Thursday, February 23, 2017

0 for 3?

     Some think this business of being a naturalist is a walk in the park. They picture retired school marms "Oh-ing" and "Ah-ing" over some dainty botanical specimen. Or birders who see whole life-lists fly by every time they raise their Hubble powered binoculars. Rockhounds unearthing entire T-rex fossils with one swing of their hammer. Maybe it is like that for some people. But not for everyone. Not for me. 
     Here's a little story about eskers, owls and eclipses. About life that doesn't always go as planned. The day got off to a rough start. The early morning phone call that no one wants to get. An accident. A beloved family member. Tragedy and tears. Hard as it can be, life goes on. Especially on a farm where, no matter what, animals must be cared for.  Gwenne, Holly and I talked, consoled and kept busy. We feed the herd, cleaned barns and got a maternity pen ready for a cow soon to calve. 
     By mid-afternoon we were momentarily caught up. It was sunny, nice, not real cold. I thought a little get away might do our battered spirits good. 
     "Anybody want to go look for eskers?"
     "Sure, why not?"
    Now I doubt either of them knew or cared what an esker was. The operative word was "go". I could have said "Anybody want to go look for rabid dogs? the smallpox virus?" and the response would have been equally enthusiastic. We just needed to be together and a change of scenery wouldn't hurt.
     That's how we ended up in North Argyle. I have a surficial geology map that shows a number of eskers on either side of Rt. 40. An esker is a long, narrow ridge formed from deposits of a meltwater stream flowing beneath a glacier. Blessed with a vivid imagination, I anticipated a landscape squirming with something like the mole tunnels that adorn my lawn...supersized mole tunnels! 

Web image of glacier on left and esker on right

The arrowed lines are eskers, the oval with line in lower left corner is a drumlin

The map showed a long esker angling from above the sharp bend on Mahaffy Road down across Co. 44 all the way to Kinney Road. Very prominent on the map, totally invisible on the ground. Another one was shown crossing Co. 45, parallel and just east of the Moses Kill. No trouble finding the road or the stream, no luck finding the esker. A couple of small ones were mapped along Safford/Pope Hill Road. So small that I couldn't see a trace of them on the ground. Then it was back along Coach Road and across Tripp where we felt something like an anorexic speed bump where there was supposed to be an esker. Just beyond is the view across open fields to the old Presbyterian Church and Cemetery ... a soothing, timeless scene. My source indicates both are on top of an esker. Guess that places them a little closer to heaven. 



      A  little zig zag took us down Rt. 40 (supposedly on an esker) to Kinney Road where we finally hit the jackpot. Not one of those figments of a geologist's imagination that we'd been chasing all afternoon but a big, beautiful drumlin with the road hopping over its tail end. Another relic of glaciation, drumlins are long narrow hills. Their steep sided shape reminds me of a whale or submarine breaking the surface. Rising up to a hundred feet above the surrounding level, they can be quite imposing. But remember, they were mere bumps molded at the bottom of ice that towered as much as a mile above them!

South end of Drumlin with Kinney Road on left

North end of drumlin sloping down in wooded area to right

     Drawing a blank on eskers, we decided to look for owls. It was getting late in the day, the time when these big birds of prey become active. We wound back thru Durkeetown, imaging the huge meltwater lake that filled the valley before us 13,000 years ago. The same waning glacier that formed eskers poured out torrents of muddy water flooding the basin from here to the terminal moraine far to the south. 

     Eventually the lake drained and what we call the Fort Edward Grasslands became established on the former lakebed. It's great habitat for a variety of birds with sightings of short-earred and snowy owls in winter. Often seen by Gordie Ellmers and his camera, occasionally seen by competent birders and not seen at all by us. 

Web image

                                                                                                                 We cruised back roads, stopped at viewpoints and scanned with my poor excuse for binoculars. The days tally: one distant northern harrier, too many crows to count and a disheartening flock of "Building Lots For Sale - Will Finance" signs.
     We naturalists are made of stern stuff and it wasn't time to admit defeat just yet. I knew there was a full Moon tonight and that it was supposed to pass thru Earth's penumbra. That's the fainter part of the shadow our planet projects into space. When the Moon aligns with the inner, darker umbra we see an eclipse. But close calls with the outer penumbra can produce interesting shading effects. 

 It was sunset so by definition the Moon should rise at any moment. But the minutes ticked away. We were at the bird blind on Co. 42. I alternately looked low across the meadow for owls and up to the Argyle hills for sign of the Moon. It grew colder and the wind picked up. My family retreated to the truck. I knew they were hungry, that we had evening chores to do. A reluctant "OK", now it's time to admit defeat. No eskers, no owls, no Moon. 

     A short while later we were driving thru Hudson Falls. Looking east we caught  a few blurred glimpses of the Moon rising behind houses and trees. That was about it. Expectations can trip you up. It's the difference between what we want and what we get. It's easy to fall into the disappointment trap. But that isn't how I remember our day. Maybe we didn't find what we were looking for. Instead we saw the parade of hills marching above the Taconic Thrust fault. In front of the hills and beyond stretched the rolling Hudson/Champlain lowlands, finally giving way to the Adirondack Mountains to the west. Beautiful country full of life. A fox trotting across the road in front of us, a field speckled with turkeys and all those crazy crows - loud and mischievous. Looking up there was color in the sky - two multi-hued sundogs - what a treat. 

