Category Archives: Uncategorized

Inside Studying the Outside

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 7.59.06 PM

By Kathryn Wrigley

Colors burst forth from the trees.  It is fall.  Or so my Instagram feed, chocked full of apple cider donuts and flaming red trees, portends.

I am soaking in the beige and pale yellow of my desk in the University of Vermont’s Aiken building.  The first-year Field Naturalists appear sporadically to study, still in the midst of their first-semester field courses.  I’m square in the mid-semester of my second year.

My field work from the summer seems like a dream as plot data fills in the squares of Excel spreadsheets – the ostensibly dull side of the field ecologist’s life.  Yet I gain a certain excitement from all the numbers. I’m a detective, a quantifying detective.  I see patterns on the landscape during the summer.  Will they emerge from my data?  Will I find an unexpected pattern?

Since I do not have the brisk fall air to keep me alert and awake, coffee and classical music fuel me.  Oddly enough, this inside work is why I am here at school.  At age 15, I swore to myself I would never work inside.  I worked outside for the next 15 years.  During my time in recreation management, I wondered about the ecological aspects of low-impact recreation.  What were the effects of backcountry rock quarries?  What were the impacts of mountain bike trails?  Were rock climbers threatening rare plants?

For my masters project I delve into low-impact recreation as I explore whether glading, clearing in the trees where skiers can make multiple linked turns, has an effect on wildlife habitat suitability.  I am inside, studying the outside.  Working for all those years outside led me to realize that humans and landscapes cannot be managed separately.  In the spring, I hope to leave this beige and yellow world to work for an organization that focuses on the importance of the ecological and social aspects of conservation.

A Deadly Drink

DSCN2081

Photo by Jessie Griffen

An insect death trap resides in our local wetlands. It’s a grisly tale of plant versus animal, with an unusual twist. Using a modified leaf to create a snare, the Northern Pitcher Plant is one of Vermont’s most unusual and sinister herbs.

Pitcher plants live in wetlands where the peat soil is low in nitrogen. Instead of using extensive root systems or relationships with nitrogen gathering fungi, pitcher plants have evolved to lure, catch, and digest insects to meet their nutritional needs.

From inside its columnar leaf, the pitcher plant emits a sweet smell that attracts insects. Curious bugs fly into the leaf, where they realize that there is no delicious nectar awaiting. When they try to fly out, downward pointing hairs impede their escape. In the pitcher, the insect eventually drowns in a pool of digestive enzymes, insect larvae, flesh flies, and bacteria. This slurry of creatures and chemicals break apart the insect, allowing the pitcher plant to absorbs the precious nutrients that the body contained.

So head on out to your local bog and watch the saga unfold. Witness the demise of a moth or a gnat. You might even see something unusual, like a salamander in a pitcher (photo below), that will make you leave with some new questions and a wild story.

 

DSCN2108

At the bog. Photo by Jessie Griffen

A salamander in a pitcher plant!

A salamander in a pitcher plant. Look for the tail. Photo by Jessie Griffen

 

 

Emma Stuhl is a first year graduate student in the Field Naturalist Program. She is glad that meat eating plants are generally quite small.

Making Time for the Leaves

 

The changing leaves in Shelburne, VT

The changing leaves in Shelburne, VT

I was afraid that this year, like so many others, I would lose track of time.  I was afraid I’d spend all of the fall foliage season behind a computer or buried in a book.  I was afraid that in grad school I would have too much homework to do to be able to spend much time outside. But I promised myself: this year I’ll make time. This year I won’t let the seasons change without admiring the gradient between them.  This year will be different.

As it turns out I needn’t have worried.  This year everything is different.  In the Field Naturalist program the brilliantly colored trees form the walls of my classroom, the shimmering late summer sky its ceiling.  We bask in the changing seasons, taking advantage of days warm enough to slog barefoot through a bog and roll up our pants to wade in the cool lake.  We catch salamanders, admire worm holes, and request the name of every plant we come across.  Oh, and everywhere we go we dig a hole.

