Magic Waters


Ice on the LaPlatte River in February.

“There is magic in running water, for after I have thought its life history all out there is still much unexplained.”  

These are the words of my great-grandfather, from a book he wrote ninety-three years ago called Man’s Spiritual Contact with the Landscape.  I never met him, as he died long before I was born, but from his words I can tell that we have much in common.  

Every morning I walk beside the LaPlatte River in Shelburne and contemplate the life history of its waters.  One morning this February a frozen flood made the magic in those waters visible.  Rain on snow during a warm snap caused the level of the river to rise quickly during the night.  By morning the river was several feet above its normal water level.  The water fell gradually, but the temperature plunged quickly, and during the next night a thin layer of ice formed on the surface of the waters, marking the height of the water at the coldest part of the night.  It was as though someone had pressed a pause button on the flood, and an eighth-inch-thick sheet of ice clung to trees and sticks, hovering six inches above the ground.

Frozen floodwaters of the LaPlatte River.

The frozen floodwaters of the LaPlatte River this past February.

My dog and I crashed through this frozen landscape the next morning and reveled in the sparkling beauty of a world draped in a silver cloak of ice.  Now, in April, the flood plain no longer sparkles, exactly – it wears the drab browns and greys of early spring.  Bits of green poke through here and there, but for the most part every surface is still coated with the fine layer of silt left behind by receding flood waters.  I revel in this landscape, too, because a functioning floodplain ecosystem is a beautiful thing.

That thin layer of silt represents a fresh collection of nutrient-rich sediment for the hungry plants and trees of the flood plain.  The plants of the flood plain are specially adapted to live in this water- and nutrient-rich environment, and they often depend on annual flooding not just for nutrients, but also to spread their seeds and carry away any less well-adapted competition.  Different plants adapt to different environments of the flood plain, some preferring the naturally formed berms just beyond the banks of the river, while others are more suited to the slow-to-drain boggy back-swamps.  These, too, depend on flooding for their formation.  

Marks created on a floated chunk of ice when it was carried beneath a tree overhanging the river.

Marks created on a floating chunk of ice when it was carried beneath a tree overhanging the river.

Roiling and fast moving flood waters contain a lot of energy, enough energy to carry much more than just silt.  Sand, stones, and larger sediment often get swept up and transported long distances in a rushing spring river.  When a river leaves its banks it immediately loses much of its energy.  The water slows and spreads out across the floodplain, dropping first the heavy sediment, such as sands and gravel, and then the finer silts and organic materials further out.  This sorting by size is what results in the gentle berms immediately past the banks of the river, and the silt that travels further is smaller, so it packs more tightly together when it reaches the ground, creating the slowly draining back-swamps beyond the berms.  

A wood frog found in April along the floodplain of the LaPlatte.

A wood frog found in April along the floodplain of the LaPlatte.

Right now, in the pools of flood and melt water filling the back-swamps, peepers and wood frogs sing their spring chorus of lust in hopes of attracting a mate.  These swamps and pools dry completely late in the year, and so sustain fewer aquatic predators that might eat the breeding amphibians or their eggs, so these pools are important for their survival.  And their survival should be important to us, because amphibians are the main predators of mosquito larvae, who also favor the standing waters of back-swamps.  Another frequent inhabitant of back-swamps, eastern newts, are capable of eating over 300 mosquito larvae in one day.  

Many mammals also rely on the floodplain forests for their survival.  Chipmunks and minks prey on the amphibians, and then in turn feed foxes, coyotes, and bobcats. Beavers are the architects of the channel, building dams and lodges that move the flow, eroding this bank or that, building sand bars with the changing flow path.  Birds ranging from tiny wrens and finches all the way up to red-tailed hawks, ravens, and turkey vultures also feed on the life that surrounds the river.  

My grandfather’s book included a chapter for each month of the year, but he began with the running waters of April.  As I walk beside the river each morning it is not so difficult to see why, for the river and its tributaries are like veins through the landscape: they carry life.  Life that wakes and grows and flies and sings in April.  So next time you find yourself beside a river in April, look beyond the dull grey patina of silt and enjoy the magic that is running water.  

Silver maple flowers developing into seeds beside the LaPlatte river. Silver maple is a common floodplain tree species.

Silver maple flowers developing into seeds beside the LaPlatte River. Silver maple is a common floodplain tree species.

