Monday, November 27, 2006

Conflicts of Interest

I was crushed to learn that the O. J. book and interview deal was off. The buzz in all the media was just getting cranked up when they pulled the plug. Imagine all the time, money, news resources, air time, broadcasting equipment, news reporter skills, emotional energy, and water-cooler time that would now have to be dissipated in some other way. I’m sure hundreds of diligent news people are scouring the police blotters and pounding the streets of Hollywood looking for the next important story.

I wonder what would happen if the energy and resources that were expended on just that one story were focused on the genocide Darfur. Would we take notice? Would those who shout “Never Again!” do anything? Would we pressure the UN to act, if for no other reason than because they failed to in Rwanda? How many lives would be saved if the resources used to cover just this one O.J. story were focused on Sudan? How will history judge us?

I’m no less guilty of apathy and ignorance than anyone else. There is so much to do and there are so many distractions.

I live in a town of about 18,000 people. We have a town meeting form of government. That means the whole town gets together to discuss and vote on important issues like the budget, major projects, major purchases, major zoning changes and changes to the bylaws. A town manager, a board of three selectmen and several volunteer committees keep things running between town meetings.

I’m sure most people in town like to think of themselves as good citizens. But, out of our 18,000 or so residents, only about 300 voted in a special town meeting we had a couple of weeks ago. I was one of the 17,000+ residents that stayed home.

The meetings are very difficult to endure. They try to cram presentations, discussion and voting on several important issues into one or two evenings. Meetings often run late into the night. Most people with kids, jobs and lives just don’t want to bother going. Often, important decisions are made because one side or the other of some special interest can get a few hundred people to show up to vote on their pet project.

I happened to catch a few minutes of the meeting on cable TV. I guy I know and respect was making a PowerPoint plea to protect a few acres of open space from a youth soccer association that wanted to develop the area by adding a third soccer field to the two already nearby. As I watched this earnest environmentalist do his best to educate the assembly about the value of the parcel as wildlife habitat and as a recharge area for town water wells, I felt guilty for not being there. If I wasn’t there to speak in support of his views, at least I should have been there to vote.

My shame deepened as I saw a little battle in the culture wars ensue. Where the environmentalist spoke of the value of this land to birds, a soccer supporter said any child is more beautiful than any bird. (As if one must choose one over the other.) When the environmentalist indicated that he had reached the last slide in his presentation, the crowd erupted into applause, not because they appreciated his efforts, but because he was done. They had no patience for what he had to say.

We live in the age of the special interest. Public funds are so scarce, spread so thin and squandered so liberally that the public is often on the losing end of battles against well-funded special interests. We see this all the time in Washington, but I was witnessing it here in a microcosm. There is not enough public money and will to build enough athletic fields, so when a quasi-private association comes along with lots of money to build the field they want, where they want for the use they want, people pay attention. These fields are locked and only association-approved activities may happen there even though the fields are on public land. Money talks.

I decided to bike over to the area in question to see firsthand if it seemed as precious as the environmentalist claimed, or if the soccer dads were right and that it was only scrub land.

As I biked and walked around the fields, woods and ponds that surround the existing soccer fields looking for the site of the proposed new field, I bumped into two soccer dads. One was doing some work at the existing fields. The other was fishing with his boys at the pond. I asked if they knew the results of the vote, and where the proposed field would be. These guys did not seem like monsters bent on the destruction of natural habitat. They were just dads who wanted their kids to have a nice place to play. They told me the proposal failed to get the required two-thirds majority to pass. They seemed disappointed but not bitter.

I spent a little time taking a closer look at the proposed site. I had to disagree with the environmentalist on one point. What he described as a beautiful meadow was indeed scrub. This area was once a giant gravel quarry. The flat, open surface in question was once the bottom of a mining operation that has removed about 20 feet of sand and gravel. The plant community was a collection of pioneers struggling to gain a toehold on this very poor, very dry site. While it was an interesting area to explore with its carpet of little bluestem grass and the scattered redcedars, cherry, birch, oaks and pines, it was clearly a manmade wasteland and not a beautiful meadow.

