Saturday, January 30, 2010


Today I was thinking about the term “sit-spot”, this is an expression I’d heard from my friend Mira, she’d had some exposure to the Wilderness Awareness School, located in the state of Washington, and this is where she had first learned the expression. Basically, it is a school that trains people to be naturalists, but more than that, they are taught how to raise their awareness in the great outdoors. Through courses of study such as wilderness survival, wildlife tracking, bird language interpretation, edible and medicinal plants, outdoor skills, and traditional craft-making - all knowledge drawn from indigenous cultures from around the world – students learn to connect with the natural environment, on a very personal and often, profound way.
But at the center of all of this learning and skill development, is the concept of the “sit-spot”. The idea is, you find a place to go in nature that you can go back to, over, and over, everyday, and begin to learn it like the back of your hand. Students are instructed to visit it at night, during the day, rain or shine, in winter, summer, spring and fall. They are told to observe the birds they find there, and the trees in which they live. In addition, they are told to watch the plants and learn to recognize them in all seasons; to learn the animals that are found there, and to observe their behavior in all situations, and seasons. The philosophy is, that that there is no better teacher than a single place, a place that you know, and know intimately.
I, of course, was excited to realize that I was already visiting a “sit-spot”, indeed, I had been doing so for over ten years: a favorite little brook on Fish Creek. I may not have visited it in all seasons, and not necessarily in all kinds of weather, but I had been consistent, and the rewards from this experience have been many. I have found a confidence in myself, which was not there before, and I have found that I can be my own teacher, when need be.
I started out with a simple goal back then: I wanted to find flowers to draw. And, at first, that is what I concentrated on, but it was not long before my attentions were drawn elsewhere: insects that crawled on the flowers; bright red berries that grew near by; an unusual mammal that ran very quickly, and stood, to my delight, on his hind legs to scan the horizon above the grass line; the water level, and how it was effected by weather; the birds that were chattering in the trees; and the plants that made a thick, dense cover in which I could hide.
Quite naturally, I began asking myself questions as to what I was seeing, and little by little, I have set about to answer those questions. Of course, there are many more unanswered questions than answered ones, and that’s why I never get bored with going back to the same place again and again. And although my travels have expanded, and I have sought out these kinds of conundrum wherever I go now, it is still my favorite sit-spot that draws me back, day after day.
Now, encouraged by what I learned about the Wilderness Awareness School, and others like it, I am inspired to deepen my commitment to this place, expanding my modes of observation, times of day which I visit, and types of weather in which I go, I know that I will learn even more.
Also, I am greatly appreciative of the many people whom I have met, through this blog, and elsewhere, people who have been working at answering these questions far-longer than I; who each have their own sit-spot, some of whom have been generous enough to share them with me; and who, together, are in possession of a combined knowledge that encompasses all of the skills listed above; a knowledge that is both humbling and inspiring. So thank you, fellow naturalists, for all that you do, all that you share, and all that you dream, so that I, too may follow my own dreams.
For, when I sit in nature, and I am quiet enough to really see what is there to be seen; to really listen, and actually become a part of what I am experiencing, I take in this beauty on a cellular level, a level that is both energetic and physical, so that the teaching is not only done with words in books, or notes taken in a journal, but sometimes, something much deeper: beautiful and inexplicable.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Regaining Lost Wisdom

On Sunday, Sue P. and Jackie D., along with her three lovely young granddaughters, headed over to Moreau Lake State Park for some snowshoeing, but when we got there, found the snow not right for snowshoeing, so we headed off toward the lake. It was my first time traversing this lake in its frozen state, and it was quite exciting. My perspective on the whole place, an area that I have visited often, changed enormously when standing in the middle of the lake!
Because Jackie and Sue had both taken the tracking class with Vince Walsh last week, observing the different tracks in the snow was uppermost on both of their minds, and I got the benefit of some of what they had learned. It was so interesting to hear them talk about the size and depth of the print, the age of the track, and the distance between the prints, the gait of the animal, all as clues to the identity of the mystery animal. I’d obviously missed a lot by missing that class.
We all got pretty intrigued when we thought we were seeing some moose tracks. (This was not too far-fetched an idea, as a number of these animals had been spotted in the vicinity late fall.) We followed the tracks where they seemed to move back toward the bank, and up the slight incline, but this was conjecture, because the prints had been obliterated by lots of human prints near the shore. Then we started back-tracking, trying to find where they had started, which we weren’t able to do, seeing as the snow had blown over the prints, leaving tracks that stopped short, and an impression that this very heavy animal had sprouted wings and flown!
We left scratching our heads and wondering, but when Sue reached home, she did some research, and thought to compare horse hoof prints, and bingo! There was the mystery solved!
We did, however, see fox prints, and lots of evidence of beaver and muskrat activity. In fact, we saw a small downed willow, with tons of wood shavings on the snow, and when we inspected the trunk, where the severing from the main trunk had occurred, we saw big beautiful teeth marks. It was pretty amazing to think that this animal downed a tree with only his teeth for a tool!
When we left the lake and walked along in the woods, Jackie pointed out a witches’ broom to me. I had always seen these and wondered what they were. Upon doing some research, I found that they are a kind of gall, caused by rust fungi. Longan gall mites launch a parasitic attack on the plant cells, which causes abnormal growth within the tissues of the plant. This stimulates extra growth in the place of one shoot, and the mites then feed on this extra plant material. They are usually seen in birches (though can be found in pine, elm and other trees, as well) and they get their name from the many, small, shooting branches that originate from a common center, resembling a witches’ broom. It was once believed that these appendages appeared after a witch had flown over the tree.
But, at times, they take the shape of what looks like a bird’s nest, so sometimes, when we look up into bare, winter trees, and we think we are seeing old bird’s nests, what we are actually seeing are these galls. The good news is they don’t appear to harm the trees, and in fact, a mature birch can support up to a hundred of them without showing signs of stress. An interesting little side note is handmade broomsticks were traditionally made from birch twigs.
Another note of interest for me on the walk, were some fungi we found growing on a fallen tree, Sue told me one of them was a birch polypore. When I inquired further from her, she very kindly sent me a link about this fungus. I was amazed by the story that I read: it seems that in 1991, a 5,300 year-old Copper Age man was found frozen in the Alps. Upon doing an autopsy, they found that the man had suffered from parasitic whipworms, which would have caused stomach pain and diarrhea. On a leather thong, around his neck, the man carried several birch polypore mushrooms. These mushrooms, it seems, contain antibiotic oils which would have worked on microbacteria, such as he suffered from.
I am forever humbled by the power of nature, and the wisdom that seems, somehow, magically, or mystically, to be born where it is most needed. I feel that I am part of a generation that is beginning to discover, and appreciate the old wisdom, and to re-embrace it. And everyday that allows me to go out into the natural world, to discover all of these amazing sights and sounds, causes yet another wave of gratitude, in this very humble heart!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Pine Barrens

