Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Winter 2017-18: Average/Not Average

Note: This was sent in before the 3/12-14 storm. Revised in italics to March 18th data. Will revise again after the 3/21-22 storm. 

How normal/abnormal was the winter of 2017-2018?

This winter’s precipitation had been in the normal range - until March. Unlike regions of the country that have wet and dry seasons, eastern Massachusetts averages approximately four inches of precipitation every month of the year. As of March 4, i.e., between the first and second nor’easters, precipitation had been one inch over average for the last 30 days and two inches above the average for the last 12 months. [As of March 18, 2.3" higher than average for last 30 days and 3.7" higher for 12 months.] Of course, the Assabet River fluctuates greatly in depth between winter and summer, but that is because in the green months, plants are taking up huge quantities of water and releasing that into the air, whereas in winter most it either sinks into the earth to replenish our town’s water supply or else runs off to the river. The Assabet has been well above average since New Year’s Day.   

Creek near Assabet River, 1/1/18
Photo taken from footbridge
Same creek, 48 hours later
Click on photos to enlarge
Temperatures were all over the place. From December 26 to the morning of January 11 the temperature never got above freezing, and several nights got to -10F. Even the fast-running parts of the Assabet River were nearly frozen over. Then, two days of temperatures in the 60s combined with steady rain almost completely obliterated the snow cover. February temperatures were mostly in the normal range of below freezing at night, warming to above freezing by day, but on February 20 and 21, spiked to record setting highs above 70F. Whatever snow and ice cover that remained was again wiped out. Tough year on local ski slope businesses. The first nor’easter of March came in like a lion, the second one (March 7-8) was more of a snow leopard. The wet snow of the latter broke branches on trees that had survived the high winds of the former. And ANOTHER wet snow storm March 12-14! And 10F the morning of March 18!!.

Theoretically, there will be some benefits from those ultra-cold January nights. Adult deer ticks can survive a moderately cold winter, to plague us in early spring. But if the deep cold killed them all off, then woods walkers have little to fear until the over wintering eggs hatch and tick nymphs become active, in May. Likewise, the cold may have killed a majority of the wooly adelgids that plague hemlock trees, providing a year’s respite (but no permanent salvation from eventual tree death). For hemlock tree owners the only options are insecticide spraying – or a chain saw.    

Chart shows average monthly precipitation, in inches, using Boston data
(raindrops and snowflakes). The swooping line is river volume. Figure
created by Felice Katz for book: MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors. 
Total snowfall had been a tad above average. Winters put about 45 inches of snow on Boston and 65 inches of snow on Worcester. It’s a fare guess that Stow and Maynard are in between. Counting the March 7-8 storm Boston’s winter total was 41 inches. [The March 12-14 storm brought the Boston winter total to 57.2 inches]. The last two big years for Boston were 2010-11 with 81 inches and 2014-15 with a record-setting 110 inches of snow. Between the two, 2011-12 was a low snow year, at 9.3 inches.

The long-term trend is that winters have been getting shorter, but snowier. Of the ten snowiest winters since record-keeping began in 1890, six have been in the last twenty-five years. The reason is that eastern Massachusetts has been getting wetter (up 10 percent) faster than warmer (up one degree F). But at some point in the future that upward snow trend will collapse, because once nor’easters are above freezing temperatures those storms will be heavy rain events rather than snow events. Portland, Maine has already experienced a crossover. Weather records dating back to 1870 show a bit warmer, much wetter, less snow.

March 8, 2018 "Nice hat"
Of course, winter is not over until it’s over. April 1, 1997 was the infamous April Fool’s nor’easter that put two feet of snow on Boston and nearly three feet on Worcester. Two days earlier had been sunny and in the 60’s, so people were unprepared for the idea of a pending storm. The storm started as rain, but as evening fell the air temperature dropped a couple of degrees more than expected and snow was suddenly coming down at 2-3 inches per hour. Across mid-Atlantic and New England states, more than one million people lost power. Twenty years earlier there was a snowstorm on May 9, 1977. Not as widespread as 1997 (Boston got less than an inch), but suburbs west and northwest of Route 128 got more than a foot of wet snow. Because trees had already leafed out, the damage was tremendous. 

