Secrets of The Vault

Sean and I are in The Vault. We’ve been here for a while—hours now. It’s less grandiose than it sounds, really just a back room in the Charlotte Town Hall, but it gives me the same feeling I get from the New York Public Library or a fancy art museum. Tread lightly, the walls are saying. Look closely. We have secrets for you.

Inside The Vault. Photo by Samantha Ford.

Inside The Vault. Photo by Samantha Ford.

What’s amazing is that the secrets of The Vault are not really secret at all. Every document in the room is in the public record, even the original map of the Town of Charlotte, hand-drawn in 1763. The massive red books of land records, the card catalogues of births and deaths—these pages of history are not preserved behind glass; we are perfectly free to look at them. I can reach out a hand, every now and then, to gently trace this two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old calligraphy.

We’re here to research the UVM Natural Area at Pease Mountain, a prominent hill directly west of the Charlotte Town Hall and just north of Mount Philo along the Champlain thrust fault. This semester, our cohort is performing a Landscape Inventory and Assessment of the area. We’ve spent several weekends strolling along the mountain’s broken quartzite ledges, and we’re starting to get a sense of the property’s natural resources. The soil is thin but rich, patterned here and there with the frostbitten remains of last year’s hepatica leaves. The trees are not the usual beech-birch-maple assortment we expected, but a variety of species used to warmer, drier climates: peeling trunks of shagbark hickory, gnarled red oaks, bitternut hickories with their sulfur-yellow buds. We’ve noticed hints of other mysteries: a road cut here, an old stone foundation there. UVM acquired the property in 1949; Sean and I want to know who has owned Pease Mountain–and what it’s been used for–as far back as the town’s records go.

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First subdivision of the town of Charlotte.

We start by looking in the Index, a twenty-pound tome containing a list of every land transaction undertaken in Charlotte until the book ran out of pages around 1960. Thankfully the Index is alphabetized and we quickly find the record we need: “Jeanette S. Pease Phelps and George J. Holden to University of Vermont and State Agricultural College.”

I’m immediately absorbed in the web of archaic legalese that follows: “Now, know ye, That pursuant to the license and authority aforesaid, and not otherwise…We do by these Presents, grant, bargain, sell, convey and confirm unto the said University of Vermont…the following described land…Being Pease Mountain, so-called, in the town of Charlotte.” The deed was written barely more than half a century ago, but it reads like something from the middle ages. The solemn tone is compelling. I can picture the occasion, the buyers and sellers grouped around a table, poised to sign below the words, “In witness whereof, we hereunto set our hands and seals…”

Original charter of the town of Williston. Photo by Samantha Ford.

Original charter of the town of Williston. Photo by Samantha Ford.

We follow the trail further and further back, tracing property descriptions bounded by increasingly vague terms: “…to the N.E. corner of said lot to a maple stump with a cedar stake in said stump. Thence southerly on the west line of said owned by Everett Rich to a cedar stake & stones in the S.E. corner. Thence westerly on the north line…” The record books get thinner as we travel back in time, the pages more brittle, the writing fainter. Eventually we find ourselves scrutinizing a gridded map: the second subdivision of the town.

Accompanying the map with its numbered parcels, we find a list of the original owners of those parcels. Lot number 1, which at the time encompassed most of Pease Mountain, is ascribed to “Glebe for the Church.” We puzzle over this. Who was Glebe? We haven’t heard any mention of him in more recent deeds. Was he a minister?

Glebe for the Church. It sounds like a momentous designation. We finally think to Google the strange phrase, and we discover the ancient tradition of glebe land. It’s not a person after all, but a kind of conservation easement. When Vermont’s first towns were established, certain plots of land were set aside to remain undeveloped. These lands were leased to farmers or timber harvesters in exchange for a rental fee, which paid for municipal costs or, in this case, the upkeep of the parish. For hundreds of years, Pease Mountain was preserved by this tradition.

Mysterious stone structure found on Pease Mountain.

One of several mysterious stone structures found on Pease Mountain.

