Sycamores at the Edge

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As I drove along River Road in New Haven, I was scanning the roadside for sycamore trees.  I knew this area was the very northern edge of the sycamore’s North American range, and I wanted to see if I could close in on the most northerly tree in the New Haven River watershed.  I also knew that winter was the right time to look.  With the leaves off the trees, the distinctive white bark of the sycamore’s upper trunk was easier for the eye to catch.

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As the road neared the river to cross it, I saw the first sycamores of the day.  Not surprisingly, they were right along the river bank where they are happiest.  I turned into a pullout and got out to get a closer look.  Crunching through the snow along the road’s edge, it was hard to believe that these trees were just as much at home on a  Texas river as they were here.  As I got closer to the trees, I could see the distinctive mid-section bark:  large flakes of mottled gray, green, and brown plates with the white showing through underneath.  As I tipped my head back, I could see the many seed pods high on the branches.  I knew these were one of the keys to the story of the sycamore’s range, and they and the sound of the river water in my ear made me stop for a moment and reflect.

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Sycamores hold onto their seed pods all winter long.  In early spring, the trees drop them as the highest melt-waters are receding.  The river carries them downstream, and they come to rest on the sand and gravel banks where they like to sprout.  From what I could see, it was clear that the downstream reaches below these trees would have a good source of new recruits next spring, and place them just where they love to grow the most.  The vast watersheds between here and Texas were all repopulated this way.

But I was really focusing on what was happening upstream to the northeast, since I was in search of the most northerly sycamore in this watershed.  Any trees upstream would have been from seeds dispersed by the wind, not water.  This was the mechanism for the northerly reach of the tree’s range here.  I had to keep going to see what I could find.

The next stretch of the road followed the river more closely, and many sycamores stood out in the woods along the river.  As I neared Bristol, I knew Sycamore Park on the river shore was close by and full of my target trees.  But soon the road diverged from the river for a stretch, and I couldn’t see the river or sycamores anymore.  By the time the road rejoined the river on far side of the village, the sycamores were nowhere to be seen.  I needed to continue north toward home, and couldn’t double back to narrow the search.   I had to be content with knowing that somewhere between Sycamore Park and the far side of the village was the most northerly sycamore tree in the New Haven River watershed.  Maybe in the next installment of this search, I’ll have to continue it on foot.


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On a recent road trip, I came across this scene just across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, but it could just as easily have been in Vermont.  The surrounding area was all open farmland, but these two features across the road from each other grabbed my attention.  They were only about 100 feet apart, but they were probably 200 years apart in origin – one from the early 1800s and the other from the early 2000s – and both part of the farming history of this place.

The barn looked to be a 30′ X 40′ English style barn that was commonly built in the first half of the nineteenth century to support the mixed agriculture of the time.  These barns included an area to store hay for farm animals to eat in the winter.  It had the right footprint, height, roof line, and placement near the road that is typical of this type of barn.  In the era it was built, the hay would have been stored loose, since baling had not been invented yet.  Although barns were sometimes moved as farmers modernized their farmsteads over the years of ownership, it is likely that this building has been in this exact spot for 200 years.

In contrast to the barn, the round bales on the right side of the road are the modern way to store hay.  In our climate, dry hay is now tightly wrapped into a round package with a piece of specialized farm equipment: the round baler.  Although round bales are designed to shed water more than the previous square bales or the even earlier haystacks, the round balers now also wrap each bale with plastic to keep them even drier through our wet winters.  With these innovations, hay no longer needs a building to be kept dry, and can be stored right in the field.  Without a need for haylofts, our modern barns just need to be one-story high for the cows.

This one scene can simply be enjoyed for its bucolic feel, but there is much more if you dig a little deeper.  In fact, you can look at these as the bookends of the roughly 200 continuous years of agriculture in this area.

Oak Trees on the Hillside

I love this time of year.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy the showy maple leaves that peaked a few weeks ago, or the bright yellow poplar and birch leaves that have just fallen.  But now, with most of the other deciduous leaves gone, it’s the oaks turn to show off.   Some may think that the dull reddish-brown color of their leaves in mid-November isn’t really worth much special attention.  And maybe they really can’t win in a direct comparison to a spectacular maple at its peak color.  But what I appreciate about oaks is that now is the time when I can see where on the landscape they find the right conditions to live.

