"Sharp, quirky, and occasionally nettlesome", Walking the Berkshires is my personal blog, an eclectic weaving of human narrative, natural history, and other personal passions with the Berkshire and Litchfield Hills as both its backdrop and point of departure. I am interested in how land and people, past and present manifest in the broader landscape and social fabric of our communities. The opinions I express here are mine alone. Never had ads, never will.
I meditated on the fringed gentian in last week's Nature Notes article in the Lakeville Journal, readable here
with free registration.
blooming plants fill a fascinating evolutionary niche. They eschew
competing for pollinators throughout most of the growing season,
serving as welcome nectar sources for migrating butterflies and other
species when other wildflowers have gone to seed. A number of asters,
including some of the showiest, also bloom in late summer and into the
fall, as do the various goldenrods. The gentian, though,
standing singly or in isolated patches, is nearer to earth than the
swaying asters and nodding goldenrod. Poets note its lonely solitude, a
lovely sentinel at the ragged end of summer. Victorians invested great
meaning in flowers, with the gentian a symbol of enduring hope in the
face of certain mortality...
The Hartford Courant ran this front page story today about the beleaguered state of the forestry sector of Connecticut's economy. The fact that Connecticut still has a forestry sector to its economy was probably news to most of the paper's readership, let alone one that is valued at $500 million annually.
The article is quite good, as far as it goes, but despite its prominent column inches it really only scratches the surface of what is going on in our woodlands and with the market for forest products in southern New England. The part that really got me howling was the idea of our depressed oak market as a fashion victim:
"[I]n 2006, just as inventories peaked, global preferences for wood suddenly changed. Designers, furniture makers and home builders started shifting from the rich, dark grains of New England oak toward lighter, more subtle grains such as birch and maple. At the same time, world markets were flooded with inexpensive exports, such as Russian birch and bamboo and cork laminates from Latin America and China."
Actually, these are not isolated factors that just happened to coincide. All that cheap wood is - surprise - "lighter and more subtle grained", a market-based cause and effect. Although if there really is an Oscar de la Renta of the forest products industry, I want to meet that person. This could also explain why plaid is hot again this season.
Southern New England has been shipping whole logs out of the region for decades rather than milling them locally. In the last couple of years, the renewed market for firewood has been the one bright spot in an otherwise depressed hardwood market. There are sawmills in our area that are idle because firewood sells better than lumber. There are fewer and fewer people making a living in the state from forestry every year - much less than from farming, even with 58% of the surface area of Connecticut covered in trees. Needless to say, there is not a strong constituency to save family forests and small forestry operations the way there is for local agriculture.
The development value of the land far outweighs its timber value. The economic incentive for growing old, high quality trees is gone if there is no market for veneer quality wood, and so what forestry does occur will be on shorter rotations. The biological value of such woodlands will also be diminished, which is why the state of forestry should matter to conservationists in the state of Connecticut.
I left the following in the comments of Kevin Levin's blog Civil War Memory, in response to a discussion about the Wal-Mart / Wilderness controversy:
Historic landscapes are increasingly rare in the intensively
developed Eastern corridor of the United States. Just as habitat
fragmentation reduces biodiversity, battlefield fragmentation
eliminates some of its potential to inform and affect visitors and
community identity. Rarely can land protection efforts realize the full
conservation potential of a significant landscape, either as habitat or
for its historic value. Where such opportunities still exist, it may
well be a top conservation priority to invest all the time, treasure
and creativity at society’s disposal to ensure that these landscapes
maintain their full integrity.
How many American battlefields still have this potential? Antietam?
Gettysburg? Saratoga? Not many more. And sadly, not the Wilderness.
Many, many other battle sites have not been isolated in time, where
historic viewsheds can be maintained and the surrounding community
becomes identified, for better or worse, by a signature event that
occurred there long before living memory. If you want to interpret the
site of Bunker Hill, you must contend with a obelisk in the midst of
the Charlestown that rose from the ashes and a community whose
residents have other sources of self and community identity. For some
of us today, this is a regrettable loss,but for the generations who
came after the Revolution, the monument was a fitting memorial and the
idea that valuable real estate would be locked up in the interest of
preservation would have made little sense.
There are many different values at play in situations like this. One
thing I have learned in my years in the land protection business is
that community support is vital if you want to conserve significant
amounts of land, and there is no better way to derail a
well-intentioned preservation effort then to let it become
characterized as an imposition by outsiders – or worse, by Government –
that values a rare species over the needs of local people, public land
over private property, or the memory of something that happened long
ago over the perceived needs of those who live there today. It may be a
false dichotomy, but it can be lethal for conservation.
