LOCAL VIEW –Tilted–

One job assigned to me as a teenager, when I first ventured outside of the suburbs into the country and attempted to be a country boy by chewing upon a straw, was “ditching the pasture”. The pasture had initially been ditched 218 years earlier, but the ditch had a tendency to fill in, and therefore one was expected to walk slowly down the ditch with a round-nosed, long-handled shovel, digging the wads of leaves and muck that were impeding the drainage.  I actually didn’t mind the job, as I was always playing in brooks as a boy, and this wan’t much different.

The ditch basically took a shallow intermittent stream,  a brook that only flowed when snow melted and after torrential downpours, and straightened it while lowering it down roughly two feet. This drained the pasture and allowed timothy and clover to grow, rather than the sour marshy grasses cows don’t much like. It increased the value of the land, and in some pastures took a brook that dried out in the summer and put it down deep enough to where it flowed all year long, and therefore took a brook that held no fish and created a habitat for secretive brook trout, especially where sod overhung the banks a little.

Then, around 1970, the concept of “wetlands” as being an especially valuable landscape took hold. Even a reeking fen was seen as an environmental Eden,  and ditching pastures became a criminal activity, in the eyes of some university types. They decide to educate farmers, and the old-time farmers told them to go to hell. Next they decided to go through legislators and lobbyists, and had better luck.

Don’t get me wrong. Some wetlands, especially salt marshes, are tremendously important to the larger ecosystem, and are lush and brimming with life. Destroying them dramatically reduces the catch of fish in nearby coastal waters. (On the other hand, creating wetlands by damming rivers also reduces the catch of fish.) But an intermittent stream through a farmer’s pasture is not the same thing.

In any case while ditching the pasture, which I continued to do even after it made me a criminal, I had time to contemplate how an activity which is deemed saintly one generation is deemed devilish the next. I also had time to gaze about at the geology of New England, and study the ecology, and noticed there was no norm, unless flux was the norm. Glaciers had scoured the landscape clean of topsoil, and then a progression of vegetation pursued the retreating ice. Along with the vegetation came beavers, who were constantly deforesting areas and creating wetlands, and then deserting their dams when they ran out of food, which caused ponds to became meadows when the dams broke, and later meadows became groves of poplar and birches, which attracted a new generation of beavers. Also men came north even as the ice retreated, (a friend of mine found a flint spear-head, with the flint originating from Ohio,) and they tended to burn the underbrush in forests to make hunting easier. So I figured the Puritan farmers who first ditched pastures were no more dramatic a change than other changes. Change was the norm; any level achieved was soon tilted.

Locally it wasn’t so much the environmentalists who stopped the ditching of pastures as it was a cultural change that made all the hard work involved in farming seem less worthwhile. People found ways to support themselves working only eight hours a day, and preferred laying indoors watching TV, and the ditches began to fill in, even as the old pastures grew over, first becoming what the locals called “puckerbrush”, and then becoming woods. And then, rather unexpectedly, the trees began to all die, or to tilt and fall over. (Sometimes a grove of dead trees indicated beavers had returned and flooded an area, but beavers don’t dam intermittent brooks.)

What was happening was that the water table was inching upwards as the ditches filled in, and the roots of the trees were either drowned, or the deeper roots that anchor a tree down were killed and the tree was only held up by a mat of very shallow roots. These roots were not enough, and in a strong wind the tree tilted, (sometimes remaining alive.)

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I like investigating the ripped-up roots of such tilted trees, because you learn about the local subsoil, and a thing or two about the post-glacier geology, and sometimes find an artifact or two. Lastly, though you may doubt this, we have a “little people” who live here in New Hampshire, just as leprechauns live in Ireland, and sometimes if you look under roots you can meet them.

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One way to befriend these little people is to find a red shelf-mushroom that lives up on dead trees, but the way to get your hands on these mushrooms is to find a tree that has tilted and fallen all the way down.

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Once these mushrooms are down they continue to grow, but are now sideways, and it makes no sense to continue to grow the way they were growing, with their bottoms facing sideways, so the mushrooms are wise enough to, within a fortnight, make an adjustment.

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Because the mushroom has wisely adjusted, when the time comes for it to release its spores, some are not trapped in sideways-facing, rain-sopped pores, but face down, and can be sheltered and kept dry and properly dispersed.

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If even mushrooms can adjust to a tilt of ninety degrees, it seems to me higher forms of life ought to able to adjust as well. It also seems to me that certain environmentalists, who seem to imagine nature exists in a steady-state, and that all changes are evils brought about by mankind, are themselves unwilling to change and are themselves unable to adjust to any tilting. Does this make them a lower form of life than a mushroom?

Long ago a lubber, (namely me),
Got on a ship, and sailed into a storm
Where I lost my sense of up. Misery
Was mine, as my stomach took a form
That was mostly inside out, but I had
To man the helm or else my problems
would be over. Tempting. I felt so bad
That dying didn’t seem low as the phlegms
My empty stomach heaved, as stinging spray
Salted wincing eyes that searched the skies
For something level, something that would stay
Flat, but all tilted. But the biggest surprise
Was that when I was safely ashore, then
I yearned to go out and be tilted again.

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LOCAL VIEW —Stafford’s Lane—

It is a dry autumn, and tramping dry woods is wonderful, especially when the weather is mild, (provided you wear loud clothing and sing “I am not a deer” constantly). I have been continuing my study of the deserted farmland, focusing in on the brief period when this town existed as a farming town of the original Puritan sort, before the craze for building mills hit this area. The town was settled in 1750 and likely only existed as a purely farming town for around a quarter century, before people realized that all the rushing streams represented untapped power.

