Thursday, August 14, 2014

Woodchucks Are Hermits

My resident woodchuck, August 2014
The woodchuck/groundhog, a rodent, is native to New England. And much of the rest of the eastern half of the United States. And well into Canada. The name is derived from Algonquian Indian: wu-chak. If pups survive the first year's risks, lifespan is three to six years.

Woodchucks are by nature hermits. Each establishes its own system of burrows within its territory: a modest winter burrow for hibernating, a larger, multi-entrance burrow for the three other seasons, and often a few small holes scattered about its territory as places to duck into if pursued by a predator. The major burrow can include 20 to 40 feet of tunnels, and will include a sleeping chamber and an indoor toilet. Males establish territories which will overlap with one to three females, but the only visiting time is a few weeks in early spring.  

Litters of two to six pubs are born in late May. "Mom time" is short. By early July these younguns are weaned and then evicted to wander until they can find a territory unclaimed by a resident female or male. What they are looking for is 'edge' terrain, meaning woodland and brush near open meadows. This preference matches up with suburbs. What we like, i.e., property with borders of perennials and annuals, a lawn, and perhaps with a vegetable garden, they like, too. Given that an adult woodchuck can consume up to a pound of vegetation per day, this can make a big dent in a lettuce patch!

Woodchucks are diurnal (most active during the day), particularly in the early morning and late afternoon hours. They stay close to their burrows when feeding and typically only stay above ground a couple of hours per day. Despite their heavy-bodied appearance, groundhogs are accomplished swimmers and excellent tree and fence climbers. Websites offer tips on how to set up garden fencing to be woodchuck resistant.

Woodchucks are winter hibernators. They gain thirty percent in body weight, almost entirely as fat, before entering a den in late October to begin a months-long state of torpor: body temperature dropped to 40F degrees, heart rate dropped to about five beats per minute and breathing rate decreased to less than one per minute.

Roughly every two weeks the hibernating animals rouse to full awareness, go to the bathroom and undergo a day or two of normal sleep in order to catch up on their dreaming (as confirmed by rapid-eye-motion sleep). If this coincides with February 2nd, then it is Groundhog Day. One puzzle not yet resolved by naturalists: what late summer signal triggers the beginnings of over-eating to gain all that weight?

Hunting is allowed in Massachusetts. Trapping is also allowed without any need for a license or permit, but it is against the law to relocate live animals off your property. A licensed trapper can be contracted to remove and kill nuisance animals, but if the empty burrow is not sealed at all entrances the likelihood of a new woodchuck moving in is high. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Maynard, MA: Churches, Closed

Maynard was once host to a dozen church congregations but four have since dissolved or relocated. Nationally, a decline in mainline Protestant churches (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Congregational, Episcopal) has been going on for decades. Estimates are that over the past fifty years these faiths have lost more than one-third of their membership. Surviving churches often find themselves with an aging congregation and less than excellent financial health, compounded by problems associated with maintaining an aged building.

Against these trends, there is evidence that the decline in total number of places of worship and worshipers has reached a plateau or even reversed this trend over the last decade. However, most of the growth is in new churches rather than increased membership in existing churches, with many of the new congregations identifying themselves as non-denominational and biblically conservative. Those interested in learning more about worship trends should e-visit the Hartford Institute for Religious Research [].

Closed churches in Maynard:

Click on photos to enlarge
United Methodist Church (1895-2014): There is often a gestation period between initial interest and steeple - in this instance 30 years. Services began in 1867, but were held in various meeting halls until the congregation completed the existing building in 1895. May 11, 2014 was the last Sunday services at UMC, ending 119 years in the building and 147 years as a congregation. Members are joining other churches. The local Alcoholics Anonymous groups, which had used the church for their meetings, relocated within town. The future of the building has not yet been determined. The Maynard Historical Society has remarkably little information on this church's history, so the hope is that information can be passed on rather than discarded.

St. George's June 2014, quite overgrown
St. George's Episcopal Church (1895-2006): Episcopal services began in 1894. The cornerstone of the church was placed on August 10, 1895; the church consecrated as the Parish of St. George in 1897. The church had an active men's group, the Order of Sir Galahad, a women's group, the Guild of St. Hilda, also a youth summer camp program at Fort Pond. Membership declined after the Church of the Good Shepherd opened in Acton in 1962. After the Maynard church closed, the parking lot and rectory were sold separately. A remodeling project, intended to turn the ex-church into housing, is in limbo, leaving behind a deteriorating building with an uncertain future. August 2014: something going on - the brush and weeds around the building have been cleared.

Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church (1908-1967): The woolen mill attracted many immigrants from Finland. August 1894 saw an outdoor service and picnic on the banks of the mill pond - an event proposed by a traveling Bible salesman. The event served as a catalyst to start a Lutheran church. In 1902 the nascent congregation incorporated and bought land on Glendale Street. Construction started in 1907. The church was dedicated on June 6, 1908. The congregation stayed active, although over years the members and their children and grandchildren assimilated (services switched from Finnish to English). In 1967 the congregation decided to construct a new church in north Sudbury. The Church of the Nazarene took up residence for a while, them moved out around 1995. The building is currently a private residence.

