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 –Efts and Other Red Things in the Rain–

A wet spring has given way to a wet summer in New England, but spring’s bone-chilling rain has become the warm stuff of summer, and is actually nice to walk about in, even for an old geezer like myself. And our Childcare focuses on the outdoors, so even if I’d like to goof about indoors I’ve trapped myself into going out. The children are rather fatalistic about the situation, and are unusually resigned to adults who don’t know enough to come in out of the rain. My chief trouble comes from identifying who gets which boots, but fortunately the kids help me out.

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The world we head out into is especially green this year. We tend to hike three miles in four hours before lunch, which may seem slow, but the children stop a lot, and also likely circle about to such a degree they cover six miles for my three (measured by the pedometer in my cell phone.)

In such lush greenery anything red tend to bring progress to a screaming halt, especially if it is edible.Eft 6 FullSizeRender

It always fascinates me how some children only nibble a few strawberries, others stuff themselves, and some are natural born gatherers, and likely would the ones a tribe would assign to drying berries or making jam for the coming winter.

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(Notice the sun has popped out. This means I am carrying an armload of raincoats, until the rain starts up again.) The rain has made the wild berries much larger than normal. Here is an especially plush one, in a child’s small hand.

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When we compared the flavor of wild berries to the enormous, plum-sized berries in the children’s lunches, I was somewhat disappointed that the consensus was that commercial berries were sweeter. This made it all the more interesting that many children seem to prefer the tart, wild ones.

I impressed upon the kids what a big job it was for their great-great-grandmothers to make even a single jar of jam, and what a treat jam was, once the season for strawberries was over. In the days before refrigeration a thick syrup of sugar was a way of preserving things, just as pickling was. (Also, if the berries were not excessively heated the remaining vitamin C in the jam prevented scurvy, during winter months.)

The kids tend to be unimpressed when I attempt to impress this sort of trivia into their brains, and hurry ahead to the next discovery, which happened to be a surprisingly red mushroom.

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These are actually the ordinary brown shelf mushrooms that grow from the sides of dead and dying trees, and sometimes are strong enough to sit upon. They only are colorful when actively growing.Eft 8 IMG_5174

They were growing with surprising speed in the wet weather, and were hues even a geezer like myself had never noticed before (usually they are more purple when growing). One may have added enough weight to cause a rotted branch to fall to the ground.

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What was interesting was that the fungus continued to grow, but made an adjustment for the fact “down” was in a new direction. (Notice the slug feasting).

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The children were not all that interested, as one fellow forging ahead had discovered an eft.

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It is hard to keep the kids from picking efts up and bringing them home in their pockets, or poking them with sticks. I try to again impress upon them that the salamander’s skin can’t take much abuse.

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Efts are the juvinile form of a Newt, which is an interesting critter for it has somehow figured out three different ways to breathe. When it is a tadpole it looks like a minnow, only its gills stick out like feathers, even as it starts to grow legs.

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Then it grows lungs, and becomes the red eft on wet forest floors. But then it returns to the water and, after a final lungfull of air, can quit breathing, as it turns green and becomes a common eastern newt.

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At this point the newts breathe through their skin, using a process called “diffusion” which requires neither lungs nor gills. I was going to add that this is also how frogs can take a deep breath in the fall and then sleep in the mud under water all winter, but the children had had enough of my non-stop scientific trivia, and, as they realized we had left the unexplored part of the forest and were on a path they recognized, went rushing ahead to what they call “The Trampoline Tree”.

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These two hemlocks nearly fell over in a storm, but were kept from falling by neighboring trees. Their roots are great fun to bounce upon.

I suppose I could lecture the kids about how bouncing might hurt the fragile roots, but the trees will not last long in their current state, and I think children get enough of a guilt trip laid on them by PBS. PBS is downright prudish about nature, as if nature will be hurt by being touched. I don’t see how a nature-lover can be a lover if he or she never touches. Isn’t being a lover a hands-on experience?

I love when rain’s warm-blooded, and the green,
Green leaves are platting in July’s soft heart;
When the gutters are all flooded, and the queen
Of midsummer night’s dreaming plays a part
In romanticizing logic. Our thought
Gets too severe when we rush, rush, rush
To ensure our garden’s harvest is a lot,
And we never pause to hear how songbirds gush
Despite falling rain, despite distant thunder
Thumping nearer, and nearer, and nearer.
Are we not made poor by the great blunder
Of wearing blinders when we could see clearer?
All winter we waited for this sweet summer day.
All too soon glory will go waltzing away.