Dragon Run in a Kayak

Ever dreamt of returning to another era for casting your eyes on celebrities and moments when history was made, but not staying long enough to be risky? Everyone has their favorites, and one of mine is to join Captain John Smith’s crew when they explored the Chesapeake Bay watershed over 400 years ago. I often wonder what it looked like in those days, as I live in it today. His route probably crossed the Dragon Run in the Middle Peninsula of Virginia as he headed for Werowocomoco to meet Chief Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas. Traveling back in time may always be impossible, but I don’t have to close my eyes to imagine the journey because the Run is one of the few remaining pristine places in the coastal plain that can be explored by canoe or kayak, much as the Mattaponi Indians did for fishing and hunting beaver.

Hiawatha

The Dragon is a ribbon of brown water running through a swamp. Down the centuries it has been lucky to avoid draining, and in recent decades it has been protected, piecemeal, by conservation-minded folk and the Nature Conservancy.  First recorded on maps around 1670, its name has puzzled people ever since. According to one story, plantation owners named it as a warning to slaves who might try escaping across the swamp to free states via the “Underground Railroad.” Perhaps a superstitious belief in dragons deterred them, depending on how awful their circumstances were, but the dangers of getting lost in the swamp were not exaggerated. Even today, it would take a bold soul to cross it on foot, especially on a summer night, but it offers a pleasurable paddle by day in a small party of kayakers. I joined them in April.

A sluggish flow gently carried us downstream so that paddles were used more for steering than propulsion. The channel was barely wide enough to pass other paddlers or to turnaround, and by late May it will be so choked with weed that it is impassable, especially with a low water table. From then until fall the swamp is virtually unvisited, and the rich community of plants and animals return to a peace that is eons old.

Dragon Run
Bald cypresses in the swamp

We glided past bald cypress trees that were already middle-aged when Captain Smith passed this way. Most trees can’t tolerate standing in water for long, but bald cypresses thrive in swamps, perhaps compensating for the low oxygen concentration by growing “knees” above the water level. They are unusual for their family in being deciduous, and on that spring day their bare branches had the first green traceries.  The bole of one tree had a patch of resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), which shrivels to limp, brown leaves in times of drought but come back to life when it is wetted, a cycle that can be repeated over and over for a century. Perched on the top of another bald cypress was an old bald eagle’s nest, or as much as a storm had left the distressed owners.

You know when you are in a place that is unspoiled and rarely visited if the flora is overwhelmingly dominated by native species. I hardly saw any aliens. There were royal and cinnamon ferns, fetterbush, featherfoil, rose azalea, pickerel weed, arrow-arum, Virginia blue flag, and so many more, including bloodroot which was harvested by Indians as a medicine. There were plenty of herps too, though we never saw the watersnakes and turtles, lizards and skinks, frogs and toads, and the 90 species of birds, including the gorgeous Prothonotary warbler. Go there in summer if you dare brave the clouds of insects, but that day there were only jewelwings patrolling for prey and freshly-hatched Eastern Tiger Swallowtails dancing overhead. Fifty-five species of fish inhabit the Run, but they didn’t show themselves, and muskrats and beavers dozed in their lodges, digesting the fiber diet they ate the night before.

Middle Peninsula, VA
Beaver Lodge on Dragon Run

Dragon Run quickly dams with logs felled by storms and beavers.  A team of volunteers regularly clears obstructions, but the indefatigable works of those aquatic engineers are particularly challenging. The solution to the problem of respecting the beavers’ interests while allowing kayaks to pass was inspirational. The team fixed a wooden board midstream between two posts so that animals could continue to pile logs and branches on either side of them but wouldn’t interfere with the board, which we easily lifted for floating further downstream.

Our hulls frequently bumped over unseen objects, which could have been alarming if we were in alligator country much further south. The water is as murky as brown soup, and for the same reason that it is loaded with organic matter. Although “pure,” meaning free of pollution, it is unwise to practice eskimo rolls there because it is shallow and the ancient ooze below is unplumbable.

Dragon Run is cared for by Friends. All natural wetlands need friends because they are still denigrated for the difficulties of putting them to “use” by developers and farmers, but their virtues as water purifiers, storm buffers and habitats for threatened species is now better appreciated.