The area is important in that it is part of a fairly large unbroken expanse of undeveloped land that had been set aside as part of an agreement to allow closer spacing of the houses in the development across the street. This creates a wildlife corridor that connects a few different habitat types and allows animals to move around without crossing streets and passing through yards.

The area is also very close to a couple of wells that provide town water, and this is what probably saved it. The sandy soil is very permeable, and rainwater percolates through it rapidly to help replenish our aquifer. Some citizens voiced concern that lawn chemicals, decomposing grass clippings and vehicles in the new parking lot could contaminate our water. The fields would also consume lots of water for irrigation. One issue that seems to bring residents to their senses is the preciousness of our groundwater.

I was glad that the soccer field would not be built on that spot, but saddened that the issue was presented as a choice between natural habitat and happy children. Why couldn’t we find a way to use existing facilities more efficiently? Why couldn’t we locate less sensitive sites? Why can’t more kids find their fun and exercise by freely exploring our open spaces rather than playing in rigid sporting events carefully organized and supervised by adults? I can only imagine what would have happened if someone suggested taking a hundred kids up to Moose Hill on Saturday mornings rather than to the sports arena. It was clear from the way people spoke at the meeting that not enough is known about the natural world around us. If people have no knowledge of what can be lost when the bulldozers move in, how can they be stopped when it is imperative to do so?

I’m disappointed in myself for not being more involved and I hope to do better. It sometimes seems pointless, but that’s no excuse for failing to try. I can think globally and write to my representatives in Congress about starvation, rape and murder on the other side of the planet. But will they listen? I can act locally and pay more attention to threats to our local environment. But have the deals already been made in secret? People see threats to our democracy and environment everywhere. The greatest threat is when good people fail to pay attention.

Now, if I could only get my hands on a Playstation 3 and make a killing on eBay…

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The War on Terra

I was awake early and pushed myself to get out of bed, knowing that a couple of hours on Moose Hill would be more valuable than an extra hour of lounging in bed. It was another beautiful, clear and unseasonably warm morning for mid-November and I knew there wouldn’t be many more days like this for a long time.

I decided to explore an area I’ve passed scores times on the road but have never explored up close on foot. Along Moose Hill Street, near Walpole Street is a large old hayfield. I often see deer feeding there and have also seen turkeys with their young poults hunting in the tall weeds. I thought I would walk through the woods that border this field and maybe scare up some game while I was at it. When I see these larger animals in the wild, it reminds me even more clearly that we share this world with other creatures that have needs that can’t be ignored.

The woods were nice enough, but I didn’t feel drawn to them. Perhaps it was too dark under the many white pines growing there. There were also signs of the kids who visit from the near-by houses and leave their beer cans and other trash. I can’t put a finger on it, but I just didn’t feel like spending my precious moments there.

I did find what I think is a kettle pond. This large pool of stagnant water sat it the bottom of what looks like a sink hole; a deep depression in the landscape with no inlet or outlet. It was likely formed when a large block of ice buried in a jumble of glacial debris melted to create this big bowl in the forest. It’s not always easy to interpret the effects the ice age had on the New England landscape, but all these millennia later, the effects are still evident everywhere. Those who dismiss the significance of global climate change might do well to sit by one of these features for a while and think about it.

Among the white pine (Pinus strobus), I also found a few pitch pine (Pinus rigida). This is the tree of the pine barrens of the Northeast, most notably the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Unlike the dwarf twisted barrens trees, these three-needled pines were tall and relatively straight as a result of competing with their five-needled cousins on this soil that is much richer than those in the sandy barrens.

