Email *

Mid-drought at the oasis*


And still they camped beside the hole, and still it never rained …

A few days of drizzle refresh the late wildflowers, helping them and their partners


to slake various hungers


and prepare for winter. But absent a hurricane to follow, these meager inches will not soon reach the deeper roots, leaving many woody plants vulnerable to winter’s desiccation. Indeed, much of the current fall will be sponged by tinder-dry duff and humus, neither restoring top- and subsoil nor running down and away to recharge stream, lake and aquifer.

Only recently within the “extreme” zone (and perhaps serving less lawn-intensive consumers), the mighty Quabbin—here from the Goodnough Dike, northward to a hazy Monadnock—


“is currently at 82.5% of its 412 billion-gallon maximum capacity” and within normal operating parameters. Closer to home, the Hobbs Brook basin is more deeply compromised, with consequences for both its late denizens and those of Cambridge:


Here a pair of juvenile double-crested cormorants idles in sluggish mud, disdaining for the moment a deceased koi,


while a great egret (thanks to Gwyn Loud for identifications) spends ten neck-twisting minutes


choking (owing to size or condition?) down some other finned morsel—probably another koi, as few native fish could tolerate this warm mudbath:


Closer still Flint’s (AKA Sandy) Pond, Lincoln’s primary public water supply,


is likewise at uncomfortable and declining levels:


Per a previous post, the situation is alarming but not yet critical, even without considering the Town’s backup well. As this chart shows, the heat and drought of recent seasons have driven withdrawals well below resupply—but not yet to the severity of the mid-1960s. (–Though that was before the rampant spread of large and heavily irrigated lawns…)


Above chart and Sandy Pond photos courtesy of Greg Woods, Water Department superintendent. These and more photos, charts and analysis, plus additional historical, ecological, practical and personal perspective, are available in the recorded discussion “Brown is the New Green.”






In the eye of no storm,


Farrar Pond is likewise ailing. This makes even more vital the availability of alternative drink, larder and home, especially for creatures that are small, water-bound, or otherwise unable to remove themselves to the Sudbury River or another refuge.

“Refuge” means more than a volume of water. The unique importance of vernal pools to the continuity of numerous amphibians, insects and other life-forms lies not alone in wetness, but in isolation-through-transience. No permanent water means no fish or other predators that require its continuous presence. A river is, to one or another degree, connected to all other rivers, seas, and most lakes. Only a pond with no in- or outflow connection with such is likely to be free of that hazard for enough months each warm season that the regenerative cycles may complete.

This end, however, is easily achieved by artifice. Any depression with an impermeable liner—clay, concrete, fiberglass or rubber—becomes a pond given sufficient rain or hose-time. If much more than a foot deep, it will over-winter insect larvae, tadpoles, even (when they choose are or forced to remain) adult frogs and juvenile turtles. Best for ecology all around is a handy roof downspout, whose supply is more pure, free of chlorine and well-oxygenated:


And the uphill or down-twig instinct rapidly attracts guests (here to ad-hoc poles); whatever the aesthetic shortcomings of bare neoprene, a breeding frog is forgiving,


even apparently satisfied:


Without the metabolic and waste-treatment burden of fish, oxygen requirements are normally satisfied by surface exchange, perhaps augmented by pads and filamentous algae


—though the latter is continuously nibbled from every surface but their own by snails of indeterminate origin:


Perhaps this painted turtle could take one aboard for a little hull de-fouling?


An extended hot spell or heavy winter ice-over can apparently leave the depths hypoxic enough to harm tadpoles, but that is not usual, and can be managed with a small aquarium pump. Also perhaps helpful, though mainly added for decoration and to attract hummingbirds, small solar fountains can exchange quite a bit of dissolved gas when most needed,


and with outflow chilled by evaporation, it may convect to where most needed.


So much leaf area on a tree or shrub could quickly send the whole volume skyward via transpiration. But plants here are either submerged or within the stagnant boundary layer, hence remove little water—less, perhaps, than a bare surface would lose to normal evaporation. Instead, it is wicking by plants and bricks that most rapidly depletes a full pond; once down to bare polymer, further reduction is very slow no matter the weather. And poikilothermous animals even seem to prefer the sun-warmed rubber to available rocks:


(The young is resident  from last year’s hatching; the adult might be its mother, resting after laying before the trek home to the lake.)

