Sunk Into The Land, Ripping Up Sod

It’s hard to find solid work in conservation. It’s harder still to find solid work in conservation without being willing to move. And when home is the heart of rural Vermont, well… there are options, but not a lot of them. The world expects me to move, and I have. 15 times in the period since I left for college and now.

We are not going to move again. I am growing roots deep into the cold soil. Our land is only a little over an acre, but an acre can easily fill a full summer life. In the all too short period bookended by maple syrup season and deer hunting season, this place, my home and field shared with my wife… this is our core. It is a place of love… with my wife, my few close friends who live nearby, and the land.

Before we came to this home, the previous owners had deep roots – that even if we live very long lives we will likely not surpass. Over 70 years, an entire life lived here, a family grown and dispersed, a person rooted here deep enough to remain a decade or two after her husband passed away of old age, with whom she had built the house itself. We only met her briefly, and I wish we had found more time to hear her stories, learn of this place and the changes it has seen since 1940. Her family name still clings to nearby landmarks and in the sound the pine makes in the breeze.

They had most recently kept the field as a mowed lawn, probably because for much of their life it was a dairy farm. Lawn here is just what happens if you keep cows around. Back where I grew up, a lawn is a sign of waste, of water dumped on the ground instead of left in the river or used to grow food. I do not like lawn and my wife, having grown up in a cold desert with few lawns, is ambivalent. I spend time ripping up the sod with my bare hands. Anything I can find that isn’t invasive or harmful goes in its place. Apple trees, cherry trees. Blueberry bushes. A huge vegetable garden. Cuttings of red osier dogwood from a plant I found hiding behind the shed. A four level rain garden, Jewelweed, a native wildflower also growing in the strange little refuge behind the shed. Slate stepping stones. Bulbs – tulips, crocuses, daffodils. Native plants from a friend’s land. Native plants bought when I can find and afford them. Native plants that jumped in to sme of the newly open space where lawn was ripped out, including one uncommon orchid that appeared in a wet spot on its own. Birch trees, and a fraction of the maple seedlings that try to grow here (i still have to cull most though it makes me sad). Chives – delicious and also apparently a native species. Oregano that I found growing in the field and spread around. Milkweed – for the monarchs, for the bees, and to displace the ugly hayfield grasses – spread scattered across the field last fall both via me and the neighbor kids tossing fluffy seeds and via me digging up and transplanting their tubers. A copious fire pit – into which goes the cut up buckthorn which i dislike even more than the grass. A scorched spot in the sod where I sat for many chilly spring hours boiling down maple sap. Dead rotten pine wood left to lay on the grass in a wet spot and rot – the insects like it and once I found a salamander hiding under some old rotten firewood nearby. The ubiquitous goldenrod. Mint. Hawkweed, though i watch closely because I hear it is invasive elsewhere. New England Aster. A deep purple plant oddly named “Carpet Bugle” that is displacing the grass in front of our house – it isn’t native but the beleaguered native bumblebees absolutely love it. Anything else that pops up I think a bumblebee might like. Bumblebees can’t use a lawn. Ground ivy, a weed I pull intermittently but have left alone when it’s fighting with the turfgrass. The bees like this too. Innumerable dandelions.

The first year the turf had inertia. Pulling grass up, smothering it with cardboard, flipping it upside down to die, a form of meditation, a mantra ‘less lawn, less lawn’… it seemed endless. The second year the battle continued, though change shined in the cracks and the holes in the sod. This year… this year the grass is yielding. I will grant it a space behind our house where the neighborhood kids like to play, and where if things go as we hope our kids may play some day too. I will allow it to persist around the picnic table and some of the places the snowplow scrapes clean in the winter, though i will grant it no fertilizer or well water. But beyond that.. the grass is yielding both in the front of the house and in the wide field in the back. The difference in how the field looks is noticeable already this year. I expect a flush of goldenrod and milkweed late this summer. Not the sneeze-inducing hay grasses of two summers ago waving in the wind smothering the soil. The buzzing of bees. A monarch, perhaps? Definitely milkweed tussock moths. Moths are the forgotten corner of the natural world, where wonder exists that is only just being rediscovered.

