Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Boxing Day Snowstorm

The back yard at first light
It started soon after Kali and I returned from bargain-hunting on the morning after Christmas and didn't let up until the wee hours of Monday morning.  When it was all over, we had a foot of snow--our portion of the Boxing Day East Coast 2010 snowstorm.  It was enough to keep me from going to work yesterday for business as usual, but I still had to spend several hours shoveling to make the place ready for opening today.

Sunrise through broken clouds

Sunrise across the frozen, snow-covered pond
The sycamore behind the house after the storm cleared

Christmas Eve Visits

Harper's Run
Our friends Jean and Joel, two Philadelphia-suburb expats now exiled to St. Paul, Minnesota, came to visit on Christmas Eve, as they do nearly every year. They still have lots of friends and family in southeastern Pennsylvania, so it's not just us they're in town to see.  Nevertheless, if the weather's nice and the trail conditions appropriate, we try to take long walk with them and to catch up on a year's news.

We decided to walk in the county park where a two-mile rails-to-trails project had been completed 1-1/2 years ago.  A portion of the trail runs alongside Harper's Run, one of my favorite photographic subjects.  Because of the persistent cold weather, rocky parts of the shallow stream had iced-up.

After we bid our friends adieu in mid-afternoon, we returned to the house, where I spent the rest of the daylight hours grading final exams from the graduate course I had just finished teaching.  Those exams, while generally good, certainly did not put me in a Christmas mood (which was already at low ebb, anyway, thank you very much Mr. Grinch).  However, as the sun set, we got ourselves ready to attend the annual Christmas Eve gala organized by one of our neighbors--a couple so preternaturally gregarious, generous, and welcoming and that you'd almost claim they'd been raised in Stepford.  Great food in prodigious quantities, a beautifully decorated house jammed with interesting people, and 56 varieties of red wine.  I challenge you not to have a good time!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Parsons Dance / Remember Me

David Parson's dance company, Parsons Dance, was in town for four performances last weekend.  The program consisted of two works.  The first was one of Parsons's signature dances, Caught, which never fails to elicit a gasp out of newcomers and heartfelt admiration from those of us who have seen the work performed several times.  The dance, a solo, involves a dancer moving around a blackened stage fleetingly illuminated by stobe lights so that the dancer appears to be flying.  It's magic.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of the second piece, Remember Me.  Critics have savaged this piece, but audiences generally love it.  I went into the performance with an open mind, ready to prove the snobby New York dance establishment wrong.  Unfortunately, the critics did get it right (in the opinion of Kali, several other aficionados, and me who talked after the performance).

Remember Me is a collaboration between Parsons Dance and the East Village Opera Company, which supplied two singers for the endeavor.  The work consists of a simple romantic love triangle played out to the tune of thirteen of the most famous operatic arias performed live on stage.  But, did the producers use the arias as written?  Oh, no; instead, they pumped them up with near-ear splitting rock guitar background music.  Then Parsons's dancers performed the story, which was insultingly shallow and maudlin.  Woman wooded by two men rebuffs Man A, who then proceeds to rape her.  When Man B finds out about the woman's soiled past he, in turn, rebuffs her, and she proceeds to die of a broken heart.  Then, she is resurrected and lives happily ever after with Man B.  Maybe this kind of thing would have worked in the Middle Ages or at the hands of a master like Shakespeare, but contemporary audiences are just a little bit too cynical to buy this.  Or, maybe not, since it's a popular hit.  DVDs of the performance were completely sold out, and a quick trip to NYC to restock resulted in another sellout.

The dancers certainly couldn't be faulted.  They were expert and performed flawlessly and tirelessly, as they always do. Parson Dance is among the best companies on the contemporary dance scene.  That's why a piece like Remember Me was so disappointing.   

Monday, December 6, 2010


New Jersey, south and east of the state capital, Trenton, is the Coastal Plain--an area of unconsolidated sand, gravel, and clay washed off the Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont and deposited on the shallow continental shelf.

