Thursday, October 15, 2009

10-09-09 Zealand in the rain

I hiked into Zealand last Friday (10-09-09) in a gentle, gray-thread rain to visit Hillary, the fall hutmaster, and some other friends. It wasn't supposed to be a nature walk per se. I wanted the hike to be a meditation and a chance to stretch and loosen up for a more strenuous hike planned for the next day. At any rate it was lovely to be on the Zealand Trail again on a soft day that smelled of autumn. The colors were muted, less intense than a week ago, but striking against the wet black trees. I wasn't intending to take any pictures but it's easy to get carried away with a digital camera and I took dozens, of course. I'll share some with you and in that way I can take you along with me on the hike.

I mentioned meditation. Hiking is often a meditation for me but on Friday my brain was busy wading around in the data I've gathered so far with my research "project" on the Gale River Trail slide. The project is half complete. I was also trying to make sense of the complexities around "felsenmeer creep" which I'll explain later. With the research project I'm at that point where it feels like I've opened up more questions then I'm ever going to resolve. That's the primary reason I haven't finished the blog entry on the research: I haven't been able to draw any conclusions.

This leaf carpet on the trail is a sample of this year's crop of leaves that are the basic ingredients of soil development. I can see maple, cherry, birch and poplar leaves in this mix. As they decompose they will add a spectrum of nutrient to the soil for future generations of plants.

been re-reading Richard Goldthwait's papers (1939 & 1968) on glaciation in the White Mountains but I also stumbled on an article titled: "The Shape of New England Mountains" by Will F. Thompson serialized in the December issues of Appalachia from 1960 to 1962. Thompson's piece is long. According to the introduction the article was his doctoral thesis. It's an energetic analysis of some of the current theories (of that time) regarding the physical geography of the White Mountains but his main intent seems to be to challenge some of Goldthwait's theories. He does this with so much gusto that he gets lost in that endeavor and loses what could have been a brilliant collaboration with Goldthwait. Thompson talks a bit about "felsenmeer creep", an aspect of mass wasting, describes the gravity-driven incremental downhill movement of the large rocks on the summits and flanks of the northern peaks of the Presidential Range. A term appearing in Thompson's and Goldthwait's papers, "solifluction", applies specifically to the incremental downhill movement of soil in areas of permafrost where there are seasonal freeze-thaw cycles. Solifluction can move fairly large stones even down slopes of only a few degrees steepness meaning the process is not as gravity driven as 'creeping' is. There is an equal, or greater. force exerted by the freeze-thaw mechanics.

There's agreement that 'creeping' as it applies to 'rock glaciers' (eg applied to Kings Ravine), and 'solifluction' play major roles in the movement of the large rocks comprising the felsenmeer. But how and when the felsenmeer came to be in its present form is at best an educated guess. We still have no idea about the time line of when and how long it might have taken as well as the details of the kind of climate, local or global, that would have caused the parent material to fracture and then move to the degree that it has particularly where the large blocks stack up on one another. I'll come back to these conjectural aspects later because I think they're fascinating.

The wind redistributed these leaves making a "bed" around the annual plants growing next to the Zealand Trail the way you might do it to winterize your garden. The leaves will decompose slowly and completely over a year or two. This layer of leaves will add about a 1/32 of an inch to the top soil. Some of that will erode due to rain and the general movement of water.

In graduate school I studied "leaf litter" from sites around the northern hemisphere: the US, Canada, Scotland, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, and Japan. The leaf litter samples were "ashed' in kiln-like ovens and measured with an atomic mass spectrophotometer (the device was not nearly as elegant as its name) that measured their cation content in parts per million. Cations are positively charged atoms. (Anions are negatively charged atoms.) Tree species in the broad-leaved categories differed only slightly from each other in the principal cations like calcium, sodium, potassium, copper, (the light metals) etc. For instance most trees in the maple (Acer) family usually tested with slightly higher levels of calcium than the oak family (Quercus). Oaks generally grow in dry (warmer), more acidic soils that are deficient in calcium. The amounts of these cations in all the samples reflected the parent soils which in most of those countries were of glacial origin like the soils in the White Mountains. I should add that almost all of the leaf litter samples I looked at were acidic, some more than others, with pHs of 6.5 to 5.5. If I remember correctly the oaks, particularly red oak (Q. rubra) leaf litter was the most acidic out of those samples.

Each year leaves are laid down, distributed, and then redistributed by the wind in random patterns on the forest "floor". I like say to young students that the wind is like Robin Hood redistributing the wealth. Rain, snow, and wind continue to flatten the leaves until they are like a carpet or mat next to the top layer of soil. They begin to decompose the moment their apical meristem breaks and the leaf falls from the trees that bore them. At that moment the sugars in the leaf begin to break down. The leaves closest to the soil will decompose first, within a year or two, and their cations will be taken up by the soil and eventually redistributed as minerals, like the calcium, that will be taken up again by the tree's roots in a (more or less) continuous cycle (part of the larger mineral cycle). Its a soil based economy. I often say that soil is our only real wealth. Alan Savory likes to say that all the wealth on earth comes from the sun.