Prime beneficiaries of a small pond include frogs, perched on (not very) high singly



or collectively



within tongue-lash of food (possibly including smaller cousins);


at rest in or beneath the ripples;




or between worlds:


This pool, rich in fresh and decaying vegetables, invertebrates and other comestibles, provides for tadpoles to finish their pre-terrestrial business:




Members of the other local amphibian family, Salamandridae, also need water in which to breed and ripen. Formerly common hereabouts—turning over almost any large rock or rotting log would reveal a red-back—they are getting ever scarcer due to habitat loss and possibly environmental toxicity, increasing ultraviolet exposure and/or the chytrid fungus. Fortunately for all concerned (except their prey), they thrive in shady woodland with heavy leaf cover, and will breed here:




That tiny-eyed juvenile might even be the offspring of this spectacular adult, rescued six years ago from within a nearby dwelling and released to a pond-side thicket:


Semi-aquatic reptiles also abound. Northern water snakes spend much time submerged, apparently consuming large numbers of tadpoles,


and also strike picturesque


(and perhaps strike-ready) poses while sunning:


Nominally terrestrial species, mainly garter and eastern ribbon snakes, stalk and sun around the pond’s rim,


but also spend hours cruising (and minutes beneath) the water’s surface:


In accord with allometric power laws, the smaller will always be the more numerous, in both kind and number. Of the largest semi-permanent residents—turtles, snakes, adult frogs—there might on average be a few each of just a few species. Of tadpoles, a half-dozen-plus species, with tens of thousands of hatchlings declining to a hundred or so juveniles and dozens of surviving adults. Under the pads, flatworms, roundworms, rotifers galore,  and on down to trillions (at least) of bacteria, perhaps millions of separate species. Somewhere between are the arthropods, visible in almost every image here as living organism or abandoned husk, prey for many of the fauna, and also (especially as ferocious underwater nymphs or obligate aquatic insects) predators for some.

One of the main intended beneficiaries of this particular pool was the Odonata, dragon- and damselflies. The odd structures in the early image above are maple tripods, each topped with a red dogwood whip. Until living plants took on the role, these provided a perch for fliers, a ladder for pre-adults to climb, an anchor for masses of frog eggs.

On hot bright days, with hawks and occasional eagles spiraling thermals high above, dragonflies are always darting close over the pond, too fast to photograph except when they pause beside


or above the water,



or lower down as may suit, to sit


or lay:


Months or years later, naiad ecdysiasts climb any available mid-pond eminence

to shed, spread, dry and fly:


Other hunters, like this Dolomedes triton, skitter with similar speed and agility across the surface, though most often moving more subtlely or lurking in concealment:


And some come for more peaceful purposes,

including that final rest:


If all the world’s a stage, then these Puddle Players may be most entertaining in their dynamic engagements. Much of the violence happens out of sight: too quick, too dark, too deep for the human eye. And when visible, not easy to photograph. Exceptions are this inter-phylum battle, and this one between similar antagonists, the former a draw. More often, if presenting no direct threat or opportunity, the parties seem to ignore each other,




especially if scaled as mote and mountain,


with an occasional slapstick startlement:












Yet withal, and however temporary, moments of peace in a world of strife…











White Rock Psyche?







Low water


Same beaver dam as above, four years plus a very dry summer later. –More than one, in fact: as mentioned in this post, the current drought has accumulated for well (?) over a year, taxing the reserve capacity of even well-developed root systems. Old trees and shrubs are dying, and will be missed; likewise native wildflowers blighted before setting seed. The world will look different next spring. –As it does every spring.

The main surface feeders for Farrar Pond—Halfway Brook, above, and Beaver Brook, draining the St. Anne’s/Lindentree Farm area, are down to a trickledscf7074fp


when flowing at all. But this pond collects from a substantial area of swamp and wetland, and the banks rising high above most of its periphery release slow-migrating subsurface water in seeps and upwellings all about.

The weather spirits are capricious. As confirmed by both radar and rain gauge, numerous  storms have blown through just north or south of Farrar Pond, in some cases flooding basements only a couple of miles away while leaving the ground here dusty-dry. As a particularly insulting example, this precipitous front rolled across the northeast in a 440-mile line from Fredericksburg to Lewiston,


with exactly one gap about 5% of that length that slid right over Nashawtuc.

