deuterium. And unlike other such atomic variations among elements (which can be radioactive), deuterium is stable in the environment – a “stable isotope”– and stable in the wing of a dragonfly.

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Credit: Migratory Dragonfly Partnership

The amount of deuterium in water varies somewhat predictably in North America. You can map it. The ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in water falling as rain or snow changes on a gradient corresponding roughly with latitude. Water in Alberta, for example, carries a different deuterium-to-hydrogen ratio than water in Alabama.

Because dragonflies grow up as nymphs in water, they incorporate the local deuterium ratio into their tissue. It’s like a dialect or an accent that a dragonfly bears for life – whether as a nymph in water or a free-flying adult in migration. A Common Green Darner on the wing over Mt. Philo or Miami unwittingly carries a particular deuterium ratio, a birth certificate that tells us generally where it grew up. You are what you eat – or drink.

This science isn’t perfect. We can’t pinpoint a dragonfly’s natal waters in the way we know where a banded bird hatched or a tagged Monarch emerged. But stable isotopes are helping us track the range of migrating dragonflies. It’s “better living through chemistry.” After all, we can’t really know a bird or butterfly or a dragonfly – and what it might need in the way of conservation – until we know all the places it lives or wanders.

By the way, you need not be a chemist to help track dragonfly migration. We’re counting dragonflies in the same way we count migrating raptors during hawkwatches each fall. Learn how to do it and report what you find with help from the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership.

And while we’re out there counting, if a Merlin happens to catch a dragonfly first, we can still make a difference … by catching one of those dragonfly wings floating toward Earth.

Bryan Pfeiffer is a writer and field naturalist who specializes in birds and insects. He teaches writing in the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning Programs.

The Paradox of Sugaring

By Laura Yayac

saptap (1)It flavors creemees, cotton candy, and liqueurs. It’s poured over pancakes and snow, and is used in countless recipes. And right now, the raw sap is running from trees into buckets and webs of tubing then onto sugarhouses, where it’s boiled into maple syrup in all its amber glory.

Sap runs when the nights are cold and the days warm, but something about this does not make sense.

Before I get to that, though, a bit of history. European settlers learned about maple sugaring from native tribes, who in turn have a variety of legends as to how they discovered that maple sap could be boiled into a liquid sugar. Written accounts of maple tapping date from the 1550s, and it isn’t just people who love maple syrup. One of the explanations for human discovery of syrup is watching red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). These critters have been documented using their teeth to cut into sugar maples, then returning over the next few days, after much of the water has evaporated, to lick the sweet blobs that are left behind. Continue reading

Before It’s Gone, A Primer on Snow

By Maddy Morgan

Any skier or snowboarder knows that snow does not come in just one form.  Snowpacks are as variable as the snowflakes that form them.  We have all heard the claim that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow (actually, I discovered, just more flexibility in how root words are modified), but what about our terms for snow?  Skiers talk about corduroy and corn snow, but the variation in snow types extends beyond the ski slopes. 

601124_677097335993_631112764_nHere is your late-in-the-season glossary of snow.  Maybe your optimism tells you that the snow won’t be with us much longer, but it might be in your best interest to brush up, just in case.

Snow forms when the atmospheric temperature is at or below freezing.  In certain conditions, it is even possible for snow to reach the ground when the ground temperature is 41 degrees Fahrenheit.  Freezing atmospheric temperatures, combined with moisture in the air, forms snow crystals.  Snow crystals exist in four forms: snowflakes, hoarfrost, graupel, and polycrystals.

  • Snowflakes, which we are all familiar with, are clusters of ice crystals that fall from clouds.  Their shape is dependent on the conditions in which they are formed and through which they fall.
  • Hoarfrost is our name for ice crystals that form on small surfaces that are open to the air.  When a surface’s temperature is lower than the frost point of the surrounding air, moisture transforms directly from vapor to solid, forming delicate laces of surficial ice.
  • Graupel is the round, pellet-like snow that resembles a softer hail.  When ice crystals fall through super-cooled cloud droplets (which remain liquid although they are below freezing temperatures), the droplets freeze to the crystals, forming a clump.
  • Polycrystals are flakes made up of many individual crystals.

Continue reading

Winter Blooms

By Matt Pierle

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Cabin fever have you ready to see flowers again? If so, you’ve got options: Brazil and Bali are nice this time of year. Or seek out plants at a world-class botanical conservatory in, say, Montreal, London or San Francisco.

If you’re short on time or prefer shoestring travel though, you could do what I did over spring (technically late winter) break and book a $26 ticket on the Megabus from Burlington to Boston. From South Station Boston walk north to Chinatown, through Boston Common, past the frozen Frog Pond, to the Longfellow Bridge, over the Charles River to Cambridge and kick it up Broadway to Harvard Street. Continue north all the way to the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

In bloom you’ll find the extensive Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants created by Czech born Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf. Most people simply call the collection “The Glass Flowers.” You read that right. This collection is not of flowers under glass, it is of flowers made of glass.

