Six Feet Under


The famous red clay soil of the North Carolina Piedmont. Photo by Dr. David Lindbo of the Department of Soil Science at NC State University, licensed by Creative Commons.

“When I die, bury me in a plain pine box six feet under in the backyard,” I announced to my family at Sunday dinner. “Nothing too fancy, please.”

My father paused, momentarily distracted from his spaghetti. “I think there are laws against that,” he said, with diplomatic aplomb.

Surprisingly, no. It’s not illegal, though the exact regulations vary from state to state. Here in North Carolina, you only need to fill out some paperwork for a legal burial on private land. It’s easier than renewing your driver’s license. As long as it’s your land, and you use the proper channels to inform the authorities, there are few obstacles to a home burial for family members.

So if bureaucracy isn’t the problem, why don’t more people do it? Here in the Piedmont, one problem is the soil—you’ll need to hire a backhoe, especially if you’re in a hurry. Traditional grave-digging just doesn’t cut it these days. To get six feet under in compacted red clay, you can bust out your back and break your shovel halfway down, or you can rent a machine to do it for you. Your choice.

It wasn’t always this way. We don’t have the deep, rich earth that makes the American Midwest such a hotbed of agriculture, but we used to. We lost it. Not only did we do it to ourselves, we don’t even know what we’re missing. Our topsoil—the light, fluffy soil, dark black from decaying organic matter, bursting with life—is gone.

The English surveyor John Lawson recorded at least six feet of topsoil in the Piedmont when he passed through North Carolina in 1701.That’s not true today. In the three hundred years between Lawson’s time and mine, deforestation and European agricultural practices left the rich Piedmont topsoil exposed, subjected to frequent, heavy rains. All of the rich, fertile topsoil washed away, leaving only heavy, iron-rich red clay subsoil behind. Dense and heavy and not so good for crops, farmers wore out their clay fields after a few years of farming, abandoning the fields until the forests regrew and the cycle started over again. Log, rinse and repeat for over a century—the effects are visible the moment you stick your shovel in the ground.

It’s still happening. Rainstorms turn my local rivers and streams a rich, reddish-chocolate color of a melted Fudgesicle as more sediments wash out on a one-way trip to the Atlantic Ocean. Even in calm times, the waters rarely runs completely clear, and aquatic life forms sensitive to sediments, are rare. John Lawson looked into the crystal clear waters of the Haw River and saw the bottom ten to fifteen feet below. I can’t do that, even on the best of days.

Even on the highways, far from any farmer’s field, you’ll know at once when you hit red clay country. Any clearing or grading for roadwork or new developments resembles the surface of Mars. When wet, the exposed red clay forms a dense, sticky network, clinging to your shoes and staining any pale fabrics with distinctive smears. When dry, dust clouds form, an impenetrable haze surrounding and coating bulldozers and construction equipment as they grind through the ground. When I visited the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro this summer, I watched the elephants roll in the mud to beat the heat, the dull grey of their skin vanishing in a rusty haze, as if they had just emerged from a trip to the Red Planet themselves.

Most people here accept red clay for granted. I certainly did, until I traveled more widely, and I learned the truth about the ecological history of this landscape. Some take pride in it, others bemoan its difficulties to work and shape for agriculture and other human uses. For me, it is a lesson, a warning and a call to action all rolled into one. I cannot change the past, but I can work to bring the soil back, and I can tell other people this story. We do not have to accept what history has given us, but we can only make changes if we realize the extent of what we’re missing.

But, as local author Dave Cook reminds me, it was a different world then. In The Piedmont Almanac, he chides me, “It is easy to be critical [of 19th century farming practices] when one doesn’t have to do the work. … Handling a 900-pound mule and trying to plough sideways on a hillside is easier said than done.” He notes that mechanical tractors made farming on contour and other soil-conserving practices more expedient, a point I will easily concede. But he makes no mention of the farming practices of the native peoples, which left the topsoil intact, or the cultural biases that kept settlers from adopting them along with New World crops of squash, corn, beans and tobacco. So rather than blame the past or perpetuating the cycle, it’s time to move forward, to do better now that we know better. But we have a long way to go.