With nothing to contain, and no urging from the sound of rushing water, the beavers have set aside structural maintenance of natural dams and circumvention of human contrivances


to focus on filling the larder for chilly times ahead:


For their sake, and so many others’, we may hope that stick lodges and mucky warrens remain safely submerged. Meanwhile, the slope between land and lair has become long and slippery for amphibious mammals:


With more weight on pointier feet, some who come to the edge are put off by the unpleasantness of muddy fur and the risk of La Brea-like entrapment, and make uncommonly close approach to human habitation to drink





before retiring



to a shady siesta.


In the well-drained uplands, exposed trees are not happy; the assault of heat, low humidity, wind and sun leads to shock desiccation, with no time to extract recyclable nutrients before loss of vasculature, foliage and branches:


Where rooting is not deep enough, the whole plant enters a different kind of recycling program. And in a banner year for caterpillars, weakened trees and shrubs become even more vulnerable:


Good news for some arthropods is bad for others. Deer ticks—killed or driven into the duff layer—are down. And the parched soil is easy to scratch up for parasite-killing dust baths,


appreciated by avian and mammal alike:



A different tangle in the natural order, trees and shrubs that lost bud and bloom in the spring flash-freeze become too enthusiastic in their attempts to ensure propagation, like this magnolia flowering (but not setting seed) eight months early:


By comparison, swamp maples rooted close to the water table may—even if many weeks prematurely—at least enjoy an orderly transition:


And in in deeper shade, especially where heavy mulch (here a half-meter of oak chips) maintains coolth and moisture, some species thrive:


Sun or shade, even a sprinkle that brings no joy to thirsting plants may trigger other upwellings on rotting stump and root:





And yet, while these fungi and myxomycophytes may safely graze, even a symbiote with post-nuclear potential cannot always survive unrelenting heat and drought:


Animals are not only thirsty, but also hungry, right up the food chain. Where a relatively domestic red squirrel raids feeders,


its cousins instead strip unripe conifers a whole season ahead of usual:


Raccoons will always find a way


for themselves


and their families:


Hunger and thirst stress animals as much as plants; often more: estivation or temporary mud burial is an option for few. Where this squirrel seems contented and at home,


this one is afflicted with “squirrel pox


and is unlikely to have survived.


Oddly enough, it kept returning to the exact same spot on the pavement. Hoping for a quick quietus, perhaps, or seeking healing from some ancient energy vortex? By contrast, though clearly in considerable discomfort,


this fox, with sarcoptic mange,


may—given the low probability of hypothermia, a few (currently superabundant) fat voles and enough to drink—


heal and live to salute our fields with tail aloft come winter.

All gotta eat, which for most eventually entails being eaten. Having hoovered up most of the local tadpoles and crickets, snakes that are equally comfortable dry


or wet


scare likewise amphibious frogs into any safe moist shade, like these potted ground covers, stored near a house in anticipation of reasonable plant-out weather:


Perhaps safer aloft, hummingbirds and bumblebees sip respectively from trumpetvine


(a process of deep immersion)

and ever-reliable native asters


and goldenrod



in the company of other hymenopterids;



much-appreciated honeybees at a silk tree;



while for a chitinous predator, “if it comes to slaughter, you will do your work on water“:


Back down below, the temporarily declining wet area gives a preview of its ineluctable (barring a major dredging project) return to swamp, wetland, meadow, forest. Receding water reveals the persistent foundations of trees cleared when the pond was created: the shallowest, most often exposed, serving as nurse logs;


the deeper, as bistros for muskrats;


the deepest, largely untouched by time, as neat perches.


At the shallow end of the pool, each inch lost in depth adds a foot’s width to the mudflats,


opening what are usually water-bound hummocks


to all sorts of predators:


From each spring’s last melt-off, these little islands protect dozens of waterfowl nests from four-footed assault. Fortunately for the birds, this de-insulation occurred after most or all chicks had attained at least the ability to paddle,


while a rich stew of invertebrates sustains light-footed waders like a lone wandering sandpiper:




And no relief yet in sight

ma drought map 160809fp

9 August

ma drought map 160816

16 August


23 August


30 August


6 September


13 September

“You think this is bad? This ain’t bad.”

–K. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Will this area attain “Exceptional Drought” status? It could be worse. And has been:

Droughts of 1929-32, 1939-44, and 1980-83 were widespread but not as severe as the 1961-69 drought, which was the severest on record.