Shelby Perry is a second year student in the Field Naturalist program.  Her great-grandfather, Stephen F. Hamblin, was the author of the book Man’s Spiritual Contact with the Landscape and co-author of Handbook of Wild Flower Cultivation.  He was a professor of horticulture and landscape architecture at Harvard University and the Rhode Island School of Design and founded the Lexington Botanic Garden.  

The Colors of Faoilleach

We’re in the middle of faoilleach – the Gaelic season comprising the last three weeks of winter and first three weeks of spring. Before you groan over the absence of green, and wish yourself in the lime lighting of a June forest, take time to notice and celebrate other colors that hint to the great awakenings of spring.



Beneath their pearly coats, the emerging catkins (spikes of single-sex, drooping, petal-less flowers) of the pussy willow glow magenta. Their presence is a cherished ritual of the seasons, Sigurd Olson writes, “In a world seething with mistrust, suspicion and clashing ideologies, pussy willows may be vital to the welfare of man and his serenity”.



Look for the deep burgundy color in the male catkins of speckled alder as their flowers begin to develop. As the male catkins begin to expand, the color brightens. Eventually the burgundy shifts toward yellow as the pollen develops. Note the smaller scarlet female catkins nubs above (these will transform into the cone-like structures that persist throughout the winter).



Ivory hairs gleam in newly opened shadbush buds. They help insulate the flowers from spring cold snaps. Soon clusters of 5-petaled propeller-like white flowers will emerge. The flowering time is an important seasonal clock – marking when shad swim upstream to spawn (hence the name) and the period when colonists who died over the winter were buried, hence another name—serviceberry.



Look for the bursting auburn flowers of silver maples lining streets and rivers, especially noticeable against a bluebird sky. This fast-growing and short-lived species carries its male and female flowers separately, although sometimes on the same tree.



Catkin tips shine silver as they emerge from flower buds of trembling aspen. Male and female catkins are found on separate trees. Despite millions of fluffy seeds produced, strict germinating constraints limit the success of these seeds. Thus aspens rely on root sprouting clones to earn their title of most widely distributed tree in North America.



Spring sun vividly reddens Red Osier Dogwood in early spring. The brilliance of color, generated by anthocyanin pigments in the bark, is determined by light intensity. In shaded areas, its stems and branches still grow, yet in greener tones.

If you’re impatient for the mints and emeralds, limes and jades, you can force the color. Simply place a twig in a jar with water near a window and be comforted by the return of green that will reveal itself outside in time.


Ellen Gawarkiewicz is a first-year graduate student in the Field Naturalist Program.

Restoring the American Elm

An arborist harvests flower buds from an American elm in Charlotte, Vermont. Photo credit: Gus Goodwin, The Nature Conservancy.

The flower buds from Mrs. Waters’ elm tree are 35,000 feet up in the stratosphere on an express flight to Ohio. The goal is to get them there before they dry up. When they arrive, scientists will lay them on wax paper, collect their pollen as it falls from the stamens, and use it to hand-pollinate the flowers of Ohio elms that are receptive and waiting in the lab. These buds may be the key to restoring the American elm to dominance in the floodplain forests of the Eastern United States, a focal project of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and floodplain ecologist Christian Marks.

The buds’ progenitor, a four-foot diameter American elm in Charlotte, Vermont, named Henrietta, has beat the odds. Located merely a stone’s throw from four other elms, all of which have succumbed to Dutch elm disease (DED), Henrietta is noticeably larger and healthier. Though she (also a he—American elms bear “perfect” flowers, with both male and female parts) has signs of DED on two branches, the remainder of the tree is healthy enough to produce flowering buds, a luxury that the sick elms around it cannot afford. Normally, trees exposed to DED die within a year of exposure[i]. That this one has not– and that it continues to flower—suggests it may possess some degree of resistance.

After scientists cross-pollinate the Vermont and Ohio elms, they will tend the branches until they set seed. When the seeds mature into small, wafer-like samaras, evolved for wind dispersal, the Ohio scientists will airmail them back to Marks (wind dispersal by mechanized means) who will then grow them to seedlings and plant them in one of TNC’s floodplain forest restoration preserves. But that’s not all. What’s to say those young seedlings won’t succumb to the same fate as their not-so-fortunate relatives?

