Thursday, October 29, 2009

Autumn Scenics

Despite my dislike for fall, you can’t be in New England at this time of year and not go out on a picture-perfect afternoon to admire the foliage. Last Sunday, October 25, was just such a day. I went for a walk in the late afternoon to catch the low sun on the trees and the river, and these images hardly do the landscape justice.

My immediate neighborhood here in South Deerfield, Massachusetts is an odd mix of run-down homes and cul-de-sac spurs with obviously affluent subdivisions. Taking a walk down one such road brought me some spectacular views of North Sugarloaf Mountain, and this estate beneath, complete with a riding arena. There I met Kim, who greeted me on her riding mower as she vacuumed leaves off the steep lawn in front of her family’s house, situated right on the side of the mountain. Her daughter was riding her horse, exercising the equine to help it recover from an injury that kept it out of major shows this year.

Kim is typical of the strangers I’ve met here: Warm and friendly, and eager to share their experiences with the land. By the time we parted I had been invited to their Halloween party this Saturday.

North Sugarloaf is the wilder sister of South Sugarloaf, with a deep “saddle” between the two buttes. The farms that abut the base of both are breathtaking and suggest the quintessential romantic rural life. Blight killed off all the tomatoes this year, and tobacco (yes, tobacco!) was a total loss, too. Life is not as idyllic as it appears on the surface.

South Sugarloaf Mountain is the tourist attraction here. A yet-to-be-released movie starring Mel Gibson had a scene filmed at the top last year, where the observation tower stands. Manicured, clear-cut, and landscaped to offer a panoramic view and picnicking sites, it is decidedly less natural than its northern twin. I find the view looking upslope to be more inspiring than that from the summit, which takes a disappointingly short time to reach, even if you do not drive your car there.

Go around South Sugarloaf and you head downhill to the bridge between South Deerfield and Sunderland, over the mighty Connecticut River. This view looks upstream with Mount Toby in the distance.

The Connecticut is a highly-controlled river, its levels at the mercy of floodgates that this year left the water high most of the time. Only rarely did one see sand bars on the island or any semblance of a shoreline along the heavily-wooded banks. Just beyond the tree-line, however, the land gives way to agriculture. The University of Massachusetts has a large farm devoted to growing turf and sustaining cattle, among other experimental pursuits.

Here is a typical view behind the veil of trees.

The light fades too fast and I find myself wanting to chase the sun. The wind has not yet surrendered, and blows a reminder of wilder ways across the surface of the Connecticut, writing in ripples about seasons yet to come.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Spider silk connects the dots,
The toothy edges
Of an alder leaf,
Gilding the flamboyant colors
Of aging foliage
In a silvery, oval frame
Hung in the fleeting gallery
Of fall.

Eric R. Eaton
circa 1983

Do you like the odd poem here on this blog? Want more? You can read more over at my poetry blog, Verse-atility.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Art of Insect Tracking

Last Saturday night, October 3, I joined friends from Athol, Massachusetts to travel to the town of Cummington for the opening reception of an art exhibit by Charley Eiseman and Noah Charney. The two friends collaborate to teach tracking workshops and other field courses, but have also worked to produce the forthcoming book Tracks and Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates, published by Stackpole Books with an expected release date of March, 2010. The exhibit, which runs through the end of October at the Cummington Community House, 33 Main Street, features stunning images taken for the book.

Noach Charney has become so enthralled with the intricate designs produced by insects in the course of their life cycles that he intends to produce his own coffee table book that celebrates these signs and patterns as literal art. Noah has a real eye for this and is painstaking in his commitment to producing high quality images. He is not above fooling his audience, either, posing optical illusions while rendering portraits of what insects leave behind. This image of leafcutter bee “damage” is perhaps the representative picture for the entire project. Can you tell what is going on here (hint: this is not a studio shot, and only minor manipulation of the leaves was involved)?

Charley Eiseman (right)met Noah (left) years ago when they helped found the “Woodsy Club,” as Charley’s mom affectionately calls it. Together with other like-minded souls, they practiced tracking, outdoor survival skills, and other activities. The two might call themselves “slackers” and poke fun at each other’s shortcomings, but there is nothing about them that is unprofessional when it comes to scientific endeavors. Keen eyes and endless curiosity have helped them spot the most cryptic of arthropod-created objects and solve enduring mysteries of “what did that?”

Anyone who hangs out with Noah and Charley will learn what true friendship means, and will laugh a lot along the way. You can’t help but come away with an appreciation of all things insect- and spider-created, or learn the art of observation and patience, either.

This blog entry is not just to promote their book and photography skills. You have to read the wonderful story in the Boston Globe for that. I just like these guys and the fine qualities they exemplify. Do take in the exhibit if you find yourself in the vicinity of Cummington, and by all means visit their website, the Northern Naturalists to keep track of their latest activities (no pun intended).

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I do not like autumn. I never have. I don’t like watching things die, if even only in the seasonal sense. Fall sends me into mourning for the lost summer, and already pining for spring.

Ironically, in the part of Arizona that I currently call home, the landscape looks dead the majority of the year, perking up only during the summer “monsoon” season. I know that life is merely hiding, though, cryptic in its way of dealing with heat and drought. Meanwhile, I am comfortable for most of the time. Not so here in New England.

Here, the spring and summer are fleeting. Life cycles seem speeded up by several orders of magnitude with insect species at least coming and going so quickly that they are easily missed if one isn’t paying attention, or rainy weather nudges one back indoors like it did this June and much of July. I am not alone in feeling short-changed in the sunshine department. Yesterday morning (Friday, October 16) it even snowed briefly.

The heralded “fall colors” here seem muted even by Massachusetts standards. Ornamental Norway maples are doing their part without much help from native maples. Oaks turn later I am told, and they sure seem to be taking their sweet time. Among the exceptional trees are red maples. They turned fiery red a few weeks ago in the “maple swamps,” truly spectacular in contrast to the blue skies and evergreens.

Here, people flock from elsewhere to see that kind of color. The tourists, some even from eastern Massachusetts, come as a mixed blessing to residents. Traffic picks up dramatically, and crawling along behind the “leaf peepers” seems a nearly intolerable price to pay for whatever revenue is injected into the local economy.

Apples, wool, and pumpkins dominate the mind and drive rural events now. I’m going to the annual pumpkin festival in Keene, New Hampshire later this afternoon in fact, tagging along with my “bus buddies” from the daily workweek commute. Friends and food are powerful motivations to venture out in the absence of insects and other wildlife to watch.

Last weekend I was in the vicinity of Antrim, New Hampshire with my friend Lynn Harper for their “Wool Arts Tour.” The event centered mostly around several farms where sheep, llamas, and alpacas are raised for their wool. I enjoy the pace of life away from the city, and the people here are warm and friendly, but I’d still be finding lots of insects on the desert broom (Baccharis) flowers back in Tucson.

Wet, fallen leaves underfoot, like a bowl of soggy cornflakes, and clouds condensing from one’s own breath. That is life right now.