These life-size and larger-than-life specimens are more than impressionistic representations of garden blossoms; they are über-accurate botanical sculptures of a diversity of wild and cultivated plants. The pieces will challenge your powers to believe that something so realistic could be made from inert, colored sand. Continue reading

Why our bodies need those blue-sky days

387374_939936702278_1594645291_nBy Nikki Bauman

The contrast of fresh powdered snow amplified by a background of cerulean vastness is one of nature’s finest vistas.  Fellow outdoor enthusiasts refer to these conditions as “bluebird” days, a term routinely followed with hooting, hollering, and high-fiving between friends and strangers gathering on the ski hill to worship the good weather.

Why do we have more fun in the sun?  It isn’t the scenery; it’s chemistry.  As living organisms, harvesting energy from the sun is crucial for regulating homeostasis. Our bodies literally crave sunshine, especially in the winter when it’s harder to come by as days are shortened, offsetting our mood as a result.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, sending signals from neurons to target cells.  It is one of the oldest components of the nervous system found in the Animal Kingdom, derived over a billion years ago from a line of molecules releasing energy derived from the sun.  In sea urchins, it controls appetite.  In higher order mammals, it regulates sleep patterns. In humans, it functions as an anti-depressant to regulate the brain’s emotional state. Continue reading

Beyond a Collection of Facts

By Clare Crosby

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I spent my childhood hosting acorn cap tea parties for fairies, scurrying on calloused feet to collect eggs from the chicken coop, and reenacting Little House on The Prairie in the meadow behind my house, just east of Austin, TX. I did not suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

But as I grew, my interests shifted. I traded the meadow for well-manicured athletic fields and our old pond for swimming pools. My interest in my Central Texas natural surroundings paused around 8 years old. I never figured out what species of oak provided teacups for my parties, only that the caps were nicely proportioned for fairies. Neither did I learn what type of moss my fairies used for seat cushions, only that it opened into minute stars under sprinkled water.

I’m embarrassed now, as a naturalist, to admit that I don’t know even some of the most common species of my home state. This lack of knowledge, however, offers opportunity when I return to Texas from Vermont, the home of my formal ecological education. As I walk old trails and come across a familiar (yet unknown) tree, my inclination is to turn to field guides or a trusted expert to tell me what to call it, who eats it, and what it might reveal about the soil beneath it. In Vermont, I have had a string of wonderful professors and peers to teach me about the natural world, assisted, of course, by an ever-growing library of field guides. I hope to be so lucky again in Texas. Continue reading

Natural Sounds

By Joanne Garton

Jellyfish2I remained still underneath a swirling aquatic world. Corals of brilliant blue and pink mixed with fish of bold black and yellow. Water of crystal clarity ebbed and flowed towards gorgeously blond sand. Sea anemone wavered and I watched, transfixed, as the bulging eyes of a massively prehistoric stingray reflected the wonder of it all.

As the sea swelled, forty violins soared to a grandiose peak. As a wave smashed on the rocky shore, cymbals crashed and drums bellowed. And as the wave dissipated, a bassoon emerged from lonesome depths where a barrier shark swam far from the colorful critters near the sun’s dancing rays.

It took three wave and cymbal crashes before I realized that this music of the sea had been choreographed with Hollywood precision. As a tourist in the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, I was listening to the soundtrack of nature, piped in through the invisibly scattered speakers that followed my trail and amplified my mood. Those soaring chords and delightful suspensions latched onto my wonder and awe, building my anticipation and enhanced my excitement when the belugas breeched or the sea lions wrestled.

But was this a bad thing? The music kept me focused, adding drama to the already dramatic, while drowning out the hoards of young families that mixed in with my own. Carefully arranged and built to sell, this supposed music of nature sets the mood that inspires us to linger a while, more so than perhaps, these days, silence can.

Of course, real nature is not silent. Winds sweep, critters cluck, wolves howl and woodpeckers tap. So do other animals hear music in nature? What about insects, reptiles, or microbes? What do they hear? Continue reading

A “Solst-Ice” Report: The Season’s First “Big Chill”

DSCN7727By Matt Pierle

In the aftermath of a backwoods Solstice party in Lamoille County we awoke to a small mountain of dishes and no electricity. The longest night of the year had wrapped us in an icy bear hug.

Cold rain followed by dropping temps had frozen everything stiff.  Tree trunks, branches, rocks – anything not moving fast enough to dance off the cold crystalline bonds – was treated to an icy exoskeleton.

As more precipitation came, the ice coats thickened. The substrate for later drops to adhere to grew as the ice put on layer after layer. Classic positive feedback.

Next year’s already-formed buds and catkins, shelf fungi, conifer needles, marcescent oak and beech leaves were all locked inside one-quarter to a full inch of ice. The forest and hill farm landscape performed back-to-back versions of John Cage’s 4’33”.

NPR news from a crank-operated radio reported, “hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power in Michigan, New York, and the Northeast”– no doubt a result of trees and frozen limbs coming down on overhead transmission lines. Continue reading