Our days meander beautifully through each place we go, carefully choreographed to tell a story.  We learn how bedrock affects plant communities, how soils here are different from those in the tropics, and how deep the peat is in Chickering Bog (23 feet!).  This kind of learning is new to me; learning in which we immerse ourselves in our subject matter completely.  I go home each night somehow exhausted and energized at the same time, filling my notebooks with lists of things to investigate further.

As I promised myself, I do make time to go out and enjoy the changing of the seasons outside of class.  I take long rambling walks through the woods with my dog every morning and some evenings.  The only difference is that now I get to justify it as studying.

Shelby is a first year graduate student in the Field Naturalist program.  She enjoys catching toads and salamanders, admiring bugs, climbing talus, and all other explorations of nature.  

Seeking The Witches

witch-hazelBy Kat Deely

As the maples put on the fireworks above, witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) buds are ready to pop open their spindly, yellow flowers. Given a basic understanding of seasonal growth, it is curious that this plant is flowering in the fall.  Is this some invasive plant, out of sync with this ecosystem?

Witch-hazel is where it belongs, but has an unusual adaptation to attract pollinators.  To avoid competition spring ephemeral plants go through their complete reproductive cycle before leaf out, and witch-hazel has taken a similar approach.  While the ephemerals jump the gun and offer food to the early emerging insects, witch-hazel in the forest until the asters and the goldenrods have said their piece, and then puts on a show for the pollinators.  By this time the availability of nectar is limited and moths are only too happy to oblige.  Witch-hazel is a more southerly species, so up in New England you find it beneath canopy trees of a similar heritage.  These oaks and hickories warm themselves on south-facing mountain slopes, in sheltered coves, and along temperate valleys.

This shrub offers qualities beyond its fragrant bloom that explain the origin of its name.  Traditionally used for locating water beneath the ground by Native Americans, witch-hazel diving rods were even exported to Europe.  “Wych” is from the Anglo-Saxon word for “bend”.

As autumn emerges around us, admire the brilliant hues our hardwoods showcase, but remember to drop your gaze to mid canopy and seek the spindly celebration of fall around you.

 

Kat is a second year Ecological Planning student constantly seeking answers to the mysteries found within the natural world.  Being an FNEP student has exponentially increased  her number of questions, and actually answered a handful of them.

Graphite Terrarium

By Ben Lemmond

“Be not concerned,” Dr. Cathy Paris advises us, in a soft, lilting voice that could outsparkle Glinda the Good Witch: the twenty-page packet on graminoids that she’s just handed us is “mostly diagrams.” In it we see the somewhat archaically-classified “tribes” of grasses. One can imagine them roving across the land in waves, heads nodding in some ancient agreement (“May our lemmas always be longer than the lowest glume…” “Yes, yes, it is so.”) Every Wednesday, which is Field Botany day in my world, my cohort and I spend a full, 9-5 day with Cathy Paris and Liz Thompson addressing the nuances of the botanical world with direct, unabashedly precise language, squinting along as we’re steered from spikelet to achene to tubercle in an ever-zooming lens of detail.

This is the class that feels most like learning a foreign language. Specifically, there’s an overload of new terminology with no real-life reference points: words you simply have to memorize, because they only attach to one, very specific meaning that exists nowhere else except deep inside the maze of plant anatomy. To actually retain this language requires a little reinforcement, a task that I’m sure we’ve all approached differently. I’ve taken to drawing everything in class because it’s the only way to add dimension to the detail, to take its foreignness and make it familiar. I tried to do that in a different class, our Friday “Field Practicum” class, where we visit sites and decipher the whole story – and it just didn’t work to turn into images. The puzzles of the sites we visit may be bigger in scope, but the way we solve them somehow doesn’t necessitate the translation of a sketch. Perhaps it’s because patching together narratives from imperfect fragments is what social creatures like ourselves are expertly designed to do. At any rate: a few images of class and sketches from my botany notebook, a world I’ve made for myself to remember:

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.  While playing one-on-one with my friend Chris, who is not exactly Michael Jordan, I jumped to take a shot 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.  The room 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.    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.  At turns, I felt restless, bored, and sorry for myself.

Trapped in this little room, 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.

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.   Eventually Don and I 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 Leonids Meteor Shower: A Pre-Turkey Feast for the Eyes

Written by Emily Brodsky

The alarm went off at 3 AM.  I lay on the cabin floor, my breath visible in the cold night air.  The fire, which had been blazing at bedtime, by now had dampened to a few glowing embers.  Imagining the dazzling show that awaited me outside, I resisted the temptation to return to my warm and peaceful slumber.   Instead, I emerged from my puffy cocoon, and tiptoed about the cabin to rouse the adventurous souls who had committed to my pre-dawn wake-up call.  Groggily, we donned our winter coats and hats, and dragged our sleeping bags into the chill of a mid-November night.  We were on a mission to observe one of the universe’s great spectacles: the annual Leonids Meteor Shower.

After stumbling down a dark, wooded path, we planted ourselves in an open field and eagerly fixed our eyes on the sky.  The stars were shrouded by stratus clouds.  We waited.

After half an hour or so, the clouds parted and revealed one of the most awe-inspiring sights I’ve ever witnessed.  For several hours, sparkling streams of light rushed over our heads in all directions.  They varied in color from white to blue to yellow, and I don’t know if I imagined it, but I swore I could hear them zooming through the sky.  The show went on until the meteors were outshined by the light of dawn.  After the final stragglers passed overhead and the darkness began to lift, my friends and I clapped and cheered.  We had witnessed not just a meteor shower, but the great meteor storm of 2001.

Thanksgiving-time brings well-stocked dinner tables, family and friends, and cozy, tryptophan-induced naps.  A less-known fact is that it also brings meteors.  Just before the holiday rolls around each year, one can stumble into the out-of-doors in the dead of night to watch these glittering speed demons as they race across the sky. How do the Leonids put on their marvelous show, and why does it happen with such consistency?

The orbit of the comet Tempel-Tuttle happens to intersect with Earth’s, and when the comet passes by every 33 years it leaves a dense trail of debris.  As the Earth passes through the lingering dust cloud each November, thousands of particles crash into the atmosphere.  These sand grain to pebble sized particles, called meteoroids, travel through space at speeds up to 162,000 miles per hour.  Space is a vacuum, meaning matter is scarce; thus, nothing slows the meteoroids as they speed through the galaxy — that is, until they collide with the matter-laden atmosphere of Earth.

When meteoroids strike, they push up against the gaseous molecules of the atmosphere with incredible force.  The astronomical equivalent of a 10-car pileup occurs, with molecules squishing together in front of each meteoroid, and the resulting pressure generates so much heat that the meteoroids reach boiling point.   The meteoroids continue to move through the atmosphere, vaporizing layer by layer and releasing a tremendous amount of heat.  As the heat releases, the meteoroids and surrounding molecules glow.  From our vantage point 50-75 miles below, these hot, disintegrating particles appear as the streams of light we call meteors, or shooting stars.

The Tempel-Tuttle dust cloud is one of several that Earth passes through consistently.  The predictable display produced by this annual event is called the Leonids because its radiant, or the point from which the meteors appear to radiate, is the constellation Leo.  Other meteor showers include the Geminids in December, the Lyrids in April, and the Perseids in August — their radiants being Gemini, Lyra, and Perseus, respectively.

Although the Leonids have been known to cascade over the sky in numbers up to one-hundred-thousand or more per hour, typical displays are not so prolific.  The last exceptional shows (known as meteor “storms”) were in 2001 and 2002, with meteors-per-hour estimates of up to 3,000.  More commonly, the Leonids shower produces 10-15 meteors per hour.  The numbers depend on a variety of factors, including solar wind and dust cloud density.  Visibility depends on cloud cover and the moon phase.  To see the Leonids in their full splendor, conditions must be just right.

Sadly, the last-quarter moon will be shining near Leo during this year’s November 17-18th peak, resulting in low visibility and a relatively weak show.  Still, I plan to look.  Since that wonderful night in 2001, I have lain in various fields and hiked up mountains to observe the Leonids.  Every year, they seem to be blocked by clouds.  I’ve never been disappointed, however, as the experience of watching celestial events like meteor showers goes beyond the objects themselves; it’s also about the adventure of being outside at an ungodly hour, enduring sleepiness and cold, and sharing an unusual moment with friends.  I encourage you to go out in the wee hours of November 18th; whether you’ll see a shooting star, I cannot guarantee, but I can assure you that the excursion will make you feel alive.