A doughty lady at the heart of the conservation program has led paddling parties for years, as she did that day. She must be made of pioneer stock because, even now approaching age eighty, she was our navigator, authoritative naturalist and advocate of wild places. She told me that until very recently she was taking solo tours on the Run to photograph the wildlife at night. I heard she is called the “Queen of Dragon Run,” but in an earlier era she might have been baptized the “Pathfinder” because there could be no one better qualified to lead runaways across the swamp to safety.

Next Post: Clover patch

 

 

Citizen Science

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson in Williamsburg, Virginia

At one time all scientists were amateurs. Most were gentlemen with private incomes like Charles Darwin or clergymen like the Rev. Gilbert White whose church stipend enabled him to spend spare time rambling in the Hampshire countryside. There was a rich crop of these men too among the founding fathers of America: Benjamin Franklin discovered electrical activity in thunderstorms by flying a kite, and Thomas Jefferson created an almanac by recording the weather for nearly fifty years. Today we call them citizen scientists, and after science became a paid profession they continue to flourish where many eyes are needed for collecting “big data.”

One of those sciences is astronomy, which was so memorably presented on BBC TV by Patrick Moore (1923-2012), and for which other amateurs are credited with discovering new exoplanets. Another is ornithology because birders supply tons of data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society, and the British Trust for Ornithology. And the third—ever since Jefferson—is meteorology.

Years of recording temperatures and rainfall at Monticello helped him to plan the dates for planting crops in his garden. The data were also useful in the patriotic cause of proving the superiority of the Virginia climate compared to Paris where he lived at one time (there was no contest with London weather). In those times climate was thought to be fixed at a given place, just as the continents were believed to be immovable and species immutable.

Mark Twain wrote, Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get. But today the opposite is true because we no longer know what the future climate holds, and we have a firm expectation that weather will always be capricious. More than ever, climate scientists and weathermen/women depend on data from volunteers for modeling the atmosphere for days or even decades ahead.

Jefferson would have drooled at the equipment that is now available to backyard meteorologists. A starter weather station includes a thermometer, barometer, anemometer, hygrometer, and wind vane, but some really sophisticated equipment is affordable. The data can be uploaded to networks like Weather Underground which has more than 32,000 active stations worldwide. All data points are valuable because weather is local, and they contribute to a growing understanding of climate change.

rain gauge
Rain gauge for citizen scientists

You can join a network for the cost of a customized rain/ hail/ snow gauge ($30). This isn’t glamorous science like measuring glacier retreat, Arctic sea ice, or even sea levels and temperature, but data from your own backyard will be pooled with thousands of other observations for professional analysis.

Naturalists contribute data from monitoring wildlife and flora, which is called phenology. We are warned that if a warming trend continues the return dates of birds and butterflies that winter in warmer climes will be earlier, and they will breed further north. Hummingbirds arrived in Williamsburg today (April 12), but future generations may see them in March or even staying the year round.

Budburst is a phenology project for volunteers to record when trees and plants flower. A pollination by beesYoshino cherry tree in our yard bloomed the very same days this year as last, but we can’t assume the same in the future because this species is highly sensitive to temperature. Researchers in Seattle predict that cherry blossom will reach its peak 5-13 days earlier in Washington DC by 2050 than today (estimates vary depending on carbon emissions). If so, the National Cherry Blossom Festival and Parade will have to move forward to March.

It’s hard to say whether natural signs or physical measurements are the more reliable guides to the climate, but temperature and rainfall have the longest records.  The first frost dates in fall have been recorded in Williamsburg for over a century. Lately they have been getting later, and the growing season of frost-free days between spring and fall is correspondingly longer. The number of days when temperatures fell below freezing have declined by 20 days over the same period (notwithstanding the recent cold winter), which harmonizes with old stories when people drove across the frozen York River and skated on ponds.

first freeze
Date of first frost in Williamsburg, VA

It seems a contradiction then that average temperatures here in the hottest month of the year (July) are unchanged since records began in 1895 (78°F/ 25.5°C). Summer temperatures in Monticello (100 miles west) have also remained the same as when Jefferson recorded them, and it’s much the same story for rainfall. This leads people to wonder if the climate is really changing.

