Thursday, December 30, 2010

Notable hermits: Alvah Dunning

Alvah Dunning (1816-1902) was known as the Hermit Guide of the Adirondacks. "He could lure the timid mink from its hole by imitative chippering."

My criteria for a Nature Hermit is simple: a person who appreciates nature so much that they are compelled to live in it. It doesn't matter if you are solitary or live with a family. Whether you grew up there or came later. Whether you stayed a lifetime or less than a year. If you lived IN nature by choice, because you weren't content only to visit in your free time, then you are a nature hermit.

That said, I read something recently by W.H.H. Murray
about guides in the Adirondacks in the 1800's. (It was in an anthology.) The "good" guides, as he described them, seemed to fit my bill:

"Born and bred as many of them were, in this wilderness, skilled in all the lore of woodcraft, handy with the rod, superb at the paddle, modest in demeanor and speech, honest to a proverb, they deserve and receive the admiration of all who make their acquaintance. Bronzed and hardy, fearless of danger, eager to please, uncontaminated with the vicious habits of civilized life, they are not unworthy of the magnificent surroundings amid which they dwell...The wilderness has unfolded to them its mysteries, and made them wise with a wisdom nowhere written in books. This wilderness is their home. Here they were born, here have they lived, and here it is that they expect to die. Their graves will be made under the pines where in childhood they played..."

Another Adirondack guide and his so-called "sport" (what they called the rich city fellows that hired them).

And then there was Alvah Dunning. He was moody and cantankerous, according to the Adirondack Museum's website (a profile worth reading). But he was also (according to a 1921 book by Afred Donaldson) "probably the most wily and resourceful hunter, fisher, and trapper the Adirondacks ever housed. He lived in the woods all of the time, and for the most part alone. The human voice was less familiar to him than the noises of birds and animals, and he often seemed able to understand and speak their language. He could lure the timid mink from its hole by imitative chippering, and trick a frightened deer back to the water's edge by deceptive bleating with his throat and splashing with his hands." (My Italics.)

Now that's a Nature Hermit!!!

I'm not saying he was perfect. He hated wolves and women, and maybe, just maybe, killed the last moose in the Adirondacks. But he also was a nature lover who "knew every tree, every flower, and every forest animal" according to those that knew him, and he disapproved of killing for sport alone. Quote the hermit: "In the old days I could kill a little meat when I needed it, but now they're a-savin' it for the city dudes with velvet suits and pop-guns, that can't hit a deer if they see it, and don't want it if they do hit it." He went to his grave eschewing modern technology, and firmly believing that the Earth was not round!

More Adirondack guides and their "sports".

All photos and info came from Wikipedia and the Adirondack Museum.
Here's some newspaper articles written about Alvah, and here's a whole bunch more info on other Adirondack guides in the Adirondacks, where I found this nice picture of a bark hut on Tupper Lake (1899):

A possum wanders by

Hello, I have a dirty nose.

"There's a weird creature in the field. I think it's a possum."

This was followed by the closest encounter with an opossum I've had in a long while. It was nosing around in the old sunflower field, in between snow patches. Nosing very...very...slowly, as opossums often do. I would think that this slowness alone was a symptom of some kind of possum-ailment had I not seen other, healthy opossums foraging at the same...glacial...pace...previously. Similar to the impossible pace of a sloth. But this individual was also shivering a little at the mouth, and it let me get a little too close without seeming even a little alarmed. I took some nice pictures of it. Then I started to feel guilty. Like I (a warm and well-fed human) was happily snapping pictures of a dying man. I left the possum to live out its last hours in dignity.

The possum in perspective. Why do all my shots have Point Mountain in the background?

Good bye. I left the possum to live out its last hours in peace.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The dandelions of winter

Why are there dandelions blooming in my yard?!

The temperature has been in the 20's F and below for weeks. I wonder if it is just partially formed flower buds from the fall that have been busted open by extreme cold.

There are two dandelions in this photo.

And now, after last night, these flowers are covered by 5 inches of snow! Pollinated by snow fleas?

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A snowy Christmas

This morning, for the 3rd time in the last couple of weeks, we've been inundated by snow geese! Here they are with Point Mountain (Hunterdon County, NJ) as a nice back-drop.

This is presumably just another visit by a part of the vast Merril Creek Reservoir flock, which I still haven't found time to go see firsthand. Quite a spectacle!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Half an acorn

I've been finding a lot of half-acorns lately.

This was a rediculously productive year for the red oak tree in my yard. In October, there was a solid carpet of acorns on the ground beneath it, and that was after an entire garbage bag was carted away for other uses (feeding woodrats). The squirrels (and my sheep) have gradually thinned out this acorn layer until there is now mainly just a carpet of acorn shells below.

But there are also chunks of acorn meats. Lots of them. Mostly the lower (pointier) half, with the upper (fatter) part missing, chewed off. Each morning I've been gathering these meats and feeding them to the sheep - about enough to fill my two cupped hands. And by the next morning there is a whole new crop of nut meats for the gathering.

My theory was that the fat end of the acorn (the part that is missing from most of the meats) might be more nutritious. Maybe during super mast years, the squirrels just eat just the good parts and leave the rest. Kind of like the brown bears that eat just the skin of the salmon. But this diagram (below) makes it seem like the fat end isn't so different from the pointy end, and the pointy end even has more goodies, like the root. But you never know. In any case, this phenomenon (if it happens in the woods, too) probably provides a steady source of acorn meats over the winter for other animals during big mast years. Even when the squirrels have hidden them all last fall.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The gleaners 2: clouds of snow (geese)

First it was black. Now it is white.

