On Hounds, Rain, and Climate

Adaia alert and on the trail

Walking the hounds in the woods on a rainy summer day can be an interesting and challenging experience. James Fenimore Cooper, our 140 pound male bloodhound, is off his leash because he can be trusted to stay close by. If he does get distracted and starts off on a trail there’s a very good chance he’ll halt in his tracks at the sound of my command. Cooper is from man-trailing stock and this long line of human tracking hounds are ready and willing to engage with human interaction. Adia, our female bloodhound, is from a long line of mountain lion hunting stock. At the first scent she’d be off on a trail baying up a storm in hopes of treeing her prey. Therefore her 130 pound body comprised primarily of solid muscle is attached to me on a lead. Her nose is always to the ground. That’s not a problem until we come upon a fresh track where she might jerk the lead erratically in hopes of following a hot trail. This is more likely on wet days when scents are enhanced and the molecules that carry them stay close to the ground. Moreover on wet, slippery trails this can present balance and traction problems. Her enormous strength coul pull my feet right out from under me resulting in an unpremeditated crash to the forest floor. I once witnessed Adia yank the leash so hard that my wife, with the leash wrapped around her wrist, did a complete flip in the air before landing on her back on a frozen road. The fact is that I’m not as young as I used to be and sudden falls are just a little bit harder to take. With this in mind I try to keep Adia focused on me rather than the scents on the ground. This is a nearly impossible task. Inevitably Adia lurches on a fresh bobcat track whose prints can be clearly seen in the mud. My feet slip sideways immediately upon her quick tug and I am somehow able to find new and stable footing just before I slip sideways to the ground.

I swear out loud at the rain blaming it for a near accident. As I stand there adjusting the leash and calming down my irreverent hound it crosses my mind that the rain really can’t be blamed for anything. The responsibility lies with my decision to take a walk with the hounds on a rainy day despite the intrepid weather and sloppy conditions. The decision was mine and mine alone. This experience gets me to thinking. The fact is that we are lucky that it is raining. In these times of climate change there are places nearly completely deplete of precipitation; a grave set of circumstances for ecosystems and humans alike.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about rain is that we really don’t pay attention unless there is too little or too much. Rain is generally taken for granted. In fact it is often cast in a negative light when it interferes with human plans. The truth is that rain is as much of a blessing as is the sun. It is a critical vector to our plant communities, our well water supply, our food supply, and to the overall health of our ecological world. Rain is, without a doubt, nothing more and nothing less than beautiful.

James Fenimore Cooper enjoying the rain soaked forest.

What, you say? Rain beautiful? Consider this. Rain is the mechanism by which our planet distributes water. And while we’ve likely all studied the earth’s hydrologic cycles during our early grammar school education relatively few of us take the time to appreciate this bounty. It is the ocean’s gift to land. Water evaporated off of the great oceans by the Earth’s personal star returns to land in a pure, non-salty, form. And if you don’t believe in the sanctity of rain just go visit California where whole lakes are drying up, aquifers have perished, and rivers, once flowing mightily, have been reduced to mere trickles. The Golden State is the midst of a three year drought. The state that produces the most fruit and vegetables is quickly becoming a complete and utter desert with no relief in sight. Major cities like San Francisco are at the edge of their own survival. Exceeding low water supplies will eventually equal exceedingly low populations unless something is done. And other than a complete reversal of climate patterns or the incredibly expensive option of mega huge desalinization plants its hard to imagine a way out of this tragedy.

So, it is easy to see why we are unbelievably lucky to live within a water rich environment. And even though we have experienced a drought this spring we are recovering quickly! As of the date of this writing Mother Nature has brought our area well over nine and a half inches of rain during the month of June with several days left to go . Rain is beautiful, unless, of course, it isn’t!

Only a few short years ago our region experienced one of the most significant rainfalls in our region’s recorded history. In the autumn of 2011 Tropical Storm Irene dumped somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 inches of rain over our region in a short period of time. The result was disastrous. Whole towns were inundated by flood waters devastating homes, businesses, and habitat. Wilmington, Vt was amongst one of the most impacted towns in the area. Here several rivers converge and during this storm the swollen streams flooded out much of the downtown area of this popular tourist community. Here in Heath we had major and significant loss of town roads along with significant personal property loss. Getting in or out of town was pretty difficult for a while. And although the myriad of small streams that bisects our hilly landscape in dozens of locations went well beyond bank full conditions we did not experience the widespread flooding that was common within the major valleys that surrounds us. In my estimation this is nature’s way of saying that there really can be too much of a good thing.

Many of the earth’s individual and collective ecological communities depend on rain for their existence. In our region forests, wetlands, streams, aquifers, vernal pools, fields, and gardens are reliant on adequate rainfall. High on our hill adequate rainfall equates to our yearly average which is about 53 to 54 inches of rain per year. Consider that towns at lower elevations in the nearby valleys receive only about 44 inches per year.

Bountiful rain that is not to excess is stored in our aquifers. Water can easily be captured in environments where the ground is porous. Most aquifers are found in deep layers of stratified sand and gravel, earth formations left behind by the last glacial events. On this mountain we do not have large areas of these stratified sand and gravel deposits, rather our predominate aquifers are found in bedrock. Western Massachusetts is uniquely situated in an area where the plates in the bedrock are tilted at a 45 to 60 degree angle. The plating holds space found between solid layers of bedrock and are capable of storing great quantities of water. The tilted plating was created about 400 million years ago during an era of moving continents. The continental collisions were so powerful that bedrock was tilted from its once horizontal position. In regions where the bedrock is tilted as the result of these collisions there is a great capacity to store water resulting in the potential, where the bedrock is in the correct geographic position, to recharge water into soil thereby aiding plants and animals that utilize the landscape. Of course, it is also a great benefit to humans whose wells are often located within these aquifers.

And although a changing climate seems to be inevitable many climate change models have our region in the northeast United States and Eastern Canada located in an area that will be less prone to drought. This is good news if temperatures continue to rise. We will be better equipped, at least in the short term, to adapt to changing environments. This is not the perfect scenario but certainly a more cheery situation than will be experienced elsewhere, particularly in the western part of North America.

A pulse of torrential rain pushes my thoughts back to the here and now. Adia is sitting by my side obediently with the rain running off of her furrowed jowls. She is staring directly at my eyes likely wondering where the heck my mind has been. Cooper is sitting under a hemlock tree patiently waiting for me to continue. I can take a hint so we continue on through the woods despite the rain. After all, rain is a mere inconvenience that we should all learn to love and appreciate, is it not?

Written in July of 2015.

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