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Ae fond kiss

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Green under white

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A couple of Junes ago

“It was one of those fabulously clear, cold, mid-January days in 1964 when a Massachusetts painted turtle—Chrysemys picta—first intruded into my life. … the class was on a midwinter field trip to Beaver Pond in Lincoln. I was dutifully sweeping the snow off the ice with a big pushbroom; the students were all gathered around, rigging plankton nets and bottom samplers for our assay of the pond’s life. Then, just below the crystal-clear ice, a painted turtle swam by.”

So begins one of many fascinating and illuminating anecdotes in This Broken Archipelago, an engaging natural history of the reptiles and amphibians of the Cape and islands—and hereabouts—by James D. Lazell and former Lincoln resident Martin C. Michener. (Out of print; an updated digital edition including sound recordings is available from EnjoyBirds.com.) The author explains the benign thermoclining of wintry ponds: ice atop and heaviest 39°F water on the bottom; between, a less-dense layer just warm enough for turtles to become active. So even when Farrar Pond looks like this,

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there is plenty going on beneath. Other swimmers, as evidenced by the flagged holes and blanketed tents of ice-fishermen, -women and children, are also about and feeding through the chill season. With them, prey (like plankton and various arthropods), parasites (leeches) and predators (bigger fish) keep the circus turning. Torpid frogs, which unlike turtles cannot shift to an anaerobic metabolism to bury deep in isolating mud, lie on the bottom, perhaps moving about occasionally. And frogs-to-be that have not metamorphosed before lock-down remain active under the ice.

Frogs and turtles are not literally “cold-blooded”; rather, poikilothermic: able to regulate internal temperature, hence level of activity (and protection from both freezing and overheating) mainly by moving between warmer and cooler locations. While not thermostatted via metabolism and muscle (shivering) like mammals and birds, larger aquatic creatures, with insulating fat and a greater volume-to-surface-area ratio, can maintain a high body temperature even in freezing water. Tuna and sharks are examples; Lazell also provides an engaging description of the countercurrent blood-warming system used by large sea turtles and aquatic birds to conserve warmth.

This past winter was remarkable in several ways, including exceptionally high and persistent snow cover that gave voles exceptionally high and persistent access to the trunks of all sorts of woody plants. Many a treasured shrub met the spring show denuded; some resprout from rootstock; others are lost.

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Magnolia ‘Jon Jon’

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Bottlebrush buckeye

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Asian bitter orange

For the phenologically inclined, early March (sometime between Texas Independence and St. Patrick’s Days) usually brings first movement of amphibians from pond to vernal pool or other breeding haven. Most years, this occurs on the first rainy night above about 40ºF when there is open water. But when mid-February looks like this,

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lily pond in top photo is just to left of nearer feeder

it is a good bet that events will be delayed. By month-end, high groundwater flowing from the banks has opened minimal windows at a few shoreline spots;

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And the lily pond? Immured beneath a foot of glacially consolidated snowpack:

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Even as the rising sun of early April clears ever-greater areas of open water,

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the stairways to mating heaven remain in part chill and slippery (or perhaps adhesive, like licking metal in a Lake Wobegon winter):

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Sunlight and scudding winds melt a hand’s-breadth portal into the higher pool;

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a door that snaps shut each night:

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At last pond and banks are reasonable clear,

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revealing one of the rewards for winter-active turtles of the vegetarian persuasion:

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While photosynthesis is slowed by ice-limited light (and perhaps CO2) levels as well as cold, respiration metabolism (that burns through stored sugars) is slowed even more. So algae may grow freely beneath the ice.