For Marks to know that Henrietta is a stalwart, he must subject her offspring to a potentially fatal injection of DED when they reach one inch in diameter. Though it will be some time before we find out if Henrietta is truly resistant, the offspring of buds collected from other trees in 2011 and 2012 are approaching the requisite diameter for testing. And while “absolute resistance” is the stuff of science fiction, previous studies conducted through Guelph University in Canada found a heightened level of resistance in 25% of lab-pollinated offspring reared from large, healthy elms[ii]. Marks is hopeful for a similar (or better) result from his Vermont/Ohio crosses, which were selected not only for their size, but also for their proximity to elms that have succumbed to DED.

If Marks and his colleagues succeed in cultivating a DED-resistant American elm, this stately canopy tree may eventually be restored to its position in the highest strata of the floodplain forests in the Eastern United States and Canada. And though we may not be alive to see it regain canopy dominance, we can celebrate that the elm’s capacity for water uptake may reduce the severity of future flooding events, bald eagles may return to nest in its branches, and our children will once again walk to school beneath trees for which many American streets were named.

Perhaps this dream begins with the plump red buds bound – at this moment – for Ohio.

American elm flower buds. Photo credit: Gus Goodwin, TNC.

[i][ii] Christian Marks, personal communication, 9 March 2016.

Hannah Phillips is a first-year graduate student in the Ecological Planning Program. She is grateful to Christian Marks, Gus Goodwin, and The Nature Conservancy-Vermont, for welcoming her on this outing, to Mrs. Waters for offering samples from her tree, and to Chea Waters Evans for cleverly naming the tree Henrietta (after Henrietta Lacks).


By Sean Beckett

winterization_bear_SB-3038One good thing about a mild winter is we avoid that familiar experience of leaving a warm house to enter the arctic interior of a frosty, morning car. Imagine sitting down in that frigid seat: Your shoulders tense and tighten like old taffy, you shiver spontaneously, and the chill leaks into your soul at the space between your pants and socks. Your heart accelerates and your blood pressure spikes. Eventually, either your mental resolve or your car’s heating system recalls you from distress.

Your rational mind knows that things could be a lot worse, so why does our very evolution invoke this intense response anyway? When hit with cold, skin receptors tell the brain to dump a hormone into our system that forces all these unpleasantries. And being cold is so intensely unpleasant because the same chemical, norepinephrine, also floods your body in times of fight-or-flight-style crisis. According to your system, this is an emergency, so your body reacts by pulling out all the stops to maintain core temperature. Veins constrict, shunting your warm blood away from the skin and extremities to prevent heat loss. Your muscles tense to double metabolic heat production, or you shiver to increase it tenfold.

This response is handy for someone freezing to death on a mountainside, but is a supreme overreaction to sitting in a cold car. The reaction is the same because an uncalibrated nervous system doesn’t know the difference between chilly air and certain death, so it plays it safe by overreacting to everything. The body is trying everything it can to maintain homeostasis (that magic core temperature of 98.6 degrees).

branches covered in snow emerge from the smooth, pristine snowpack

branches covered in snow emerge from the smooth, pristine snowpack

Fortunately, like any good piece of hardware, the human body can “winterize.” Regular and sustained exposure to cold trains the body to react more measuredly. After a couple weeks, the brain no longer pays as much attention to unhappy skin receptors. The norepinephrine dose attenuates, and with it the body’s response: Vasoconstriction diminishes, circulation is maintained to the hands and feet for longer, and body temperature can dip before shivering commences. When these responses are really needed (when it gets really cold), they feel less psychologically distracting. This is ultimately why we can wear a t-shirt on the first nice day in April, but need a jacket at the same temperature in September.

Spend enough time in the cold, and the body acclimatizes in extraordinary ways. Instead of vasoconstriction, blood vessels in an Inuit’s hands dilate: His hands receive extra warm blood so he doesn’t lose manual dexterity. Australian aboriginals, who experience near-freezing temperatures every night, can comfortably sleep nude— and actually enter a mild hypothermia to conserve energy— at temperatures that make most people shiver uncontrollably. Some of us even develop special heat-generating fat deposits (called brown fat) around the organs that we recently assumed were only found in human infants and cold-hardy wildlife. Cold temperatures activate brown fat production, and subsequent cold activates its metabolism— the body’s equivalent of stacking firewood to burn for warmth later.