As we leave the Town Hall, Sean and I glance up at Pease. Our journey through the handwritten history of Charlotte has given us a deeper sense of this place. As we’ve walked there with our cohort we’ve mapped natural communities and forest stands, discovered vernal pools and views over the lake. But walking and looking can only take us so far back. Beyond the oaks and hickories, the purple cliffs, the porcupine and bobcat dens, there is another Pease Mountain story. It’s no longer legible in the landscape. But luckily for us, it’s all written down in the record books.

Julia Runcie is a first-year student in the Ecological Planning program.

Fire in the Swamp

Lake Drummond, at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia. Photo by Jessie Griffen

Lake Drummond, at the center of the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia. All photos by Jessie Griffen.

Tannins color the swamp water a rich, dark brown.

Tannins color the swamp water a rich, dark brown.

Coffee-colored water peels away from our boat, sending ripples across the glass surface of Lake Drummond. The ancient cypress trees begin to dance as our wake bends their reflections. We’re crossing this hidden, undeveloped lake at the center of a once-vast wetland stretching from southern Virginia across a million acres into North Carolina. Now the Great Dismal Swamp is reduced to (a still impressive) 110,000 acres, hemmed in by development. We have this otherworldly, placid coffee lake all to ourselves on an unseasonably warm December day.

 

As we approach the other side of the lake, the shoreline landscape changes abruptly from dense swamp to a vast swath of burnt toothpicks. In the past ten years, two massive wildfires have swept through the Great Dismal Swamp. The most recent fire in 2011, Lateral West, consumed 6,500 acres and burned for 111 days, despite 12.5 million dollars expended in suppression efforts1. Not even the torrential rains of Hurricane Irene could squelch the fire.

Yet the swamp is inundated for half the year. Its organic soil, peat, is 85-95% water in its natural saturated state, and well known for its ability to retain moisture. How can a peatland burn?

Fire, it turns out, has been a natural process in the Great Dismal Swamp for hundreds, maybe even thousands, of years. Peat, composed mostly of decaying plants, contains a lot of carbon—read: fuel for fire—compared to other soils. It’s so rich in carbon that high moisture content does not necessarily prevent combustion. Dry it out, and the whole swamp basically becomes a tinderbox. The water table in the Great Dismal Swamp fluctuates seasonally, normally falling below the soil from July through November. Lightning can ignite surface fires that smolder for months in the soil. Many of the plant assemblages in the Great Dismal Swamp actually depend on fires to persist. Lake Drummond likely formed from a massive peat fire1. But that’s not the whole story…

The shoreline of Lake Drummond changes abruptly to reveal a vast burn scar, a remnant of two large wildlifes that have seared the swamp in the past ten years.

The shoreline of Lake Drummond changes abruptly to reveal a vast burn scar, a remnant of two large wildfires that have seared the swamp in the past ten years.

In May 1763, George Washington visited the Great Dismal Swamp for the first time and saw opportunity where its first colonial discoverer, William Byrd, famously saw a “horrible desert…toward the center of it no beast or bird approaches, nor so much as an insect or reptile exists.” Washington invested in the swamp and began a long history of ditching and draining it for agriculture and logging.

Today, 158 miles of logging roads and ditches traverse the swamp, severely altering its natural hydrologic cycle. Parts of the refuge that were once seasonally saturated have been drained, and when peat is left dry for too long, it transforms to a granular, oxidized state that will not re-saturate, even under flooded conditions. Centuries of logging have left a legacy of fuel for fire in the form of slash. Add hotter, drier weather patterns to the mix, a few strikes of lightning, and the resulting blaze will be visible from space.

As climate patterns increasingly shift, what role will peatlands play in the global carbon cycle? In many peatlands, inundation slows the rate of decomposition, and carbon-rich organic soils slowly build up. The organic soils in the Great Dismal Swamp, for example, are over 51 inches deep in places. Many scientists view peatlands as an important carbon sink because they store carbon below ground for long periods of time. When peatlands burn, they release the stored soil carbon into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases, and peat fires often smolder for months, reaching deep into the thick peat—the Great Dismal Swamp lost over a 39 inches of organic soil in some areas in the 2011 fire2.

