Thursday, November 17, 2016

Curious in Cambridge

     You were probably wondering, "If you lined up all the stonewalls in New York and New England, would they reach to the Moon?" And had you been at a recent Curiosity Forum program you'd know the answer. Yes! The Moon orbits at an average distance of 238,900 miles while there are at least 250,000 miles of stone walls in the northeast.

     I don't know how many of those miles are in Washington County, but they're certainly a much loved feature of the local landscape. And nobody loves them more than John Delano, the SUNY Albany professor who gave the Curiosity Forum talk. Although retired, the scientist in him obviously needs to keep finding things out. On walks in the woods surrounding his Rensselaer County home he became intrigued by the stone walls he came across. Measuring, photographing, mapping and much research followed and is ongoing.

     Our stone walls were delivered by the last glacier - some assembly required. Glaciers are a mess. Lot's of ice, for sure, but also a good measure of ground up rock. When the climate warmed, the ice turned to water and headed for the nearest ocean. The heavy load it was carrying was mostly left behind and is called glacial till. It's a mishmash of everything from microscopic clay particles to sand to boulders. 

Images from the web

     Till covers much of the hill country of Washington County. In some valleys and lowlands the till was washed away or covered over by outwash deposits, kames, deltas and deep lacustrine clays. These are the various original sources from which present day soils developed.
     Rocks in the till were both a problem and a resource for early settlers. The obvious problem was that they made the ground very hard to work. Their utility came from being raw materials for foundations, chimneys and fences. As the land was cleared of trees and cultivation began, the rocks were arduously moved to field edges where they marked property lines and served to contain grazing animals.

     Delano uses advanced technology to probe the secrets of these simple structures. We learned that Earth's magnetic field wanders over time, resulting in modern coordinates that don't line up with compass bearings on old surveys. Also, that by using LiDar (Light Detection and Ranging) he can find walls that are no longer easily visible from the ground because they have gradually sunk and become obscured. Once he has found and mapped patterns of walls across the landscape he can then draw conclusions about how settlement unfolded, including the ethnicity and socio-economic class of the early pioneers. 

From the web

     Years ago Gwenne and I built a stone wall in front of our small cottage in Bacon Hill. It's still there and I hope it will be long after I'm gone. There's legacy both in the wall itself and in the appreciation it gave me for how hard it is to build these things. Listening to Delano rekindled my love for stone. I can easily identify with his obsession.

     Quiet dirt roads bordered by moss covered walls are my idea of heaven. I have cherished memories of long runs and rides on just such roads. Washington County isn't wilderness but, thank God, it isn't suburbia either. At its best, it's a place where people have lived, worked and built in pleasing harmony with nature. Stone walls are their enduring signature across the landscape.
     Stone walls are common in the Taconic hills of eastern Washington County. Just poke around the backroads and chances are you'll see some. I remember a beautiful one on a trail the monks built up at New Skete, in White Creek. Some of the photos on this post were taken there. It's also interesting to note how many rural cemeteries are wrapped in a stone wall. Wouldn't want those tombstones wandering off now, would we? 

     Should you get bitten by the stone wall bug here are a few recommended resources:


"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice...
Lewis Carroll
     It is beyond curious, all the way to amazing, how many interesting and talented people there are in Cambridge and the surrounding area. So why not give them a forum to introduce their work to their neighbors? A Curiosity Forum.  Such was the epiphany shared by Leslie Parke, Hubbard Hall and Battenkill Books.

Hubbard Hall

     Their idea has resulted in a stimulating series of readings, illustrated lectures and film screenings that have enriched the intellectual and cultural life of this southern Washington County village. Recent events include Sue Van Hook on mushroom materials, Paul and Mary Liz Stewart talking about the underground railroad and Almost Famous Women with Megan Mayhew Bergman. 
     Their facebook page says The Forum is currently taking a break. Certainly well deserved. Remember that these are homegrown events created by people who have busy lives with work, business' and families. A local project giving local people a chance to share their expertise with their community...that's The Curiosity Forum.
     Here's some links:
     -Hubbard Hall


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.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

DVDs & Cemeteries

     It's been an interesting week at my house. First this alien thing popped up. Shocking and hard to get rid of but fortunately Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley was up to the task. Frankenstein also dropped by and brought his lovely bride. Sadly Dr. Frank N. Furter couldn't make it. Something really frightening kept him from the party.
    Those are some of the stars of my spooky movie binge that happens every year about this time. Now being a thoughtful, sensitive individual my film tastes are usually more hi-brow: Blazing Saddles, The Blues Brothers and old James Bond movies. Things of that caliber. But the last week of October, in a nod to Halloween, it's always horror movies.