So I pull the plants I don’t want, divide and move and split the plants I do want. I bring in a few plants from elsewhere. There are many more native species I hope to either bring in or entice in with my turf removal. We work in our big veggie garden.. here in mid-elevation Vermont where the growing season is so short we start the plants indoors in March or April. The old timers say don’t plant until memorial day and sure enough the forecast for next Friday calls for a low of 35 – easily close enough that a few hours of clear and calm could send our cold hollow down to 31, 30, perhaps even 29. We hope for a blanket of cloud or frost-mixing wind to protect the few things we have planted, but the rest will wait.

I don’t want to leave our field. I don’t want to go to work sometimes, even though it is field work season, because there is still too much lawn, or because the moneywort is growing into the strawberries again. The sunset however vibrant is a disappointment, though I’ve been known to stay out and dump compost on cardboard covering the grass with a headlamp amidst the fireflies and distant lightning flashes. It continues until the days start to shrink back down, until a few hard frosts zap the maples to glorious reds and oranges, and the field to yellow and brown. Time for preparation – preserving food, deer hunting (this will be my second year, perhaps it will be years before I am successful), and then the resting time of winter. Over the winter I will undoubtedly become reobsessed with creating my video game that I have set aside for the moment… I will become restless and imagine starting a business, or leaving the conservation world for good. One of these days… maybe. Though I’d rather not. Meanwhile, the wood stove needs another log or two…

But tonight the wood stove lays empty. Summer is here, but unlike the maple trees which spend their summer energy on exuberant green leaves, my energy goes towards growing roots.

Weather Videos

I haven’t been inspired to blog much lately, but I have started a small new project to make silly fun videos about weather (mostly in Vermont). If you are interested in such things, you can find them at my Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9d8BspVvnrRjqjJPDSY0FA . Let me know if you enjoy them (or not)… because that may have an influence on if I keep doing them.
Enjoy your winter!

What If?

For those who clicked through to my blog from the “What-If” I have participated in, welcome to my blog! A few things…

if you are interested in conservation and/or the desert, check out the other blogs in this blog network.

I haven’t been great about updating this blog lately, but it is loosely about my interest in slowing down the flow of water through human-influenced landscapes. This goes a lot of different directions including coloring icicles with food coloring, getting caught in Tropical Storm Irene, wringing my hands about California’s water situation, and dabbling in attempts to make an ecology-based video game (it works… kinda… but it’s buggy.)

I work as an ecologist, conducting vegetation mapping. Basically this means I go look at forests and wetlands and other natural places, I gather data, and I use my data and that of many others to draw maps of the different types of ecosystems. I use ArcGIS, and use air photos and LIDAR data where we have it – Vermont isn’t as hi-tech as some places, so I don’t have a drone yet. I post occasional tidbits about it on this tumblr.

I also am interested in weather and post about that here.

I am highly involved obsessed with iNaturalist, a place where citizen scientists and professional ecologists alike can share any living thing they find in nature. The data is used for a variety of real-life research goals. The best part? You can use your smartphone like a trichorder – photograph somethingand it automatically tracks where you found it and people online will help you identify it, sometimes within minutes. I think it’s just about the best thing ever.

I have a twitter but mostly it just reposts every time I add something to iNaturalist, which is really quite often.

This post is making me realize I have way too many projects.

I live in Vermont, which constantly surprises me with its beauty. Today every branch and pine needle is coated in snow. It’s constantly changing and always beautiful.

And lastly.. if you haven’t checked out Randall Munroe’s What If series, definitely do so! It’s incredible, as is all of Randall’s art and science communication material and I feel so honored to be a part of it. Cheesy, but true!

On Nostalgia and Giant Snowflakes

Late fall and early winter can be harsh times in Vermont. The beautiful transient fall foliage has gone away, but a deep snowpack usually hasn’t formed. Alternating bouts of rain and snow lead to ice and mud, and dusk comes at 4 PM. I spent much of the second half of November on my first time deer hunting… a story in and of itself. When early December came, the dustings of perfect deer-tracking snow gave way to wintry mix and wet cold. It is a bit of a lonely time, and lonely times tend to cause a bit of sentimental backwards-gazing.