St. Casimir Roman Catholic Church (1928-1999): By 1910, more than 600 immigrants from Poland live in Maynard. Even though the Mass was in Latin, these immigrants wanted to hear sermons and other aspects in their own language. The St Casimir Parish - services in Polish - was established in 1912, meeting at St. Bridget's. Fourteen years passed before the congregation bought the powerhouse building of the defunct Concord, Maynard and Hudson Railway [electric trolley], and two more years before the converted building was blessed as their own church.

Formerly St. Casimir Roman
Catholic Church (1928-1999)
In time, death of first-generation immigrants, assimilation of their descendants and dearth of new immigrants tolled on all of Greater Boston's Polish parishes. In 1995, Cardinal Bernard Law announced that 10 of 14 would stop celebrating Mass in Polish. Four years later the Beacon-Villager ran an article about the pending closure of St. Casimir. A locally circulated petition could not reverse the decision. The parish was merged back into St. Bridget Parish, although the St. Casimir building remained a consecrated space, used by the Polish community for baptisms, weddings and funerals. In 2003 the building was sold to St. Mary's Indian Orthodox Church of Boston.

CODA: Churches still open in Maynard (in color if hyperlink to website)
And once there was a synagogue in Maynard. In the early 1900s, the Maynard Hebrew Society invited a rabbi to conduct Sabbath services in rented meeting halls. September 1921, the congregation established Rodoff Shalom Synagogue in a house on Acton Street (next to where Avis car rentals is now). The congregation was active to 1980, when it merged with the newly formed Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton. In a temple newsletter, Adam Jacoby remembered, “In 1980 we built a new building and marched the Torah from Maynard to Acton under a chuppa with shofars blowing. I was one of the shofrot during the walk.”

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hidden History of Maynard


128 pages. 54 illustrations 
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978.1.62619.541.7
Price: $19.99 (e-book $9.99)

The book is available in Maynard at The Paper Store, as e-book at various venues, or directly from the author, who will be scheduling appearances at the Maynard Farmers' Market and other locations.

Maynard resident David A. Mark brings his years of experience as a writer to create this fact-populated collection of fifty short essays gathered into seven theme-linked chapters. The contents were originally published 2012-14 as Mark’s column in Maynard’s newspaper, the Beacon-Villager.

Mark continues to write for the newspaper.
His more recent columns are posted at

In this, his second book, the content is 100% history. Chapters again cover the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, plus a focus on the unusual people and unusual businesses that prospered here. So, from the question as to why there was a mink ranch in Maynard, to whether Babe Ruth came a-drinking here when he lived in Sudbury, here is David Mark with his well-researched and entertaining answers to those questions.  

Only in Maynard
Meet the Maynard Family
19th Century
20th Century
Unusual Businesses
Unusual People
21st Century

         A reading/signing/party is scheduled for October 14, 7:00 PM, at the Maynard Public Library.


MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors (2011)
128 pages. 53 illustrations 
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978.1.60949.303.5
Price: $19.99

Maynard: History and LifeOutdoors mixes 2/3 local history with 1/3 observations on nature and local recreational activities as a means of exploring what Maynard, Massachusetts offers to anyone willing to get away from too much time looking at screens and not enough time spent seeing, hearing, touching and smelling the life going on outside. History starts with eighteenth century stone walls, then carries forward to twenty-first century river clean-ups and farmers’ markets. Nature spans skunks to skunk cabbage, deer to deer ticks, and birds to bird food. Recreational sports essays range from describing the slow-motion, nightmarish feel of snow shoeing to how to avoid overhydration – the potentially deadly opposite of dehydration.

Author selfie, one fine cold morning (5ยบ F)

Maynard – Why “Outdoors”
Eighteenth Century
Birds and Bugs
Nineteenth Century
Assabet River 
Twentieth Century
Marble/Whitney/Parmenter Farm
Twenty-first Century

First Time You Bought Art

Today’s question: What was the first piece of art you remember buying?  A few rules here: music is art, but buying an album does not count. Theater, live music and dance are arts, but buying a ticket does not count. Posters, no. Sculpture and statues, yes. Jewelry, no. Clothing, no. Pottery - yes if on display, but not if kept in a kitchen cabinet.

Results of an admittedly informal survey of one hundred people found a few having bought something when quite young, perhaps at a yard sale. The more common memory was of buying art after moving away from home, be it first apartment or college dorm. From the survey, most of those who were able to remember that first purchase either still had the item or remembered what happened to it.

Alexander Calder lithograph, 9x12 inches, 1972
My first was a signed Alexander Calder print from a Boston art gallery for $125, in 1974. I had just started my first job after college. It currently hangs on my office wall. Many twentieth century artists took advantage of the concept of selling multiple copies of work at a lower price per piece, making up the difference in volume. In this business model the artist signs and numbers each one (traditionally in pencil, as a means of indicating that it was done by hand). Art galleries sell the work, take their cut, and remit payments to the artist.

After correcting for forty years of inflation, the value of my purchase has roughly doubled. For comparison, a person with the foresight to purchase Apple stock when it first issued in 1980 would have seen their investment increase one hundred-fold in inflation-corrected dollars.   