While I applaud the work of government agencies like the National Resource Conservation Service and the Soil Conservation departments operated by individual counties, it’s clear that to restore our missing six feet of topsoil, we need to move beyond mere conservation and actively move into soil building. How do we restore what was lost? In nature, soil-building is a slow process, as rocks and organic matter are ground down and gradually transformed by chemical weathering and mysterious soil organisms whose lives are barely understood. Yet certain agricultural practices like cover cropping or terra preta can build topsoil much faster than previously thought. But even with these methods at our disposal, soil—just like oil and natural gas—is still essentially a non-renewable resource in most places.

If restoring the soil is the work of a lifetime, or several lifetimes—or even a few decades—all the more reason to start recreating what was lost right now. And what happens when we die? What better way to build soil than to become a part of it?

So I continued with my end-of-life announcements at the dinner table, despite my family’s nonchalance. “When you’ve got the hole all dug, pop me in, mix up some compost, and plant an apple tree on your way out,” I told my family. “Holes are hard to dig and all, so no sense wasting an opportunity.” As the tree grows, it will appreciate the extra nutrients, transforming elements from soil and sunlight into food and shelter for people and animals who wander by in the future. It’s a perfect plan. Too bad I won’t be able to see it happen.

What I do with my life matters. That doesn’t stop with my death. When I die, I’ll still be here in this red clay landscape, still a part of the action. Some might call it becoming dust, but I prefer to become soil—one that will be all the more fertile and vibrant because of my actions. It may take a hundred years to build an inch of topsoil, but at least I’ll have done my part.

A Tale of Two Butterflies


Pinned specimens of the Xerces Blue in the Field Museum of Natural History. Photo by Brianwray26, licensed under Creative Commons via Wikipedia.

There are no graceful ways to mention extinct species in casual conversation. Years ago, on a visit to San Francisco, a local friend asked what I thought of Golden Gate Park. “You’re a naturalist, right—isn’t that just your thing?” I made the mistake of answering honestly. “It’s very pretty,” I agreed, “but there are too many eucalyptus trees and I think it would be better if the Xerces Blue were still around.” Awkward silence followed. Our conversation had taken a sudden nosedive, just like the population of Xerces Blue.

The Xerces Blue (Glaucopsyche xerces) was a small, delicate butterfly belonging to a group poetically dubbed the gossamerwings. Tiny flecks of iridescent sky on the wind, they bumbled low over the sand dunes along the Pacific coast in search of their host plants, weedy, insignificant-looking vetches, or wild peas. Aside from a few naturalists at the nearby California Academy of Science, nobody paid much attention to them. Life went on.

As the developing city of San Francisco swelled and grew, enterprising settlers changed the environment to suit themselves. They filled in the marshlands on the eastern edge of the peninsula, planted windbreaks of eucalyptus and Monterey pines to stabilize the dunes for Golden Gate Park, and paved over everything in between. The population of the Xerces Blue flickered like a soap bubble, and abruptly vanished. The last one was spotted in 1943. The very traits that allow the Xerces Blue to flourish as a species—their isolated population, their dependence on specific plant species—meant their populations could not recover from any damages. Once they were gone, they were just… well, gone.

Unlike most extinct insects, which vanish unnoticed and unmourned by humans, the Xerces Blue enjoys a moderate degree of fame and notoriety in its afterlife. Officially, it was the first insect species documented to become extinct from habitat loss and urban development. And it became the namesake for the Xerces Society, a conservation non-profit dedicated to preventing any further insect extinctions from happening. But unlike the passenger pigeon or the dodo, there are no plaques, no statues, no monuments, and its name is barely mentioned in popular literature. All that remains are occasional references in books, a handful of specimens in sealed cases in natural history museums and perhaps a few flickers of memory from those lucky enough to see one alive. On my visit to Golden Gate Park, I grieved the loss of the Xerces Blue. The possibility of ever seeing one alive was gone now, and it felt unbearably tragic.

Even as I found myself enjoying the city of San Francisco and all it had to offer (including Golden Gate Park, despite myself), I could not help but question—was it really always a choice between urban development and natural history? Was the destruction of the Xerces Blue inevitable? What could we do differently in the future?