A few weeks ago, blackbirds by the thousands were the story here in the cornfields of Warren County, NJ. Now it is thousands of even prettier birds: snow geese. I am even beginning to see the
merits (albeit imperfect and possibly double-edged) of corn, a crop that I previously thought was utterly useless to wildlife beyond deer and turkeys (and cows).

I'm not patient enough to actually count or even reasonably estimate the numbers I saw a few days ago, but it was a lot. My off-the-cuff estimate (though I don't have 'cuffs') is over 10,000...maybe even 20,000 or more! I was working by the river (Musconetcong) on the morning of Dec 20th I watched flock after flock after flock pass over headed northeast (upstream), flying in low, loose, honking, barking V's for over 15 minutes. If you're into math, maybe a flock of 100 flew over every 5 seconds (conservatively) steadily for at least 15 minutes, followed by a few straggler flocks. That comes out to at least 18,000!!! That has to be a measurable percentage (i.e., at least 0.1%?) of total world snow geese numbers. Pretty neat to think about.

The day before one unit of this super flock
(a flock of V's) landed in the cornfield just a few hundred yards from the house. Feasting on corn. Imitating snow. Honking. Lift-off resulted in an apocalyptic roar, and a steady stream of barkers and honkers swirling low over our house, deciding where to go next and who to follow.

This is actually a well-known flock that I was just lucky enough to host for a few days. It is most famously for icing over Merril Creek reservoir nightly with white feathered bodies, the vast clouds arriving there at dusk, and departing each morning on a daily quest for waste grain.

Ah, waste grain. It doesn't sound very significant, but living here has made me realize that the innocent little unharvested kernels are actually a global ecological force. It helps to sustains these artificially-vast hordes of snow geese (a species whose population is dramatically on the increase), which are denuding fragile alpine vegetation in the arctic and fragile salt marshes along the coast. It sustains artificially-vast flocks of brown-headed cowbirds, each one a little flying "percentage point" of nest success for North American warblers, thrushes, vireos, tanagers, grassland sparrows, and on and on. (Bird feeders are also culpable in this phenomenon, but I wont be such a grinch.) And those factors don't even consider the corn-fertilizer-induced Gulf of Mexico dead zone, which is so large and so dead that it must affect some bird species (if that's all you care about)!

Anyway, my bittersweet relationship with corn continues. Time for a corn muffin.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Cannibal mice

White-footed mice are cute, it's true. But don't let it fool you. They are known egg thieves, they dine on helpless baby birds, and when it comes down to it, they don't hesitate to eat their own kind.

We live in the country where the mice move in when the weather gets colder. They leave poop on the counter, make nests in our towels, and hide birdseed in our shoes. They are good climbers on wood or stone, but (we've learned) not on metal or plastic. Whenever we would forget and leave the washing machine lid open, there would invariably be a mouse in there the next day. We let them out by setting a broom down in as a ladder. Once we left it open for a week and caught two mice. Only one survived.

Confirming that rodents (and most herbivores) will generally eat meat if given the chance, the survivor lived out the week thanks to the flesh and blood of his cell-mate. I prefer to think that they sat huddled in there together until the weaker of the two peacefully expired, and that there was no foul play.

A few weeks later, a plastic garbage can left too close to a counter top caught three mice. Again, cannibalism. The mouse flesh of two sustained a lone survivor, at least until the last carcass was picked clean. I'm guessing the last died from lack of water, as it didn't look emaciated.

Not a pretty site, but interesting (at least I thought so)! We have since excluded the mice from our house using plastic spray foam. They are cute, but they can live somewhere else.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Behold this compost!

Behold it well.

That's what Walt Whitman said, and I know where he was coming from. For the past two years, I've been the steward of roughly 5000 worm souls living peacefully together in a standard-size rubbermaid storage bin in my house. The amazing part is that they transform about a gallon of food scraps into pure, rich, wonderful dirt in only about 3 weeks. And they do it without any unpleasant smell at all! (We even had it in our kitchen for a while.) In fact, it is actually pleasant. If you put your nose right up to it, you are rewarded with the nice fresh aroma of rich soil.

We collect our food scraps in a gallon-sized bowl: egg shells, coffee grinds, banana peels, carrot tops, and the like. At the end of the week I take the bowl, which is usually full, and bring it down to feed the worms. I dig a trench in the dirt, dump it in, and cover it up. I rotate the spot each week: one week I dig in the left side of the worm bin, then the middle, then the right side. By the time I get back to the left again (3 weeks later) everything is just about gone, replaced by clean dirt. "What chemistry!" as Whitman said.

There are some tricks to good worm husbandry, of course. If you get the wormery too wet, things get bad. A little bit too much, and the worms climb up the sides. Way too much and everything dies, rots, and gets smelly. Leaving the cover off helps let water evaporate, and the light scares most of the worms down below. It also scares away other (harmless) creatures such as mites that can reach insane population densities (though I haven't had that "problem" for a while).

I only add water when it looks really dry - about 2 cups every couple of months. The decomposing vegetable juices keep it nice and moist on their own. If you see lots of worms crawling up the sides, lots of mites, or any water dripping out the bottom, you know you are adding too much water. Add some newspaper shreds to the mix to dry it out. Newspaper is good to add periodically anyway as it is a carbon source. If you drink a lot of coffee, grounds work well for this, too.

The finished product, after it is screened with 1/8 inch wire mesh and frozen for a week (to kill worm eggs), makes a fine and nourishing potting soil, straight up or mixed.

From "Leaves of Grass":

O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations;
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day—or perhaps I am deceiv’d;
I will run a furrow with my plough—I will press my spade through the sod, and turn it up underneath;
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—Yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear—the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk—the lilacs bloom in the door-yards;
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea, which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever.
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the orange-orchard—that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.

Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.