We will never be able to weather the cold like a polar bear, or even like the chickadee chirping delightedly on a bird feeder at -20F. After all, we are a species of naked apes that crawled out of Africa’s tropical rift valley. So how do some of us live perfectly happily in conditions cold enough to freeze snot? Perseverance and willpower, the traits we often find backing most impressive human endeavors, are again the assets that carry us to our biological limits. So while we wait for winter to truly hit, prepare yourself with some light suffering. In a rude example of literally “no pain, no gain,” our affinity for hot cocoa and wood fires during the holidays just prolongs our discomfort once we actually make it outside. A little chill today will winterize your body for the months ahead.

Sean Beckett is a naturalist, guide, photographer, and graduate student in the Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs at the University of Vermont. See more of Sean’s writing and photos at

For more on winterizing yourself, check out:

Giving Thanks For Nature: A Meditation

solidago-550x764Despite the concrete, compelling realities of pine-cone gall aphids, winter buds, and migrating waterfowl, I head indoors as Thanksgiving approaches, trading adventures afield for the familiar comforts of food and friends. Chopping squash and garroting cabbage, I’m preoccupied with the wonders outside, even as I think about the purpose of this holiday—gratitude.

What do we celebrate on Thanksgiving? Family, of course. Not to mention food, football, and Black Friday shopping—maybe not quite precisely in that order. But something is missing for me, something that doesn’t neatly fit into that cozy human narrative. What else gives meaning to my life? Sunflowers and snow buntings, mourning cloak butterflies and polygonia orchids, mysterious fungi peeping from the trunks of trees. How can I bring them fully into the folds of my celebration? Where are they in all of this?

Across the waters of Lake Champlain, the Haudenosaunee people of upstate New York begin every gathering by thanking all of the beings of the world in a prayer they call “Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen” — literally,“The Words Before All Else.” Although it is often called “The Thanksgiving Address” in English, it was not limited to one day of the year. Sacred and holy, yet simultaneously woven into the fabric of everyday life, the words thanked everything in the universe for being exactly as it was and supporting life. The human folk, the earth, the sky, the winds, the animals, the food plants, medicinal herbs, trees, birds, the sun—the list seems exhaustive. Yet, at the end, anything still left unnamed is incorporated into the fold. Even the mysterious and unknown is worthy of honor and recognition. And every section ends the same way:Now our minds are one.”

So it can be done. We can bring all of the wonders outside into our kitchens if we want them there, whenever we want, by naming them and appreciating them as they are. But it’s not enough for me to see the world and appreciate it on my own; I want to share it with others and hear their own words in turn. Perhaps it’s too much to expect that level of connection every day, but on Thanksgiving, of all days, it feels more doable. We’re already gathered together, already here. Why not venture a few steps further in the outdoors and make the connection with a wider, marvelous universe?

But let’s keep it simple for now. Let’s start by expressing our gratitude for the natural world on this day of all days, for just one day. Let’s eat our turkey and pumpkin pie, and head outside for a walk. Or even a glance out of the window. There’s so much to see. The naked silhouette of sugar maples against the morning sky. The full moon on fallow fields burned by the frost. The rabbit skittering into the bushes, the chipmunk that skirts our path, the red-tailed hawk on the telephone wire. Look around. Try it out. See how it feels. Speak out, to family and friends on this one day, about all the things we experience and value in the natural world throughout the whole year. And maybe from those experiences will come new traditions—not dictated by some outside authority but welling up organically inside our own hearts.

Whether you’re spending Thanksgiving ensconced in the kitchen, up to your elbows in entrails, counting down the hours until Black Friday, or wandering afar in fields foreign or familiar, I hope your day is a joyous one. Wherever you are, find a way to stay connected to what truly moves you. The world is so big and rich when we take the time to stop for a moment and see it as it is. And complete the circle by sharing what you see with others and seeing the world through their own eyes in turn. Our minds may not be one, but we’ll be closer to being on the same page.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


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

Evergreen and Everlasting: The Long March of the Lycophytes

Artist’s rendering of a Carboniferous swamp. From “The World Before the Deluge” by Eduard Riou, 1872. Public domain work of art.

Artist’s rendering of a Carboniferous swamp. From “The World Before the Deluge” by Eduard Riou, 1872. Public domain work of art.

In the murky, humid forests of the Carboniferous Period, organisms grew to remarkable size. Dragonflies as big as Cooper’s hawks ruled the air and three-foot-long scorpions prowled the earth. The swampy water concealed beasts like the dawn tadpole, a predatory amphibian as long as a pickup truck. The canopy showcased elegant tree precursors: spore-bearing lycophytes a hundred feet tall.

