Sunday, April 10, 2011

4-09-11 Close to Home

I was waiting for my laundry to finish its wash cycle last Sunday morning (4-3-11)and decided to do a quick bushwhack up the steep northwest facing flank of Mt. Tom in Easthampton, MA. I was staying close to home for the weekend as a money and gas-saving measure rather than spend $60.00 for fuel for a one-day trip to the White Mountains. The weekend before I drove at 62-65 mph all the way up and back to the Cog Railway Base Station (205 miles one way) and managed to squeeze out 37 mpg in my old Camry but it still cost me around $50.00 (including a little food). It also took me 3.5 hours to drive one way so it amounted to more than 7 hours of driving to go hiking for 6 hours so not very economical any way you look at it. I only had to drive 2.5 miles to get to the base of Mt. Tom. Somewhere in his writing Thoreau observed that a person could spend a lifetime exploring the seemingly small world contained within a 20 mile radius around his home. But, if you read his books you know he was not one to stay at home all the time. I'd prefer to be hiking in the White Mountains any day but to make it more economical I'm going to have to go for two or three day stretches, or not go as often and find more things to do around here. I've never been on this part of the Holyoke Range so it was new to me and I just wanted to see what I could see. I took off uphill and into the woods behind a friend's hosue and almost immediately found myself in a protected forest that doesn't see a lot of visitors. It's consists primarily of old, huge hemlocks with some maples and white pines mixed in. There was a lot of debris on the ground from winter felled limbs and dead trees.

The mix of leaves on the ground indicates an over story of hemlock (the smaller green needles), beech, poplar and white pine (the long green needles).

Looking at this slightly larger sample there's more beech and a few red oak leaves mixed in as well. The oak leaves probably traveled here on the wind as there are few, if any, red oaks on the shaded and more moist north slope of the mountain.

A little higher up there was more debris on the ground and the forest was rather gloomy. The sun had not risen high enough at this point to shine on the north side of the ridge.

Some of the hemlocks, as I said, were huge. This one was 13 feet in circumference.

This hemlock had been a "giant" at one time. It probably died in the 1960s and fell around 1980.

The crowns in this photo are about 80 feet high.

A broken hemlock top snapped off in high winds probably while holding a lot of snow. It fell 50 feet and is buried 6 feet in the soil here.

A dead hemlock trunk that's 12 feet in circumference. I once read that most of the biodiversity in a given forest ecosystem is contained in the dead tree trunks like the one above mainly due to huge numbers and varieties of insects, like beetles (Coleoptra), that come to feed on the dead wood. But, there is the same diversity in the animals inhabiting the leaf litter on the forest floor, and the canopies (crowns) of living trees, all representing different communities and different niches.

In The Nature of Natural History (Scribners 1950 & 1961) Marston Bates writes, "'Community' and 'succession' are common words in the ecological vocabulary. Equally common is 'habitat'. The habitat of an organism is the place where it occurs. It might thus be defined as the envrionment of a particular kind of organism. The habitat may be co-extensive with the community, may (rarely) include several types of communities, or may represent a niche in the community. The description of the habitat would include the physical and chemical environment as well as the biological environment. (new paragraph) Generally, the habitat of an organism corresponds to a particular niche in the community. I'm using 'niche' here in a slightly different sense from that usual among ecologists. Niche is customarily used 'to describe the status of an animal (or plant) in its community, to indicate what it is doing and not merely what it looks like. The trouble for me with that is that 'niche' has connotations of place--the dictionary says, 'a place, condition, or the like, sutable for a person or thing.' I would prefer to use 'niche' to indicate an organism's physical place in the community structure." (pgs 116-117). I always like Marston's take on ecological terms and how he uses them. Learning the differenceand similarities between 'habitat' and 'niche' is important and as Marston adds, "there may be endless special niches."

This is a good illustration of how "pits and mounds" are formed on the forest floor when a tree falls. As a tree topples over it acts like a lever causing the roots to pull up a "ball" of soil which later becomes the "mound". An empty pit is left where the soil has been lifted out and upwards by the roots. Storms, particularly hurricanes, often leave behind hundreds of blow downs and over time the tell-tale pits and mounds are all that remain. Sometimes they are noticeable for several decades. There are places in New England where faint indentations of the pits as well as faint mounds are still noticeable from trees that fell in the 1938 hurricane.

Some trees fall without leaving a pronounced pit or mound. This tree pried up a stone that was caught in the root ball.

The Holyoke Range, also referred to as the Mt. Holyoke Range, is about 10 miles long and is a "fault block" formation consisting mostly of basalt, also called Trap Rock, that was extruded perhaps as many as 200 million years ago. Fault block means that during tectonic movements of the earth's crust the volcanics caused an open fault line to tilt upwards producing this ridge that's steep on one side and relatively gently sloping on the other. This is a chunk of diorite, granite in other words, and I encountered dozens of pieces of it this size spread out over a large area but only on the northern slope. It's probably from a volcanic intrusion that occurred after the range was formed. The higher summits of the range are around 1100 feet above sea level.

This is the Eyre House (no relationship to Jane Eyre) built on this lower summit of the range in 1861 completely out of the local trap rock. It looks like a perfect movie set.

The house burned in 1902 and the stone shell and this carriage road, unused for 100 years, are the remnants of what must have been, in its time, an elegant building.

This looks as though it was once a turn-around, or parking area, for horses and carriages.

At this point I had reached the main ridge of the range at 800, or so, feet above Interstate 91. I could hear the early Sunday traffic plainly from the highest point. Because of the decreased sunlight on the steep, shaded north slope, it's a much cooler and wetter climate (speaking very generally) that favors the hemlocks, maples and beech, but reaching the ridge a dramatic thing happens. Accentuated by the early morning sunlight which was astonishingly warm on my arms and face there was a sense of a different world. Red oaks dominated although there were several other species as well, but if was open and peaceful, park-like, even with the robins and other thrushes calling loudly to each other.

There were a few of these visible, clues that there was a fire here at one time, that might be a reason for the open, park-like feel of the woods on the ridge crest.

Mt. Tom in the distance is about 3.5 miles away. There are several knolls including the one closest in view that are emblematic of the entire ridge line. The Connecticut River cuts through the range dividing it in two at about its mid-point. East of the river the ridge undulates in several rounded knobs called the Seven Sisters. I decided to extend my hike to the nearest summit.

There is a trail that traverses the two halves of the ridge that is a day-long hike.

An open glade formed by the red oaks. You can see a line of hemlocks to the right which are on the ridge crest in this photo and the one below.

A glacial erratic rests comfortable on the very crest of the ridge.

It was dropped off here 12,000 to 14,000 years ago and probably spends its time dreaming of the time when another glacier will sweep down from the north and whisk it away to new climes.

Hemlocks crowd the summit unable to invade further into the warmer, drier oak zone.

This is the ridge crest proper and the unnamed summit and you can see the dividing line between the two climate niches, or habitats, with the wetter, cooler climate on the left.

The summit rocks are basalt, or trap rock, which characteristically fractures in octagonal-shaped formations like this one. Trap rock contains iron from the earth's mantle and it has a metallic sound when you strike two pieces against each other.

Sphagnum moss occupies the cooler, damper side of the ridge.

Looking south-south-east and down slope from the summit. Mt. Tom is the name of the state reservation that contains most of the Holyoke Range. Fifteen years ago a local developer proposed a housing development on the side of the range below the reservation boundary and was stopped successfully by a grass roots campaign which took the name Friends of the Mount Holyoke Range. There was a large ski area on Mt. Tom located on its southeastern flank that closed 10 years ago in bankruptcy.

Looking north from the crest and at the "oxbow" of the Connecticut River made famous by Thomas Cole and other American painters of the Hudson Valley School. The city of Northampton is in the mid-distance, two miles away, and the town of Amherst is located towards the right and out of view. It is notable to point out that the base of the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail on Mt. Washington is only 207 miles upstream from here as the Ammonoosuc River is a major tributary of the Connecticut and then it's only 2.5 miles to Lakes of the Clouds.

I'd completely forgotten about my laundry and ran down through the hemlocks to the road as the sunlight began to teeter on the ridge and poke down into the large hemlock crowns.

With April comes this lovely spring sunlight. There was some snow here on the north slope this morning but even after a winter of late, deep snow the ground is already drying out.

A perturbation from two winters ago. This is one of those events in the forest that creates ripples of change, most of them subtle. Going back to the quote from Martson's The Nature of Natural History events like these are perturbations within communities that effect succession.

For instance, a major change that may occur is the dramatic increase in the amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor after a large tree goes down. The impact could cause a more competitive species to get a "toe hold" in the niche, like a species that's more tolerant to open sunlight.

Speaking earlier of Thomas Cole, and painting in general, scenes like this one and the one below remind me of other New England painters like Winslow Homer and Rockwell Kent who were so deft at painting these patterns of sunlight and shadow.


rwhannum said...

Alex - great to cross paths with you and chat a while on the trail below Skinner Park the other day - thanks for leaving your card. Bonnie and I were inspired by your love of our favorite trail and your plans to help preserve it - I'd be happy to join you in any work you want to do on that trail. Call us anytime at 802-236-9163. And this blog is wonderful - beautiful pix and writing! We shall visit often.

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