In New Jersey, the Coastal Plain is divided into two zones, the Inner Coastal Plain and (naturally) the Outer Coastal Plain.  The two zones are separated from one another by a series of low, sandy hills called cuesatas, which form a regional watershed divide.  Streams rising on the northwest side of the divide flow westward toward the Delaware River.  Streams rising on the southeast side of the divide flow eastward toward the Atlantic Ocean with one exception--Rancocas Creek--which rises on the Outer Coastal Plain, flows westward through a valley, and empties into the Delaware River like its Inner Coastal Plain brethren.
Kali and I visited Rancocas Creek State Park last Saturday afternoon.  The day was cool and overcast, but pleasant for walking.  New Jersey Audubon maintains a nature center with well-marked trails on 125 acres in the park, but the rest of the preserved land seems nearly abandoned by the state.  Foot trails are not marked and difficult to follow.  In addition, they are regularly interrupted by deer trails, making hiking especially challenging.  In addition, the state allowed a local chapter of the Lenni Lenape Indians to use a significant section in the center of the park for tribal activities, but the chapter has been split by internal rifts and the Indians have abandoned their facilities.
Nevertheless, we walked about four miles, enjoying the gently undulating landscape and the woodlands that feature oaks, sweet gums, beeches, and American hollies.  Most people have hollies in the foundation plantings around their houses; here (and throughout the Coastal Plain), they are evergreen components of the forest.  In addition, the streams are sand bottomed and stained with tannins.  All in all, a nice break from the Piedmont.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Night Vision

Another in the occasional series of "The Rural Life" short essays by Verlyn Klinkenborg from the New York Times' editorial page (November 30, 2010).  That we could all write as evocatively as he...
I pull into the farm from the city.  It is early in the evening but well after nightfall, and the moon hangs over the hills like a hypnotist's watch.  I drop a few things in the house and then wander out to check on the animals.

I used to take a flashlight when I was new to this place.  I no longer do.  My eyes adjust slowly, but part of the pleasure of walking out in the night is watching the flat opacity resolve into the three dimensions of this farm.  All the nocturnal creatures are out and about--somewhere--and I will never be one of them.  Even the horses are more nocturnal than I am.  They live in natural light year-round, and by the time I get home they're a couple of hours into watching the night.

In summer, you can pretend the night is translucent and that even the Milky Way is emanating warmth.  By late November, those illusions are past. The sun feels benevolent, but when it vanishes, after 4 p.m., the rising darkness becomes continuous with the deepest, coldest reaches of space.
The chickens pretend not to notice when I look in.  The horses stand impassive in their pasture, though if I opened the gate and walked in, they would drift over to share their heat.  I have no idea where the barn cat is, but he is so black that he would stand out in a night like this.  I complete my rounds and still my eyes haven't opened fully to the night.

I light a fire in the wood stove and settle in to read in the kitchen.  Light spills onto the deck, and I see a movement.  It's an opossum, come up to investigate the cat-food dish.  It walks up to the glass door and peers in, surely blinded by so much brightness.  Perhaps this is the one I met--to both our surprise--on the ladder to the hayloft a few months ago.  Now it stands in the light looking hopelessly disorganized, as opossums do, and then it wanders off into the darkness, where the seeing is much better.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Sourland Mountain Preserve


What a wonderful, evocative name for a landscape.  The Sourlands are a narrow band of elevated, rocky land running generally southwest-to-northeast through the west-central part of New Jersey from the Delaware River (on the west) to just north of Princeton (on the east).