Peat fires are different from forest fires as we’re used to thinking about them. They are exceedingly difficult to extinguish, and the carbon emitted by burning soil can dwarf emissions from aboveground forest. The impact can be massive—Lateral West emitted much higher amounts of carbon per unit area compared to five other fires that burned mostly aboveground plants and trees2. In 1997, massive peat fires in Indonesia released an equivalent amount of carbon to 13-40% of the average annual global carbon emissions from fossil fuels3. And most of that carbon came from the soil.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, has been working for years to restore the hydrology of the Great Dismal Swamp, and balance the benefits and risks of wildfire—an already complex task that is likely to be exacerbated by climate change. Who knew that draining a swamp could have such dismal consequences?

A final view of the Great Dismal Swamp.

A final view of the Great Dismal Swamp.

References:

  1. Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Nansemond National Wildlife Refuge Final Comprehensive Conservation Plan. (2006).
  2. Reddy, A. D. et al. Quantifying soil carbon loss and uncertainty from a peatland wildfire using multi-temporal LiDAR. Remote Sens. Environ. 170, 306–316 (2015).
  3. Page, S. E. et al. The amount of carbon released from peat and forest fires in Indonesia during 1997. Nature 420, 61–66 (2002).

Additional information gathered from The Nature Conservancy, the Washington Post report on Lateral West, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Jessie Griffen is a second year graduate student in the Ecological Planning Program. She is grateful to Dr. William Old and Levi Old for an amazing voyage into the Great Dismal Swamp.

Beyond the Jeep Road Sits Coyote — Wilderness in 2015

Southwestern desert

Southwestern desert

By Levi Old

On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.

After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.

“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.

“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”

I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.

The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness. Continue reading

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

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

Fir Waves

Fir_SmallBy Gus Goodwin

I suspect there is a positive correlation between one’s appreciation for fir waves and one’s distance from them.  From a distance, fir waves etch a pleasing pattern on the landscape, pose interesting ecological questions, and remind us that turmoil can be a form of stability.  Up close, they inflict scrapes and puncture wounds, incite expletives, and remind us to plan the next vacation to California, where the mountains have no trees (and it hardly ever rains).

Continue reading

The Burlington Naturalist Scavenger Hunt Series: Williston’s Muddy Brook Wetland

A special series of blog posts brought to you by Liz Brownlee 
The Burlington Naturalist Scavenger Hunt Series: Discover the area’s hidden gems.  Hone your naturalist skills.  Learn to see the treasures along every walking path, trail, and creek.
This series of scavenger hunts is a chance to get outside, look closely at the world around you, and enjoy nature.  The hunts are designed for budding naturalists of any age.
 
Hunt I: Williston’s Muddy Brook Wetland
 
Cruise east, away from the noise of Burlington. Slip south of Highway Two, curving along Hinesburg Road onto Van Slicken Road.  Pass the oldest house in Williston – light grey stones, hand hewn in the 18th century.  Crunch onto the gravel of the parking lot, leave your car (or bike!), and step into the wildness at Muddy Brook Wetland.
Cattails dance on the winter wind, and signs of animals layer this scrubby landscape. To the casual visitor, Williston’s Muddy Brook Wetland rejuvenates and relaxes.  It is a deep breath at the end of the day.
For the budding naturalist equipped with this scavenger hunt, the wetland also offers mid-winter wonder.  Look closely at the ground, the bent grasses, the flowing stream. Find and learn to identify scat, deciduous trees, nests, and other natural treasures. Enjoy!
Find the first scavenger hunt here: Scavenger Hunt- Williston’s Muddy Brook Wetland

The Charisma of the Drab

Wandering down Boulevard Saint Germain near Notre Dame in Paris, I passed a store window filled with insect specimens on display. The stylish sign read Claude et Nature (Claude and Nature).

I veered into the store, astonished that such a place exists. A small stuffed bison (small for a bison, that is) stood in the center of the store, next to a case of fossils. On the right were black cases full of artfully arranged insect specimens. On the left were fossils, shells, stuffed birds, skulls (human and weasel, among others), and sea stars. All were perfectly preserved and arranged, and neatly labeled with the species name and country of origin.