Observe that we are looking at pretty much twenty year intervals. So maybe these March storms were pre-ordained.    

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Boston Post Cane (award winner)

Gatehouse Media, the parent company of The Beacon-Villager and many neighboring newspapers, had submitted two of my columns to the New England Newspaper and Press Association annual convention for consideration for an award in the category Serious Columnists (sub-category weekly newspapers). I received third prize. This is a reprint of one of the columns.   

The Boston Post was a popular and influential newspaper some 100+ years ago.  In 1909, Edwin Grozier, the publisher, decided to promote the newspaper by donating ebony, gold-capped canes to the Boards of Selectmen of 700 towns in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.  Engraved on the top of the gold head of each cane were the words "Presented by The Boston Post to the OLDEST CITIZEN of __________ [name of town and state]..."

The idea was that the towns would award these BOSTON POST CANES to the oldest male citizen for the remainder of his life, to be returned to the town upon his death, to be awarded to the next oldest, and so on.

Town of Maynard, Boston Post Cane
Courtesy Maynard Historical Society
(click on photo to enlarge)
The canes were made by J.F. Fradley and Co., a New York City silversmith and cane maker. Joseph F. Fradley (1843-1914) began a silversmith business in 1866. His business had an excellent reputation. J.F. Fradley items appear for sale in fine arts and crafts auctions. The business was managed by his son, George F. Fradley, at the time the canes were made. Although many of the newspaper articles about recipients of Boston Post Canes describe the cane heads as 14 karat gold, some of the internet photos show wear to reveal non-gold metal underneath, confirming that the cane heads were gold-plated rather than all gold. This makes sense. Gold, rather than gold plated, would have made the canes prohibitively expensive, even back in 1909.  

Women achieved the right to vote in 1920, but it took ten more years before The Boston Post approved a changing of the rules to allow women to be awardees.  

The Boston Post went out of business in 1956, but the Boston Post Cane tradition continues in many towns. As years went by some of the canes were misplaced, stolen, sold, lost or destroyed. Some went missing for years, decades even, only to surface again. In time, most towns decided to keep the original cane in a town office or at the local historical society, and either discontinue the practice entirely or else award a plaque to the oldest resident in lieu of the cane. 

Maynard's Boston Post Cane is on permanent display at the town building. It had gone missing around 1928, not recovered until 1981. In 1999 the Maynard Historical Society decided to revive the tradition of honoring Maynard’s oldest citizen by presenting him or her with a plaque from the Maynard Board of Selectmen. The most recent five: Elizabeth Dodd, Dorothy Barlow, Arlene Cook, Mildred F. Duggan, and currently Ben Sofka. Ben, a life-long Maynard resident, received his plaque in February 2017, shortly after he reached the age of 100 years.

Stow's Boston Post Cane is kept in the Town Vault in the Town Hall building, along with other historically important artifacts. Recipients are presented with a Boston Post Cane lapel pin. The cane had gone missing 1951 to 1971. Actually, it was in the Vault all the time, but misplaced. Since 1971 there have been 12 recipients. The most recent was Dr. Donald Freeman Brown - awarded the cane when he reached 99 years. He passed away in 2014, age 105. The honor and lapel pin have not yet been awarded to a newest oldest resident.

Boston Post Cane, side view
The Boston Post Cane Information Center [], maintained by the Maynard Historical Society has become a clearinghouse for all things BPC. The starting point was a 1985 article written by Maynard historian Ralph Sheridan. After his death in 1996, David Griffin took up the traces, and still gathers news of canes lost, found and awarded.

A few facts plucked from the website: As of last count, 517 towns continue or have resumed honoring their oldest citizens. Most have the original canes gifted them in 1909, but some are using brass-capped mahogany replicas purchased from the Town of Peterborough, NH. Some towns stipulate that to qualify, a person must be a current resident and living in the town the past 10 or 15 years. Watertown's cane went missing in 1910, and did not return until 99 years later. At the time Mary Josephine Ray of Westmorland, NH, passed away, age 114.8, she was not only the oldest ever holder of a Boston Post Cane, but also the oldest person in the United States.