Not finding a suitable place to have breakfast, I found my bike and went back up the hill to a place I visited in July (See “The Empty Nest,” July 13, 2006.). A gated water tank access road climbs the hill through an oak forest and I thought I would find the same rock I enjoyed in July, and maybe see the turkeys I saw crossing this road while jogging here a couple of weeks ago. I like to sit on a rock that affords a view over a broad expanse of forest in the hope that I will see birds and other wildlife as I have my sandwich and coffee. I haven’t yet seen much that is large or dramatic, but I often find that even little things can give me things to think about.

On this morning, the woods were quiet. Not even a chickadee came by to see what I was up to. Gentle breezes where plucking the last of the oak leaves from the canopy above me. It was so quiet, I could hear individual leaves hitting the forest floor around me. Suddenly, from the direction of the houses I sought to avoid earlier, I heard a gas-powered leaf blower fire up. This loud whine is becoming the new sound of the American suburbs and it drives me crazy. I can’t imagine that the neighbors were too delighted to hear this din before 8:00 on a Saturday morning either, unless the roar makes them feel a sense of order and tidiness is being restored to the neighborhood after the dreadful plague of falling leaves descended on them.

A couple of weeks ago, I was working on an outdoor project in my neighborhood. From my perch on a ladder, I saw a man across the street return home for the evening. The first thing he did was get out his gas leaf blower and blast the few leaves that had fallen on his driveway and walk. He didn’t pick them up, bag them, or collect them in any way. He simply couldn’t stand to see them littering his asphalt. It seems that some people love their pavement the way others love their lawns.

From my rock in the woods, I thought about the leaves falling around me and how they would return to the soil that gave them life to enrich it and feed millions of tiny organisms. I thought about the leaves in the neighborhood below being ripped from their resting places by power machinery and wondered why we fight so hard against nature. I have fond memories of leaves burning in the fall, but I understand why we don’t do that anymore. I don’t have any good memories about bagging leaves in plastic and sending them to landfills and am glad we don’t do that anymore. Nowadays, some of us still actually rake our own leaves by hand and put them in paper bags to be collected and composted by the town. If leaves must be removed, I think the best way to do it is to compost them on site. This way, fossil fuels aren’t burned to transport them and the resulting mulch can be used around the yard.

My time was up, so I loaded my pack and walked my bike down the access road. I paused to look at a small clump of cucumber trees (Magnolia acuminata). This species is not common in these woods, and they brought back fond memories of my college days. I’m not certain, but for some reason I remember this as the very first tree I studied in dendrology class over 30 years ago. I recall my excitement as I finally began to study a subject that would deepen my understanding of the woods I loved so much. I picked up one of the wilted brown leaves, cast off to fade and disappear like one of my memories. As I studied its pointy tip, I hoped my memories would continue to cycle through my mind and enrich it the way the elements of that leaf would enrich the forest.

I rode back up Moose Hill Street and as I approached the top I saw a big, black, heavy-tired pickup truck towing a big trailer with a tank of driveway sealcoating material. The driver paused and started backing up as if lost. He certainly looked out of place in this sanctuary area. The caretaker’s house he was in front of doesn’t even have a paved driveway. I really wonder about the practice of spreading this stinking goop on driveways. The volatile organic compounds that rise from the application of these petrochemicals can’t be good for the atmosphere, and the swill that leaches from these driveways can’t be good for the water. I don’t even think such coatings do much to protect the driveways. I guess some people just have an overpowering need for neatness and order at any cost.

I reached the top of the hill and started coasting down Moose Hill Parkway on my way home. I was thinking about why people might crave perfect lawns and perfect pavement. I wondered why some people would want to spend days on end being deafened by leaf blowers or would want to spend hours spraying toxic chemicals on blacktop. As if he could read my thoughts, the sealcoat guy almost blew me off the road as he roared past me down the hill, his tank of stinking black brew missing me by inches.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006


The weather forecast for today called for rain most of the day, but the radar showed a gap in the green, so I decided to use the window of opportunity to go for a short run up Moose Hill before work. With a little over 20 minutes of easy jogging, I can make it to the top of Moose Hill Parkway. Lately, I’ve been extending these runs to follow the gravel road through the woods and past the fields up to the old barn.