I spent some time perusing the insects—they had an uncommon family of weevils!—then wandered into the fossil section, then back to the insects.

Other customers were in the store, buying up iridescent blue morpho butterflies, flashy rhinoceros beetles with horny ornamentations, and large walking stick insects, which look just like knobby sticks with legs. All of the creatures on sale were eye-catching in some way. I found myself disappointed that there weren’t more insects with mundane appearances. I craved some little drab ones so I could learn about their diversity. One of the most beautiful insects I’ve ever seen was brown and white and hardly bigger than a pinhead (a lacebug, in case you are curious). The insects present were in families already familiar to me.

This led me to ponder one of the differences between amateur and expert naturalists: level of attraction to charismatic megafauna.

Amateur naturalists and non-naturalists flock to the Serengeti to see lions and elephants, even just for a few hours. Few head to sandy beaches in Massachusetts to see tiger beetles. And when they buy preserved insects, they buy the largest, most colorful individuals. Experts and devoted amateurs, on the other hand, may be eager to see lions and tigers, but they are also there for the naked mole rats and dung beetles. Why?

I believe the answer has to do with memory and learning. An inherent characteristic of many animals is that they easily remember something bright, large, or dangerous. This is what is exploited by the wasp’s black and yellow warning coloration: remember me, don’t bother me, I sting. Young blue jays who eat a monarch butterfly and then vomit refuse to eat a second monarch because they recognize it. They may also refuse to eat other orange and black butterflies, whether or not those butterflies are actually noxious.

Just because I can easily remember what a blue morpho butterfly looks like doesn’t mean I’ll want a dead one hanging on my wall. A blue morpho is a beautiful blue that flashes sometimes deep sea blue, sometimes robin’s egg blue. I enjoy seeing beautiful things—that’s why I want it on my wall.

But I could just as well hang an iridescent blue hubcap on my wall; why a butterfly? Now my answer comes to the crux: because our love of living things is inherent.

This love is called biophilia, a term coined by E.O. Wilson and expounded upon by him and Stephen Kellert. This is why I find myself drawn to watch the fish in my aquarium and end up with a stupid, happy grin on my face. This is why people spend 30 Euros on a dead long-horned beetle (in spite of being dead, the beetle retains its living appearance when preserved).

I think experts have these three things—memory, appreciation of beauty, and biophilia—in larger or more finely tuned doses. Entomologists know and remember much more about insects than the average Schmoe, so they are more likely to remember the little drab ones as well as the big sexy beasts. They can notice more about a lacebug because they already know what it is. Their appreciation is honed to subtler beauty.

I have made it sound like being an expert is better than being an amateur in terms of seeing and loving the beauty of the world. Not so. Experts in the beauty of soil chemistry may be amateurs in the intricacies of maggot hibernation or cloud formation. They may not even see other parts of the world in any depth. Amateurs may be able to see and appreciate a broader slice of the world because they do not dig too deep a tunnel. I think there is a world between the loud blue morphos and the rare weevils where subtle beauty can be found and cherished.

On my last night in Paris I walked to Notre Dame, then across the Seine to the Hotel de Ville. There was an ice-skating rink set up in the square and a crowd of bundled Parisians whirling round and round. Some wobbled and held onto their equally wobbly friends, laughing and crashing into the wall around the rink. Others raced in weaving lines between the wobblers, or twirled on their blade tips in the center, muscular and graceful. The amateurs enjoyed laughing with their friends. For the experts, it may have been getting a move right. Both the amateurs and the experts were paying attention to the beauty of the experience, be it loud or subtle.

Natural Destinations: Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area

by Cathy Bell

(originally posted on vtdigger.org)

Every autumn, thousands of snow geese take a break from their 5,000 mile southbound migration to rest and feed at Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area in Addison, Vermont.  Journeying from their breeding grounds on the Arctic tundra to their winter range in the mid-Atlantic and southeastern states, the snow geese are but fleeting visitors to the Green Mountain State, descending on our cornfields from October into early November.