Though in some ways I am of an old and inbred family, dating back to the Pilgrims, one “newer” branch immigrated to America around 1830 due to the mill-building craze. Lore has it the immigrant’s last name may have been “McDoogle”, but he changed it to “Miller” to avoid possible prosecution, as he was recruited from England because he knew “secrets” involving English mills. (It sounds like an early example of industrial espionage to me.) He apparently had a thick Scottish accent, which makes me wonder what he fled in Scotland that wound him up down in England. Then he skipped England. Perhaps he was a bit difficult to get along with. He was a strict Presbyterian who called Christmas Trees “Damned Papist Idolatry.” His wife died shortly after he arrived, and when he remarried his second wife was not of the better Puritan families, but a somewhat mysterious woman known as “Miss Eagle”.  There are murmurs she might have been an Abenaki Indian, which would mean the “newer” branch of the family tree was grafted with the “oldest.”

I bring this up to show the sort of chaos involved in dramatic economic changes, which seemed to clout New Englanders on a regular basis. Those who portray New England as a sort of quaint and changeless place don’t understand the details of our history. Perhaps in Europe there are places when life was lived as it always had been lived, for century after century, (or perhaps not.) America, as far as I can tell, has always been a more dynamic place. Maybe people dream they can “settle down”, but there is an ongoing flow to life that sweeps them off their feet. In the late 1700’s the disruption was the profitability of water power. In the late 1980’s the disruption was the profitability of computers.

As an old man I can’t say I approve of disruptions. I like things the way they were, and it annoys me to have ask my granddaughter how to turn on the newfangled radio in our new car. Life is starting to pass me by, which makes sense, as I can’t run as fast as I used to. I long for that which is lasting, because I tire of learning new ways only to find they are outdated when the newest cell phone comes out.

I find a sort of solace in tramping in the woods, and seeing the ruins of farms that were built by men who obviously thought what they built would be lasting. They left a very real signature on the landscape, whereas the words I type could vanish in a blink, if this computer crashes.

I recently was exploring an abandoned road when I came across a side road that doesn’t even appear on old maps, “Stafford’s Lane.”  It likely was a cart-path useful only to a farmer,  cutting across a ditched pasture. Now it cuts through swampy woods, in what is officially called “wetlands”,  a designation which has prevented the maintenance of the draining ditch, and has turned perfectly good pasture into a mosquito-breeding swamp, during wetter summers, and also killed a large area of trees. Last summer was dry, so even the mosquitoes died, as the “wetlands” became parched soil. This spring, when water returned, it was a most peculiar “wetlands”, for where every other patch of water held a chorus of frogs, this area was totally silent. It was a wetlands without frogs, without fish, without ducks or herons or diving beetles or whirligigs or any wildlife associated with wetlands. There were no pond lilies or pitcher plants or cattails. It was wetlands because some bureaucrat designated it so, and claimed it was “environmentally vibrant”. I think the old-time farmers knew better, when they designated it a “ditched pasture”.

As I walked the lane I noticed a lot of stone had been moved, and that, straight ahead, the lane seemed paved with very big, flat boulders.

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While I might be able to shift the stones of the wall to the right, the flagstones were more than I could have budged even as a young man. (To the left, upstream in the photo above, is the frogless swamp that was bone dry at this time, last year.) As I passed I could not help but pause and look back:

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That is a heck of a big rock to move, just to drive a cart over a miry patch of pasture. I walked back to think about how I might have moved such a stone, back in 1775. Oxen? Block and tackle? And then I looked past the stone and downstream.

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I clambered over the stone wall, and once I was downstream looking back upstream, I became aware more work was involved than I originally assumed.

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As I looked at the amazing amount of stone men moved, before they discovered TV sets, it occurred to me the farmer must have understood some years the pasture would be wet, and some years bone dry. It also occurred to me that cows need to drink. Therefore a smart farmer would not only ditch a pasture, but also create a dam to hold back some of the water on dry years. Moving the stone was therefore an example of human laziness. The farmer did not want to lug buckets of water to his cows, and therefore it made economic sense to lug some stones one time, so he wouldn’t need to lug buckets of water a thousand times.

Still,  the amount of stone moved by people if the past seemed amazing to me. Likely the movers were members of a single, large farm family, improving their single eighty-acre farm. They also likely thought they were making an improvement that would help future farmers on the same farm. I doubt they understood that with the coming of mills their way of life would become old-fashioned, and the farm they worked so hard to clear from wilderness and improve would be turning back to forest within the lifetimes of their grandchildren.

As I thought these somber thoughts I climbed back towards Stafford’s Lane, and startled a frog, who leaped into the pool reflecting sky in the above picture. It made me smile. The frogs were coming back. They were moving upstream, like settlers moving out into the Great Plains in covered wagons to claim homesteads and start farms in the years before the Dust Bowl. Did not the frogs not know that the wetlands they moved up into might again become bone dry, in the future?

Do we know as much, as we pursue our modern aspirations?

These words I write are written on sand,
Like the hearts young lovers stroke upon beaches
With innocent fingers; valentines grand
But fleeting, as the surging tide teaches
All of us that castles crumble, and change
Will wrinkle beauty’s skin, silver her hair,
And make familiar landscapes look so strange
That we can be home and not know we are there.

Ever new is our world. We can’t go back
For our goal is not here, but far higher.
Our aim to settle is really a loaded pack
On our shoulders. Turtles should inspire
For their homes move, as do mice and men
And frogs, when sudden droughts transform their fen.