Today, after I reached the barn and headed down a short trail to head back home I saw a bird out of the corner of my eye. I was about to ignore it and keep going, but I had an urge to stop and go back for a closer look. I approached a small stand of aspens near the barn and quickly noticed several birds moving around in the trees and in the tangles of grape and bittersweet vines twining up them.

I think I spotted the kinglets first. I’ve seen a few of these tiny olive-backed birds in the past few weeks, and this time I finally saw a nice display of a bright orange crown, leading me to conclude that this was probably a golden-crowned kinglet. Next time, I’ll have to pay more attention to eye rings, eye stripes and wing bars to differentiate more carefully between golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets.

It was a wet, foggy morning and the birds didn’t seem to mind me standing very close. This was good, since I was watching with the naked eye. I soon saw that there were other birds in this clump of trees along with the kinglets. In quick succession, I saw chickadees, titmice, brown creepers and a downy woodpecker; all from the same spot.

Then, I couldn’t believe my luck when I spotted a small thrush! I carefully noted a streaked breast and a reddish tail that he was pumping up and down a little like a phoebe. This was a hermit thrush.

I was having so much fun with this little gang of birds, not only because I found six species in about five minutes in one spot without binoculars, but because I had seen all of these birds just a few days ago in similar inter-specific groups. Only the nuthatch was absent today, and I have little doubt I would have seen one of those too, if I had lingered a few minutes more. I can expect to see chickadees, titmice and nuthatches almost any day, but kinglets, creepers and hermit thrushes are a special treat, and this group affirms my observations on Saturday that these particular species seem to like hanging around together.

As I started to jog home, I was in a good mood. This little group of birds boosted a spirit already elevated by the prospect of a new day in Washington. There is hope that some balance will be restored to our nation. Both sides were speaking of respect and cooperation. In Massachusetts, we made a little history by electing our first African-American governor ever, and only the second in the United States. Maybe the most amazing thing was that his race was essentially a non-issue. He seems a man of intelligence, poise, honesty and dignity who ran a positive campaign, in spite of some very nasty attacks on his character. He won in a landslide.

If, I thought, all these little birds from different species can gather to find food and watch for danger together, why can’t Americans? As a California philosopher once asked: “Can’t we all just get along?”

A warm rain started to fall as I ran down the hill toward home. I was happy that the clouds parted long enough for me to go to Moose Hill so a little band of cousins could teach me a lesson in tolerance, cooperation and companionship.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Now that November has arrived, I was thinking of deer hunting. Except for a few harmless trips with my father when I was little, I’ve never hunted deer. I don’t have anything against legal deer hunting and those who hunt legally and respect the ethics and traditions of the sport. It’s just not for me. I can, however, imagine the thrill of the hunt and when I noticed some buck sign on Hobbs Hill a few weeks ago, I thought it would be fun to go back and see if I could spot the perpetrator.

It was yet another cool, clear, bright day on Moose Hill with a blue sky and gentle breezes. Naturally, I understand it’s not always this way, but it may seem this way because of my bias in choosing the good days to visit. I promise myself to venture out in some extreme weather, but it’s so much easier to travel through and sit in the forest when the skies are clear. We had some frosty mornings this week, but the earth was still soft underfoot even if the crunchy leaves made silent walking impossible for this paleface. Although the oaks are reluctant to surrender their tattered brown jackets, most of the leaves are down and views through the forest went on a long way in the good light.

I crossed the boardwalk over the swamp, and at the tee in the Hobbs Hill Loop, rather than going right and up the trail to the top of the hill as I usually do, I went left, thinking I would craftily approach from downwind. I was soon stopped in my tracks by some bird activity. I quickly spotted the usual chickadees and titmice (titmouses?) but knew that other birds often joined these little avian clubs.