Web image

     You can dwell on what you missed or revel in what you've been given. And when you lose someone, you need to grieve for the life lost but also celebrate the precious time you had together.   
Nikos Lukaris - (January 4, 1974-February 9, 2017)
pictured with his dear, sweet Rosie

The center of much attention
This little charmer began her life journey on the 
night of our esker/owl/Moon outing
We named her Nikki

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Mr. Mosher's Neighborhood

     Howard Frank Mosher has been on my "To Read" list for a long time. Unfortunately, it took his passing (January 29, 2017) to move to the top. I was doing the evening milking when a Vermont Public Radio program celebrating the life of the late author came on. Over and over I heard the words generous, fun, curious, warm and decent. It was obvious people loved this guy. A few days later I'm halfway thru The Great Northern Express. And now I'm one of the people who love this guy.

     Mosher and his wife, both just out of college, took teaching jobs in Orleans, Vermont in 1964. The day after their wedding and arrival in town their landlady introduced them to a group of neighbors:

'"These are the Moshers, Howard and Phillis," Verna announced. "They got married yesterday in New York State and drove clear up here to Vermont to go to bed together."'
-From The Great Northern Express 

       The author recalls this introduction to their new lives and community with affectionate bemusement. It sets the tone for his many stories of the Northeast Kingdom. At the time of his death he had written eleven works of fiction and two travel memoirs with a twelfth novel due out this year. 


      Look at a map of Vermont and you'll see where the upper Connecticut River kind of wiggles and squirms eastward, stretching out the top of the state while putting the squeeze on New Hampshire. This is the Northeast Kingdom, crunched hard up against the border with Canada. Legend has it that back in the 1950's Governor George Aiken gave it the name. It's high and cold, heavily forested and sparsely populated. To those of a certain sensibility, it's achingly beautiful. 

Lake Willoughby - web photo

     Vermont may be the Green Mountain State but the Kingdom has more in common geologically with the White Mountains of New Hampshire and Maine. There are tilted and folded layers of metamorphic phyllite, schist and marble. These have been intruded and further contact metamorphosed by plutons of granite that stand high as solitary peaks. Rocks and landforms here are the result of  a plate convergence termed the Acadian orogeny which occurred 400 to 350 million years ago. It was one stage in the creation of the supercontinent Pangea. These events followed the earlier Taconic orogeny that shaped much of eastern New York and western Vermont.

Geologic map of the Northeast Kingdom

     The Northeast Kingdom has been heavily glaciated, resulting in disrupted drainage and many wetlands and bogs. The vegetation has a boreal character due to cold temperatures and a short growing season. There are lowland spruce - fir forests, northern white cedar and extensive alder swamps. Farming is tough here with the wooded hills more supportive of logging.

Victory Bog-Nature Conservancy photo

     Harsh, rugged landscapes breed independent, resourceful people. It is these people and this place that Mosher chronicles. He's obviously fascinated by them and inspired to tell their stories. In one of his obituaries there is an anecdote about Mosher's decision to leave Vermont to attend a graduate school for writers in California. After a week he was feeling rather disillusioned with that decision. While stopped at an intersection in Hollywood a workman saw the familiar green license plate on his old car and yelled "I'm from Vermont too - go back!" Mosher wisely took it as a sign that a writer must never abandon his muse. He promptly headed east and has lived and wrote in the Kingdom ever since. 

     In Mosher's books 'place' is more than a simple stage for events to unfold. For his entire writing life he has immersed himself in the landscape and people, the culture and traditions of northern Vermont. As he says in The Great Northern Express:

     " the fall of 1964, I wanted to tell the stories of the
     loggers and hill farmers and whiskey-runners and
     moonshiners of the Northeast Kingdom. Though I didn't
     fully know it, my long apprenticeship, one that all
     writers and songwriters must serve, not only to their
     craft but to their material, had begun."

"An adventure that might, with luck,
enable me not only to alter the direction
of my writing career but to gain fresh
perspective on what I loved enough to 
live for in the time I had left."
-Howard Frank Mosher

     Knowing a place, building a relationship with that place can be one of life's great experiences. Others have been down this path and written beautifully about what they've found. Abbey about the desert, Dillard about mystical revelation, McClean about fishing and families and Frost about life revealed in New England"s forests and fields. They are guides for our journey. Recently I pulled a volume off my bookshelf entitled North Country - An Anthology of Contemporary Writing from the Adirondacks and the Upper Hudson Valley. It was published in 1986. Lots of poems, some short stories, essays and memoirs. I had read it back then - quite awhile ago. Now I sampled some of the Washington County writers I was familiar with - Bronk, Kunstler, McDaniels. Then I settled on"The Garden" by Barry Targan. It's the story of a developing   relationship set on Christie Road, over in the hills between Greenwich and Salem. That's one of my favorite running and biking roads. Breathtaking views, hard-breathing hills. From the willful first sentence to the poignant final line, "The Garden" is a beautifully written story and, with Mosher's work still on my mind,this passage had special resonance:

     "Do you get it? You can't see America unless you see
     its people at work against the backdrop of their two most
     important influences, terrain and weather. How about that?"

Christie Road

Cows with a view

     My idea of a perfect vacation? Load up the truck with my canoe on top, bike in the back. A stack of geologic maps, some field guides and my tattered Vermont Road Atlas. And, here's the essential part, I'll have as many of Howard Frank Mosher's books as will fit in the cab. Then head up to the Northeast Kingdom, setting up camp at Brighton, or maybe Maidstone State Park. During the day I'll bike big loops on Rts. 105/114, botanize in Victory Bog, examine outcrops and paddle some of the water - Seymour Lake, North Pond, maybe a stretch of the Nulhegan. In the evening, back at camp, I'll crack a beer and dip into one of Mosher's tales beneath a Kingdom of stars. Reading is another way of experiencing place. Howard Frank Mosher makes it a very good way.

Maidstone Lake - web photo