Sunday, November 6, 2016

Jerry Jenkins & The Northern Forest Atlas

     Hay, corn and cows. These and a certain by-product you get when you feed hay and corn to cows have kept me occupied all fall. Plus there's the matter of deciding where in Canada to relocate after the election. Ok - stale joke - I know. Besides, who wants to get caught in a huge traffic jam at the border? I'll just accept whatever happens in November, even if half the candidates won't. Better to enjoy the good people and places close to home than let the national mess get you down. 

The cows pantry with corn silage under plastic and tires on right 
and dinosaur eggs on left - they are actually baleage, wet hay wrapped in plastic.

     Now, a little blasphemy. I'm a blogger (and that implies computers, screens, the web) who still loves books, magazines and newspapers. Paper and ink that you hold in your hand. All those "old timey" ways of sharing information. It's a small emergency if I sit down with a cup of coffee, ten free minutes and nothing to read. Fortunately, it's a crisis easily averted. I simply keep a copy of The Adirondack Atlas handy and I'm never at a loss for engaging material.

The cover photo of the Snowy Mountain Range is by Daniel Way

     The Adirondack Atlas is a project of the Wildlife Conservation Society. It was published in 2004 and it's an amazing piece of work. Information is presented in maps, charts and text and what mountains of information there is. Want to see a map of all the newspapers and radio stations in the Adirondacks? Check pages 184 - 187. How about the damage swath of the 1995 Derecho storm? That would be on page 109. Wondering about the (approximate) location of nuclear armed intercontinental missles in the Park? So were the Russians back in the Cold War era but now you can easily find out by thumbing thru the Atlas. Even secretive, some say mythic, big cats have a page with a list of cougar sightings on page 51.

Maps, charts and text - a page from The Atlas

     Surprisingly, the man responsible for The Adirondack Atlas hails from White Creek in southeastern Washington County. Liner notes tell us that Jerry Jenkins works as a botanist and geographer. True enough but a little like stating that the Earth is the third rock from the Sun. Certainly not the whole story. Jerry has had a big and very positive impact an my (and many others) knowledge and relationship with Washington County, the Adirondacks and beyond. Let's take a look at some of his accomplishments.

Jerry Jenkins and friends

     Jenkins grew up on Long Island, witnessing the sad spectacle of runaway growth and environmental degradation. He went to Williams College as a 15 year old math prodigy but found his true love was biology. After school he traveled for 15 years earning his living playing music and calling dances. All that time he was looking at plants, always learning more until he became the go to authority for biological inventories in the Northeast. Vermont gave him work as did the Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Conservation Society. That's where he found the support to write The Adirondack Atlas, a book that Bill McKibben writing in the forward calls "a great gift".
     Many of us know him for another gift - The White Creek Field School. It ran off and on from the late seventies into the nineties. Best described as an occasional school of field biology and geography, run by Jerry and friends, it was loosely based out of his farmhouse in the Taconics near the Vermont border. But the school mirrored Jenkins wide ranging curiosity and often traveled to New England, the Adirondacks and even Canada. Some class titles from the schools newsletters include: Short Course about Stuff in Ravines, Excursion to the Lost Spruce Stand in Cornwall Swamp and A & G Marathon (that would be asters and goldenrods).

Those were the days - A WCFS newsletter from the 1980's

     Beyond expert instruction the courses were about sharing in the adventure of discovery, about building community with other "plant" people. School often included potlucks and house concerts or Saturday nights up at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge when Jerry was calling a dance. Students camped and congregated inside and outside the big farmhouse, keeping the embers of the "Woodstock Generation" aglow. It was about rigorous science and learning that was also fun, about Jerry's gentle humor and warmth, about taking simple joy in plants, nature and life itself.

     From a 1989 White Creek Field School newsletter:
          Alumni news: Debby & Everette have announced that they 
     are getting married on the 27th of August. Field school is 
     giving the bride, who has not learned grasses yet, a bouquet
     containing all the genera of grasses that occur in Vermont.
     Married or not it is never too late. If you want to help gather
     them give me a call.
          Many spiders in the grass, maple flowers falling,
     bluebirds and field sparrows, clear low streams, my hill
     all hepaticas and bloodroots. First ginger today.
     Joy to you in a dry, flowers-coming, spring. J.       

     I don't know if the White Creek Field School is on a long recess or just a fond memory. The world has a way of claiming someone of Jenkin's talents and he's certainly been busy. Maybe he just needed to earn a decent living. The tuition at the school was so modest it qualified as a public service more than a for-profit enterprise. While at the Wildlife Conservation Society  he has produced an impressive canon of published work. The Adirondack Atlas was followed by books on acid rain and climate change. He also authored reports on conservation easements and hardwood regeneration and provided notes for a book of Nathan Farb photographs.

     Just this summer he created a booklet for participants in CycleAdk. This event is basically my dream vacation, and if there is ever a cow-less summer in my life I'm going to do it. It was a fund raiser for the Wildlife Conservation Society where you rode a big loop from Hadley up into the Champlain Valley and then back down thru the central Adirondacks. It was a fully supported week long tour with food, music and camping at the end of each day. The cyclists were given a copy of the booklet which detailed the natural features and ecology of each day's ride. I believe Jerry also lead discussions and answered questions in the evening. You can watch a video of the event here.

     Several years ago I heard him talk at the Curiosity Forum in Cambridge, where he drew from his book Climate Change in the Adirondacks. He was insightful, relaxed and entertaining, surrounded by his friends and neighbors. I remember thinking that Jenkins has to be the most accessible, down-to-earth scientist most of us will ever meet.
     Recently Jenkins unwrapped another gift when the Northern Forest Atlas came on-line. The Northern Forest is a region stretching from the edge of the prairies eastward to Maine and the Maritimes, including the Adirondacks. The Atlas is a collection of images, videos, diagrams, charts and posters. It's been four years in the making and continues to be a work in progress. Jerry gives credit to a long list of naturalists and photographers who have contributed to the project. Ed McNeil did much of the aerial photography, Sue Williams added her expertise as a field bryologist and Zoe Smith of the WCS Adirondack Program was deeply involved among many others.
     You can visit the Northern Forest Atlas website here. The following images are just a small sample of what you'll see:  

Hitchen Pond Bog, Adirondacks, from the AirCam

Witch Hazel

Ice-meadow vegetation, Hudson River, Warrensburg, NY
All images from The Northern Forest Atlas

     One of the pleasures of a relationship with place is becoming attuned to its natural cycles. The turning of the seasons, the arc from bud to bloom to setting seed, the coming and going of wildlife and the sky's reassuring rhythms. Maybe Jerry Jenkins has his own natural cycle - one that had its germination in the early days of the White Creek Field School, blossomed with his work at the Wildlife Conservation Society and the publication of regionally important books and websites and finally, hopefully, matures to a mellow homecoming to Washington County and a second life for the field school. Another chance to sort out those confusing sedges, then celebrate with savory potluck, homespun music and good people. What a gift that would be.

Illustration from Jerry's facebook page.

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