Sure enough, I caught a glimpse of what may have been a kinglet, and then, a thrush! Not being up to speed on my thrush field marks, I didn’t pay attention to the distribution of redness on its back, and I didn’t get a look at its front. I wasn’t ready to believe the wood thrush that was singing to me all summer was still here, so I thought it might be one of the other eastern thrush species. A little later, as I approached my favorite rock perch on the edge of the hill, I saw another thrush land in a flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), perhaps attracted by the bright red fruits this pretty little tree offered. This bird seemed to have a breast that was more streaked than spotted, making me think it was a hermit thrush.

I suppose I should carry my bird guide, just for situations like this. I don’t expect to see a great variety of birds on these walks on Moose Hill and I am happy to visit with a small collection of regulars, but many walks produce glimpses of something new. I try to make mental notes of field marks, but usually wind up check-marking the wrong details.

Even though it was November, there were plenty of birds around on this day for those ambitious enough to chase them. An excited gaggle of blue jays blundered through the neighborhood, their striking blue and white magnified by the bright sun, and their rather straight flight patterns contrasting with the busy flitting of the smaller birds. Crows cawed in the distance. A tiny kinglet worked in a redcedar, reminding me of one I saw on Bluffs Head hunting within the foliage of the same tree species and making me wonder if they particularly like this juniper. An unseen woodpecker was heard tapping away. A small flock of robins was clucking among the oaks.

After the thrush left the dogwood, I settled down for breakfast on the rock. (Note to self: The rocks are getting cold. Bring something to sit on.) I didn’t see any deer, but didn’t really expect to. I’m sure any buck that may have been tending to his territory on the hilltop heard me coming long before I arrived. I was simply enjoying my breakfast, the scenery, the beautiful day and wondering where my thoughts would take me.

I noticed a small hickory growing out of the hillside. It was tall and straight but no more than three inches in diameter. About 10 feet above the ground it had been decapitated, probably by a falling oak limb or a near-by fallen ash. From the ugly and rotting stub, the hickory had put forth a new shoot that bent upward to continue the climb to the sky. This new sprout looked younger, more vigorous and stronger than the old base that carried it.

I thought about how people are sometimes like that little hickory. One day while they’re going about their business, some unseen tragedy hits or some unanticipated disruption in their plans strikes. Life goes on and the wound heals. Will the wounded one persist and start anew and grow for the sky with more energy than before? Or, will the break be terminal, ending all growth? Will they continue on the same path, or branch off in a new direction? There will always be a scar where the break occurred. Would that scar become a hard knot that would lend greater strength, or become a weak point ready to snap in the next big wind? I counted my blessings that I have been spared major tragedies, and I like to think that any scars I may carry will act as reminders that make me stronger and wiser.

It was time for me to go, so I headed back to the trail. Along the way, I examined some more fresh buck sign. Evidently, deer like the feel of redcedar bark against their antlers because every redcedar on the flat hilltop had been scraped. At the base of one of the larger trees was a patch of freshly-disturbed soil where the buck had been pawing the ground. I wished him a good rutting season.

I returned to my bike and rolled it back to the road. As always, I was reluctant to leave and persisted in looking around as I prepared to go. As I paused to put away my gear and don my helmet, I heard more small birds and saw flashes of movement in the trees above and around me. This may have been the same group of birds I always seem to see at this spot. I’ve started calling them the “Upland Guild.” I heard somewhere that these groups of birds of different species are called “guilds,’ and this spot is where Upland Road hits Moose Hill Parkway. Black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice are the majority members, but the patient observer can usually find a white-breasted nuthatch or two and maybe a downy woodpecker. As I learned earlier, there might even be a kinglet or thrush.