Jefferson as weatherman
Average annual temperatures in Virginia

But note the huge variances in the data. Our rainfall in July, which averaged 5 inches over the past 120 years, has a range of between 1 and 13 inches. You need data over a long period to prove a consistent trend in average temperature and rainfall with this statistical noise. But there have been more exceptionally hot days in summer here as elsewhere, and this may be the warning signal. We are so accustomed to paying attention to averages and medians (50 percentiles) that we can overlook the significance of outliers. I was reminded after an old cabin was taken down recently in the Allegheny Mountains when I was shown where the builder had scrawled in the joint between logs: June 6th 1878 frost killed beans.

Allegheny Mountains cabin
Frost killed beans 1878

Farmers and gardeners have always dreaded late freezes and heat waves, but if the climate becomes more dominated by freak weather we too will have something to groan about, and much more than scant snow on the piste or scorching sun on the barbecue. Amateur scientists today stand in a long tradition, but they are a different bunch to the gentlemen of yore who were led by private curiosity into the field. Today’s efforts by legions of volunteers are often propelled by a hope that through understanding nature we can better preserve it.

Next Post: Fertility Preservation

Green Fire

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view” (Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949).gray wolf

As a forester in the South-West, Leopold’s job was to control predators for protecting game species.  But one day after shooting a wolf he had something like a religious conversion experience: an ineffable change of heart. He started questioning policies and cherished beliefs about managing wildlife populations. He guessed that when wolves and cougars were extirpated the deer and elk populations would boom, the genetic stock would deteriorate as less fit animals were no longer weeded out, and overgrazing herds could eat out their food supply and starve. He had realized that when a keystone species is eliminated the ecosystem gets out of whack, although he didn’t live to see proof of his theory when gray wolves were reintroduced to the Yellowstone National Park.

Leopold, exchanging his rifle for a pen, drafted a Land Ethic from his Wisconsin farm at the end of life. When I read the passage that, “conservation is a state of harmony between men and land,” I wondered about my own backyard.  Is it as harmonious as I assumed, or had I been hardening an ecologically dissonant landscape?

After a hurricane ravaged our acreage we brought in topsoil, planted trees, seeded lawns, and laid out flowerbeds. It was patient work and now, nearly a decade later, the yard looks mature and the new growth provides welcome shade from Virginia’s summer sun. A landscape designer planned the attractive setting for our home, something that neighbors and visitors could admire and I could imagine featuring in a glossy garden magazine. But in making landscape appeal the goal we paid no heed to the interests of critters who shared the land with us. Perhaps I was delusional in thinking I was acting as nature’s physician, healing the wounded land by turning it into a garden of neat lawns and cheerful flowers. I know how appearances can be deceptive, like assuming that a ruddy human face always means a healthy body.

Energy pyramid
Energy pyramid

Healthy bodies don’t need a physician because they can fight off some threats and repair wounds.  We have allostatic mechanisms that return stressed bodies to a stable state. Likewise in the oak-hickory forests that existed here before European colonization, there was a self-regulating biome in which the bottom of an energy pyramid fed by products of decomposition and photosynthesis provided nourishment for a rich variety of herbivorous animals which, in turn, fed carnivores and top predators. After a wildfire or storm the landscape was gradually restored by a succession of larger plants and trees, like scabs healing over a skin wound until the canopy closed over again. When Teddy Roosevelt wrote about the Grand Canyon, “You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it,” he might have been thinking about the great eastern forest of America, but it was already fragmented. It had taken only a few generations to undo what eons of evolution had created.

A land as bountiful as Virginia’s was never going to be left to nature. The Peninsula is now a mosaic of farms, gardens, and woodlots. It is picturesque, even romantic (Virginia is for Lovers), but no longer in harmony with nature. Even nature preserves that look “natural” to our eyes need help in their struggle against invasive animals, plants, and diseases introduced from Asia and Europe: bamboo marches, kudzu smothers, cankers kill, and Japanese stiltgrass blankets the forest floor. Gardeners and farmers wage incessant war on alien plants and epidemics of tent caterpillars, Japanese beetles, ticks, and cloven-hooved locusts (deer).