A few weeks ago, before the snows came, I visited the Pine Barrens in Albany. I’d been hearing about them for years, but had failed to make the trip down there until now. I knew that it was a very similar terrain and habitat to the Wilton Wilderness Preserve and Park (WWPP) in Saratoga County, and there was good reason for this, because both areas had been created in the wake of Glacial Lake Albany, an enormous glacial-melt lake.
Twenty thousand years ago, much of New York State was covered with an up-to-a-mile- thick glacier. About 15,000 years ago, as the temperatures began to rise, and the glacier began to melt, and retreat to the north, the huge amount of water left behind collected in the Hudson Valley, and created Lake Albany, which covered an area from what is now Newberg, NY, to present-day Glens Falls, NY.
Rivers and streams that flowed into Lake Albany carried much glacial sediment: clay, gravel and sand were all dumped into the lake. Variety in the size of the sediments influenced how and where it settled on the lake bottom; and one of its large sand deposits is to be found in this oak-pine savannah.
About 5,000 years ago the water drained from Lake Albany, leaving the sandy bottom exposed to the wind, and other waters that flowed here; together these forces carved out the unique sand dune terrain and steep ridges that are now evident in this area.
The area’s water table, unique soil, and rolling terrain influenced the kind of vegetation found here, and as a result, these two areas became home to many unique and special species: the Karner Blue butterfly (State and Federal Designated Endangered Species); the Frosted Elfin (State-Designated Threatened Species); Blanding’s Turtle (State-Designated Threatened Species); Eastern Spadefoot Toad (State-Designated Species of Special Concern); Eastern Hognose Snake (State-Designated Species of Special Concern); and the Spotted Salamander (State-Designated Species of Special Concern) are found in one, or both of these preserves.
Appalachian Oak-Pine forest is dominant here: White Pine, Pitch Pine, Black Oak, White Oak and Red Maple. Sweetfern, Witch Hazel, and Scrub Oak are the dominant shrubs. Grasses and wildflowers found here are Little Blue-Stem, Blue Lupine, Spreading Dogbane, Butterfly Weed, and New Jersey Tea.
The Albany Pine Bush Preserve (APBP) consists of 3,010 acres, and in 1996, a formal protection plan was adopted by the APBP Commission. This plan proposed to protect this area as a unique ‘inland Pine Barren habitat’.
Unfortunately, before this protection, vast areas and habitat were destroyed through urban sprawl; but, today, threats still exist from habitat fragmentation, roadside practices and land-use conversions.
In addition, many of these plant species have evolved with, and adapted to fire, as a result, they are dependent upon it. Both White-Pine and Pitch Pine have serotinus cones, which means that their cones have a kind of glue on their scales, which can be removed only after they have been exposed to extreme heat, therefore, they can’t release their seeds, and germinate, without fire. Because APBP is cheek-by-jowl with the city of Albany, and fire is seen as a disturbance, it has traditionally been suppressed here. But recently, however, controlled burning is now practiced in the APBP, as can be seen in the accompanying photographs.
The area’s most famous resident: the Karner Blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis) has achieved its status as a federally-endangered species due, in large part, to the loss of its host plant, Blue Lupine, which, in turn, has been in decline due to habitat destruction. In addition, natural succession, resulting from fire suppression, has had a detrimental impact on Blue Lupine, as well.
The Karner Blue has lost vast habitat areas and large urban areas such as Chicago and New York have seen complete extinction of the species in their areas. Today the most viable population is to be found in Saratoga County, but it is also one of APBP’s famous residents.