Call it persistence, or procrastination, but these moments of reluctant separation often seem to produce the best finds. On this day, my delay was rewarded with a pair of brown creepers. Among all the other busy little birds were these two unusual characters. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one and I was thrilled to find these two. They are small and mottled brown, blending in well with the tree bark. They fly from tree to tree and, starting near the bottom, work their way upward creeping along the bark with their heads up, unlike the nuthatches, who creep head-down and crane their necks as they look about. The creepers had long curved beaks and pressed their longish tails tight against the trees as they climbed.

I went to the woods hunting for deer. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. I saw plenty of deer sign, but, as they say, that makes pretty thin soup. My other discoveries may be even less substantial, but I persist in hunting for them all the same. Each tale told by a tree and each small bird becomes an ingredient in my mental stew that is Moose Hill.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Windfall Profits

A chainsaw is not just another power tool. In my hands, a chainsaw becomes a time machine.

One man’s problem is another man’s windfall. A microburst we had in July and heavy winds this past weekend offered opportunity and I took action. A few heavy oak limbs came down at a friend’s house. My cheap electric chainsaw was not up to the task and my old gas saw was beyond repair. I decided it was time for a new saw. Like so many things today, the new saws are lighter, cheaper and more powerful than equivalent models from a generation ago. It’s been fun helping my friend clean his yard and bringing home some solid oak as my reward.

I bought my first chainsaw in about 1978, when I was an idealistic, optimistic forestry graduate student. Looking back, I’m not sure why I thought I needed one at the time. I didn’t even own a house or fireplace. I probably wanted it to cut firewood at a place in the Catskills my father had but later lost to poor health and dishonest partners. I’m sure I also dreamed of using it on land of my own that I never got around to buying. This was when I still believed in fairytales.

Nowadays, I can justify a new saw on more rational bases. I have a wood stove that I love to use on late fall and winter evenings. The stove is not big enough or centrally located enough to heat the whole house, but it does a great job of warming the living room, and some of the heat drifts upstairs to the bedrooms. It’s a great pleasure to sit by the warmth of a fire and drift off into a dreamy nap while reading a good book on a Friday evening after a hard week of work. I usually burn scraps and demolition debris from my carpentry projects and small logs from limbs that fall in the yard and real firewood that comes my way from various sources. With a new, reliable, efficient saw, I would be able to help friends who might need a tree removed or who have storm debris to clean up, and at the same time I would have a more consistent source of fuel.

When the call came on Sunday that another big branch blew down in my friend’s driveway, I was happy to help. What better way to spend a clear, blustery New England October afternoon than cutting firewood? The sweet smell of oak, flavored with the scent hot bar oil transported me to my youth, a time when my dreams were still new and things still seemed possible. It brought back memories of camping trips, or research trips to the mountains. I remembered working in the woods and hoping to practice silviculture, if not as a career, then at least on my own land. The fond memories, mingled with the satisfying exertion of my labor, made for a pleasant afternoon.

At times like this, I think of Aldo Leopold and his Sand County Almanac. I was first introduced to the wonderful essays about a life in the woods as a college freshman when our botany professor would read selections to us in class. A favorite was “Smokey Gold,” a tale about grouse hunting among the golden tamaracks of a Wisconsin autumn. I found my 1972 paperback copy of this 1949 classic and studied the way I had carefully written my name in uncharacteristically neat block letters on the first page as if, even then, I knew I would be keeping this book for a long time and that it would take on value for me far greater than its 95-cent price would seem to indicate. Now, 34 years later, I can still pick up that little book and be transported to places and times far away.

I like to read the essay “Good Oak” where Leopold fells a lightning-killed oak with a cross-cut saw. As he cuts through the annual rings he is also transported through time as he describes the years those rings represent and lists the ecological disasters and conservation triumphs that happened along the way.

What could have been just another back-breaking laborious chore turned out to be an afternoon of healthful exercise and pleasant nostalgia. A windfall of good oak became a chance to do a little time traveling by reflecting on hopeful times and recalling a great book. Wood stacked in the shed is like money in the bank. Its value increases as it dries and it will soon yield dividends of warmth and more chances to dream by the fire.