Archive for the 'It’s Only Natural: Geology, Environment, Wildlife & More' Category

Jun 09 2016

A Tick(ing) Time Bomb? Tick‑Borne Disease Comes North

There's a Sucker Born Every Minute

On a cool but sunny day in mid‑April I undertook a quick scouting trip to a favorite haunt: a nearby beaver pond. I’d hoped to find it ice‑free, and I wasn’t disappointed. Though a raft of rotting ice clung stubbornly to one tucked‑away cove, most of the pond was open. I saw foraging ducks, basking turtles (in April!), and a swimming otter who, contrary to received wisdom, was drifting along on his back when I first spotted him. (No picture, I’m afraid. He was too fast for me.)

Everyone seemed to be enjoying the preternaturally clement spring weather, and I was tempted to linger, doing nothing in particular and loving every minute of it. But I had work to do, so I headed homeward. And after a quick shower — the trip into the beaver pond and back out again requires a bushwhack over a steep ridge, and despite the cool temperature, I’d worked myself into a muck sweat — I was seated at my desk. That, I thought, was that. Unbeknownst to me, however, I’d picked up a hitchhiker, and if I’d known my companion’s identity, I’d have been pretty ticked off… Read more…


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Mar 26 2016

The Scent of Apples in Winter

A Snapper-Up of Unconsidered Trifles

The River of My Youth boasted a swimming hole. It’s fenced off now, but when I was a girl, entire families would congregate around the gently flowing water on sultry summer evenings. Children would splash in the shallows, teens would flirt in the shadows, and parents would drink beer or snooze, each according to his (or her) inclination. The swimming hole had another attraction, too: a gnarled old apple tree that stood close to the river, the lone survivor of a once numerous tribe. In spring, the tree was garlanded in white blossoms, and by late summer the limbs hung heavy with near‑ripe fruit. I used to sit for hours in the shady oasis beneath its branches, listening to the current chuckle and purr over the gravel bars. Sometimes, as the days drew in and fall approached and the evenings became too chill to tempt swimmers, I would watch swallows dart undisturbed through the clouds of gnats that rose and fell on every puff of wind.

The little river was also where I served my paddling apprenticeship, mastering the art of handling a canoe in moving water. In time, I came to know all its bends, pools, and riffles. But today it’s the ancient apple tree that I remember best. This isn’t surprising. Long before I got my first canoe, I’d ride my bike out from the village to the swimming hole. Sometimes, I’d wade or fish, but often I’d just climb into the apple tree’s sturdy lower branches, stretch out like a leopard drowsy from eating, and watch the river flow past, the heady scent of ripening apples filling my nostrils. Birds sang. Mink loped along the riverbank. And every so often a deer would venture warily out of the adjacent woods to make a meal of early windfalls. I treasured these occasions. Deer were a rare sight in those days.

Usually, if I chose my time well, the birds, mink, deer, and I had the place to ourselves. But once the apples turned red and ripe, the gleaners began to arrive, filling baskets with the pick of the crop (and often breaking off branches from the tree while they were at it). Curiously, these snappers‑up of unconsidered trifles seldom came from the village’s poorer households. Almost all were women, and most were the wives of what passed for local gentry: doctor’s wives (the village boasted a cottage hospital back then), the wives of some members of the village board, even the wife of the town justice. It wasn’t poverty that moved these women to strip the tree of its fruit, therefore. It was avarice.

Or so it seemed to me, at any rate. I came from a family that had more kids than cash, but other than taking a small bite or two from a windfall now and then, I left the apples to the deer, the chipmunks, and the rabbits. I figured that the fruit of the lone tree was theirs by right of prior possession, and I grew mighty angry when I saw the gleaners stealing food on which so many wild lives depended. But I was powerless to do anything to check the thieves’ depredations.

Still, on the rare occasions when I chanced to cross paths with a gleaner, my native clumsiness came to the fore, and I not infrequently stumbled over her basket, scattering its contents far and wide. I always offered to collect the scattered fruit, of course, but I’m afraid I stepped on a good many of the apples in the process, with the result that the gleaner sometimes lost patience and flounced back to her car in a huff, her basket much lighter than it had been earlier. I can’t say I felt much remorse.


That was a long time ago, however, and the little river has seen a lot of development in the intervening years. So when I revisited it last fall, I expected to find it much changed. It was. New homes now crowd the riverbanks for miles on end, and the once lonely backwaters are bustling with activity, while the anglers who are old enough to remember when their river was a quiet place have a hunted, harried look about them. And as I mentioned earlier, the swimming hole is now fenced off. But the ancient apple tree still stands where it stood when I was a girl. Better yet, daughter trees have grown up around it, some of them in the very places where my clumsy younger self kicked apples from gleaners’ baskets. I suppose you could call this natural justice.