The terrain is characterized by a stony ridge rising about 400 feet above the surrounding land.  The ridge is there because of an igneous rock called diabase.  Sixty-five million years ago, as Africa and North America began to tear away from one another along their mutual suture, the land on either side of both continents stretched and fractured.  In some places, the fractures became faults, while in others, magma welled up into the fractures from below but never made it to the surface.  Instead, it solidified deep underground into diabase, a rock that is much more resistant to erosion than the surrounding sedimentary layers.  Over the intervening millions of years,  the sedimentary shale layers entombing the diabase have worn away, leaving an exposed ridge of resistant rock. The exposed diabase weathers into huge block and boulders that tumble down the slopes from the top of the ridge.
A refugium.  The forest has no understory vegetation, undoubtedly because of the dense white-tailed deer population.  These ferns escaped atop this rock.

The origin of the name Sourlands is disputed.  Some sources claim that the rocky landscape was not arable and thus useless, or "sour."  Other sources claim that the name is a corruption of the word "sorrel" meaning "reddish," but I wonder about that interpretation because, while the sedimentary shales surrounding the Sourlands do weather into reddish clay soil, the Sourlands soils themselves are brown loams.  Surely someone has tested the pH; the most logical explanation is that the soils are very acidic. 
Somerset County (NJ) has preserved 3,197 acres at the eastern end of the ridge as the Sourland Mountain Preserve, and has built a trail network throughout.  Kali and I visited on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a beautiful late autumn day with temperatures near 50 degrees and sunny skies.

The biggest draw in the preserve is a particularly distinctive boulder field perched on the eastern shoulder of the ridge.  It's a ridge-top amusement park with rock outcrops, crevices, overpasses, and underpasses.  The 5-mile Ridge Trail loop, which we walked, also includes extensive boardwalks crossing poorly drained portions of the landscape and a walk along Roaring Brook, which emerges from a valley filled by a truly Brobdingnagian tumult of room-sized boulders.      
Roaring Brook

Monday, November 29, 2010


 I was cleaning up my vegetable garden and raking leaves late Friday afternoon following Thanksgiving, and looked up just as the sun was setting to see the tops of the trees ablaze. The effect reminded me of alpen glow, but translated to the Piedmont foothills rather than snow capped peaks.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Rafter of Turkeys, and a November Bat

Wild Turkeys
Wild Turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) were reintroduced into our heavily suburbanized watershed 15 or so years ago.  I know the individual who released the farm-raised wild stock in a county park downstream of my natural area.  The turkeys have securely established themselves, though their population density fluctuates annually.  The immigration of a healthy coyote (Canis laterans) population three years ago, which I thought at the time might doom the flocks, doesn't seem to have had a significant impact.
This year has been a banner year. 

Three hens coalesced their broods at the end of the summer and now there are at least 30 yearlings in my yard most of the time.  It doesn't help that I feed them, of course, but I like to enjoy their beautiful colors and their distinctly prehistoric gestalt.  Though they will eat whole corn, they prefer oil sunflower (naturally), and it gets expensive feeding 30 turkeys after a while.  People ask me if they're wild, and I tell them the flock's history and explain that feeding them has made them almost like pets.

I learned over the weekend, by the way, that a group of turkeys is called a "rafter."
Saturday afternoon, Kali and I went for a walk (at the county park where the turkeys were introduced, incidentally).  There, flying over an open field, was a bat gleaning insects. It was 55 degrees, and November 20, and there was a bat in mid-afternoon.  We watched  for several minutes while it cruised the air in search of prey.  We didn't know whether to be amazed or saddened, since the sighting was so strange, unexpected, and out of character for a bat.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Council Rock in Montgomery County's Lorimer
Park, rising above Pennypack Creek
For 60% of my life, I lived on sedimentary landscapes.  I was raised in northeastern Ohio on the Glaciated Appalachian Plateau. I earned my undergraduate degree at Ohio University on the Unglaciated Appalachian Plateau, then sidled eastward to Pittsburgh, also on the Unglaciated Appalachian Plateau, to earn my graduate degree.  From there, I traveled south to Florida, taking up residence for seven years on sand-veneered limestone terrain that has repeatedly bobbed above and below the ocean over the eons.

Kali brought to my attention this morning, out of the blue, that I have now lived in one place for the longest span of time in my life:  22-1/2 years.  And, that time has been spent on the Piedmont.  I finally have some rock, some real rock, under my feet--not friable shale and slimy mudstone that weathers into clay, or sandstone that turns into grit, or limestone that can drop out from under you without warning.  Nope, solid metamorphic schist that's been here for nearly a billion years--some of the oldest rock on the planet.  And rock that produces some of the best garden loam on the planet.

Metamorphic rock does have one downside: it doesn't produce wonderful intimate waterfalls, the staircase cascades that defined my childhood.  Although the northern Piedmont is full of places with "fall" in their names, most are really just rapids. The only two real waterfalls that I know in the northern Piedmont--falls where water plunges straight down over a vertical cliff--are in Paterson, New Jersey (which has an incredibly impressive state- [if not national-] park-worthy waterfall in the very middle of its gritty post-industrial downtown) and in Ringing Rocks County Park in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  And, even at Ringing Rocks, the falls has developed on an unusual and spatially-delimited metamorphic rock called diabase.  Rapids are common; real falls are rare. 
Council Rock, Lorimer Park
One of the most impressive outcrops of  metamorphic schist in my neighborhood occurs in a Montgomery County (Pennsylvania) county park called Lorimer Park.  There, rising dozens of feet straight up from the bank of  Pennypack Creek, sits Council Rock, so named because the local Leni Lenape Indians reputedly held important meetings near this geological landmark. Today, it's used as a backdrop for wedding photographs and as a place for kids to climb and explore.  
Eastern hemlocks clinging to Council Rock
It still retains a green mantle of Eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) despite the foot traffic and the white-tailed deer, which consider hemlocks dessert.  But, for me, it's a symbol of the first real firm foundation in my life.
November's late afternoon sun illuminating Council Rock

Thursday, November 11, 2010

November Paean

This short article appeared in the New York Times on Tuesday, November 9, 2010, on the editorial page.  It was entitled "The Rural Life: Seasonal Slippage," and was written by Verlyn Klinkenborg.  It really captured my feelings about November; maybe it will do the same for you.
Just about now, I remember that the trees on this farm will be bare for the next six months.  It always comes as a surprise.  The maples and hickories have mulched themselves with their own leaves, and they seem to have gone rigid now that they carry so much less sail in the wind.  Everything that can die back has done so.  The last of the woodchucks have gone down their burrows.  The tide of dormancy is rising all around me, and on a rainy day with the woodstove going, I wonder whether I'll sink or swim.

Even as the temperature hovers in the 40s, I can feel January in the back of my mind.  I try hard to keep it out, as if that might guarantee a mild winter.  By the time the hard cold gets here, I'll be inured to it.  But, truthfully, I'm still back in mid-August, before the Barn Swallows vanished, before the pokeweed berries were ripe enough for the Cedar Waxwings, before the chipmunks gorged on the dogwood drupes.

This month, more than any other, I slip in and out of the season, never quite able to coincide with the calendar.  Looking southward from my office, the sky above the treetops is more than overcast.  It's a squirrel-gray, beech-bark sky...

Soon I'll put on my barn coat and work gloves and muck boots.  And the minute I step ouside, I'll step back into proper time. January recedes because it's so purely November, the mud deep in the barnyard, the rain picking up again.  I walk down to the barn and stand in the doorway, taking shelter with the tractor and all the implements of summer--the spade, the garden fork, the pig fence and the chicken fences.
I realize that I'm filled, as always, with expectation.  It's a look I see in the horses' eyes when they know their grain is coming.  On a dark afternoon, rain falling, they stand in the middle of the pasture with no thought of the shelter they could take.  They are November horses now, just the way they were June horses not so long ago.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Value of Tiny Seeds and First Frost

My kitchen has two windows, one above the sink facing east providing a view of my platform bird feeder, and the other in front of my kitchen table facing west looking out over a small patch of garden that is shaded by a huge flowering cherry tree except during the last few hours of the day in the summer.  The garden patch is planted with a variety of native and non-native species including astilbes (Astilbe spp.), hostas (Hosta spp.) (whose flower stalks are routinely removed by the deer), great blue lobelias (Lobelia siphilitica), and wreath (or bluestem) goldenrod (Solidago caesia).

As the garden gets "tired" at the end of the season--as do I--white-snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) volunteers usually overwhelm the intentional plantings and remain in place until I get disgusted looking at their dry, gray, dissipated flower heads and I pull them up and toss them onto the compost pile. In the process of removing the plants, their fluffy seeds billow up into my face and cascade onto the newly created seedbed that I unintentionally prepared for them by uprooting their parents.

A weevil larva makes distinctive tunnels through the leaves when the plant is actively growing, and so I am reluctant to remove the plants.  As a result, I'm left with my perennial snakeroot "garden" at the end of the growing season.  I'd assumed that the weevils were the only critters that benefited from the ubiquitous plant.  But, having breakfast at my window on Sunday morning, I noticed three White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis)--winter visitors--clinging to the none-too-sturdy stems of  the snakeroot plants and picking off the minuscule seeds.  I couldn't believe their dedication and acrobatics to obtain, what seemed to me, a seed far too small to bother about, especially given the relatively mild weather we're still enjoying.  But, then, I guess I'm judging from  my human perspective, and not the sparrows'.

I'm still going to pull out the plants, but I guess that I'll wait a bit longer.

We had a out first frost last night.  I took these images this morning in the native grassland near my house as the sun crept up over a ridge, melting the frost as it rose. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

October Afternoon

Hazy sun and (perhaps?) the peak of fall colors in my natural area yesterday.  The first three images were captured at the wetland at the heart of the preserve, and the last two struck me as typical of the trails, the first of which is an abandoned road that has been incorporated into the preserve's trail system.  Enjoy.

Grasslands Field Trip/Snowbirds

Dr. Roger Latham with a sprig of Three-awn grass (Aristida pupurascens)
The Natural Lands Trust, a regional conservancy with headquarters in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, sponsored a day-long tour of grasslands at three of its preserves on Wednesday, October 20.  Two of my colleagues and I joined in the tour, which attracted about 25 participants.
Recently established warm-season grassland at the Hildacy Preserve
We began the tour at the Hildacy Preserve where the organization has established new native warm-season grasslands in former weedy meadows.  The day ended at the Stroud Preserve, one of the organization's largest, where Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) reliably nest year after year in cool-season grassland pasture.  It was the middle part of the day, though, that made the trip so worthwhile; we visited the organization's first preserve, the Willisbrook Preserve, which protects a serpentine barren.
NLT's Drew Gilchrist pointing out features of the cool-season pastures that attract Bobolinks
Roger Latham with a sample of serpentinite at the Willisbrook Preserve
Serpentinite is a metamorphosed igneous rock formed only at the tectonic spreading centers at the bottom of the ocean.  Here in the Piedmont, which has been subject to repeated collisions with Africa over the last half-billion years, some of the tortured bedrock contains sections of the oceanic crust that have been welded onto the continent.  Serpentinite, a greenish rock, produces soils that are very low in calcium and very high in magnesium, nickle, and chromium.
Serpentine aster

The heavy metals are present in concentrations that are toxic for most plants, but which support a limited palette of highly-adapted species found nowhere else.  Three species are particularly showy:  Round-leaved fameflower (Talinum teretifolium), Moss-pink (Phlox subulata) [both of which bloom in the spring and summer], and Serpentine aster (Aster depauperatus) [which was blooming when we visited].

We were fortunate to be escorted on the tour by members of the Natural Lands Trust's knowledgeable stewardship staff, including Darrin Groff, the professional most experienced with using prescribed fire as a management tool in Pennsylvania, and by Dr. Roger Latham, the preeminent grassland expert in Pennsylvania.

Snowbirds have arrived at my feeder.  Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicolis) appeared on October 15, 2010, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) showed up for the first time yesterday, Sunday, October 24, and has already made the feeder its own.  Even though the birds are here, we have yet to have our first frost.   

Phantasmagoria and More by Paul Taylor

One of our favorite contemporary dance ensembles, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, performed on Saturday evening.  The evening featured two revivals and a new work, Phantasmagoria, which proved to be a disappointment.

Phantasmagoria, first performed at Wolf Trap this summer, was the second of the three pieces.  The music, by "anonymous Renaissance composers," was spiked with modern percussive sounds.  Taylor based the fragmented, satirical work on Pieter Bruegel the Elder's earthy peasant painting The Wedding Dance.  Then, as if to take us through the history and geography of dance, he introduced an Indian "Adam and Eve" garbed in stereotypical gaudy costuming wielding a cheesy bright green plush snake.  An Irish step dancer came clogging out to bagpipes.  A nun confiscated the plush snake and found a lewd use for it.  And, finally, a leper-like creature infected the other dancers with the plague.  This could have been a rollicking piece had the preliminaries been strong enough to support a real send-up with a clear through line but, alas, none of those fell into place.

The last piece, Cloven Kingdom, was the program's most coherent.  Although created in 1976, it was not as dated-looking as the as the opener, 1981's Arden Court, a bare-footed contemporary ballet.  The women in Cloven Kingdom danced in long, stretchy, elegant gowns which seemed to hearken back to Martha Graham's oeuvre.  By this third piece, the troupe had found its footing as the dancing--especially by the men in tuxedos--was superb.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pretty Poison (Ivy)

I took a walk before dinner two evenings ago. I've got to go out before dinner now that dusk is coming on so early.  The light was already fading by the time I got to an old field near my house, but there was still enough light to photograph a beautiful poison ivy vine scrambling up a white pine trunk.
In the opposite direction, the setting sun illuminated a meadow of goldenrod and big bluestem growing hard by a woodlot showing some autumn hues.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Early Autumn Hawk Walk and Hot-Air Balloon Ride

Busy weekend, this last.  Nevertheless, we found time to enjoy a four-mile walk in the county park downstream of my natural area on Saturday and, on Sunday, we attended the natural area preserve's biannual President's Circle Gala event on an absolutely perfect afternoon on the highest hill in the natural area.

We often take long walks on the weekend--rambles of four to six miles--but Kali's Lyme disease has re-surged and the accompanying aches, pains, and weakness have limited our strolls to four miles or less for the last few weeks.  During this Saturday's walk, a Red-tailed Hawk swooped low over the trail and then perched in a tree fifty feet away.  There, despite being pestered by a Blue Jay, it sat calmly preening and allowing me to take multiple photographs with my point-and-shoot Nikon S10.

Further down the trail, we got a tantalizing glimpse of the creek, still low from the summer's long drought despite several sizable recent rain events.
Sunday's affair, the President's Circle Gala, is held every other year to thank my natural area's most generous supporters.  The event is traditionally held at the crest of a knoll at the highest point in the natural area--an area that had been a private farm but which the natural area purchased 13 years ago and whose managers have converted mostly to native, warm-season grasses to attract meadow-nesting birds like Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks.  With breeding season over, erecting a tent and hosting 150 folks who provide the lion's share of the preserve's support seems like a pretty good alternate use of a small portion of the fields.  (The majority of the fields are left undisturbed to provide shelter and habitat for overwintering birds.)
In the past, Gala attendees were treated to aerial views of the 800-acre preserve from a helicopter, but this year, the preserve's managers opted for tethered hot-air balloon rides.  Even though the day was absolutely perfect for a tented picnic (cloudless skies, low humidity, and temperatures in the low 70s), the knoll was too breezy for the balloon to ascend to more than 20 feet, limiting the views.  Nevertheless, it provided a festive backdrop to an afternoon of smooth jazz, catered food, and lots of mingling and reconnecting with old friends.