Stow's and Maynard's neighbors do and do not continue the Boston Post Cane tradition. Hudson, Harvard and Sudbury awards plaques to their most senior citizens. Acton is considering restarting the same practice. Bolton and Boxborough apparently do not participate, either because these towns had too small a population to get a cane back in 1909, or because the original canes went astray. Starting in 1962, Concord decided to change to an annual Honored Citizen Celebration. The awardee is steward of the Boston Post Cane for a year and leads the Patriots' Day Parade.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wildlife Acoustics

Ninth in a series of articles about the history of the mill and its past and current tenants.

Employees of Wildlife Acoustics, Maynard, MA. Taken 2016.
Ian Arganat, founder and president, front row center, in sports jacket.
Images courtesy of Wildlife Acoustics, Inc.
“Seeing is believing.” Hearing is believing, too, if you know what you are hearing. Wildlife Acoustics, Inc., a company that was started in 2003, relocated from Concord to Maynard in 2013, and is an expert provider of devices that allow us to detect all sorts of animal noises and know exactly what we are listening to.

Wildlife has 16 employees working in Maynard. They are responsible for management, R&D, marketing, sales, etc. Basically, everything but manufacturing, which takes place in Westford. Aside from bits of the internal electronics, this is a 100% U.S. company. Occasionally there is even a bit of field testing in and around Maynard and Stow. Plus, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which includes the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, is a customer.

When asked how all this got started, Ian Agranat, founder and president, replied that by 2002 he had completed his sale of and responsibilities for Arganat Systems, a software company located in Maynard, and was at loose ends. He was out on a hike with his brother-in-law, an avid outdoorsman and birder, who casually wondered “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a device that could identify a bird by its song?” 

A million dollars or so later, Ian had a device that worked – sort of – but was far too expensive for bird-watching hobbyists. What he did have, however, was a device that was almost good enough to meet the professional research needs of environmental consulting firms, governments and academic researchers. A bit more R&D, and voila!      

Wildlife Acoustics Song Meter SM4BAT for recording sounds
made by bats. Click on photos to enlarge.
For professional bioacoustics research scientists, Wildlife Acoustics has a selection of devices to record and interpret animal noises in the air, on land and under water. Its products are used to study animals ranging from bats to whales. More than ten years of research has gone into the hardware (sound sensors and recorders) and software (pattern recognition and noise filtering) needed to detect and decipher animal noises. 

The product family includes Song Meter, which works for land animals and birds, a variation engineered for the much higher pitch needed for detecting bat sounds, and submersible versions for fresh and saltwater listening. The Song Meter could be used to determine if spring peeper frogs gather at Maynard and Stow vernal ponds. Recently, the company launched Echo Meter Touch – a device and accompanying software that can make smartphones and smartpads into bat sound detecting systems that in the recent past would have cost thousands of dollars.   

Echo Meter Touch mounted
on a smartphone makes the phone
a bat recording device.
One year ago, Wildlife Acoustics launched Song Sleuth, a $9.99 iPhone app that has become its most widely used software product. Think of it as the acoustic parallel to binoculars. The program was developed in a collaboration with David Sibley, a renowned bird expert. When birdsong is heard, the app records the song. Names and images of the three most likely bird species appear on the screen. Information and images from The David Sibley Bird Reference allows the user to identify the correct bird. The software then allows the user to geotag the location and share the recording with other birders via messaging or email. At present, the program can identify 200 of the most common vocalizing land birds in the U.S. Song Sleuth should be available on Android phones later this year.

Wildlife Acoustics logo
All this begs the question – what do animals hear that we don’t, and vice versa? Hearing is about pitch, in frequency measurement units called hertz (Hz). Humans can hear in the 20 to 20 Hz range, but hear best between 100 and 5,000 Hz. Dogs hear up to 40 kHz (kilohertz), which is why a dog whistle is inaudible to us. Cats up to around 75 kHz, which allows them to hear communications of small rodents such as mice. Bats cannot hear anything in our range, but can hear up to 100 kHz and higher. If bat calls are slowed down to 1/10th speed the sounds are in our range. Elephants can communicate with sounds at frequencies below what humans can consciously hear. However, these low-frequency sounds, felt more than heard, make us feel uneasy and “spooked.” Directors of horror movies have been known to incorporate these as sound effects.  