A decision to purchase art is colored by whether there was art on display at the home you grew up in, or else in homes of friends and relatives. School field trips to museums may have been for naught if walls were bare at home. Elementary schools also teach art (which is different from teaching appreciation of art) so often the first art a person owns is their own creation. This, too, does not qualify as bought art, but is a start.    

Collections are distinct from art, but can engender the same emotional resonance. Be it a baseball card or a Star Was figurine, the first purchase can cascade into a desire to complete a set. Collectibles can also be seriously expensive – in the same realm as original art.

Speaking of serious art, there are art buyers who think of this solely as an investment. Switzerland offers secure warehouses for art storage. There are literally billions upon billions of dollars of valuable art, which, when sold, may do no more than move from one storage locker to another. Very, very high quality security lets art insurers sleep easy, but there are still disquieting thoughts about all those insured assets being in one place.

Technology is changing the concept of owning art. Given the feasibility of having sizeable flat screens hung on various walls, a person could subscribe to ever-changing e-reproductions of nature scenes or famous paintings: Ansel Adams one week; Van Gogh the next. Not so different from subscribing to a music service.

E-art comes hyperlinked. Already it is possible to stand in front of a painting at a museum and have a free smart phone app (the museum’s or other) whispering in your ear the artist’s name, biography, when this particular piece was created and what various art critics opine.  

In the meantime, while the Town of Maynard has no public displays of
statuary or sculpture (!), it does offer myriad opportunities to buy art, buy more art, buy lots of art. Art & Soul and Denault Studios each sell the work of many local artists and craftspeople, as does the Open Studios program at ArtSpace. Goddard Richard Goldsmith and Earth Changes Pottery are venues for owner/artist work. Gallery Seven is primarily a framing shop, but always has artists’ work on display/sale. Paint ‘n pour allows you to create your own. More than half a dozen consignment, collectors, antique and second-hand establishments carry used art and/or collectibles. Buy art! Support your local artists!!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Worms, Slugs and Snails

Earthworms are such an integral part of New England that it comes as a shock to learn that these worms are an invasive species. Colonial era gardeners brought lilacs and other plants across the Atlantic, with earthworms as inadvertent passengers in the rootballs.

A transition from pre-worm to post-worm ecology can be visited in the upper mid-west, where the slow-motion invasion continues to spread. On the pre-worm side, decaying plant matter creates a “duff” several inches thick on the ground – an ideal habitat for myriad small animal species and also for plant seedlings. On the invading worm side, leaf litter is at a minimum and the surface is quite barren. There are native worms, but those species do not do as efficient job of converting plant detritus to soil as the invaders.

Charles Darwin’s last book “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on Their Habits,” captured the conclusions of decades of watching earthworms. By discharging their castings on the surface, worms progressively bury whatever lays on the surface under a thickening layer of topsoil. Darwin reported that a layer of sand or cinder on the surface of a field would in five years’ time be an inch below the surface, and ten years later, three inches. Flagstone paths, artifacts dropped on a battlefield, everything gets buried.

In winter, earthworms migrate downward to stay ahead of soil freeze-up. In spring, worms return to the surface when air temperatures reach 35 to 40 degrees. This timing is matched by migrating robins moving northwards from their winter stay by the Gulf of Mexico, just in time to mate and start feeding a family.

“Worm charming” refers to tapping, vibrating or pounding the earth’s surface as a means to cause worms to rise to the surface. At a mulch pile or other worm-rich environment, jab a pitchfork into the soil and tap the shaft rapidly with a stick. Worms will appear on the surface within seconds. Best guess is that vibrations mimic sounds made by the underground digging of worm-hunting moles. Worms try to escape by moving above ground.

Leopard slug moving across granite boulder
A rarer local resident, the great grey slug (Limax maximus), astounds. Well, maybe not astounds if one has visited the Pacific coast and seen a banana slug, but still, a slug two to four times longer than our common garden slug is impressive. Like earthworms, this is an invasive species from Europe. Coloring can be grey to brown, but always with black splotches. Hence the common name – leopard slug.

Garden snails (Helix aspersa), another European immigrant, are not the same species as what we dine on as escargot. Worms eat decaying organic materials, whereas slugs and snails will go for the green stuff – making the latter pair the bane of gardeners. Snails live for 2 to 5 years; not quite as long as worms, but longer than slugs.

These worms, slugs and snails are all hermaphrodites, i.e., have both male and female reproductive organs. Each act of sexual congress has both partners impregnating and both ending up pregnant. Worms manage this in about an hour, slugs, hours, and snails, as long as a day. Of the species mentioned in this article, great grey slugs have the most interesting mating habit. After several hours of intertwining, the two slugs will suspend themselves in mid-air by dangling from a strand of stringy mucus, there to spend several more hours mating. Male sexual organs emerge from openings just behind the head, and also intertwine. YouTube offers several videos explaining exactly what is happening between a pair of leopard slugs.

From personal observations on my own property there appears to have been a decline in the worm, slug and snail populations over the past 14 years. Curious if anyone else in eastern Massachusetts or elsewhere also seeing this.