kudzu
kudzu vines

Despite spraying lakes of herbicides and pesticides, the insurgents keep coming back. In trying to dominate nature and grow for our own needs and pleasure we are eliminating, often unintentionally, some critters at the top of the pyramid that are most beneficial as pest consumers (birds, bats, amphibians, and reptiles) or control deer herds (wolves). At the bottom of the pyramid our impact is mostly feeble or temporary (invasive and disease-bearing plants, fungi, and microbes). We would like to turn the pyramid on its head, but that is biologically impossible. Being mainly an urban species now, most of us are unaware of how much havoc human ecology has created and our continuing dependence on nature.  Some species of formerly common birds have declined by over two-thirds since the 1960s; many butterflies and bumble bees that do magisterial pollination services are vanishing; forty years ago you had to raise your voice to be heard here above the din of crooning frogs, but no longer. Poisons and starvation are depleting the landscape of wonderful creatures and some of our best friends.

Japanese stiltgrass
Japanese stiltgrass is even eschewed by deer

Before I read Leopold’s book I was already tapering off my use of chemicals in the yard, applying Roundup only for spot treatment of weeds. But now I realize that my change of heart was far too tepid, and that pretty flower borders and lawns look like sterile deserts to the critters who used to live here. Most of the plants we buy are aliens that evolved in quite different environments, and without their natural herbivores they grow profusely, sometimes out-competing the natives.

If these foreigners are unpalatable to caterpillars and grubs it would explain why butterflies, bugs, and creepy-crawlies are so much diminished, except for the hardiest ones which can boom when they have fewer competitors and predators. To test this hunch I checked if insects prefer our native plants.

I collected bundles of leaves from many different species in our yard to count the percentage that had been nibbled. This wasn’t a perfect study, but I didn’t need more data to convince me that natives (green color) were the preferred food plants by a huge margin. Most aliens (red) were ignored by the diners.

leaf survey
Leaves nibbled by insects

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Apart from a few insects that are not fussy about their veggies, most are particular about their food plant which they are adapted to chew and digest because they evolved in the same habitat. We have provided an inedible landscape.

phragmites
phragmites

Animals can adapt to graze a species that is new to them, but require thousands of generations. Take for instance phragmites (“phrag”), an aggressive reed that is overrunning wetlands and shorelines up and down the East Coast. In its homeland on the other side of the globe it is a food plant for 170 species of herbivores of all kinds, but since it was introduced to North America three centuries ago there are still only five species that will eat it. The mill of evolution grinds slowly.

Doug Tallamy’s book helped to bring home these thoughts (Bringing Nature Home). He is an ecologist at the University of Delaware whose vision is a garden revolution for a more sustainable relationship with nature. It is too late to preserve more wilderness areas here, but there are lots of “spare” land in backyards, and 40 million acres of lawn in the US. He urges us to cast aside esthetic preferences to cultivate more native plants.

This doesn’t mean turning back the clock to the original forest—which has gone forever. But we can have a healthier land, and need it as desperately as a patient fed by tubes, wires, and drips in the ICU needs organ and stem cell transplants to recover.

But when Tallamy explained that native plants help to restore the numbers of insects I paused.

Yikes! Is he crazy? What will my family and neighbors say?

“Don’t we have enough bugs already, Roger?” I hear someone say. “Remember the yellow jackets that chased me inside? And didn’t you complain about horseflies?”

“Yes, dear.”

It’s hard to defend bugs and creepy-crawlies, apart from butterflies and bees. It’s easy to point fingers at industries that pollute waterways and developers that scorch the ground for new shopping malls. But responsibility also rests on our shoulders, and especially gardeners and farmers as land stewards.

With a pricked conscience I raised my lawnmower blades to their maximum height so that white clover flowers beloved by pollinators are not decapitated. I’m now convinced that clover is more attractive than fescue, staying green all winter, and more beneficial, providing soil nourishment by nitrogen-fixation in the roots. Clover is not a native here, but I’ve found commercial growers that supply native plants for a butterfly garden: milkweed for monarchs, spicebush for swallowtails, and violets for fritillaries. I also have a new “immigration control” policy for alien plants, and am growing native redbud, dogwood, crab apple, Rudbeckia, sneezeweed, joe pye weed, wild asters, and possumhaw. They are no less beautiful, and if their leaves are grazed more by insects I feel a green fire of satisfaction that critters will feast on them.

Next Post: Re-baselining