What humans hear listening to humans has some interesting quirks. Although people can consciously speak above or below their natural pitch, female voices naturally fall into a 165 to 255 Hz range and male voices 85 to 160 Hz. Research suggests that women are more sexually attracted by low pitch male voices (Barry White, anyone?), while men find women with higher pitched voices sexy (maybe not as far as the baby talk range). Male low pitch tends correlate with both larger body size and more testosterone. Women high pitch tends to correlate with younger age, and perhaps better fertility. Volume counts, too. Dialing down the decibels and getting a bit breathy causes the listener to lean in to hear, which works for both sides. Let’s talk about this.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Lichen ('li-ken' or 'le-chen'?)

Lichen. In American English, pronounced “li-ken” (like “liken”). In British English, “le-chen” (like “kitchen”). Either way, the word refers to a symbiotic collective of either algae or cyanobacteria in conjunction with fungi, slowly growing on trees or rocks. Some may have leaf-like lobes while others are flat, thin, and so deeply embedded into the rock that they look more like two-dimensional circles of green/gray paint rather than any live thing. The alga or bacteria use sunlight to make nutrients for the fungus, primarily sugar, while the fungus provides minerals, shelter from the elements, and retains water captured from the environment. Even when growing on living matter, such as tree bark, lichen are not parasitically taking nutrients from the host.

Lichen growing on stones set in a stone wall.
Lichens are complex. The novel idea that what appears to be one living thing is actually a combined effort dates to microscope observations by a Swiss botanist named Simon Schwendener. He proposed this theory in 1867. Leading lichenologists (great word!) of the time were dismissive. In time, the idea became accepted science as did the name for what was going on – symbiosis. And yet there was a problem. Try as they might, scientists could separate the algae or cyanobacteria from the fungi and grow each separately, but when remixed, the result did not grow as lichen.

Only recently, and only with the help of DNA analysis, did Toby Spribille discover that two fungi species, not one, were needed to create the complex structure of lichen. Fungi of the division Ascomycetes were the known part of the partnership. What his research showed was that trace amounts of Basidiomycetes fungi were equally essential, integrated into the outer surface of the colonies. This begs the question of whether every lichen we see is the successful result of a three-way blind date, or is there a physical means of creating new colonies by all three being relocated together. Looks like the latter.

Lichens get around. Volcanic activity about 20 miles from Iceland’s south coast ended up creating an island – Surtsey – in 1967. Scientists observed biocolonization over the years. Moss and lichen were observed within a few years. Over time, birds nesting on the island transported seeds caught in their feathers and in their feces, which also added to create fertile soil (as did their carcasses when they died), but lichens and mosses still dominate much of the island to this day.   

Lichen growing on a headstone in Lower Village Cemetery, Stow, MA
Lichens are slow-growing. The crustose types (flat, on rocks) may grow less than one millimeter a year from the edges outward, so that a colony a few inches across can be decades old. Lichenometry is the science of dating when stones arrived at a location, either a landslide, or fast-moving flood, or a stone wall. Confirmation of this as a useful dating device stemmed from knowing exactly when stones presented a surface to the air, as in stone split or cut for tombstones. With that as a benchmark, dating could be determined for archeological items too recent for radio-carbon dating. For human-made structures of wood and stone, tree-ring dating for the wood and lichen growth for the stone help confirm each other as accurate yardsticks.

Glacial erratic (boulder left behind by last ice age) showing more
 than one type of lichen, some bumping into their neighbors.
While moss prefers the north side of trees (sort of), lichen is not as particular. Moss is all about moisture, so in regions with dry times of year, the north side, not subjected to direct sunlight, stays damp longer after rains or morning dew. Lichen, with its slower growing pace, is more likely to end up anywhere on a tree trunk or on rocks on the ground.