With evening temperatures mostly above freezing—and days in the 60s—migrations are still hampered, now by drought. Though the snow came in feet and yards, it fell cold and light, and melted away to not much water. AWOL showers left banks dry, and animals that breathe through their skins do not enjoy rubbing up against dusty leaves. Only on April 8th, a month late, do a few hardy or impatient migrants begin the long upward trek, joined within days by multitudes. unimpeded

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and in some cases supported by an ice-staked leaf net, from which they telegraph presence and intentions:

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In most years, frogs collect quietly from a few days to a fortnight, perhaps awaiting some signal of collective biochemistry, day length or temperature. In this belated season, as soon as net and ice roll back to clear a few square feet of open water, a wild and noisy lek begins,

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enthusiastic multi-body collisions apparently undamped by the ghosts of collateral relatives haunting the bedchamber, victims more likely of deficient oxygen supply than of actual freezing:

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RIP H.R. Giger

The chaotic multitude condenses into discrete (if indiscreet) pairs

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and less discriminate larger groups wherever some kind of footing is to be found:

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As this exchange of vital information reaches its natural conclusion,

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activity tapers down over a couple of days; most instigators head back downhill, leaving a few to watch gardens grow on the exhalations of their successful labors:

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And as these soon emerge into open water, various cousins arrive to reiterate the process according to their own timetables

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until again the pool is, on the surface at least

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(largely) still:

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Chaton de saule

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French pussy willow

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April Fool’s has come and past

What’s missing from this picture?

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This (before winter),S0165052fp

this (during)

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and this (just after; all at about the same spot):

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Delicate forbs frozen out, nibbled away and not yet re-emerged, ferocious nor’easters passed (we hope), and sintered drifts slowly yielding to higher sun and milder breeze. With a forgettable anniversary safely (?) behind, we look forward to the re-emergence of what is hidden, passive

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Snow-Dalek?

or active,

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Volodrome

emerging below

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and above:

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Though somewhat indeterminate in duration, the path from burial

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to bare ground

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is straight and reasonably well-defined.

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And while the pond remains largely ice-locked, narrow borders melted by sun on the north side

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and in-flowing groundwater on the southS0074756fp

provide just enough distance from four-legged predators and access to the rich pickings and pluckings of the looking-glass realm burgeoning beneath

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to induce the return of a first pair of swans

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whose mute mating semaphore and thunderous wing-beats signal that the last snows will soon pass into mist;

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that the patient and persistent shall in due time prevail.

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Chill life

Where once were green leaves

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and flowers

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will someday be again

In tooth and claw

 

גם זה יעבור

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No thing lives forever. A joy and tragedy of human existence is that most of us will outlive most other life-forms we encounter, from bacteria to birches to bison. So even under the most placid of circumstances, we witness death—often, and too often of things we treasure.

In these parts, family and pets excepted, some of the most treasured creatures are birds. And of these, most are short-lived at best: according to our time-scale, if not their own. They may meet their ends huddled high in a frosted tree-hollow, on the ground in the jaws of a fox or claws of a cat, or blasted in mid-flight by a stooping hawk. Or in many other ways.

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Beyond the feral cats and poisoned mice we loose, not to mention the effects of habitat loss and outdoor chemical over-use, a leading human-sponsored cause of bird destruction is our desire to enjoy the beauty, peace and dynamism of nature without having to step out into it: in blizzard of snow or mosquitoes, under fire from rain or hail or in twilight gloom. The problem is that bird cognition does not include cues to distinguish glazed window from cave, and the resulting collision is very often fatal, as for the late red-bellied woodpecker above, or this unfortunate bluebird:

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Especially so in cooler weather, when a stunned finch can freeze before reviving:

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Though rarer, attacks by birds on their own reflections can occasionally have similar consequences for both. And sometimes—as during the recent unpleasantness, when gale-force winds and heavy snowfall make larders inaccessible in sub-zero chill—it is the black horse that stalks prey like the wren posed above and (more revealingly) here:

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And the mortal remains? Day or night, they rarely persist for more than a few hours. Fox, skunk, coyote, raccoon and opossum all favor dead birds, showing varying degrees of nicety in removing feathers. From above, owls and eagles accept these gifts. And while they may not see each sparrow fall, our high-hovering vulture can, at least on warm days, smell one from afar, and follow the carrion-reek upwind for a mile or more. As here, to a squirrel that apparently aspired to a sky burial:

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Gruesome, but hardly egregious. More disturbing is when animals of the “Bambi” genre display carnivory, entirely normal for them, but somehow jarring to human sensibilities. Organic kitchen and table waste attracts all that hunger, without (at least when cooked and disjointed to anonymity) regard for source. Composted remains of fricasseed Gallus gallus domesticus have been seen hereabouts carried forth, to be eaten entire or more thoroughly gleaned, by not only the above-named mammals but also deer, squirrel and chipmunk. And by clade-cousins Poecile atricapillus

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So do do all things pass away, in this case to be reincarnated life-on-life. Sad? Perhaps, but ineluctable and entirely natural. And like all things natural, in its own way graceful and even elegant.

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In the midst of life

Another peaceful day on the gelid pond. But what is this new island? Not a muskrat lodge, despite the resemblance from afar,

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but the earthly remains of a white-tailed deer felled by coyote, illness, or just a bad fall on the ice.

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Exposed ribs and pink-tinted snow are the signs of hungry scavengers

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aerial and diurnal,

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while paw-prints of several sizes reveal the more secretive visits of heavier diners

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domesticated

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and wild;

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singly

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and in larger groups:

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Please see more images and video here.

Frost bites

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Natives and Early Settlers

On the day of the harvest feast held after they brought in their first crop in the late summer and early fall of 1621, the Pilgrims gladly accepted the five deer brought to the event by Massasoit, the sachem of the Massachusett tribe.  The Pilgrims were grateful to Massasoit because, when they were hungry and suffering from their arduous voyage, he had come to their rescue and taught them skills that would help them to survive.  One hundred of the Pokanoket people also took part in the feast.  The Pilgrims contributed the ducks and geese they had hunted for the meal, and Governor Bradford declared it was time for them to rejoice together.  This spirit of amity between the Pilgrims and the natives came about through a perception of mutual advantage.  The Pilgrims wanted peace, although they had not always acted peacefully towards the natives, and Massasoit wanted protection for his people that he thought the Pilgrims could provide.

Verrazzano, a sixteenth century explorer of the New England coast, had described the natives he met in New England as “beautiful people.”  Continued contact over the years with explorers and fur traders exposed the natives to European diseases, against which they had no immunity.  When the Pilgrims arrived in the next century, the local natives were in a vulnerable state.  They were not inclined to attack the settlers because they needed assistance in staving off their enemies.  Their population had recently been drastically reduced by the bubonic plague epidemic of 1616-1618 in which an estimated 90 percent of the people were killed off.

Early Europeans remarked that much of the land along the southern coast of New England had been cleared for settlement by natives.  Land was also cleared on the offshore islands and inland along river valleys, ponds, and lakes.  The natives lived by farming, gathering wild plants, fishing, and hunting and usually built their settlements in places favorable for farming and fishing.  They lived in villages and were joined together loosely into tribes, which included groups of related families.  During the summer months, most natives lived in small farmsteads and hamlets near the coast.  During the colder months, they came together in their larger villages along the bays and around lakes near the coast.  The Pilgrims of 1620 took advantage of the cleared land, which they considered safer than forests.  These areas were also regarded as good sites on which to construct their homes and farms.

The Puritans, another separatist group from England, bought the land that became the town of Concord from the Algonkians in 1636, and it became the first inland settlement.  Many settlers attempted to maintain friendly relations with the natives for as long as they could, but in the later years of the seventeenth century this compatibility was destroyed because of cultural clashes and numerous conflicts between natives and settlers who held different views about land ownership.  Land ownership as the English knew it was a foreign concept to the natives.  As more and more settlers came and established farms and households, the livestock belonging to settlers often trampled the natives’ crops.  Natives were gradually removed from areas they had inhabited for centuries and had used for native horticulture and game husbandry.

