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Among family, friends, and neighbors, I’ve developed a reputation as the go-to guy for nature questions. Not that I’m an expert, mind you, it’s just that ever since I was a kid, I was known as the one who spent his spare time chasing butterflies, catching snakes and turtles, etc. Before long, I was being called in to get rid of unwanted visitors or just to be consulted on birds nests or whatever. There was the time I stopped by the local service station (one of the last that still did the pumping for you) and the owner was wondering what kind of bird feeder he should get his wife.

One of my acquaintances, who shall remain nameless, emailed me and wanted to know what she should do about the chipmunk in her cellar. Now this is the kindest, sweetest person you can imagine, but she is not exactly one with nature. She had gone down cellar in full battle regalia – heavy boots, long pants, work gloves, bicycle helmet, safety goggles – ready to evict the little intruder, but couldn’t find it. I pointed out that Alvin (I couldn’t resist giving him a name) was probably looking for a warm place to spend the winter, and while he’s not going to hibernate, he’ll spend most of his time snoozing. I suggested a selection of nuts and dried fruit to make him feel welcome. But if she really wanted to harass the little thing, I suggested she put on one of her Barry Manilow albums. That would drive me out. She countered that the next time she and her husband come for a visit, she just might bring along a little chipmunk chow mein. I may have the last laugh yet. I’m thinking of getting her an Alvin and the Chpimunks album for Christmas.

Tablet dedicated to the memory of Glenn Hubbard, killed in action in 1968

Tablet dedicated to the memory of Glenn Hubbard, killed in action in 1968

Mulpus Brook in the Town Forest

Mulpus Brook in the Town Forest

Today it goes by the name of the Henry E. Cowdrey Nature Center, but to locals it’s known simply as the town forest. Town forests may not be unique to New England, but they have certainly been a part of the landscape for as long as anyone can remember.

Located along Route 2A in Lunenburg, near the Shirley town line, the town forest encompasses several hundred acres. Mulpus Brook, a generous-sized stream, runs through it, as does an old stagecoach road, the ancient wheel ruts still clearly visible. Several trails crisscross the area, a favorite with horseback riders, birders, walkers, and pretty much anyone else who enjoys the quiet places.

Years ago, maybe forty years ago, someone undertook the ambitious project of building observation platforms, marking the trails, even building a shelter. These eventually fell to ruin from weather and vandals and the place was pretty much neglected for many years. Then more recently it seems to have gained new life. There’s even a new footbridge across the brook.

Just when it became town property I don’t know. I once read somewhere that at one time the town’s poor could come and get their firewood here. Town forests generally enjoyed a burst of interest at the beginning of the 20th century when residents realized that almost all their forests had been cut down, and forest management drew a lot of interest. But as other forms of fuel became more common, these town forests just became forgotten parcels of town-owned land. They seem to be enjoyinga renaissance of sorts, as recreation areas, places for nature study and contemplation.

This one has a very special place. Tucked away on the edge of a short looping trail, overlooking a broad wetland, is a stone memorial, dedicated to the memory of Glenn Hubbard, an early casualty of the Vietnam War. I was glad to see that someone has been keeping up the spot. There’s a park bench nearby, and the brush has been cut back, providing a beautiful view. When I first came upon it, I was caught off guard. I knew him vaguely. I was 17 when he was killed. He had graduated a few years ahead of me. I didn’t know about this marker. Maybe I was away at college when it was put up. As teenagers, a lot of us used to camp out in these woods. It has always been one of my favorite places. I found myself thinking this must have been a special place for him, too, and wonderful way to keep his memory here.

Not only are the good people of Brunswick, Maine, making sure that their new elementary school will be fully outfitted with “green” technologies, they have also looked out for the needs of visiting Chimney Swifts.

These small, cigar-shaped, birds migrate between the mountains of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and Canada. Along the way, swifts by the hundreds have been roosting in the chimney of the old high school. In fact, it is considered the larget known roost in Maine. But that building – and its chimney – are being torn down to make way for the new school.

What to do? The twice-yearly spectacle – once in May and then again in August – attracted birders and others to watch the spectacle of hundreds of birds swooping down into the chimney for the night. People mobilized to find a way to provide a roost for their visitors. Schoolchildren petitioned the school board. Funds were raised. As a result, this May, the northbound travelers will find a new brick replica of the old chimney waiting for them.

But why a chimney?

Chimney swifts (appropriately named – they’ve been clocked at 100 mph) cannot perch, but they can cling to vertical surfaces – like the sides of brick chimneys. At one time, they roosted inside old hollow trees, but as development spread and habitat reduced, they adapted by roosting in chimneys, hence the name. Modern chimneys are less suitable, since most are now lined with ceramic tiles or metal sheeting, making clinging impossible. This has caused a sharp reduction in their numbers.

In some places they’re considered a nuisance and a fire hazard, but thankfully, not in Brunswick.

Late this afternoon, I decided to take a short walk along one of my favorite trails – the nature trail at the Pearl Brook State Forest in Townsend, Mass. It’s just a short loop along the banks of a small, swift flowing stream, but I always find something interesting, and today was no exception. This time I found my way blocked by a pool of water … just in the past two months or so, beavers had built a chain of small dams. A footbridge that had crossed the brook now sat in the middle of the water, literally a bridge to nowhere.

I cursed myself for not taking my camera.

I took a good long time admiring their work, the way all the sticks and logs are intertwined, holding together just so. It raises an interesting question – just how much conscious planning goes into this? There are those who caution against anthropomorphising too much. No one has yet witnessed beavers in a planning meeting to decide where to build, and who will do what. They just seem to do it. But still, I find it difficult to imagine that this is solely the result of some instinctual impulse.

And then, are some better builders than others? Do they learn from experience, in the way that rookie nest builders among birds improve as they go along? Do they learn to choose a better spot? Which trees to drop? How to get them to drop just where they want them? If so, that would argue against a strictly pre-programmed skill.

This particular spot has the potential to hold back a lot of water, and other beavers have done so in past years, both upstream and down. Just a little ways upstream, the banks bend around to form a large bowl, which could make a sizeable pond, if the beavers choose to continue their building. It’ll be interesting to follow their progress.

Forget the Asian Long-Horned Beetle, the Woody Adelgid, or any of the other pests and diseases attacking our trees. The Burlington Free Press reported this week that vandals have been damaging more than a dozen trees in the city over the past few months. In the most recent particularly heinous incident, a homeowner woke up to find that someone had torn a major branch off a beloved tree in his front yard. He retrieved the branch, and put up a “sad face” sign on the damaged tree. The vandal(s) returned the next night and finished the job. What kind of a low life would do that?

The problem of tree vandalism is apparently widespread. In 2003, vandals cut down the nation’s largest longbeak eucalyptus in Arizona. In Australia, authorities have said tree vandalism in coastal areas had reached “epidemic proportions.” Apparently people in recently-developed areas wanted to improve their ocean views. Not content with just cutting them down, vandals bored holes into the trees then poured in various herbicides. In some cases they cut off rings of bark, ensuring the trees would eventually die a slow death.

In Derby, England, local officials have asked for the public’s help in keeping an eye out for vandals who have been damaging trees in public parks.

This also not a new problem. The town council in Watertown, Massachusetts, passed an ordinance prohibiting the “spoiling” of trees in 1635 – just 15 years after the arrival of the Mayflower.

Is nothing sacred?

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RSS Martin Laine – Digital Journal

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