It’s funny to be nostalgic about a time I KNOW I was so much less happy, but the feelings are there nonetheless. I think back to a past love – but not a person… a place. I hear stories of rain finally drenching the parched canyons of coastal California. I imagine the indescribable sound of a boulder rolling in a canyon during a flash flood. I can nearly smell the purple and black sage waking up with the first raindrops. I envision the way mosses and clubmoss awaken and turn green seemingly minutes after the first rains, the way wild cucumber sends out its eerie odd tendrils to feel around for dry shrubs to ramble up upon and sprout its pufferfish pods. I think of the vibrant exuberance that follows a wet year. One sizable storm has already hit, and an even bigger one is roaring down the coast as I type with another likely behind it. It may not end the drought, but to the California sunflower and the bigpod ceanothus, these storms will be enough. The hills will burst forth with yellow and white, a strange inverse vibrancy to the fall foliage of red maple and birch of mid-autumn in Vermont. Seeds will fall and new plants will sprout. All while Vermont is buried in frozen mud awaiting more substantial snow.

Of course, as is sometimes the case with lost love, I don’t limit myself to thoughts. During the cold dark nights, when sleety rain is pelting the window, I’m watching over my past canyons. As part of my long-standing obsession with iNaturalist.org , I spend hours identifying plants posted by others. I even dig through some very old photos and added a few observations of my own. I keep refreshing the Weather West blog, hearing stories of lowering clouds and rising winds. I imagine the renewal of the first heavy rains on a fire scar, as they rip through the soil like a scab, exposing long-dormant seeds below and removing debris to rush downhill into someone’s swimming pool.

I imagine I will always hold a sort of deep, confused love for California’s canyons… but it comes like a flash flood and is gone again just as fast. Vermont’s moods are varied and sometimes challenging, but it doesn’t take long for a new Vermont wonder to emerge. This week we were pelted by a bizarre wrong-way Nor’easter that came from the southeast instead of moving up the coast from the southwest. It had pulled in warm air, and we were getting the same frustrating rain, sleet, and wet sodden snow… until suddenly everything changed. I looked outside to see what appeared to be soap suds blowing around our porchlight. Massive – absolutely massive blobs of snowflakes. Some of them were at least three inches across, and they fell so slowly they seemed suspended in air. We ran outside to the sound of plopping snowballs and dripping meltwater from the rooftops. Looking up into the falling snow globs was dizzying, catching one in your mouth would literally fill it full of snow. This must be what it is like for a three year old to witness a hard wet snow… and when I was three I had never seen snow fall. As the snow squall moved away there was even a flash of lightning. Thundersnow!

I don’t know why the snowflake blobs were so enormous, but I know people saw them elsewhere – in Rutland, in Calais, in Burlington. The atmosphere was very near freezing for a long way up, so perhaps the snow globs had a long time to gravitate towards each other as they wavered a few tenths of a degree from freezing on their long descent. Or perhaps they hovered in an updraft like hail, slowly growing until they reached immense size. Either way, a memory came into my head… snowflakes big as golf balls.. a song, from long ago, from a part of my life that felt like a whole other world, like I was a whole different person.

Piebald: Part II: The Nor’Easter.

…another chapter is written
I think we’re going on twenty six
it took a nor’easter to break the silence
that night snowflakes fell as big as golfballs
foreshadow the mood for my journey…

The word ‘home’ still feels like an oversized clammy wet cobble when I say it. it’s only slowly sinking in that I finally know what that word means.

2014-2015 Winter Forecast Roundup

The second half of Fall is the time of year some of my favorite science fiction short stories are published. But these stories don’t have spaceships, aliens, or robots. That’s right, I’m talking about the long-range forecast for the coming winter!

Why do I call them science fiction, you ask? Well, because they tend to be wrong. Here’s an overview from last year (see my post from last year):

The Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a very cold winter, especially the second half of the winter. (Though again… ‘bitterly cold and full of snow’ even describes a ‘warm’ Vermont winter). Accu-Weather predicts above average snow in northern Vermont but a slow start to winter in the southern part of the state. The Weather Channel has a similar forecast except for a warm December, along with a bunch of annoying audio ads. (a side note… why would anyone want a news video when they could read the same text five times as fast in peace?) NOAA’s typically vague forecast calls for above normal temperatures for the first part of the winter but equal odds of warmer or colder than average conditions later in the winter. Equal odds are given for a wet, dry, or average amount of precipitation. And if you don’t like those, there are more forecasts to choose from too.

