Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Silver Maple Story

Low: 29°F
High: 42°F
Conditions: Mostly cloudy with flurries.
A college campus is a great place to be a dog: there are plenty of friendly undergraduates, many of whom desperately miss their own canine companions, ready to say hello and fawn over your soft fur and even softer ears.
It’s also a great place to be a caninaturalist, especially if your human lets you come along for lab work in the field.
Recently, Ari and I ventured out with members of one of our seminars on an investigative field trip of sorts. We’ve been studying climate change and the ways in which ecosystems respond to changes in precipitation and weather. We’ve read great books, like Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers, and watched some really compelling films, like Between the Tides. But this was all in the classroom.
To show us firsthand, our favorite naturalist Dave Potter took us out to a very special forest near campus.

This may look like any other stand of trees, but it’s actually quite unique and is comprised almost entirely by silver maples (Acer saccharinum), so called because of their lighter bark and leaves.

Silver maples love wet, soupy areas, so it's not a surprise that they favor places like this one, which floods each spring and stays pretty marshy even in the dryest of seasons:

Incidentally, canine naturalists also prefer this kind of habitat, as evinced in this investigative action shot:

So we shouldn't have been surprised to find a muddy, blue-eyed dog having a good time there. And, on the surface anyway, it might not have seemed all that interesting to find some lovely silver maples there, too. But here's the thing: silver maples don't really grow in Maine--at least, not in a stand of trees all their own. Our guru Potter says that this is the only such forest he knows of in Northern New England.
Dave isn't entirely certain why these trees are not only living, but thriving here. But he does have a few guesses. One is because this area borders a body of water called Sandy Stream, a floodplain built by the last series of glaciers. The giant wall of ice cut a rivulet between our local lake and a larger river. What makes Sandy Stream pretty extraordinary is that it is entirely controlled by these two bodies of water: sometimes, the river backs up and pushes its water and debris into Sandy Stream; other times, the lake drains out, bringing sand and its own unique fluid down this way. As a result (and over the millenia), it's created an utterly beguiling ecosystem--and one capable of hosting some pretty sturdy trees.
We learned from Dave that silver maples support a lot of moss on their trunks, which can be a pretty good thing in a climate as unforgiving as ours.
But look at this tree:
It's wearing a moss bikini. Not because they are incredibly stylish, mind you, but rather because the moss is stripped away each spring as the area floods and then freezes. As the water levels shift, the ice moves up and down, ultimately shaving off the moss (and some of the tree) each season.
The silver maple is one of the only trees that can tolerate this kind of treatment, not to mention the constant oozing wetness of the soil. And they are living proof, says Potter, of 15,000 years of gradually changing climate. But if that change becomes more rapid and increases our rainfall, not even these sturdy trees will be able to withstand this kind of rude climatological handling.
We learned a lot on this outing. And we're still processing quite a bit of it. But at least one of us feels much smarter for the trip. Can't you just see it in her eyes?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A Snow Dream Deferred

High: 48° F
Low: 29° F
Conditions: Sunny and crisp.
The early snow passed us by this week. But Northern and Western Maine received a fair amount--accumulations of 2-4 inches in some places.

Here's a photo we ran this summer of our favorite run at Sugarloaf Mountain:

Here's that same space today:

Winter must be near. In the meantime, we'll keep dreaming.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Snow Dreams

High: 45° F
Low: 24° F
Conditions: cloudy with an approaching storm.

If the weatherman is right about our 48-hour forecast, then this:

Might very well equal this:

A girl can always dream, right?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Je me souviens

High: 54° F
Low: 32° F
Conditions: Showers clearing by day's end.
This week, the caninaturalist went to Camp Green Acres Kennel, Mouse and Leila Tov became latch-key cats, while I journeyed to Quebec City, where I am researching my new book project. Quebec City is a wonderful place--a whole lot of continental Europe in an easy day's drive. At 400 years old, it is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in North America and has the fortified gates to prove it:

It's easy to forget you're living in the 21st century within these walls, where equine transportation trumps automotive:

And hotels haven't changed a bit in over a 100 years:

Outside the walled ville is a city of contrasts.

Examples are everywhere, like in this old cathederal, which remains only a facade newly decorated by graffiti artists:

Or these ramparts, now occupied only by four-footed soldiers:

Most of my time was spent in the archives of this building, the Provincial Parliament:

It's been a tough few decades for Quebecoise Separatists after their failed vote of political autonomy. For many, maintaining the language and their distinct culture is more than just a political statement--it's about compromised subjectivity and continued colonialism. Examples of this are everywhere--like the name of this building, Parliament Nationale.

Since its founding in 1608, Quebec City has been the site of constant political conflict, but its citizens have made it through with an identity both distinct and familiar. And the city is celebrating in style throughout 2008. While we were in town, foreign dignitaries were convening for the festivities, including French President Nicolas Sarcozy, who was under constant guard by the unusually armed mounties:

Still, the city positively glows with its own accomplishment each night. Happy Birthday, Quebec!