Another species of native butterfly offers new insights into my questions. The California pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor hirsuta) is a smaller, bulkier subspecies of the more widely distributed pipevine swallowtail, found only in California. The caterpillars in their later instars memorably resemble black and orange alien slugs, waving poisonous tentacles as a deterrence to predators; the pupae bear an uncanny resemblance to Metapods from Pokemon Go. The caterpillars only feed on the endemic California pipevine (Aristolachia californica), and their populations were crashing along with that of their food plant. It seemed like the usual extinction narrative was up and running. I braced myself for the worst.

But the story abruptly changed directions. Tim Wong, a biologist working in Golden Gate Park, started growing California pipevine and raising swallowtails in his backyard. The population of swallowtails in the city swelled rapidly. The more pipevine he and others planted in the area, the more butterflies there were. The California pipevine swallowtail is still threatened—there are no real ends in this kind of work—but at least this was a step in the right direction. There is hope. Not too far from the last home of the Xerces Blue, another threatened butterfly species is rebounding. For me, haunted by dreams of vanished butterflies, it felt like a kind of absolution. Maybe this time we wouldn’t screw up.

I think it’s safe to say that no one loved the Xerces Blue the way Tim Wong loves the California pipevine swallowtail—not, at least, until it was too late. Certainly, the simpler biology and wider range of the swallowtail made it easier for its populations to recover. But having human champions, people who were too crazy and too dedicated to sit back and do nothing, turned the tide in San Francisco. And what exactly brought the butterflies back? Creating habitat. Propagating their host plant, California pipevine, planting it in gardens and raising caterpillars. Nothing too big or dramatic. Just small changes, expanded over a wider scale. Anyone could do it, and someone did. And everything changed as a result.

Actions like these remind me that my dreams of gardens full of life and hope are not pipe dreams—or pipevine dreams, for that matter. They offer us an alternative to the usual doom-and-gloom framework, the long, slow, slide or the short, abrupt route to to extinction. They depend not on helplessness, but on personal involvement, personal responsibility, personal action—a reminder that all our actions matter. If everyone cared about just one species or place the way Tim Wong cared about the California pipevine swallowtail—enough to go out of their way to help them flourish in their own community, literally their own backyard—the world would be a vastly different place. Certainly more diverse, anyway. And if just a few people cared—well, that, too, would make a difference between life and death, endings and beginnings, at least for the time being.

Looking back to our awkward conversation in San Francisco, I now know what I would say to my friend, and to everyone else who cares to listen:

“Somewhere, not too far away, there is something so precious you cannot bear to lose it. Find it. Help it. Plant the seeds in your garden; make space for it in your heart. All is not yet lost. All is not yet gone the way of the Xerces Blue. Those that remain, like the California pipevine swallowtail, can still come back to us. All they need is the opportunity. Let us help them come home.”

Green Mountains Walking

The Green Mountains of Vermont, as seen from Jay Peak. Photo by from the nek. Image licensed under creative commons by

Eight hundred years ago, the Japanese Zen master Dogen wrote, “The green mountains are always walking.” I was instantly taken with the truth of his words. Of course the green mountains (and the Green Mountains of Vermont) are always walking! How could they not?

Dogen didn’t know what I know about mountains. Plate tectonics wouldn’t exist for another seven centuries. Unlike Christianity, an ancient earth did not violate accepted Buddhist cosmology, but I doubt he was thinking of the fossil record. Perhaps Dogen was inspired by the inherent vulcanism of his native landscape, where fire spewed from the earth in a continual spasm of creation. Or perhaps he felt this was a useful illustration of deliberately looking outside of the normal, everyday mindset. Whatever the reason, as a naturalist and a reader, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Even though it defies our usual sense of the world, the mountains are walking.

What does it mean to fully know the Green Mountains’ walking? 480 million years ago, the movement of the North American continental plate began a collision course with a volcanic island arc in the midst of the ancient Iapetus Ocean. Over the course of the next thirty million years, the Green Mountains arose out of the jumble of continental crust, hardened lava and silty ocean mudstone, squeezed by the intense heat and pressure into schist. The geological record is peppered with such mountain-building events, taking place on a time scale almost too vast for our minds to contemplate. By human standards, mountains don’t walk, they crawl at a pace so slow a snail looks like a speed demon. And yet—the mountains are moving still.

In the case of the Green Mountains today, that movement is mostly downward, in the form of erosion, as wind and water dig out chunks of rock and sediment. As trivial as these forces might seem in the short term, over time, the mountain ranges can dissolve, sometimes even faster than they formed. For the Green Mountains of today, it’s less walking forwards or backwards in space, and more like running in place.

Of course, Dogen wasn’t talking about the Green Mountains of Vermont when he penned those lines. He may not have even meant “green” mountains—in Japanese, the character he uses, ao (青) can be used to mean blue, green or some subtle variation in between. I find it fitting that Dogen’s language neatly encapsulates the variation in the the Green Mountains I see on the horizon— shimmering blue through fog in the distance, deep rich green closer up, especially at the higher elevations where the darker evergreen conifers overtake deciduous trees.

Why should we even care about the mountains’ walking? For Dogen, it offers a true test of our understanding. Beyond words and phrases, beyond preconceived ideas, the true nature of the world beckons, just waiting for us to look closer and study it. As a naturalist, slowing down to see the mountains walking takes me out of the normal human scale of time and into the older, grander, cosmic story. In my mind, the mountains rise and fall as with a time-lapse camera, millennia pouring away like so many grains of sand, and the mountains flow, just as Dogen insists that they do. From the perspective of walking mountains, ordinary human difficulties no longer seem so challenging. The mountains, by their very nature, remind us that what we think we see is only a part of a larger, ongoing story.

Katherine Hale is a first-year student in the Field Naturalist program.

Snapping Turtles Meet Their Match

snapping-turtle-bryan-pfeifferAt first I thought the big black shape in the lane was a piece of burst tire. Then the tire held out a slow, prehistoric foot and took a step. Its long neck shifted into view as I drove by, and I realized it was a huge snapping turtle. In the few seconds I’d been watching, several cars had already whizzed past, missing it by inches. It was halfway across the first of eight lanes of traffic it would need to traverse to reach the other side of I-93.

I don’t normally cry over road kill. But a mile down the road I pulled into the breakdown lane and burst into tears. I imagined a cop stopping to help with the emergency and discovering, inside the Subaru Forester with, of course, Vermont plates, a young woman sobbing over a turtle who last she saw was unharmed.

The futility of its journey had overwhelmed me. The turtle, moving with the confident plod that has served its species for 40 million years, had looked so out of its element on the highway. It had completed only a fraction of an impossible crossing. This creature, steadfastly putting one foot in front of the other, was utterly screwed.

Early each summer, snapping turtles leave the water to lay eggs on land, traveling up to four miles from home. The one I saw last June may have been a mother looking for a good spot to dig a nest, or a young turtle dispersing from its original home range. Unlike most animals, female snapping turtles disperse over greater distances than males and keep similarly sized home ranges (eight acres on average, in the north). Some nomadic females have no home range at all; others return to the same nest site annually. Since they can retain sperm in their bodies and use it over multiple seasons, they do not need to mate every year.

This strategy has worked well for Chelydra serpentina—so well that it is the ancestor of 80 percent of all living turtles. In fact, snapping turtles have hardly changed in appearance from the earliest turtle, which evolved over 200 million years ago. In other words, proto snapping turtles had already been around for 150 million years when Tyrannosaurus rex appeared on the scene.

Having survived two major extinction events in close to their current shape, modern snapping turtles faced virtually no predators once full grown until a century ago, when the automobile was invented. Now most females living in developed areas die on roads after only a few nesting seasons. Their natural life spans, although they average 30 years, can last over 80 years. In other words, the individual I saw on I-93 could have been older than the highway itself.