The Farmer’s Almanac was correct this time… but it seems like they always forecast a very cold winter. The Accu-weather forecast was so/so, it wasn’t an unusually snowy winter, just a cold one. NOAA was dead wrong, except for the ‘equal odds’ forecasts which weren’t possible to quantify success. Perhaps that is the point.

So, the forecasts all called for something different, and thus some were correct and some weren’t. What are we up against this year?

While I don’t fully understand how this works, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is different from the Farmer’s Almanac. Their forecasts aren’t too different though… the former is calling for a ‘bitterly cold’ winter for northern New England and the latter for a ‘wintry, white and wet’ winter. Those all sound like a cold forecast, except for the ‘wet’ part which perhaps alludes to thaws or ice storms (yuck). Accu-weather calls for a ‘snowy’ winter. The Weather Channel again has a confusing forecast, in the text it calls for a warm December with little information about January, but the video calls for a cold winter. NOAA is again calling for a warmer than average winter with equal chances of high or low precipitation amounts.

For a minute in writing this I became confused that I perhaps clicked on some wrong links, because pretty much all of these forecasts are nearly identical to what each of them forecast last year.

In general i trust NOAA but I am skeptical of the warm forecast. The main reason was outlined in this previous post. There is evidence that the same sort of ridge setup that formed last year could recur this year. That pattern lead to cold conditions in New England, and unfortunately also led to drought in California. Hopefully I am wrong about that last bit as the situation there is quite dire.

As usual, it’s anyone’s guess. Between all these forecasts, one of them has to be correct, right? The last few days have been very warm with record highs set in several parts of Vermont, but next week will be colder – more normal late October weather is on the way. The mountains will probably even pick up their first significant snow.

Ridiculously Resilient Ridge: Possibly Dismal Climate Scenario for California and Beyond

By now just about everyone knows about the California drought. The future remains uncertain, but hope is beginning to fade as an El Nino that many hoped would bring relief has not materialized, and an unwelcome weather feature in the North Pacific has reemerged.

Today Daniel Swain, author of the excellent and now deservedly popular weather blog Weather West, described some of the results of a peer-reviewed study he co-authored. While much uncertainty exists in the world of climate prediction, the results are not good. There may be a link between human-caused climate change and the aforementioned weather feature – which Swain has labeled the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge.

Ridges, otherwise known as high pressure zones, bring dry weather. Like many but not all ridges, this one is warm. Unlike nearly all ridges, however, this one is mostly stationary. It sits south of Alaska for months at a time, like a boulder in a river, and creates effects downwind. Downwind is California. Over the last two years the ridge has stopped nearly all winter storms from reaching California. If the ridge is linked to climate change, it MIGHT (and that is a big might)… be here for quite some time, and may even get stronger. Swain isn’t making any direct forecasts of that sort, and is just doing an excellent job of reporting the science. I won’t say much more about this science here because it’s best read on his blog linked above.

I will, however, speculate on possible implications if the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge is going to be around for the next few decades. While we don’t know if the ridge has formed in the more distant past, we do have a good idea about what California’s climate was like over the past 10,000 years – and it isn’t a pretty picture. It has been very well established that droughts lasting MANY DECADES have come through the area, drying up lakes to the point that trees grew to mature size in their lakebeds, and possibly causing various civilizations in the Southwest to collapse. It’s certainly possible that the Ridge or something like it played a role in those droughts.

There are a few things to consider here. California’s water crisis is magnified by… well, stupidity, to be frank. Anyone who has read this blog is familiar with my opinion on the value of lawns and swimming pools in Los Angeles… but improper crop selection and use of water in agricultural areas plays an even bigger role. Destruction of wetlands, floodplains, and other natural ecosystems have worsened the problem, and even the removal of beavers over 100 years ago from many areas is probably a factor. Not all of this can be reversed, but some of it can. This would buy us some time if we can get past the politics. Whether it would be enough depends on the severity of the drought.