The Farrar family of Lincoln was among the seventeenth century settlers.  The first Farrar, Jacob, had moved to Lancaster, Massachusetts from Lancaster, England in the 1650s.  During King Philip’s War in 1675, Jacob’s son Jacob, Jr. was killed.  He left a widow, Hannah, and four sons.  Hannah was from Concord and returned there with her children.  Her son George Farrar was raised in the Goble household.  In 1691 he was on his own and married Mary Howe.  In 1692 he established a homestead on land that now abuts Route 126 at the east end of Farrar Pond in Lincoln.  It was lived in by generations of the Farrar family until it was torn down in the 1950s.

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Native Village in Winter, Figure 96 in The First Peoples of the Northeast by Esther K. Braun and David P. Braun, Lincoln Historical Society, 1994

The nearby Sudbury River was called Musketaquid, which means “Grass-ground River” or “Meadow River.”  Natives living in the area used the Musketaquid for transportation and as a source of food.  Natives probably returned there from the coast during the fall and winter to hunt for deer.  They probably lived in clusters of wigwams such as those shown in the sketch.  They made clothing of leather and wore fur coats in the winter.  The men wore leggings and loin cloths, and the women wore leather skirts and capes.  Both wore moccasins.

Thoreau wrote that Indians living in this area probably used something like the creel he found:

In the sluiceway of Pole Brook which I said must be Indian ground, and, walking there, I found a piece of soapstone pot.  It was an eel-pot or creel, a wattled basket or wickerwork, made of willow osiers with the bark on, very artfully.
–Thoreau’s Journal, Volume X, p. 312

In 1900 Ed Farrar dammed the western end of Pole Brook to create Farrar Pond.  At the east end of Farrar Pond, you can see Pole Brook running down to the pond.

The Concord Museum on Lexington Road in Concord devotes a whole room to the encounter of the local natives and the early English settlers.  The room contains a case full of native artifacts found in the local area.

Bibliography
Blanke, Shirley and Robinson, Barbara, From Musketaquid to Concord, The Native and European Experience, Concord Antiquarian Museum, 1985, exhibition booklet.

Braun, Esther K. and Braun, David P., The First Peoples of the Northeast, Lincoln Historical Society, 1994.

MacLean, John C., A Rich Harvest, The History, Buildings, and People of Lincoln, Massachusetts, Lincoln Historical Society, 1987.

Philbrick, Nathaniel, Mayflower, New York, Penguin Group, 2006.

Lincoln Historical Society publications are available through www.lincolnhistoricalsociety.org.

 

Winter Solstice

Solstice-2014

 

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

  – Langston Hughes

 

 

Seasonal sumac

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Rhus typhina = staghorn sumac

 

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Frosty fire

 

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One for each night?

 

 

 

 

A closing circle

The silver Swan, who, living, had no Note,
   when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
   thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

-Orlando Gibbons/Christopher Patton 1612

 

December 2nd: high 36ºF, low 29ºF. Previous day’s high, an unseasonable but welcome 61ºF. Condition of pond: open water throughout, after complete disappearance of skim ice formed in late November. Mute swans active:

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Photo above courtesy of Harold McAleer, who also posted this video taken from Rt. 117.

 

December 8th: high 24ºF, low 14ºF, after a 17ºF night. Solid overcast, steady high winds. Condition of pond: almost completely frozen over (though thinly; this isn’t yet the beginning of walkable, skateable ice); wisps of dusty snow blow into traceries that sweep and shift. Mute swans active, but constrained. With a nod to the opening of Citizen Kane:

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Far out from the sheltering banks—

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even further than that—

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is a tiny pool of open water where

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a pair of swams swims in decreasing circles for hours as day and light also decline. Whence this puddle? Perhaps a stable channeling or vorticity in the steady wind keeps the surface agitated at that spot. Perhaps an underground spring, as some allege to feed the pond; or the pumping action of presure changes across its length. Perhaps the birds themselves provide enough motion to prevent overgrowth.

The swans dip, swallow and preen, as swans are wont to do. Mostly, they keep their heads down; wind chill in these conditions may be more of a problem than the relatively balmy and more-or-less invariant 55° water. But a little after the time of (unnoticeable) sunset, temperature and wind conspire to close the diner completely, and they flee—perhaps to the river, where there will be open water in far deeper chills than this.