Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Martin Luther King Day was clear and relatively warm, with a fresh snow. Early that morning a  flight of snow bunitngs flitted past, and there were flocks of blue birds and robins in the forest edges around the fields.  We were off to the local coasting hill to do some sledding around midday..

 The snow was perfect, and two of the children had constructed a low jump and were skidding over the top and launching themselves wildly into the air before crashing into the snow on their backs   --   only to get up again and do it all over. The sun was warm,  and below the hill the woods had taken on that grey green cast of early winter, a perfect day, a  timeless New England winter scene, with all the cliches of health and home and a fire crackling in the hearth. 

And yet.

In spite of the fact that this was a school holiday, out of however many children there are in this town there were but six on the hill that day, including two in my own family, which means that there were in fact only four children out on what was the easily finest outing day this season, and a holiday to boot..

What happened? Where are all the children?  Trapped by some electronic Pied Piper? Imprisoned in a sunless mall? Grounded by angry parents?  Depressed? Sick?

What hope can there be for such a people??


Thursday, January 16, 2014

A few years ago the ecologist E.O. Wilson developed a theory he called biophilia. His idea was that human beings are inherently drawn to nature and that furthermore, they appreciate above all a landscape that features a view over water, a cleared stretch of open land dotted with trees, and a forest or hills in the distance. He points out that throughout history, from the earliest palaces and villas to contemporary corporate structures, designers will create environments with these features, even if they have to remake the original terrain to do so.

In fact, landscapes of this sort are increasingly rare. Some of the finest natural vistas, which once inspired artists have been spoiled by commercial development. With this in mind, over the past few years, I have been traveling around seeking out areas that exhibit all the qualities that the painters of landscape have used as models. Long views of this sort can still be found even in sections of modernizing Europe. You find them in the Roman Campagne, where Salvator Rosa, who was among the first landscape painter worked, along with later artists such as J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Cole. You find them in southern France, especially around Provence, which inspired the French Impressionist painters. They still exist in sections of Holland, where the Dutch landscape painters worked in the 17th century. And they can also be found in England, in the Fens, for example, the region favored by the landscape painter, John Constable.

You also can still find good views throughout North America, where painters were the first to recognize the elements of the sublime in wilderness sites and subsequently popularize them. The first of these wild vistas, much despoiled now or at least reduced, were the views over the Hudson River to the Catskill Mountains, painted by Thomas Cole in the mid 1800s. Cole was joined by other artists, such as Frederick Church and Asher B. Durand who were grouped together to create what is known as the Hudson River School.

  Some of the artists in this same group moved west later in the 19th century and began to portray views of wilderness, the Rockies in particular. In fact it has been theorized that it was the work of these landscape painters that softened the generally blind, commercial, winner take all American public for an appreciation of wilderness. The end result was the creation of the National Park System, the first such preservation project in the world.

Inspiring  landscapes can be found on a smaller scale in New England, the view of the great Oxbow of the Connecticut River, for example, which was painted by Thomas Cole in 1830. Coastal New England also has some good viewscapes, such as the Newburyport marshes, which were painted over and over again by the Luminist artist Martin Johnson Heade. On an even smaller scale, you can find inviting views around Old Lyme, Connecticut, an area characterized by small fields, low hills patterned with laurels, the Connecicut River to the west, and salt marshes along the Long Island Sound coast to the south. This was the region favored by a small group of early twentieth century American Impressionists known as the Lyme School.

Ironically, considering the density of its population, New England has hundreds of lesser-known vistas, such as the view across Lake Champlain from western Vermont to the often clouded Adirondacks, or the small farms and villages of the Hill Towns in central Massachusetts.

  After years of poking around searching for places of this sort, I found another one of these scenic landscapes not half a mile from my house in Littleton, Massachusetts. Coming into town from the east, along the Great Road, you pass through the so-called Gateway to the town, which offers a fine rural idyll of hayfields and pumpkin fields, with low hills to the north and south. Approaching the town center from the west, once you clear a small, unappealing strip mall, you break out into the rolling fields of the area known traditionally as Scratch Flat. The land here stretches across the cultivated fields of two working farms and sweeps up to a forested ridge on the east, a view that might have been a subject for someone like Camille Pissarro, who favored rural aspects and country scenes.

The other good view can be found on the town beach at Long Lake, especially at sunset. This small body of water is much appreciated for its recreational opportunities, swimming and boating and the like, and is made all the better by town regulations passed back in the 1950s, which discourage the use of high powered motor boats. But the other feature is the view across the lake to the forested banks and the low glacial ridges. Unlike most of the small lakes and ponds all across New England, the shores of Long Lake are generally unhoused and wild. Three quarters of the banks are now protected from development, either by the town, or by the New England Forestry Foundation, which owns property on the western banks. The small town beach lies on the eastern shore, and the few houses that dot the northern shore actually add to the view by offering a few understated focal points.