The agriculture of the Central Valley is almost entirely watered by irrigation water from the Sierras and other mountains to its north. Without these flows, much of the agriculture would cease or at least be changed very dramatically. Most of the Central Valley would probably become a dust bowl. During one of those past megadroughts the Mojave Desert extended across the Central Valley nearly to the Bay Area, but now that we have salted up and pillaged the soils it is unclear if the desert vegetation could return. California has also experienced ridiculous sprawl over the last few decades, in no small part due to the subsidization of cheap water. If the drought continues, many of these may become unlivable. Desalination, dwindling aquifers, and the remaining flows in rivers and streams will keep some urban areas going… but desalination poses a lot of problems, especially if people finally wise up and realize we need to drastically cut down on our fossil fuel use. Desalination uses a lot of energy. On the plus side, maybe the dusty ex-fields and abandoned suburbs would provide better locations for solar and wind plants than intact desert ecosystems (remember, we need intact desert ecosystems for those plants to be able to move and stabilize what is left of our soil if it gets too dry for other species in the Central Valley!). However, I suspect we would turn to nuclear plants. I still believe that this can be done well, but whether it will be done well in the throes of desperation is anyone’s guess.

And here’s where it starts to get even scarier. A lot of people are going to need to leave California. But… they can return to the Rust Belt and the Northeast, right? That’s where much of the big swell of people came from in the mid 20th century to start with. And, with climate change it will only get warmer and wetter there, great conditions for agriculture and recolonizing Detroit, right? Well… maybe not.

The Ridiculously Resilient Ridge is a bit like a boulder in a river. If you’ve watched water flow behind a boulder, you see that you get an eddy spinning in one direction, and just behind it another eddy spinning the opposite direction. California will be much, much warmer and drier – warmer than the few degrees of GLOBAL warming overall. The Arctic is also warming, and the loss of sea ice greatly accelerates this trend (It’s mentioned in the Swain article). But, away from the newly open ocean waters, northern Canada still sits in sunless blackness all winter. Even if the climate warms 10 degrees, northern Canada is going to be COLD. It’s going to be really cold. And because of a variety of factors that have been described by meteorologist Jeff Masters and even in a blog post I made in 2010… the extreme cold may end up being pushed south and east. Into the eastern United States and southern Canada.

Last winter was a brutal one here in Vermont, and even more so to our west in the Upper Midwest – the type of winter the old timers talk about. This was due to what many were describing as the ‘Arctic Vortex’ – basically the equal and opposite reaction to the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge. That’s right… the cold winter may have actually been linked to ‘global warming’. Meanwhile, in the third eddy, Greenland would warm, which would dump fresh water into the northern Atlantic, possibly disrupting the Gulf Stream and making things in New England even colder. This was the scenario (inaccurately) portrayed in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow”. There is even a slim possibility that these factors would combine in an extreme way, along with increased precipitation, and lead to massive amounts of snow falling in parts of Canada. Enough that the summer doesn’t have time to melt it all, and it starts building up. That’s right… that path leads to another Ice Age. I’m not saying it is likely, and it may not even be possible, but I don’t think anyone knows for sure. Kind of ironic since a lot of climate change denialists like to comment on how scientists supposedly thought in the 1970s we’d soon enter an ice age. That’s a debunked argument, but oddly enough there may have been some truth to it.

So climate refugees leaving California due to extreme drought may face deep piles of snow and subzero cold. Heating costs would skyrocket especially if we are trying to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Agriculture would become less viable in many of the areas we would use as alternatives to California. Increased summer precipitation might also make agriculture in some floodplains impossible, and we might even see a continuation of the odd trend last summer that sent tornados much further north and east than they typically occur in significant numbers. Drought on one coast, blizzards, floods, and tornadoes on the other.

So where does that leave us?

Hope we don’t find out.

Urban Riverwalks Out West

It seems everywhere we go, towns and cities are turning back towards their waterways. New or re-energized walkways/bikeways are popping up along rivers, lakes or other water features. In our travels out West we had an opportunity to visit several, some of which were quite a surprise.