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In the summer, when all the trees are green, it can be hard to pick out the oaks on the wooded ridge line in my valley.   Now, their brown crowns stand out on the hillsides against the darker gray, leaf-less tree trunks of the other species in our woods.  And, where are these oaks?  Here, at mid-elevation Vermont, the oaks are concentrated on the narrow, south-facing noses of our long ridge lines.  On most of the ridge in my valley, the maples and beech are the dominant species, as my neighbors who are sugar-makers are well aware.   But the oaks make it clear just how much warmer and sunnier the south-facing noses really are.  And this week is the one time of the year when it all becomes so clear.


Field Day with the Vermont Master Naturalist Program

Yesterday, I was invited along on Williston’s Vermont Master Naturalist Program field day to look at the geology of the town.  It was a chilly day, with temperatures in the 30s, and, as I zipped my winter coat that morning, I wasn’t thinking about the evidence we would be seeing in the rocks of the huge range of temperatures they had experienced over their life spans.  The program was led by Sean Beckett, Staff Naturalist at the North Branch Nature Center, and Alicia Daniel, Executive Director of the VMN, and, after a great introduction to some of the larger processes at work, we headed out to look at some ledges in Five Tree Hill Park.


The rock ledge we found was a metamorphic phyllite: a gray rock with lots of mica sheets squeezed into layers, or foliations.  As I took off my gloves to pry some moss away from the rock to get a better look at it, I couldn’t help thinking about our introduction to how this rock was first formed.  The original sediments were clay-sized particles laid down in a very warm tropical ocean at the edge of our continent when we were at the equator.  As I fumbled with my cold fingers to get a photograph, I thought about the contrast in temperatures this rock has seen – from warm tropical ocean in its very first formation to today’s chilly Vermont temps.

But there was evidence of another chapter to the story, and it was a much warmer chapter than the tropical ocean’s had been.  The clay-sized particles in the tropical ocean eventually became shale rock, and many years later that rock was caught in the squeeze between the African and the North American tectonic plates as they were pushed together and collided, forming the Green Mountains.  The intense compression of that event heated the rock to very high temperatures, and changed the rock in ways that are still visible: the rock’s layered foliations.  As Sean was explaining the foliations, someone in the group found a piece of the ledge that had broken off and started to pass it around.  The rock had those same foliations, but those layers were also folded into u-shapes and s-shapes.  Sean made the analogy that during the very hot compression event, the rock would have been so hot that it would have acted like a warm chocolate bar, and been able to bend and fold.

By the time the rock got passed around to me, the whole story had been told.  As I held it in my bare hands, I ran my fingers along its warped foliations and noticed how heavy, dense, cold, and seemingly inert it was.  I paused for a moment to reflect on the contrast between its solid presence in my hands and its long complicated journey, from equatorial latitudes to halfway to the north pole, and from warm offshore ocean environments to hot continental compression to this quiet, cold corner of Vermont.  It was an amazing journey, and I found myself happy to be part of a group that was learning to decode the stages in the journey of this solid body of rock.

Presentation on Using LiDAR


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I gave a presentation in October at the League of Local Historical Societies and Museums Annual Meeting in Woodstock, VT entitled: Using LiDAR to Find and Interpret 19th Century Features.  LiDAR is a new mapping technique that uses pulses of laser light to create 3-D images of the landscape.  It can “see through” the trees to show the shape of the ground underneath.  Cultural landscape features, such as stone walls, that are now deep in the woods and not visible with conventional aerial photographs can often be seen with LiDAR.  This new imagery is dramatically changing some aspects of archaeological and historical research.

For my presentation, I used a series of “detective stories” from my field work this summer and fall where I was looking for abandoned 19th century features with LiDAR images and following that up with field work for ground checking.  I walked the local historical society members in the audience through the steps of learning how to use LiDAR to find cellar holes, stone walls, mill foundations, barn foundations, and old roads.  I also included cautions and examples of some of the limitations of the imagery.  In the end, I encouraged people to try out this new tool.  I am a new fan, and will be using it constantly in my work to save time, and to find things I might not be able to locate otherwise.  I hope others will try using it, too.

If you’d like to look for yourself, Vermont LiDAR imagery is available here from the Vermont Center for Geographic Information.