Friday, October 10, 2008


High: 61° F
Low: 37° F
Conditions: Mostly sunny and calm.

Autumn is as much an occupation as it is a season here in New England. There are plenty of apples to harvest and firewood to stack and hay to bale this time of year. Good pursuits, all of them, but Ari and I decided they could wait a few more days so that we could participate in Maine’s favorite recreational sport: leaf peeping.

As the most forested state in the union (90% of our total area!), Maine takes its foliage very seriously. The state has an entire webpage devoted to the subject and also boasts a 1-800 foliage hotline and interactive map, which is updated daily:

According to this site, we’re not yet at peak, but you’d never know it looking outside, where the hillsides are a garish and fiery display the likes of which usually make understated, puritanical New Englanders blush. Not this week, where the only red hue are our local favorites, the red maples, and this stunning sumac:

Even though scientists have proven that dogs can see certain shades of red, I get the distinct impression that Ari could care less what color the leaves are. But, ever since she was a puppy, she has been a huge fan of any leaf turned brittle by weather and age. We used to joke that, since she was raised in a family of cats, Ari suffered from a species-identity disorder. She’s always been a pouncer and back-of-the-couch percher. Now almost three, she may be a little more grown up and a decent amount more dog-like, but she still relishes the feline, like here, where she’s trapped an oak leaf in her front paws and isn’t about to let go.

Speaking of going, we’re both a little sad to see the familiar V-shape of migrating geese. Each afternoon, our sky is filled with the brush of feathers and the sound of geese triangulating towards warmer climes.

By dusk, many have taken up residence in our local fire pond, where they’ll rest until just before dawn and then continue southward. I have to admit, I hate to see them go.

I was cheered, however, by a story that ran on NPR today about the epic New England pumpkin:

Apparently, intrepid pumpkin growers have become so competitive that some of the champion specimens grow up to 40 pounds a day. That’s all fine and good, but if the pumpkins grow too fast, they are prone to some pretty impressive explosions. You can see the aftermath of one such disaster by clicking on the NPR page here.

Monday, October 6, 2008


High: 59°F
Low: 38°F
Conditions: Mostly sunny.

This week for our State Park Sabbatical we traveled north to Moosehead Lake. There, Mt. Kineo rises out of the depths of Maine’s largest body of water. The subject of legend, Kineo was long-believed to be the overturned dog bowl of a native god’s canine companion. With its steep sides and flat top, we have no problem believing that Kineo, turned rightside up, could hold even a caninaturalist's supply of kibble. And while we didn’t find any dog food to speak of on this trip, we did find plenty of other things worth anyone’s consideration.

The Piscatequis River

Bull Moose

The cliffs of Kineo. At the turn of the 20th century, Mt. Kineo was the site of one of the most opulent resorts in the world. A Russian princess, who spent her summers there, jumped to her death off of these cliffs after receiving word that her fiance had called off their wedding.

Mother and fawn graciously posing for a photo.

A loon in the distance

Local construction project.

Almost at the top.

The Kineo fire tower, built around 1910 and one of the oldest in the state.

The view looking westward from the top of the tower.

The view looking down from the tower.

19th-century servants quarters: the only remaining building from the grand resort.

Mother and calf (bringing our day's moose total to 7!).

Snoozing on the way home (after sharing a well-earned molasses and date cookie with me).

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Tangled Up In Blue

High: 62° F
Low: 49° F
Conditions: Continuous drizzle.
This is a snake knot:

This is a knotted snake:

We’re all a little tied up, kinked up, and wound up over the pervasive rainfall this week, but we think that this guy is taking that sentiment a little too seriously.

Our knotted friend is a Northern Red-Bellied Snake (Storeria occipitomaculata), a small snake found throughout the northeast. They’re partial to mucky, damp places like marshes, bogs, and floodplains. Normally that wouldn’t include our driveway, but this week is something different entirely. These days, muck and damp is pretty much omnipresent at caninaturalist central.

Those conditions might explain why this guy was in our driveway, but it still doesn’t explain how he came to be so knotted. One reigning scientific theory about knotted snakes is that they contort themselves in this way to help with the shedding process. But this guy doesn’t seem to be ready to throw off his epidermis.

Another theory is that snakes, when prodded in one area, contort and tangle as their very long nervous system tries to make sense of the stimuli. That seems like a pretty good theory for this particular specimen, particularly since there’s a puncture wound in his side.

Red-bellied snakes have some unusual defensive mechanisms: they raise their front lips and snarl at potential predators (not unlike a few dogs we know!). They also release a musky (read: rank) odor when threatened or vulnerable. That makes us wonder if maybe this guy was under assault, perhaps by one of our local foxes or coyotes, and gave a particularly impressive show of snarl and stink, causing him to be dropped, unceremoniously, in our drive, where he short-circuited and ended up as his own version of the snake knot. What do you think?