Places like the Wilderness are without a doubt under intense
development pressure. It goes against our instincts to accept the loss
of another irreplaceable acre of land with historic significance. Yet
those terms of victory will ensure a lost cause.
On the other hand, there are many examples across this country, even
in places typically thought of as intensely conservative and staunchly
in favor of private property rights, where it is a condition of
development permitting that lost wetlands and habitat be mitigated by
the restoration or conservation of an equivalent amount at another
location. What if Wal-Mart, as a condition of the permitting it
received, had purchased for preservation another area of the
Battlefield, perhaps with even greater significance? This would not
have addressed all the impacts of development – traffic, for instance –
but it could have been a creative solution and provided an outcome
other than the zero sum game.
It would only be possible if those granting the permits, those
working for preservation, those concerned about economic development,
and the developers themselves were willing to work toward such an
outcome. Sometimes, giving an inch is an unacceptable concession. Far
more frequently, it can result in a negotiated compromise that provides
benefits for more than just one side. This is a hard lesson, but one we
need to grapple with before the next crisis that threatens the special
places we value.
Elias and I went to one of my favorite places yesterday, where the air rushes through the hemlocks and moss drips from overhanging stone. Sages Ravine cleaves the eastern face of the Taconic Plateau along the Connecticut and Massachusetts border - there are old monuments here perched on the steep hillside delineating these territories - and unlike the other celebrated waterfalls of our region it gets very few visitors on a hot summer day. Part of the reason may be that there is no sign marking the trail and no obvious place to park besides a worn pull off hard by the bridge that spans the stream as it makes its final plunge to the lowlands. The old spur trail from here to the AT is obscured by dead fall. This leaves it a special spot that locals know about: our own piece of primal wilderness.
The main attraction of Sages, besides the noticeably cooler air temperature on a sweltering day, are the dark pools and increasingly spectacular cataracts that descend the ravine. The rocks are slick and treacherous, and one is always mindful that others have taken falls here from which they never recover. The water is bracingly chill even in August, and the sunlight filters down in dappled splashes and broad shadows like the flanks of the wild brook trout. There are great boles of fallen trees that snowmelt and floodwater pile up and push down the gorge from pool to pool. It is a place of wild fascination, where in low water the stream dives beneath its bed and under hill until it emerges in a torrent from the rocky bank downstream.
Elias is six, goat-footed, but still willing to hold my steadying hand. We made out way through the laurels and the chestnut saplings to the first of the plunge pools, but I encouraged him that we would visit each in turn after first reaching the greatest of the waterfalls. This part of Sages actually has one final pool above these falls, but it is wise not to try and reach it for the climb is perilous and the water dark and deep. We stopped at the foot of this great cataract, the water still high for this time in August, and waded over the mound of alluvial stones pushed up at the edge of the water. It was quickly over his head, but not the place to practice his newly acquired dog paddle. We tried out each pool in succession, finding one that was broad and deep enough for both of us within our own comfort zones. In a few minutes we were refreshed and ready for towels and the short walk back to our car.
I used to come to Sages alone, after work, and for a time before we had children Viv and I would drop into the cool of the trees for a dip on a humid afternoon. Now my children are of an age and maturity where it is possible to share this place with them as well, to learn how to be in a wilderness of wary wonder.
The federally Threatened bog turtle faces a new threat in the northern portion of its contiguous range. On August 5th, the USFWS issued an advisory bulletin that an unusually high number of dead and apparently diseased bog turtles have been reported from four states, including New York and Massachusetts. I received the alert by email from a colleague and the full bulletin is reposted here.
"...The number of bog turtles found dead in their wetland habitat (2 to 4 dead turtles in each of four wetlands in NY and MA) exceeds that which is typically reported.
In some cases, dead bog turtles have been found entirely intact, with no obvious cause of death. On several live bog turtles, a grayish or whitish substance and/or discoloration has been documented on the skin of the head, neck and limbs, as well as on the claws. In some cases, these appear as skin lesions. Scute sloughing and loss of claws and toes has also been observed. Based on data collected at a Massachusetts site, the symptoms appear to worsen over time. At this time, the causative agent(s) of the observed symptoms has not been identified..."
This is extremely troubling news. When I was with The Nature Conservancy, bog turtle conservation in Massachusetts, Connecticut and part of Eastern New York was a major focus of my work. The bog turtle is at the extreme northern extrent of its contiguous range in Massachusett. The USFWS Recovery Plan for the bog turtle's northern population identies just three bog turtle sites in the Commonwealth, but two of them are considered good sites and are under conservation management. I am intimately familiar with both of these, and know that if one has lost 2-4 adults to a new threat the viability of what would otherwise be considered a strong and vital population is in grave peril. Past research indicates that the loss of just one breeding adult a year at these sites would be enough to tip the balance toward extirpation.
