The Ripple: River Otters in Western MA

Winter Otters

When winter is most wintery, the otter is most active. It is hungry, of course, and it is also very smart. The ice that forms in and above the streams shrinks the size of the stream, making it harder for fish and crayfish to hide. Not only that, the otter—of the weasel family (i.e., a mountain lion crossed with a squirrel)—is in summer a nocturnal feeder, but changes that habit in the winter, and feeds during the day. In the harshest and barrenest of late winter, the otter finds a feast. (Photo credit: Kurt Heidinger)

It’s the end of winter (almost), when months of frigid winds have whipped the bare hills and leafless trees into a freeze-dried state. The best loggers cut trees for firewood now, just before the March thaws, because the ground is frozen and the green wood is at its driest, all the sap stored underground (Think maple syrup!). How wonderful and wise and tough are the trees, an example for us all of character and of presence (A friend of mine, a Chilean ethnobotanist, once said, “Always live in the trees. Humans go crazy without them.” I still wonder if she’s correct—and I tend to agree.).

The creatures who live in our forests are likewise in their stiffest winter state, hungry and cold, their food supply growing ever more meager. The deep hard snow will soon be gone, but while it lasts, life gets dearer for all us living beings. Dessicated, shrunken, and gnarled, the bios—the shared life expressed by biodiversity —is ready to spring.

Before it does, get out of the house! As harsh as late winter is, it is an ephemeral world of austere beauty. Everybody wants summer right now, all my friends off last week in Florida, posting Facebook photos and saying nananabooboo—but what is summer anyway, if it is not earned by gritting through the iciest and bluest and shiveriest months of cold? Living four seasons deeply is what chisels the Yankee character. For each season, we have a way of living and that—our environmentally-determined multifaceted  character—makes us culturally unique and vibrant. Spring is not so incredible and sweet and exuberant unless it follows the kind of winter we’re having, and that makes the winter we’re having a perfect one.

SO: Grab some snowshoes and ski poles and take risk (I guess I should place a disclaimer here: what I will now suggest is somewhat dangerous, so be very careful and don’t over do it.)… put on those snowshoes and, preferably with a friend or two also on snowshoes, walk a stream bed…while you still can!  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Rivers in the Sky

Clouds are Rivers

The next time the western wind blows strongly, hurtling great grey masses of clouds over our towns—long cirrus strips with ribbons of blue between them—imagine you are a fish looking up at the river’s surface. Because, in the wider scheme, you are!

Rains become rivers, so—if we think of the whole instead of the parts—clouds are rivers.

How very unscientific is such a thought! If everybody thought clouds are rivers, how would we distinguish between them? Wouldn’t reality become an un-focus-able blur?

Maybe! That could be a very healthy development, if it allowed us to reboot our way of categorizing, and comprehending, the parts that make up the whole of our biosphere.

All too often we are forced by training and circumstances to have a tunnel-vision view of things; we are so driven to achieve personal goals, for example, that we block out anything that is beside-the-point. All we see or care about is that carrot dangling in front of us, and so we lose the wider perspective, which (also) provides the place for our performance, the stage where we display our role not as a soliloquy-er, but as a high-kicking member of a chorus line. Even when we have the spotlight upon us, we perform in a wider scheme. I have nothing against achieving personal goals or ignoring extraneous information, as long as I have, from time to time, the space—a wider scheme—within which to place my activities.

We live and act not as isolated island universes, but in a biotic mandala (that is itself part of other mandalas), and to the extent that we join things together and perceive reality holistically, the more we assume in thought and deed the design of our mandala: and there is soft power and beauty aplenty in such magnification.

So, clouds are rivers.

You saw it a few weeks ago when dense fog exhaled out of the snow and blanketed both our white hills and heavy dark waters. Science explains that, because the air was listless and warmer than the frozen ground, water molecules condensed (like tears on the side of an ice-water glass) in the atmosphere—giving us fog: an un-focus-able blur. Science explains, too, that the water molecules are essentially the same, whether they float in the sky or flow over the earth. What science doesn’t explain is how fog feels.

We feel fog. It’s clammy on our skin. It occludes our vision, and because sight is our primary sense, it frustrates us. Drivers—and downhill skiers—don’t like fog, and people walking on the side of the road worry more when they walk in it. It makes us turn our lights on in the middle of the day. In some psychosomatic way, the day never begins when it starts in the fog, and—yawn some more coffee please—the night never ends. When you walk in the woods in a dense fog, a subtle rain falls—each crooked finger of branch-tip collecting H2O atoms until the drip is formed and drops on your head. If you aren’t prepared, and walk long enough, you get soaked.

When the sun breaks through again, blue and gold and making us squint, we feel relief, as if a burden and gloom has lifted off our thoughts and shoulders. Our eyes resume command over things, feeding our brains the information of parts, distinguishing between this and that, and giving us the power and freedom to choose what we will focus on. We like that; it is the realm we have been trained to operate in, where everything has its place and is in position where it is supposed to be.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Ripple: Winter Wetlands

When Our Wetlands Become Icelands

“Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.” – Thoreau

Perhaps you love to walk in the woods in winter because, when the leaves are down, the shape (or “geomorphic character”) of our biome is exposed. I do, too!

Winter is possibly the most perfect time to get to know where you are. When you look up at the hills from down in the valley, or from hills to other hills, there is more to see of the “body” of the “superorganism” we are, like lichen, affixed to and dependent on. What appear in summer to be solid monolithic mountains are seen, in winter, to be made of monticellos, stacked in front of each other, leapfrogging up to the highest point.

Summer leaves keep sunlight from touching the forest floors, and cover the giant wrinkles—the cracks, rifts and ravines—that separate the monticellos. In those wrinkles are cascading streams that, when it gets really cold, freeze and form ice-falls. Icefalls are always magical places, and by that I mean they are places that “recreate” you: make you feel different, by awakening your imagination and sense-of-beauty, by catalyzing surges of joy and delight. May an icefall appear before you this holiday season (If you can’t find one nearby, try Chapel Falls in Ashfield.)!

And, may we get some seriously cold weather between now and March to wipe out the ticks in the fields and the adelgids in the hemlocks—and so we can roam one particular kind of micro-biome that is off-limits when it is warm. I speak here of the murky soggy mucky source of rivers and streams: wetlands!

Wetlands have been considered the “worse” kind of real estate because you can’t build foundations or septic systems in them, and were typically used in the past as garbage cans. From a biotic perspective, however, wetlands are extremely vital (i.e., a lot of creatures live there) and from a public health perspective, they store lots water and prevent floods. Thoreau’s description of the existential value of wetlands always makes me smile: “Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”

Of all the microbiomes we neighbor, wetlands are the most mysterious. It is hard to know what they are because they are so difficult to access. Thoreau liked to sink to his waist in swampmud, or at least he wrote he did; but in real life, for most folks, swampmud is not enjoyable. Often it reeks with the bubbling bodies of things once green, and unlike other muds it is capable of staining clothes. Add to this the unpleasant feeling of stepping into tannin-dark gruel populated by exuberant worms and bugs and snakes and leeches—that feels like it has no bottom, yet is too shallow to swim in. Like me, you might wait until those waters freeze, and skate atop them.

Winter is the best time to explore these upland sources of all streams & rivers, these mysterious wetlands. What a joy it is to skirt the prickers and brambles and ivies that grow rife in the summer, and to avoid the spiderwebs, mosquitoes and deerfly, and also the creepy decaying Edgar Allen Poe vibe even the sprightliest wetlands exude. Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: