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.