Locally, just about any walk in the woods, or for that matter, in one’s own backyard, will yield many sightings of various types of lichen. In retrospect, actions on these woodland boulders and stone walls are ferocious territorial wars, fought small, slow and in silence. Lichen versus moss. Lichen versus lichen. At times, deus et machina a gigantic snail or slug speeds over the battlefield, rasping away at everything in its path. Interestingly, these terrestrial gastropod mollusks have a somewhat inefficient digestive system, so as they move along, defecating as they go, they leave behind the beginnings of new lichen colonies, perhaps boldly growing where no lichen has grown before (cue Star Trek theme music).

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Irving Burg: Mill Manager 1953-74

Eighth in a series of articles about the history of the mill and its past and current tenants.

The American Woolen Company had a last burst of busy-ness at the mill during the first years of the Korean War, but those contracts ended in late 1950, and that was the end of wool for Maynard. A group of local business people tried to arrange financing to buy the property in 1950, but that failed. Not until July 1953 did a group from Worcester calling itself Maynard Industries Incorporated (MII) close a deal.

What they bought was 1.2 million square feet of brick and wooden buildings, and more: the land included the mill pond, the Ben Smith Dam, Lake Boon and part of the Fort Meadow Reservoir. The purchase price of $200,000 equates to $1.9 million in today’s dollars. A few years later Lake Boon was relinquished to the Town of Stow in lieu of unpaid property taxes.

Irving Burg was hired to be the facilities manager six months after the purchase. His credentials were a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, and several years managing a textile plant. Which was exactly the business Maynard’s mill would never be in again. Burg thrived. His job was to keep the place running and rent out all the space. By April 1954 the mill was 50% rented, by November, 70%, and so on. Despite desperately necessary facility improvements, the operation was profitable by the third year and every year thereafter until Digital Equipment Corporation, a tenant starting in 1957, bought the entire complex (including pond, canal and dam) in July 1974. Burg’s history of the mill complex, written in 1982, mentions that in his 21 years as manager the mill had 82 companies as tenants.  

Aerial view of Maynard's mill, circa 1930s. In spring, but the pond is still
partially covered by ice. Note twin chimneys, one light in color. Also note
no parking lot on the left, next to Main Street, or on the right, by Bldg. No. 5. 
Berg’s recollections returned again and again to parking problems. One has to realize that during the decades as a woolen mill, employees walked to work. A circa 1930s aerial view shows no parking lots whatsoever. Dennison Manufacturing – in the gift wrap paper business – finally insisted on a dedicated lot, so fill was added next to Main Street, making space for 100 cars. Years later, more parking needed, so one of the two chimneys was demolished and the bricks added to the fill. This widened the parking lot that now hosts the Farmers’ Market. Digital, needing parking for Building No. 5, accomplished this by filling in more of the pond on the south side.

Speaking of Digital, only because of a timely bankruptcy of a small company named Maynard Mill Outlet did space open up when Ken Olsen and Harland Andersen came calling. After a few visits they committed to a three year lease for 8,680 square feet at $300/month. They and Ken’s brother, Stan – 100% of Digital’s employees – spent weekends painting the space themselves, then filled it with furniture bought from Gruber Brothers on credit. Digital’s early operations stayed close to the bone. Heating buildings on weekends cost extra. Raytheon shared one building with Digital. If Raytheon wanted heat, Digital got heat. Raytheon would call noon on Friday to specify which buildings it wanted heated. Ken Olsen would call at 1:00 to see if he was going to get his part of the building heated for free.

Similar view, one chimney, with parking lots. Courtesy Maynard
Historical Society. Click on photos to enlarge.
One more parking story. Into the 60s, space was so tight that people were allowed to park in the millyard, including on the railroad tracks. For the infrequent arrivals of a freight train on the spur that ran into the mill, all cars had to be moved. Burg had everyone’s phone number, and he and his secretary would hastily get on the phones. Whenever the call came, Ken Olsen would step out of his President’s office to move his car.
Burg retired in January 1989. His career, first at MMI, and then for Digital, spanned 35 years. Although at the time of his retirement he was working for Digital in Colorado, he was flown to Massachusetts for an exit interview with Ken Olsen. It’s a good guess that they reminisced about when back in 1957, Olsen had showed up to rent a smidgen of space in the mill. Burg passed away in October 2008. His collection of newspaper articles and his history of the in-between years (in the collection of the Maynard Historical Society) are essential to any understanding of the history of Maynard’s mill complex.