–USGS Water-Supply Paper 2375
National Water Summary 1988-89

In those days, brush-fires were rampant, and one could stroll dry-shod across most of the Cambridge Reservoir without further divine (or infernal) intervention. Now, from Winter Street, it’s only halfway toward moonscape status:



But… It is not over, and reprieve (much less full relief, a couple of dozen inches’-worth) has yet to be forecast.

The severest drought on record in the Northeastern United States was during 1961-69. Water supplies and agriculture were affected because of the severity and long duration of the drought. Precipitation was less than average … beginning in 1962 in eastern Massachusetts. Streamflow had the greatest negative departure during … 1966 in the east. In 1965, the Massachusetts Water Resources Commission reported that emergency water supplies were being used by 23 communities. Water-supply emergencies were declared by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for 37 communities, and 3 water districts invoked water-use restrictions. Voluntary water-use restrictions were adopted by about 30 communities. Ten communities had water supplies that were in a critical condition, that had less than 90 days of surface-water supply, or that required a decrease in ground-water pumpage.


So while Lincoln and some surrounding towns are fortunate in water, we do not drink alone from (or spill gasoline, lawn chemicals, other toxins into) our ponds and creeks, visible and subterranean. So as good lateral and upstream neighbors to people, plants, animals, and all water-dependent life-forms (which is, so far as is known at present, all of them), we throttle back, allow lawns to brown into dormancy, “live simply, that others may simply live” (E. Seton?). And hope that we do not set any new records in the drought department.


Spirit of life

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment
I know this is a wonderful moment.

–Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace

All that lives, on this planet, depends on oxygen to keep its metabolic fires alight. –All, that is, but the primordial and still vitally important orders for which it is toxic and which have, since the Great Oxygen Catastophe, therefore retreated to murky depths and anaerobic sludges. For the rest, ourselves and plants included, that element might be considered an enabler to organized life secondary only to carbon (most versatile of structural nodes) and water (universal solvent, general acid and base, thermal buffer, etc. etc.).

The air we need is made in the main by shallow-water algae and cyanobacteria, a minor third by land plants (from which, in turn, come most of the fuel we burn with it). Some sources stand between, with roots in the muck and crowns floating upon or stalking above the surface. The former include Nymphaea odorata;


the latter Nelumbo lutea


as well as escaped exotic cousins, all rich larders for valued pollinators and diverse other animalia, and a delight to multiple senses. This display of purity-from-defilement underlies representations of the Buddha on a lotus seat, and perhaps, by extension, the Sanskrit mantra Om mane padme hum.

Whether erect or afloat, the pads of either may collect splash or rain into a kind of pool-within-a-pool, a refuge large enough to host diverse mobile life-forms for a transitional visit


(though not always with very steady support)


or a somewhat more extended incubation:


The lotus leaf, like Norton Juster’s Humbug, has the unusual property of being practically unwettable; with contact angle near 170º reducing adhered area below 1%, a droplet rolls around like a ball bearing,


while a frog can wrap itself in a wet blanket


and contemplate a crystal ball (closeup here).


Technical references to this “lotus effect” include

Who dedicates all actions to God without attachment
is unaffected by sin, as a lotus leaf by water.

Bhagavad Gita  Ch. 5, v.10

In the middle of this flooded field, one partially filled lotus pad stands out (if not up) not only for color and cleanliness, but also for the silvery shimmer of partial reflection at the water-air-leaf interface:


On a bright summer day, the normally invisible exhalation is trapped by surface tension, in the main sliding laterally to where hydrostatic pressure lessens rather than forcing its way directly upward:


Closer inspection shows a bathtub-ring of pollen, dust and other debris left behind as the pool shrinks in hot sun; all this will be washed away when (if?) it rains again.


Same pad, in action:

Numerous and admirable are the flowers of land and water, herb and tree.
… I love only the lotus, which from filthy mud arises unstained
Laved by pure waters, yet not seductive
Freely open within; without erect, neither rambling nor branched
Distant, the fragrance more delicate
Slim, clean, upright
To be enjoyed from afar, not over-intimate …
Where are those who, like me, love the lotus?

–Zhou Dunyi,  On Loving The Lotus   1071

Page 1/3812345678...2030...Older »