The 2001 rare species recovery plan records what was known at that time about the threat posted to wild bog turtle populations by disease (my emphasis added):
"...At present, there are no substantiated reports of disease affecting a wild population of bog turtles, although at one site in Columbia County, New York (J. L. Behler, pers. comm) the number of dead turtles is cause for concern; eight dead bog turtles were collected during three visits to the site in 1988 and 1989 ( A. breisch, in Mt. 2000). A sick turtle removed from that population and held for several years in captivity tested positive for upper respiratory distress syndrome (URDS) upon necropy (J. L. Behler, pers. comm.). Although this could indicate a health problem within that communication, it is also possible that the turtle contracted this disease while in captivity. Disease issues have the potential to become a much larger threat to wild bog turtle populations as they are subjected to more handling by researchers or if manipulation of turtle populations is undertaken through the deliberate release into the wild of bog turtles from other areas, zoological collections, or those seized by law enforcement activities. It should be noted that thorough health screening of wild-caught bog turtles has not been a standard practice of researchers, although it may be warranted (Smith in iitt. 2001)..."
I do not know for certain whether all four sites where increased mortality and apparent disease have been observed coincide with those where there has been more handling by researchers, but it is highly likely at least at the first site where such observations were made, because very few people besides researchers even know where the turtles are or would know to report what they had observed to the proper authorities. In the Massachusetts case, only researchers have legal access to the sites.
"...Of additional concern is the recent (1997) discovery of Mycoplasma (the bacterium that adversely affects the desert tortoise) at a bog turtle site in New York. This disease has the potential to cause significant declines in bog turtle populations. The site where Mycoplasma has been discovered has been identified as one of the best remaining New York sites and lies in a valley with additional, extant sites leading to the possibility of spread of the disease through a significant portion of the remaining bog turtle range in New York State..."
The USFWS disease alert makes no mention of Mycoplasma and instead describes different symptoms. That is what is most alarming about this new threat. An unknown and highly lethal pathogen will take time to analyze, let alone isolate causes and develop a meaningful response. Bog turtles do not have any time. their populations are too small.
Consider that in 2006, a new disease affecting little brown bats in New York was first described for science. Three years later, white nose syndrome is causing up to 90-100% mortality in bat caves from the White Mountains of New Hampsive to sw Virginia. It has affected between 500,000 and 1,000,000 bats of several different species. There is still no absolute cause for this disease, nor a cure. One theory is that human activity may have been an initial vector for the spread of the fungus.
I suspect that the reason this new turtle disease has not yet been reported in Connecticut is that no researcher has been to our few remaining (and much poorer quality) bog turtle sites to check. There has not been a live turtle reported from a couple of these places in years. I am aware that several years ago, one Connecticut turtle was found by a passerby and taken to a public beach where it was spotted by a knowledgable person and ultimately returned to the site where it belonged. My understanding is that this turtle was later found dead.
This leaves open a difficult question. Should researchers visit other bog turtle sites to determine whether they, too, have evidence of increased mortality and apparant disease? Or should they refrain from doing so, given the potential that their activity could be contaminating clean sites? The felt soles of waders are known sources of introducing the microscopic alga Didymosphenia geminata or "Rock Snot" to trout streams. Unless soaked for at least 40 minutes in hot water at least 113° F (45° C) - or for 30 minutes with a 5% solution of dishwashing detergent - what keeps a researcher dry may be killing the very things they care for.
I saw one of America's Most Wanted while driving to work today. It was unmistakable, though I had to stop the car to be sure. There by the roadside growing halfway down the embankment but still high above the guardrail, were the enormous stalk, leaves and flowers of Heracleum mantegazzianum: the notorious Giant hogweed.
I must have driven passed this plant all growing season without noticing it, which might seem remarkable for a species that can grow a dozen feet high or more. This one was about 5' above the roadgrade, and about the same amount of plant downslope in a tangle of poison ivy that discourgaed closer inspection. The thing that cause my eye were the massive inflorescences: huge platters of flowers that looked a bit like Queen Anne's Lace on steroids. If it had not been in bloom, it might have escaped detection.
That's the challenge with new incursions by invasive / exotic species. There is often a delay between the time when they take hold in a new place and when they are observed and recognized for what they are. The mantra of invasive species control is early detection and rapid respponse, because for many of these organisms it becomes exponentially more difficult to eradicate or contrain them with the passage of time.
Heracleum mantegazzianium has been around for a long time. It was introduced horticulturally, as so many of these species were before their invasive attributes were recognized, with the first record of its planting back in 1917. The shady, moist areas in which it particularly thrives have not been especially overrun with Hogweed run amok, at least in where it is just gaining a toehold, but the plant I observed clearly had escaped from cultivation. There is a known population of the plants in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, a mile or so from where this one was observed, and utility wires above probably provided the perch for the bird which was the vector for the spread of their seed.
Hogweed, however, has one additional attribute which has made it a top priority for State and Federal noxious weed eradication efforts. The plant contains the toxin furocoumarin, which can make skin highly photosensitive, causing weeping blisters and permanent scarring. Contact with the eyes can cause blindness. For these reasons, authorites consider a threat to public health.
The plant superficially resembles cow parsnip and Queen Anne's Lace, but its size at maturity is a dead giveaway, especially when in bloom. I did my part for early detection and reported this finding, along with photographs and detailed information about its location, to Donna Ellis of the Connectticut Invasive Plant Working Group; Elizabeth Corrigan, who is responsible for coordinating rapid response efforts for this plant in our region email@example.com; and Les Mehrhoff at the Invasive Plant Atlas of New England. It turns out that Corrigan drove by the same site on the same day and by her account "nearly drove off the road" when she saw the plant.
It is fortunate that I have lots of connections in the New England Invasive Species world, and that we have the chance to get this plant before all those seeds rain down. Who knows where else it may be lurking, unnoticed, out there in the wild?
My most recent "Nature Notes" piece in the Lakeville Journal can be read here with free registration.
"...Proximity to major metropolitan centers in New York, and to a lesser degree Hartford, has made our land valuable as residential real estate. A renewed interest in locally produced food and concern about the loss of our remaining farmland to nonagricultural uses runs up against the hard fact that the land is worth more in a developed state than as farmland, and is too expensive for new farmers to obtain.
Meanwhile, Berkshire County is losing population. Connecticut is losing young people at one of the highest rates in the nation.
We have saved many significant lands from development but are unable to maintain them in a condition that will ensure that the very qualities that made them special will persist over time. Without the resources to care for and steward our fields and forests, they are vulnerable to fresh degradation from invasive species and to loss of ecological productivity..."
In other news, I wrote a magazine story for the latest issue of Massachusetts Main Streets and Back Roads, a free publication and not yet readable on-line, about The Mammoth Cheese of Cheshire. Big as a millstone and a month in transit from the Berkshires to Thomas Jefferson's innaugeral. I'll link to it once it makes it to the electronic media stream.
Is anyone else besides me disappointed that the staff of the faithless Governor of South Carolina lied ? He did not, as his aides incorrectly reported, take off on his own for a few days on the Appalachian Trail. When Governor Mark Sanford ditched his responsibilites, his family and all means of communication, the idea that he had strapped on his pack and headed for the wilderness had a certain appeal. Who wouldn't want to shed the weight of executive power for a few days in the mountains without cell phones, without Twitter, without minders and the sleaze of politics and exchange all of this for the rejuvenation that this national treasure affords?
To find out that instead he was betraying his marriage vows in Argentina along with the public trust is a far more believable, if pathetic, explaination. This is hardly the "exotic" experience the Governor claims to have been seeking, but commonplace, tawdy, and utterly lacking in originality. And for his staff to lie about his unexplained absense by claiming the Governor was behaving just like the 4 million people who enjoy the glories of the Appalachian Trail every year is an insult to them and to this great American natural resource.
Never mind that infidelity is also commonplace in America, or that those politicians like Sandford with his feet of clay espousing family values are particularly craven. There was no need to sully the AT along with his family, his reputation, and the public trust. His professed love of the AT has nothing at all to do with his love of a woman in Buenos Aires. It is also telling that the trail, over 2,300 miles long, does not include a single section within South Carolina.
If Governor Sandford had walked out the door last Thursday, stopped in to the local sporting goods store for a rucksack, some beef jerky and a pup tent and disappeared up the spine of the eastern highlands instead of down to his Andean mistress, he might have been a sympathetic, if troubled figure. If he had packed his rags and gone down the hill, to paraphrase a great breakup song by Richard Thompson, he might have been a failure and a disappointment but he would have been an honest one. If he had shacked up in an AT lean to on some windswept mountainside, I would not be grinding this ax, but he didn't and his staff knew it and they lied, so now he's just another dishonest pol with his hand in the honey pot and they all need to take a hike.