Aldo Leopold, in "Sand Country Almanac", devotes a chapter to the wanderings of a single sodium atom through millions of years of geologic time. It's a great narrative! The sodium (like the sodium in our table salt) is introduced to us lodged in a massive glacial moraine next to a river in what is now western Canada. Suddenly a herd of giant bison crashes over the lip of the moraine scattering the gravel and sand which avalanches down into the river at the bottom of the steep slope. The sodium atom then follows an extraordinaryodyssey in which it sometimes lies in limbo for millions of years before being animated as a blade of grass, a deer, a tree, a muskrat, etc, not exactly 'alive' itself but integral to life in its various forms. At the end of Leopold's narrative the sodium atom is doing well, residing in sands on the Mississippi River delta waiting for its next transformation.

Members of an AMC-sponsored hike on the Zealand Trail. They stayed at Zealand Hut the night before and are on their way back out to the road.

In the White Mountains the most productive soils are found under the broad-leaved, deciduous, trees like birch, maple, cherry, ash, mountain ash, and poplar which are mostly found below 3500 feet on the lower slopes and in the valleys. These soils, compared to the soils where balsam fir, red and black spruce dominate, tend to be lower in acidity which allows for a better carbon-nitrogen ratio and a higher rate of cation exchange. These soils also tend to capture more moisture and hold it longer. The soils in the areas dominated by the conifers ( evergreens): balsam fir, red and black spruce, etc, are not as productive and have a lower capacity for nutrient exchange because they are more acidic and have a low water retention capacity. As we have seen, some of these soils which occur at higher elevations have a layer of clay, as on the summit of Mt. Hale, that can boost the water retention quality of the soil and to a lesser extent aid the cation exchange.

Plants have several thresholds. Soil acidity isn one. Some plants can tolerate more alkaline soils and some more acidic soils. Soil pH can vary in small areas depending on wetness, slope, amount of sunlight, and underlying geologic features. Other thresholds are temperature, moisture, length of the night (skotoperiod), and density of shade.

The most productive soils tend to be "circumneutral" (the term means close to a pH of 7, with pHs between 5.4 and 7.5 on the pH scale.) They usually occur where there's an underlayment of limestone. Limestone is calcium carbonate. The calcium is positively charged and will neutralize acids and "sweeten" the soil, an old term meaning to make it less acidic and more akaline. Circumneutral soils are associated and can be identified by several "indicator" species of plants like ginseng (Panax quinquefolia), goldenseal (Hydrasta canadensis), and maidenhair fern (Andiantum pedatum) which only grow where the pH is close to median of 7.
There are a few sites west of the WMNF towards the Connecticut River watershed where there are circum neutral soils and that are near limestone outcrops. There are none that I know of within the WMNF.

Without leaves (foliage) it's possible to see into the woods on either side of the trail which is a blessing in many ways. We get to see the "lay of the land" better with all the details we were blind to in the dense greenery of summer. For instances, one's eyes are drawn to the weird shapes of rotting blow downs that are moldering back into soil. There are a lot of them in the woods along the Zealand Trail because the Valley funnels wind so well. This tree was met its demise in a fierce storm during the winter of 1976. A lot of trees were snapped off or blown down that winter. The root ball is at the north end of this tree indicating that the wind that was its nemesis was blowing from the north, or probably from the northeast in this case. Hurricanes usually come from the southeast so trees that go down in those storms point in the opposite direction.

This one looks like a shaggy, old buffalo. It takes decades for the blow downs to decompose and turn back into soil. This one fell some 20 years ago and is only at this stage of decomposition. Once they're fully decomposed there will still be an "imprint" where they fell. There will be a slight mound where the roots finally settled and a slight depression where the root ball was torn out of the ground. These mounds and pits are noticeable for decades after a "century" storm like the 1938 hurricane when thousands of trees were uprooted throughout New England.

I think these are Trametes versicolor (could also be T. pubescens), or turkey tail mushrooms that are efficient agents of decomposition. Mushrooms, fungi, are the primary organisms of decay in the forest. Turkey tails are so good at decomposing plants they have been studied in hospital laboratories to see if they can be used to destroy cancer cells in humans.

This blow down wasn't here three weeks ago. It's lying right next to the trail. I nicknamed it "the beast" and it'll be interesting to see how long it takes to decompose.

I call these dense thickets of balsam fir seedlings "nurseries". The density of balsam fir seedlings is astonishing. They're everywhere you look and ready to take over when a tree in the over story dies or gets blown over which is fairly frequent in this climate.

This is a stand of balsam fir that grew from nursery stock of 15-20 years ago and is being supplanted by a new generation of balsam fir seedlings growing underneath it.

A family on their way into Zealand Hut for the night. It's their first trip to a hut and their first passage on the Zealand Trail.

The beavers are trying to act like deliquents and take out the zig-zag bridge. In the past month they've been adding material to some of the old dams close to the trail where it crosses the bridge and they've raised the water level in preparation for winter. Having deeper ponds makes their winter homes (lodges) more secure and makes it easier to procure food in the winter as well by expanding the margins of the ponds into the trees at the edges of the pond.