I daresay any of the landscape painters of the past would appreciate the vistas here. John Constable would love the roiling cloudscape that sometimes churns up over the green hills beyond the lake in late afternoon. The Hudson River School painter Jasper Cropsey would appreciate the fiery colors of the trees on the western banks in autumn. Any of the water-loving French Impressionists, including Monet or Renoir, would love the stillness of the lake on summer evenings, and would also no doubt appreciate the colorful little moth-like sails of the boats that tack here and there on sunny days, not to mention the coves of florid water lilies on the southern banks. The fact is, if you look around with a sharpened eye for such things, one can find the elemental and even mythic landscapes that E.O Wilson and art historians have written about right here at home in the town in which I live --- you don’t have to travel the world to find such views.

The question is, how many other people who live here, or in any other forgotten little corners of New England small towns, actually see landscape? There are those who look out over fields and forests and see only commercial possibilities. Henry Thoreau wrote, with only a hint of irony, that he had traveled much in his life --- in Concord. With a little luck and help from the various town boards, if these viewscapes are saved, I might be able to say the same.

Monday, January 13, 2014

All the World in a Vernal Pool

On a warming afternoon toward the end of March last spring, I heard the first calls from a population of wood frogs that collect in a series of vernal pools on the northwest side of my property.  Their duck-like quacking, along with the appearance of the mourning cloak butterflies, and the spearing heads of skunk cabbage in the local swamps, is a reliable indication of advent of true spring. But the last few years have been uncertain. Dry spells have become more common even in spring, and for whatever reason, the pools have been drying out earlier than usual, threatening the year’s crop of frogs. Last spring was the worst of these of these years.

   The season started well enough; the snows melted, the ice went out of the pools and the wood frogs arrived on schedule and began calling. By April I could see the little clouds of jellied eggs floating freely or attached to submerged twigs and branches.  But around mid April the rains ceased and we entered into a dry spell, coupled with some strange unseasonably high temperatures. The pond edges began to shrink. The heat and drought continued into May and soon enough, it looked like the pools would dry out even before the eggs hatched.

 I’m not sure of the legality, or even the wisdom of what followed, but I set out on a campaign to rescue at least a segment of the population. I have three different ornamental pools in my garden, two of them heavily vegetated, and one deep enough to maintain cool waters.  So little by little I began collecting eggs from the vernal pools and moving them to my own pools. I had help in this from a willing five year old.  Three or four times a week we would carry a net and buckets to the vernal pools, scoop up a mass of eggs and carry them back to the garden. We continued this rescue operation all through M

   And all the while the heat and the drought, wore on and the pools dimished day by day, foot by foot, leaving a surround of wet vegetation.  Nonetheless at some point during that month some of the eggs hatched; I could see the little tadpoles in the deeper water, the boy and I would wait and watch for wriggling ripples in the still waters, and scoop them out with the nets.  These too we carried back to the garden pools.
 As the vernal pools dried, our rescue operation began to take on a bit of a desperate maneuver.  By June, with still no significant rain, the center of the pools were no more than mud puddles, teeming with wriggling tadpoles. Beyond these pools in the drying leaves we could find multitudes of dead tadpoles..
 Finally as far as we could tell, there were no more struggling tadpoles in the former pools the mass of some, they were all either saved by us, or dead.
 Meanwhile the ones we had rescued thrived. Slowly over the month of June and early July the tadpoles grew legs.    The only way to check their progress was to net them and watch the growth of their legs and the slow shrinking of their tails. Happily there seemed to be fewer and fewer in the nets when I scooped them out. --- presumably a good sign. They were making their way out into the wild world.
 In late summer, along with the usual adults that seem to appear at the end of summer each year. I began spotting tiny wood frogs, more than I usually would.  Presumably our rescue had worked.
 I see a metaphor in all this. Without our intervention, that season’s crop of local frogs would not have thrived, thereby decreasing, however slightly the number of wood frogs in the world.  The adults who originally laid the eggs, will  probably return to their native ponds this year, and the year after.  But in an increasingly warming planet, and the associated odd vagaries of the weather, who knows how long that population would last. So our efforts, for the time being, were justified.
 But  in a sense, the world is a vernal pool. The climate is warming, habitats are disappearing worldwide,  populations of wild things are shrinking, and there are no god-like giants roaming the earth to scoop us up and carry us to a better, more sustainable planet. 
 In effect we are the only ones who can protect ourselves.