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:


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.


Young Scientists Plot for Smart Urban Forestry

by Liz Brownlee

“Wait until you see the accuracy of our plot,” calls the lab team.

The four undergraduates burst with pride, oblivious to the prickling raspberries and thick brush that edge the Intervale forest.

They stop me midstride.  As their lab teacher, I’m fully equipped with aerial maps, GPS, first aid kit, phone, and extra rain gear.  I’m planning to cruise through this pasture towards the soybeans and into the swampy forest.  My goal is to check in with teams at twelve more study plots, spread over the 350 acres of forest and fields.

This lab project is a real, on-the-ground application of their natural resource training.  Most weeks these first-year students learn the basics of field work in big, broad fields (fisheries, stream ecology, forestry, etc.). The field data they record in their weekly labs is important: they use it to learn how to create papers, reports, and essays.

This week, though, the data is headed to city hall.  We’re studying the Burlington urban forest to help the city make informed decisions about valuing and managing the forest.

I need to check in with the next group. It’s incredibly important that the teams describe each plot with accuracy and efficiency.  I know that all the teams are anxious to prove their worth, to share their budding knowledge and field skills.  But this team’s stories cannot wait.

Elliot, a bright-eyed skier from Utah starts first.

The maple we used to mark our plot was so big, our measuring tape couldn’t reach around it, he says.

Aptly named and observant, Hunter chimes in.

There was a deer trail, but that’s it – otherwise it’s untouched.

Eric, a tattooed, intelligent former Marine, knows this isn’t entirely true.

How should we record the land use on this plot, Liz? This isn’t a park, and it’s on the farm but not cultivated land.

We brainstorm the forest’s values: recreation and flood control top the list.

I change my route, unable to leave the pull of their enthusiasm.  Elliot fires questions as we walk the farm’s puddle-filled gravel road.

We didn’t see any sign of invasive species like emerald ash borer – that’s good, right?  And the ground was covered in mud from the hurricane and the flood – do you think the forest will rebound before teams come next year?

The team answers most of their questions before I can chime in, and I know that I’m no longer needed.  I head for the next site when Carly, another lab teacher with twenty more students, calls from the Old North End of Burlington.  We check in, cars honking in the background on her end.

Over two hundred UVM students are taking the pulse of the forest, from tree height and canopy dieback to ground cover and plant-able space. They’re studying over one hundred plots throughout the city, and all in just two weeks.  We’ll crunch the numbers with a program called iTree that’s being used worldwide.  The city will use the results to decide where and what to plant next, and how to properly value a forest that cools homes, mitigates pollution, and absorbs storm water runoff.

They’ve tracked changes in the forest’s health.  They’ve built confidence as budding natural resource scientists.  And next year, two hundred new students will do it all again.

The Sensual Slug

by Danielle Owczarski

During the first cold days of fall in Burlington, I had a chance encounter with a handsome slug on my way to catch the bus. As I hurried past, it glided effortlessly across the moistened slate walkway, its black leopard-print pattern catching my eye. The image of the mysterious figure drifted through my thoughts during the short bus ride to campus.

Limax maximus, also known as the great gray slug and leopard slug. (Photo:© R.J. McDonnell, University of California, Riverside)

Originally, when I thought about writing a blog on the natural history of the great gray slug (Limax maximus), I imagined the story to be a simple, thoughtful, interesting piece; little I knew of the great gray’s sensual secrets. Those of you with weak stomachs or other sensitivities related to natural reproduction may want to surf your way to a blog about cooking or kittens. This story is for those with unquenchable curiosity and a sensible grasp on nature’s sexual exploits.

The great gray is a hermaphrodite. Within its slimy skin layer are organs that support both female and male reproduction. Lucky for the great gray, it is not a simultaneous hermaphrodite like the banana slug, who can self-fertilize. No, the great gray must entice a partner to share in the event of reproductive triumph.

L. maximus, native to Europe, and naturalized in the United States and Australia by way of food transport, leaves a thick string of mucus on the ground in early summer to attract its mate. This activity happens mainly during the night hours for this nocturnal species, who feeds on mushrooms and withered plants.

When its partner detects the secretions, it will follow closely, taking a soft nibble on the tempter’s behind. In a grand chase (at a slug’s speed), the two head for an overhanging feature (a brick wall, tree, or mossy rock). They begin to writhe in what seems a blissful engagement, rubbing and twisting around each other’s lubricated bodies.

As the foreplay advances, they begin to fall gently from their perch, attached only by a dense strand of slime, their pendulous bodies entwined in mid-air. Next, in unison, from an opening (gonopore) on the side of each slug’s head, the penises emerge and begin to entangle. The elaborate spiraling of the white translucent penes forms the shape of a flower similar to that of a blossoming morning glory. The unified form then takes on an azure glow and fertilization ensues. The sperm travels up through the twisted organs, through the gonopores, and inside the slug’s body finally reaching the eggs. The act is complete, both fulfilling their reproductive desires.

It would be biased to leave you with an unspoiled depiction of the great gray’s reproductive story. On some occasions when the entanglement becomes too complex and the slugs are unable to pull apart, apophallation must occur. They chew off one or both penises to relieve the imbroglio and the great gray is left with one working organ to continue its life’s work.

For those of you who can’t get enough, check out David Attenborough’s video clip of the great grays in the act: Limax maximus Reproduction Video.

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