This is an old beaver pond that is returning to forest. The larch trees (Larix laricina) in the middle of the opening are indicators of a new succession stage of the return of this open space to forest. The succesion began with alder (A. rugosa, A. crispa) which can still be seen around the edges and throughout the field along with dense clumps of various grasses, sedge and roseate plants. Alder, although not a legume, is host to a bacteria located in the roots that fixes nitrogen so it is a valuable soil building species. Alder fixes nitrogen at a comparable rate to the peas you grow in your garden which are legumes and fix nitrogen that increases the fertility of the garden soil. Alder is a generalist and will grow on a variety of ecological sites. Beavers like it. Moose like it, too.

The larches (also called 'tamarack'. The Abenaki word for it is hackmatack) growing on the island are fairly old, probably close to 35-40 years old and indicate the age of this pond as being a decade older than that. I have pictures of the pond dating back to the mid-1960s. The fact that beavers are active here again is significant as it begins a new cycle of growth that will impact the valley for decades to come.

The larch are unique because they are conifers that shed their needles each year. Their color turns from green to yellow and orange like some of the deciduous trees, and the needles drop all at once. Other confers drop their needles sporadically. Because of the volume of needles the larch dispense every year they are capable of building soil right where they grow.

Larch is a medicinal plant like gingseng and goldenseal mentioned above. It was widely used for making a tea used as laxatives, and another tea to use as a mouth wash for sore throats, and it was also popular for making snowshoes.

I was really pleased this week when the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Elinor Ostrom of the University of Indiana for her work on The Commons. Her book "Governing the Commons" had a huge impact on me and others who are concerned about demise of The Commons and who are working towards a greater public understanding of what The Commons represent. Awarding her the Nobel is timely, or at least I see it as a sign of hope, because it means the Nobel Prize committee recognizes the importance of The Commons.

"Governing the Commons" was published in 1990 (see the bibliography in the side panel) and a reviewer at that time wrote:

"Ostrom uses the term "common pool resources" to denote natural resources used by many individuals in common, such as fisheries, groundwater basins, and irrigation systems. Such resources have long been subject to overexploitation and misuse by individuals acting in their own best interests. Conventional solutions typically involve either centralized governmental regulation or privatization of the resource. But, according to Ostrom, there is a third approach to resolving the problem of the commons: the design of durable cooperative institutions that are organized and governed by the resource users themselves.

"The central question in this study," she writes, "is how a group of principals who are in an interdependent situation can organize and govern themselves to obtain continuing joint benefits when all face temptations to free-ride, shirk, or otherwise act opportunistically."

"Governing the Commons" was the first intelligent and comprehensive response to Garret Hardin's tragic essay, "The Tragedy of The Commons" published in 1968in which he focused on his belief of the need for a centralized governance to stop population growth on the planet by limiting the number of babies a family could have. His centralizing point, a metaphor regarding The Commons, was ill-advised and he stated they were never managed and left open to greed, exploitation, and poor management leading ultimately to the degradation of resources. He created the impression that managing The Commons was impossible and that The Commons themselves were a frivolous idea.

The rain stopped when I arrived at the meadows and a pale sun emerged through the clouds and there was this beautiful gold highlight on the trees and grass. This meadow is where, a hundred years ago, there was a large logging camp and switching yard for the locomotives that hauled logs through the Valley.

Hardin's mis-interpretation of The Commons and his preference for centralized control represents a majority opinion in this country. Few people seem to "get" the idea of the commons even though a few of the states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are "commonwealths" and most of us live in some form of "community". In the decade of the 1990s I worked in The Commons, mainly with native groups in Canada, the US, Nepal, Kenya and Ecuador, trying to get a working idea, a concrete method, for restoring The Commons. At one time, and today in some native bands, The Commons were the existing "infrastructure" that's been replaced by private enterprise and, now, the global economy, neither of which recognize The Commons. What Hardin missed was that The Commons, for the most part, were well regulated against greed and exploitation, the very things we see in private enterprise and the global economy today.

Elinor's solution, the third alternative, is what I refer to as the Indigenous Model for governing The Commons. Indigenous people regulated and supervised the The Commons wisely (for the most part), a task given to the groups Elders. Working with the Cree, Innu, and the Iroquois around different facets of the commons I always saw a balance of power in governing The Commons between the chiefs and the Clan Mothers. Private enterprise, contact with the modern economy, is causing a weakening in this balance. The Commons to these groups is land, water, food, food production or procurement, as in the caribou hunting areas of the Innu, and the germplasm, or seed, supplies of the Iroquois. (All seeds and germplasm should be owned in common. DNA should be part of The Commons. It's sad but it's all about money.) In the US a war erupted in Wisconsin a few years ago over the fishing rights of the Anishinabeg (Chippewas and Objibwa). That was a fight to sustain The Commons against a political jurisdiction's (the State of Wisconsin) desperate need for cash. This will happen more and more. Looking at the beaver dams, the reforesting of an old beaver pond, the death, decay and recycling of leaves and trees, you get an idea of a far more sustainable economy and a wisdom that is being thrown away, lost.

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