Anyway, what with one thing and another, I’ve been thinking about wild apples quite often of late. The past winter — not yet quite past, I suppose, but surely passing — was preternaturally mild. It was snowless for the most part, with the alcohol in the thermometer sometimes rising to new heights, heights seldom seen till April in most years. Which may explain why many of the birds who usually leave for warmer climes have stayed behind. These include flocks of waxwings, who’ve often stopped by to dine on the withered crab apples clinging to the tree outside my office window.

Bohemian Rhapsody

They’re not alone, of course. Wild apples nourish multitudes… Read more…


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Feb 04 2016

When LES Means More: Lake-Effect Snow and You


Once upon a time… Well, yes, that lead‑in is a rather tired cliché. But it seems to fit. I should make it clear at the outset that this is no fairy‑story, however. And neither is it a tale of high adventure in the far North. It’s the story of a day trip, and it began on our doorstep. If you’re hoping for Dangerous River derring‑do, you’ll have to look somewhere else.

OK. That’s the preliminaries out of the way. I’ll begin again:

Once upon a time, Farwell and I lived in a cottage on the ‘Flow, an impoundment formed when The River was first dammed, back in the early years of the last century. (Our cottage was really a shack, lacking plumbing and — much of the time — electricity. No matter. “Cottage” sounds more romantic than shack, so cottage it will be.) Don’t jump to conclusions. The ‘Flow wasn’t a wilderness. Far from it. In summer it resembled an aquatic Times Square — though without the neon and the billboards. But there were still a few quiet corners and enclaves of wildness, and after Columbus Day had come and gone, we often had the place to ourselves.

On this particular January morning we were definitely in sole possession. It was an unusually temperate January, too, not unlike the January just ended. The ‘Flow, which usually froze up sometime in November, was almost entirely ice‑free. So we decided to go for a spin around the block by way of celebration. Not in our truck, though. In our Tripper (requiescat in pace). And soon we were cleaving through the water, on our way to a sheltered bay that was one of our favorite summertime haunts. But it was January, not June. The water wasn’t the sparkling blue of a smiling summer day. It was cold and dull and gray, echoing the mood and temper of a sullen sky — a sky fitfully illuminated by a watery winter sun that was now struggling to make itself felt through a veil of high cloud.

We should have payed more attention to that sky.

The outbound voyage went well. Despite having to meet a freshening sou’westerly breeze head on, we made the sheltered waters of the little bay in good time, thoroughly enjoying the rare treat of canoeing the ‘Flow in January. But our euphoria was short‑lived. In the few minutes it took us to make a quick circumnavigation of the bay, the freshening breeze had strengthened to half a gale, the springlike air had turned decidedly chill, and masses of dark cloud were spilling over the western hills. The flickering flame of the timorous sun was now snuffed out for good, and snow began to fall. At first only a few flakes scudded before the keening wind, but they grew in numbers by the second, and before we’d managed to draw the hoods of our anoraks close around our faces, the nearby hills had disappeared behind a dirty‑white drapery of blowing snow.

Our trip home was harrowing. Three‑foot rollers scudded down the length of the ‘Flow, lifting our stern and slamming us forward into the troughs. At times, it was all we could do to keep from broaching. But we were glad of the rollers nonetheless. They were our compass. With both shoreline and sun now lost to sight, we had only the wind and the waves and instinct to guide us — and instinct, as every boater knows, is a mighty poor pilot.

Fortunately, the luck which is said (on very little evidence) to safeguard drunks and fools was with us that day. We made it safely back to our cottage. It’s true that our landfall wasn’t much to boast of. A breaking wave caught us just as the shore came into view. And then the bow grounded on a rock. A broach seemed inevitable. But Farwell leapt out, wrenched the Tripper round, and hauled her ashore by main force.

A farcical interval followed, during which we struggled to drag the unladen canoe up the now snow‑covered slope that fronted our cottage, slipping and cursing and sliding back one foot for every two feet we climbed. But we eventually got the Tripper back on its rack. Then we headed inside to change out of our sodden clothes and warm the inner paddler with big mugs of hot cocoa.


Viewed in a rosy glow of reminiscence, our little adventure appears a comedy of errors. But it could easily have been a tragedy, and as we watched the drifts mount ever higher under the plate‑glass windows that overlooked the ‘Flow, we saw just how lucky we had been. In our hurry to make the most of the unseasonable open water, we’d dressed as we would have for a walk in the hills. Our wetsuits and drytops had remained behind on their hangers. Had we broached in deep water — and we came near to doing so several times — we’d likely have rolled right over. It’s anyone’s guess how we would have fared then. The water temperature was close to the freezing point. The waves were building higher with every passing minute. And no landmarks were visible. We’d have been lucky to survive.

Yet the fury of the snowstorm soon abated. By nightfall, the wind had dropped to a whisper, and the clouds had moved on. A full moon shone down on the ‘Flow, its light reflected by the crystal glaze of new ice already forming in the bays. Only the howls from a foraging pack of coyotes broke the solemn stillness of what was now a true winter landscape.

All in all, it had been an instructive day, and we’d gotten a stern lesson in the consequences of something called… Read more…

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