These days, when the terrain is partially covered with white snow and partially barren and brown, it is a good time to pay attention to the present; the here and now. It will not be long before the temperature in the soil will promote new growth allowing our four season area to become green again. But in the mean time, rather than wasting all of my moments hoping for spring, waiting for spring, even dreaming of spring, it is better that I focus on what is right in front of me.
These transitional times are overlooked by most humans. We are so busy looking forward that we miss the present. Given our remarkably short life spans, and believe me I have become acutely aware of just how short life is in recent years, it is critical to observe, record, and reflect whenever we can. To not do so seems to me like throwing time away. And so being in the present is what I am going to do now, and hopefully for the rest of my days.
I am at the juncture of an intermittent stream and a perennial stream known as Taylor Brook. Taylor Brook, named aptly for the firest European settler in the place I call home (Heath, MA), is a clean, pure, fresh water trout stream. It is not stocked but rather is environs to a native char (otherwise known as the eastern brook trout). These wonderful native fish are extremely sensitive to pollution. The fact that we have ever increasing human influence on this planet is a testament to the health of the watershed that feeds this stream. Taylor Brook runs on a steep grade. The stream naturally flows through a series of steps comprised of pools and falls that descend 1000 feet over the distance of only a couple of miles. The rapid flow keeps oxygen mixing with the water. Heavily oxygenated waters are exactly what eastern brook trout need, as do Appalachian crayfish, hellgramites, and a host of other aquatic insect larvae, all found in these pristine waters.
I am actually climbing uphill today along the intermittent stream. This stream will be totally dry, the cobble and silt bed exposed to the elements, by the end of June. Right now it holds flowing water and this flow, too, is driven by the rapid change in elevation from the top of the mountain to the south and where I stand now. This ephemeral stream flows through primarily pristine forest; thousands of acres of watershed that holds tens of thousands of trees of all ages. Most of the forest is about 100 years old but there are pockets that were held as pasture until 40 years ago. Here, pole stands dominate the landscape and there are even age forests gracing this side of the mountain. In other areas, near the top of the watershed, and along old property lines that are demarked by monolithic stone walls there are trees that are 200 to 400 years old. These historians of the forest hold secrets, long lost stories, that would shatter our understanding and fantasies of the natural world. These eldest members of the watershed have seen epic storms, devastating human use, and the return of nature. These trees held part of the seed stock that reforested this area. Their offspring now populate tens of thousands of acres.
Many people don’t understand that forest has purpose. Not the type of purpose that makes it a practical resource but the kind of purpose that oozes intent. European culture sees our natural resources as an accident of nature, or perhaps a result of divine planning. That is not my point of view. I believe that this forest, and all of the other natural resources and plant communities our planet holds (both living and nonliving) are part of one living organism-the planet Earth. All entities that inhabit this third, living, stone from the sun are intrinsically linked. This relationship, this linkage, is held together by energy; a force that allows our planet to act with one intent. That intent to survive. This is the foundational motive of any living organism.
Will our planet live forever? Likely not. Mars was once a planet with water and life and atmosphere. It seems to be, now, a rock that circles a modest star. And such is the way of the universe.
Slowly I pick my way along the channel of this stream; water flows within banks that are steeply cut and four or five feet high. It is curious that this tiny, oft not flowing, stream is so deeply entrenched. How could so little water erode so much earth away? The answer is simple. Not too long ago this area was entirely deforested. Thousands and thousands of acres were cleared by settlers for sheep and cows. Rocks of all sizes and shapes were plucked from the earth and stone walls were built. Some of them simply to contain livestock and others to also mark property boundaries. And during these times when the trees were few and far between there was much more run off during rain events. Each mature tree uses hundreds of gallons of water a day during the growing season. A forest of trees can use millions of gallons of water everyday during the summer months. When these lands were naked, devoid of this regions largest plants, the soils were easily saturated. Once soils are saturated excess water runs off. The steeply graded contours of the natural landscape concentrates water into defined channels. Large amounts of water concentrated into a small area erodes soil. Deep trenches are formed. Deep embedded streams that only carry ephemeral water like the one I stand in today.
Over the years, as the farms and fields were abandoned and the forest returned, these intermittent streams received less runoff during large rain events. Steep banks slumped; grades eventually were established where plant growth could succeed. Mature woody stem vegetation held the soil in place. And today we can see the history of all of this evolution. The impact of man, the recovery of natural systems. Landscape holds clues, much like any other mystery, that can be unraveled if one has the time and knowledge. Almost every ecosystem holds a history that can be revealed if we only take the time.
As I climb uphill the channel becomes more shallow and diffuse. I can see smaller branches of stream flow that join this main stem. Eventually the smaller features become the only stream feature and before long even these shallow depressions disappear. If one looks from above at a stream it looks like a tree. Many branchlets leading to leader branches which in turn join a main trunk. This pattern of nature is repeated throughour our living planet. It is found in the veins and arteries of animals, patterns on bark, demarcations on shells and in countless other places. It is a part of the mapping of this Earth. It is beautiful. It is revealing. It is art. So potent that humans have mimiced it for eons when putting paint to canvas, chisel to marble, and pen to paper.
I have emerged from eroded areas where water was concentrated, as were my thoughts. The landscape, although still sloped to the north is much more even. I am near the top of this hill where the trees are tall and the wind is strong. There is more snow than barren landscape at this altitude. Greater amounts of snow accumulated at this location than in the valleys during the winter. I walk the barren areas, a curious crooked path that leads me horizontally rather than vertically. I am taking the easiest route and on this day it is very revealing.
There are seeps of water here and there near outcropped bedrock. The water has likely softened the snow aiding the warmer weather in the melting process. At the base of the weathered bedrock that appears above the soil line there are little islands of ferns. Christmas ferns and woodferns both hold there green leaves through the winter. They are busy utilizing the sun turning light waves into sugar; certainly one of the greatest natural miracles of them all.
These miniature green areas, call them an oasis, are islands of plants that have adapted to the cold climates. By being the first to photosynthesize they have a slight advantage over plants that have yet to sprout, turn green, and start using the energy from the sun. This plants have filled a niche where their success relies upon the one thing they can do that many other plants cannot. While it is true that almost every plant and animal fills some niche, a process of adjustment that is loosely related to selective adaptation, there is something very unique about plants that stay green underneath feet of snow. Their game is a waiting game. And when the moment arrives, when the snow melts, they spring into action. How wonderful is that?
The barren trail, narrow at times between of sea of forest snow, leads me east. I encounter a stone wall, both gray and mossy green, that marks one of the boundaries of our land. There are fresh deer tracks in the snow. The first I have seen this spring. It is nice to know our hooved friends have returned. They must have run out of food in the valley. There should be enough shoots and buds to sustain them until spring breaks wide open. I picture the deer dancing in my mind. A hop, skip, and a jump that only happy deer can do!
I sit down on the wall. The seat of my pants soaks up the moisture on the wet rocks. I take in the forest view in front of me. I see a patchwork of winter and spring. These in between times. They hold a special beauty. The are now.
And that is all I have.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in April 2013.