Idaho Falls, along the Snake River, has a very neat walkway near their downtown, showcasing their namesake waterfall. Below is a view from one of the bridges.

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The waterfall is a bit odd, consisting of a dam that diverts water to pour over a long ledge. It is altered from its natural state, but is still quite pretty.

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The benches are unique and artistically designed.

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There were a LOT of people enjoying the walk on a warm summer evening. The only thing it seemed to lack was access to local businesses. There were a couple of restaurants in the area, but otherwise the link to any centralized downtown area was limited. I’m not sure what Idaho Falls has in the way of a downtown, so perhaps that was it. It was definitely worth an evening walk in any event.

After experiencing an amazing trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, we ended up in the Red Desert region of Wyoming. The tiny town of Green River had a surprisingly large and pleasant river walkway along its namesake river.

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Nearby Rock Springs is an energy industry town with a small usually dry waterway called Bitter Creek (pronounced ‘crick’) passing through it. Bitter Creek does not have a walkway, but there was discussion in town on working on restoring the little ‘crick’ and possibly putting a path in at some point. The spring the town was named after is apparently now dry, due to modifications in hydrology associated with nearby coal mining. We did, though find a little park with a rain garden/bioswale type setup right next to a shopping complex. The area had just had several unusually heavy bouts of summer rain, so there was plenty of water here. Oddly, there was what appeared to be a muskrat hanging out in the water. It wasn’t easy to see how it found its way there since there wasn’t clear connectivity to other waterways that would support muskrats. I suppose nature finds a way – maybe it crawled up the culvert from Bitter Creek.

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Telluride is a mining-turned-ski town in a beautiful Colorado setting. With the tourism industry making up the majority of the economy, it’s no surprise there was plenty in the way of parks and places to enjoy the San Miguel River and its tributaries. They aren’t as urban as some of the others I’ve mentioned, but nor are they wilderness. All seemed to be abundantly enjoyed by locals and tourists alike.

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Of course, there were notable omissions too. The town of Mesquite, Nevada is along the Virgin River but there was no apparent way to see the river, as the town was more focused on gambling and golf. More glaring and disappointing of course is southern California. We spent some time in Torrance, my ‘home’ town, since many family and friends are in the area. The waterway nearest my home is now called the Dominguez Channel. Its previous name was that of a racial slur I will not repeat here – an example of hatred towards people and the waterway both. Here’s what that disappointment now looks like, photo courtesy of LA County Department of Public Works: with more photos here. There are few places to even see it, and my spot where I used to peer into the channel as a child is now fenced off and smothered in sickly oleanders. I’m guessing even if it did have some sort of walkway it wouldn’t be much of a hit, as simply exists as one of the world’s largest gutters. Restoration of any sort seems unlikely. It is treated as trash and as such isn’t even really considered as a place to spend time. In Torrance there is no way to escape the concrete and lawns. There is a tiny 40 acre marsh – Madrona Marsh – but the gate is locked much of the time, and unlike my teenage senf I am no more inclined to jump the large fence. I suppose the walkway along the beach counts for something, but it runs between a solid like of multi million dollar houses and the sand which is literally combed and sifted to make sure it is manicured (and free of litter, I suppose). One would be hard pressed to find a native plant there, too. I remember at one point some were planted to help feed a declining endangered butterfly species, and the rich people nearby whined and cried because they didn’t like the vegetation looking different than their beloved lawns and iceplant. The native plants, and with them the butterfly, are probably gone now. Perhaps I’m wrong and someone reconsidered, but I doubt it. Unlike the hardscrable mining towns of Wyoming, the wealthy ‘environmentalists’ of Torrance and Manhattan Beach can’t be bothered to tend their own backyards. They’re too busy fussing over what people in Wyoming are doing, I suppose. And it shows. I passed through some of the natural gas and oil fields while in the Red Desert, and while I do feel strongly that we need to stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible, the ‘ruined’ desert around them is a heck of a lot better off than the South Bay region of LA. In fact I’d take a day in the oil field over a day on Torrance Beach Boardwalk without a second thought.