Land Tenure and Perennial Agriculture

by Connor Stedman

It’s harvest time in New England.  Farmer’s markets are filled with apples, winter squash, root vegetables, and the final weeks of greens before the hard killing frosts arrive.  For people who enjoy local food, it’s worth thinking about the needs and challenges of farmers while enjoying the bounty of the season.  There’s a significant generational shift taking place in agriculture right now; as older farmers retire, more and more young farmers are taking their place.  And one of the biggest challenges for young, beginning farmers, is finding and retaining access to land.

Because of the local food movement that’s developed in the U.S. in the past decade, many regions of the country have excellent markets for beginning farmers.  Urban and suburban farmers’ markets, grocery stores that carry local food, and CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) programs all can provide reliable income to beginning farms.  But many of those markets are near major metropolitan regions or are in wealthier semi-rural areas.  In both of these types of regions, land is priced for housing development rather than for agriculture.   So there’s a devil’s-bargain situation for farmers here, where the already-high initial capital and infrastructure requirements for agriculture get much more expensive for farms located close to their ideal markets.

Because of this, young beginning farmers (who usually lack access to significant financial resources) often enter into semiformal or informal arrangements with wealthy landowners in order to run the farm businesses they want to be running.  Many of those arrangements end up being unworkable, leading to those farmers losing land access in just a few years.  Without solid financial and legal agreements, farmers’ ability to stay on their rented or leased farms long-term can be very tenuous.  So educating new farmers should include training in how to enter into those financial and legal agreements, as well as just training in farming practices.

But it’s also helpful to think a little more deeply why stable, long-term land tenure matters.  One might think, annual farmers can easily pick up and move in between growing seasons if they need to.  After all, they replant their crops every year anyway!  But there’s a huge opportunity cost to moving locations – the time, energy and money spent moving could all be spent in other ways if the farmer didn’t need to move.  Beyond that, the real value of long-term tenure is being able to build soil fertility and knowledge of the farm over time, as well as long-term market and customer development.  Most farmers would like to stay in one place for a long time if they could, and many young beginning farmers aren’t able to because of the issues discussed above.

All of that, though, is doubly true for farmers growing perennial cut flowers, fruit and nut trees, or certain medicinal plants like ginseng.  These long-term perennial crops produce for many years without replanting.  This reduces the negative ecological consequences of annual agriculture (such as soil erosion and ongoing heavy pest insect pressure) while also reducing the economic costs of re-tilling and replanting every year.  Furthermore, since perennial crops don’t fully die back at the end of each growing season, they hold and sequester carbon from the atmosphere over time and help to mitigate global climate change.  On the other hand, these crops can take years to develop their full yielding potential.  It can take over a decade to recoup an initial investment in a perennial crop planting, especially for slow-growing crops like nut trees or certain medicinal plants.

This has particular implications for the development of diverse, ecologically sustainable perennial farms, rather than just single-crop monocultures.  Because diverse perennial agriculture systems often aren’t simple – they require significant planning, observation, and adjustment over time.  That, plus the land access and tenure issues, means that there are major disincentives to invest, both for financial backers (like banks) and for the start-up farmers themselves.  So that, in turn, means there continue to be few good working examples of diverse perennial farms!  Then, when one of the few existing examples fails, it adds up in many peoples’ minds to some version of “I guess perennial agriculture just doesn’t work.”  But of course, many startup businesses fail.  And early failures in a “still-learning-how” field are not surprising – but nor do they indicate that the concept or process is unsound.

Because, perennial agriculture is one of the most important strategies available for healing the planet through sequestering carbon, restoring damaged land, and creating resilient local economies.  Figuring out reliable, consistent strategies for the land access and tenure problem would open the doors much wider for experimentation, research, and enterprise development around perennial farming, which would help shift agriculture from extractive to regenerative practices on a larger scale.  In other words, this isn’t just about beginning farmers – land access is a bottleneck, and therefore leverage point, for the larger ecological and economic transition towards sustainability.