The bright white feathers of a snow goose’s body contrast with tips of the wings, which look as though they have been dipped in paint of the richest black.  Young birds are brushed with gray on their backs, giving them a dirty appearance.  Here and there among the flocks are dark gray individuals with white faces.  These steely-looking birds, commonly known as “blue geese,” are the same species as the white ones.  Snow geese of either coloration are far prettier, to my eye, than our resident Canada geese.  Getting to see these visitors from the north is a seasonal treat.

Snow geese

Snow geese at Dead Creek

Hoping to find some snow geese, I went to Dead Creek on Saturday, October 30.  The day started out sunny but clouded up as the big Halloween nor’easter worked its way towards New England.  Driving down Route 22A from the north, I made a right turn onto Route 17.  I had gone less than a mile from Addison Four Corners when I saw a wheeling flock of waterfowl.  Backlit, the winged forms did not reveal any details of their plumage, but the size and flight pattern didn’t seem quite right for Canada geese.  Even as I thought to myself that I must be in the right place, I saw a turnoff on the south side of the road.  I pulled off the highway, shut off the ignition, and hopped out of the car, binoculars in hand.  Looking to the south, I felt my jaw drop in wonder.

About 800 geese were in a field very close by, in easy sight of a viewing platform with interpretive signs.  Hundreds more were in a distant depression.  From the knot of people with binoculars and spotting scopes a quarter mile to the west, I guessed there was another—possibly even bigger—group of geese over there too.  Aerial photo counts that weekend documented more than 4,600 geese in the area, but few people braved the chill wind of the gray afternoon to witness the impressive spectacle.

A northern harrier, its white rump patch catching the watery light, startled the nearest geese into rising from where they rested and fed.  Within moments, the nervousness of a few waterfowl swept through the flock, and hundreds of birds were in the air, honking their discontent in a higher-pitched and more tremulous voice than that of the familiar Canada goose.

Though I looked carefully, I failed to find any Ross’s geese among the swirling clouds of white waterfowl.  Snow geese and Ross’s geese are two distinct species, though very similar in appearance; the rarer Ross’s is more diminutive in build and has a smaller bill.  I later read on the Vermont bird listserv that there were indeed two Ross’s geese at Dead Creek that afternoon, but they were the needles in the haystack of thousands of snow geese.

I may have lucked into witnessing the peak of this year’s snow goose migration, but there’s still time for you to see the spectacular waterfowl as they pass through Vermont.

At 2,858 acres, Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area is administered by Vermont Fish and Wildlife and includes extensive reaches of cattail marsh and stretches of open water.  The geese, however, are concentrated in upland agricultural fields.  The designated goose viewing area along Route 17 is the best place to see the birds, but a little farther south, Gage Road can provide good sightings as well.

Moreover, though the snow geese may be the star attraction, there is more here for inquisitive visitors to enjoy.  Northern shovelers and green-winged teal dabble in the shallow, ponded water of the fields, and once in a while a pectoral sandpiper passes by overhead.  A quarter mile west of the goose viewing turnoff, Route 17 crosses the still, murky waters of Dead Creek.  Mallards and black ducks ply the waters here.  Just over the bridge, a left turn takes you down a gravel road towards a hunters’ camping area.  Look along the reedy edges of the water for great blue herons and wood ducks.  Despite its name, Dead Creek is a lively place.

The creek flows northward, parallel to the southernmost portion of Lake Champlain.  Just seven miles north of where it flows under Route 17, the creek joins with Otter Creek and soon wends its way into the lake.  Its meandering path has been modified by the addition of dams, and today, the state actively manages water levels in the flooded impoundments.

The snow goose hunting season runs from October 1 – December 29 in the Lake Champlain waterfowl hunting zone, with a daily bag limit of 25 birds.  Portions of the Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area, including the upland areas south of Route 17 near the viewing area, are managed as a refuge where no hunting or other public access is permitted.

More information, including maps and directions, is available from Audubon Vermont and Vermont Fish and Wildlife.