Today, dragonflies are rarely any bigger than a clothespin. Tadpoles are tiny and harmless, and scorpions could fit in your palm (not that you’d want them there). This widespread diminution may be related to a dramatic decrease in atmospheric oxygen concentration since the Carboniferous. Even the lycophytes have had to shrink to survive. Yet three hundred million years after their age of supremacy, lycophytes persist in forests from the poles to the tropics. We call them clubmosses. They are usually less than four inches tall.

In early November, clubmosses leap into view on the forest floor, bright green runners in a matrix of brown. These evergreen plants are not actually mosses, but true vascular plants more similar to ferns and horsetails. At first glance they are easily mistaken for conifer seedlings; hence the common names ground pine and ground cedar. Lateral stems called rhizomes carry them across the ground. Periodically they send up vertical shoots, which emerge out of the leaf litter to capture sunlight. Having evolved before the seed, clubmosses disperse by means of spores, which most species carry in tiny kidney-shaped pouches packed together on a club-like appendage called a strobilus.

Ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum) with strobilus.

Ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum) with strobilus.

Wind-borne clubmoss spores are easily dispersed, but they have a long road and two life phases ahead of them. After germination, spores develop into tiny, often subterranean organisms called gametophytes. The gametophyte phase is responsible for the production of sex cells, which join at fertilization to form embryos. The embryos develop into the second life phase: sporophytes, charged with the production of new spores. This is the more familiar life phase we see above ground. Note, however, that not every clubmoss has a club: years may pass before sporophytes are capable of manufacturing new spores. Development from the gametophyte to the mature, strobilus-endowed sporophyte can take between six and fifteen years.

Clubmoss spores ripen in the fall, when a light tap to the strobilus is enough to release them. If you stroll through a miniature forest of lycophytes at this time of year your feet will stir up a cloud of gold. This fine powder has been put to use in a litany of applications: as a wood-filler in violins and guitars, a lubricant on condoms and surgical gloves, a hydrophobic coating for pills, and a homeopathic remedy for intestinal disorders. Crime scene investigators once used the spores to dust for fingerprints. The powder is highly flammable; early flash photography relied on the ignition of clubmoss spores. We have incorporated the spores into fireworks and magic tricks, theatrical productions and military operations. For more routine combustion, we turn back to the clubmoss’s progenitors: the giant lycophytes that ruled the swamps of the Carboniferous are burned today as coal.

Ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) with branched strobili.

Ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) with branched strobili.

Vermont’s woods can seem a little dull this time of year. Perhaps it will enliven your walk if you pause to remember that you are in the presence of prehistory. The tiny clubmosses at your feet have thrived on earth for hundreds of millions of years. With every step you are releasing spores that could have sealed a violin or cured a stomachache or solved a crime. Instead, because of you, they’ll go on to form a new generation of this enduring lineage.

Information gathered from Cathy Paris, Bernd Heinrich’s The Trees in My Forest, Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious, Encyclopaedia Britannica (retrieved from, and Biology of Plants by Peter H. Raven, Ray F. Evert, and Susan E. Eichhorn.

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

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

Partial Migrants: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Outside my window, a robin pecks around in the rain. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and the forecast calls for the rain to turn to snow tonight in my Massachusetts hometown. So why isn’t this robin right now flying south toward a warm, easy winter?

American robins are facultative partial migrants: they decide each year whether to migrate

American robins are facultative partial migrants: they decide each year whether to migrate

Casual birdwatchers see robins as harbingers of spring, but you can actually find them year-round throughout much of the U.S. Based on my own observations, robins seem to stick around more now than they did twenty years ago—perhaps global warming plays a role in that trend (see November 6 post). But climate change can’t explain why some robins flee wintertime and others take their chances.

[Update: The day after publishing this post, I stumbled across an article by biologist Mark Davis saying that more robins stay in the north for the winter now because of a greater winter food supply: they happily eat the berries of several increasingly common non-native species.]

Many birds, like warblers and hummingbirds, migrate annually no matter what. Others, including robins, kingfishers, and chickadees, are “partial migrants”: within a single population in a given year, some will migrate and some will not. Backyard birdwatchers who rejoice in the first robin of spring aren’t necessarily unobservant. There are fewer robins around in winter, and those that do stay often roost in bogs and swamps instead of backyards. Each year, a robin must decide based on the available food supply whether to migrate; a snowy winter landscape can never provide as much food as the same land in summer. Some robins may even leave mid-season if the conditions turns especially harsh. 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

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