     Alien, beyond being the scariest film ever, has a certain appeal to those interested in the natural sciences. There are those harrowing scenes of descent to the hostile crash site that presaged the discovery of any real exo-planets. And the creature's metamorphose seems to mimic our earth bound arthropods, down to the detail of a living host stage. In the best science fiction the story seems realistically plausible. In the best horror films it's about engaging the imagination with subtle suggestion, anticipation and unbearable tension. Director Ridley Scott gets it and Alien stands out as a masterpiece of both genre.  

     Footnote: I want Sigourney Weaver on my team. In Ripley she creates a character who is strong and smart in the direst situations. Plus, and our cultural expectations probably requires this of an actress, she wears her undies well. Weaver once had a place in the Adirondacks and I know friends who have hiked with her. Alas, and this is one of the small disappointments of my life, I was not among them.

     It's a "beauty to the beast" leap to go from Sigourney Weaver to Frankenstein. But remember that the archetype of all monsters was born in the imagination of a woman. Her name was Mary Shelley and she wrote her novel way back in 1816. That was the year without a summer after the eruption of Mount Tambora. Some see a connection between that event and her creation. The story was made into a movie in 1931 that proved popular and profitable. This being Hollywood, there were sequels and the monster - played by Boris Karloff - became an early franchise.

     The library has a DVD with all the Frankenstein movies plus commentary and I've watched the original film as well as The Bride of Frankenstein several times. Most critics consider Bride as the best of the bunch. It has wit, style and thoughtfulness to balance the scary stuff. There's also that jolting electric hair-do! Christian imagery and even gay themes (in the 1930's!) add to the moralistic tale of who gets to create and take life. Cringe as Dr. Pretorius raises a toast "To a new world of gods and monsters" while Dr. Frankenstein exults "It lives. She Lives." But in an ironic twist it's his creation, who just wants a "friend", making the life and death decisions by the end of Bride.

     Both Frankenstein movies have cemetery scenes and perhaps they have contributed to our conflicted relationship with these familiar landscape features. Especially this time of year, especially at night. Watching Dr. Frankenstein and his charming assistant exhume a freshly buried body while proclaiming "He's just resting, waiting for a new life to come" has a certain chilling effect. 

     But I like visiting cemeteries, as long as it's not a one way trip. I enjoy the stones - marble used to be common, now it's more often various types of granite and I believe you can find some cut from slate up by Granville. The sculpting and the inscriptions are endlessly fascinating. The remembering of lives lived gives perspective and time to think about lives yet to come.  And about what kind of world we will leave them.
     Too much work and a down and out old truck - ready for the junkyard, if not the cemetery - have kept me from my Halloween tour this year. But the graveyards aren't going anywhere, they'll be waiting until I'm ready. Whether to pay quiet respects or for a little seasonal spook, I hope you get to visit one of Washington County's old burying grounds soon. 
     Here's a photo gallery sampler of what you might see:


Worth watching...

     I mentioned that Dr. Frank N. Furter was a no-show at my 2016 Halloween film festival. You probably recognized him as the mad scientist from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This campy spoof adds some musical levity to a category that can get a little dark and heavy. Too bad its cult status attracts those who don't understand that library material is meant to be borrowed, enjoyed and returned. Check the catalog and you'll often find Rocky Horror listed as LOST. Sad...

     Want to be really scared? Watch Orson Welles Citizen Kane and tell me it doesn't remind you of a certain presidential candidate we've been hearing a lot of this fall.

     When I was old enough to get my first tinny little transistor radio they were playing Bob Dylan songs on it. Some fifty odd years later and they're still playing him. Maybe that's why they decided to give him a little prize recently. Isn't that noble? Trouble is, Dylan's out there working so hard playing his music that he doesn't know he's gotten an award yet. If you want a portrait of the artist as a young man check out Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home. If that's not nostalgic, then give me another word for it...