This time of year, snapping turtles have buried themselves in the mud of a pond, swamp, or slow-moving stream and begun hibernation, deep enough that the mud around them will not freeze. While they often do spend the winter within their home range, they can travel up to two and a half miles away to hibernate and then return to their territories in the spring. Individuals sometimes stay faithful to a few particular hibernacula, rotating between them year after year. If a site becomes popular, turtles can end up stacked on top of each other for the winter. This group hibernation makes them vulnerable to occasional predation by otters.

Still, I think a turtle stands a better chance unconscious against an aquatic carnivore than crossing an interstate highway. I can only hope that my turtle had already laid her eggs and was on the way back to her pond. Perhaps her hatchlings, if not she herself, now lie safe in the mud, waiting till spring.

Sonia DeYoung is a second-year student in the Field Naturalist Program.

Information gathered from “Snapping Turtles” by Susanne Kynast on The Tortoise Trust website, Naturally Curious by Mary Holland, and Animal Diversity Web.

Cryptic Croakers

Northern leopard frog among fallen maple leaves.

Northern leopard frog spot on with a fallen maple leaf

Hiding in plain sight

Hiding in plain sight

Imagine that you are the size of a Reese’s cup and, to many animals, equally delicious. You occupy a precarious position in the food chain; you are a danger to many, and safe from few. You dine on insects, slugs, snails and even the occasional small bird. Predators that hover above include herons, hawks, and waterfowl. Raccoons, foxes and snakes lurk behind stumps on the ground, awaiting your misstep. Water, your true home, swarms with otter, mink and bullfrogs, each hungry for their main course delicacy. How do you, a northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), survive such an onslaught?

Many of us may think that we witness a frog’s primary defense as it jumps away. But this erratic hopping demonstrates a last-ditch effort to stay alive. Before he leaps for his life, stillness keeps him hidden among the leaves; camouflage is his best friend. Numerous amphibians employ camouflage to protect themselves from potential predators, but few excel in this department as well as the northern leopard frog. Under the cloak of camo, this frog gains the opportunity to find dinner without always becoming it.

The waning months of summer in Vermont bring about new dangers for these cryptic croakers, as they venture from the water’s edge into meadows to forage for food. Luckily, hues of green and brown underlie rounded black spots that decorate the skin in a pattern that serves function over fashion. These colors blend in inconspicuously to the fields of forbs, grasses, and goldenrods in a cloak of camouflage. This crypsis is termed background matching.

The use of background matching is not uncommon elsewhere in the animal kingdom. A white-tailed deer fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) resting on the forest floor, an eastern screech owl (Megascops asio) waiting motionless in the hollow of a tree, or a spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) hiding amongst the autumn leaves are all able to avoid detection with their special camouflage. Whether feather, fur or frog, these animals are a rare treat if your eye can pick them out of the patchwork.

With the warmer portion of fall still upon us, spend a Saturday in the meadows of the Champlain Valley and try to catch a glimpse of a leopard frog during its feeding forays. Vermont winters hit hard for these amphibians. Soon, they’ll head for the trenches with the northern map turtles (Graptemys geographica). Both of these cold-blooded critters move to well-oxygenated waters to escape the brutal winter winds and hunker down into hibernation. They begin to tuck themselves in by late October to early November, and won’t fully emerge until February or March. By then, it will be time to fatten up, find a mate, and blend into their surroundings once more.

Gabe is a first-year Field Naturalist student at UVM

Freshwater Sharks

Snorkeling in frigid waters for a species at-risk

By Levi Old                                                               

Salvelinus confluentusOn a dead-still summer night, I army-crawl upstream.

“We have a large adult!” says Jen.

I rise to one knee and pull the fogged snorkel mask off my head. “A big one?” I mumble in a haze.

“Yeah, really big. Much larger than I’ve ever seen this far up the creek,” she replies, pointing to where it kicked its caudal fin gently against the downstream flow. “It’s right there beside you.”

I cinch the mask on my face, place the snorkel in my mouth, and dunk back into the frigid water:

Twenty-six inches of wildness.

Jen pops her head out of the water and says, “Isn’t that just a beautiful creature?”

She snorkels one side of the creek and I snorkel the other. An assistant in waders walks the creek, tallies our fish sightings and makes sure we do not go hypothermic. Continue reading

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