Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Hidden Life of Trees

…is the title of a book by Peter Wohlleben, with an enticing subtitle “What they Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World.” Wohllenben, by profession a forester in Germany, shares his tree knowledge in a lyrical, enthusiastic, approachable way. He waxes eloquent on how trees react/adapt to changes in the environment, and then communicate this information to other trees. First published in German in 2014, and then translated into English in 2016, this best seller popularized the fact that trees communicate with other trees.

Naturalists have been criticized for attributing human-type consciousness and emotions to animals. Wohlleben takes it further, in describing tree actions in animalistic terms: smell, touch, taste, even as far as making noises that other trees might sense (?!?). He writes of trees experiencing pain, having memory, and being active parents to their seedlings.

Mainstream scientists have been criticized for not attributing intent, ability, consciousness and emotions to other species. For animals, these arbitrary divisions have been repeatedly refuted: complex problem solving, use of tools, language (or minimally, communication with intent), a sense of self, the ability to mourn the dead, and so on. Even if we now accept these attributes for some animals, is it plausible to postulate the same for plants? Are trees conscious? Worded differently, are plant actions driven by decision or reaction? By memory, or built into DNA?

Two spruce trees on Glendale Avenue, probably planted
when the house was built. On south side, and so
provide shade to keep the house cool in summer.
Part of what has changed the way we think of trees is an understanding that dozens of fungi species form collaborations with trees at the roots. In exchange for sugar, a product of the plants’ photosynthesis, the fungi help gather water, phosphorus and nitrogen, and of greater interest, create networks with other trees of the same or other species. The networks, fancifully referred to as the ‘wood wide web’ allow large trees with direct access to sunlight to subsidize smaller trees that are attempting to grow despite the deep shade of the forest understory or the drier soil at the edge of the forest.  

Wohllenben goes farther with the idea of cooperating trees, citing evidence that in response to a certain amount of leaf or branch damage, the tree changes it chemical make-up to become less appealing to whatever is eating it, perhaps by increasing the tannic acid content of leaves, and then somehow conveys the change to neighboring trees of the same species. One communication venue is that damaged trees release volatile chemicals into the air that are taken up by other trees.

The theory here is that trees do better as part of a forest rather than in isolation. In summer, less sunlight reaches the ground, preserving the cool, damp, deep shade microclimate that such forest trees prefer. In all seasons, forest trees collectively protect each other from buffeting winds. When large trees finally succumb to storm or insect damage, fire, or even old age, replacement trees are already part of the understory growth, ready to fill in gaps.

Does Wohlleben think trees possess a form of consciousness? “I don’t think trees have a conscious life, but we don’t know,” he says. “We must at least talk about the rights of trees. We must manage our forests sustainably and respectfully, and allow some trees to grow old with dignity, and to die a natural death.” In rejecting the confines of the careful, technical language of science, he has succeeded more than anyone in conveying the lives of these mysterious gigantic beings, and in becoming their spokesman.

Aborists do not all agree with these claims of collaboration. From an article in the March 2018 issue of Smithsonian Magazine: “Stephen Woodward, a botanist from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, warns against the idea that trees under insect attack are communicating with one another, at least as we understand it in human terms. ‘They’re not firing those signals to anything,’ Woodward says. ‘They’re emitting distress chemicals. Other trees are picking it up. There’s no intention to warn.’” Other plant scientists conclude that gene-driven reactions can explain everything we know about plant behavior.

So there it is – a minority of plant researchers believe in sentient intent, while a majority take a position that evolution of communication networks does not require purposefulness. Either way, when a tree falls in a forest, other trees may not ‘know’ if it made a sound, but they know it fell.   

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Loons - Damariscotta Lake, Maine

The common loon is a northern hemisphere’s failed attempt at approximating a penguin. Fish eater – yes. Diver – yes. White belly and black back – yes. Dense bones (the better to dive) – yes. Ungainly travel on land – yes. Only one or two eggs a year – yes. Otherwise coming up short. (Or tall, depending on which penguin species is up for comparison.) Loons dive for 30-60 seconds versus 5-20 minutes for penguins. Loon use their webbed feet for propulsion, whereas penguins – faster swimmers – use their wings. Penguins dive deeper. But loons can fly.

There are actually five species of loons: common, yellow-billed, black-throated, red-throated and Pacific. The species we see in the northeastern United States is the common loon. Breeding territory is across Canada and Alaska, with the southern edge of the range extending into the US around the Great Lakes and northern New England. The common loon worldwide population is estimated at about 600,000 birds, with perhaps 30,000 nesting in the contiguous 48 states.  

Common loon (Gavia immer), Damariscotta Lake, Maine. Photo taken from
kayak at 5:45 AM. More light would have shown the red eye. Before diving,
muscles under the skin contract, forcing out air trapped by the feathers, 
causing the bird to be less buoyant. Click on photos to enlarge.
Loons migrate. In late summer, adult birds will molt (shed) their spring/summer plumage for a drab gray/brown back and neck, then head south and seaward in the fall, looking for waters that will remain ice free in winter. In late winter there will be another molt, to the black and white pattern that we find so striking, followed by migration north. Any sightings in eastern Massachusetts are of migrating birds.  

Loons often return to the same body of water they left in the fall, especially if they succeeded in raising chicks there in past years – males first, to claim the territory, then the females. Loons practice serial monogamy. If both birds of last year’s pairs show up at the same body of water they will stay together, but if one of the pair does not, a replacement loon will move in.

Loon with chick perched on back. (Internet download).
Loon reproduction fits into the K-end of r/K selection theory, a means of describing two reproductive strategies. K-selection describes a low reproduction rate combined with parental investment in caring for infants, a high infant survival rate and a long lifespan. The other end of the spectrum, r-selection, describes high reproduction rate, low survival percentages and a short lifespan. Both modes have evolutionary advantages and disadvantages. A loon pair will produce one or two eggs each year, with roughly 50% surviving to fledging (flying). In contrast, Atlantic cod produce more than one million eggs each year and provide no parental care. Scientific support for r/K theory has declined since first proposed back in the 1970s. It has been incorporated into “life history theory.” For nascent naturalists, both theories are well defined at Wikipedia.

Loons are best known for their vocalizations, which can be heard for distances of a mile and more. The nature writer John McPhee reflected, “If he were human, it would be the laugh of the deeply insane.” The major calls are yodel (males only), wail/howl and tremolo. The reasons loons so loudly announce their presence, both day and evening, is that to raise a family, each nesting pair needs exclusive use of 50 to 100 acres of pond or lake to catch the 1000+ pounds of fish and other foods needed for breeding and chick raising. Territory is so important that males go beyond the types of threat displays seen in other species, to actual combat. In roughly one-fourth of the struggles the losing male dies either by being drowned or from puncture wounds. If the intruder loon is a female, she and the resident female will fight, but not to death. Loons have also been known to kill goldeneye duck ducklings, possibly to reduce competition for food needed to feed their own chicks. 

In Walden; or, Life in the Woods, Thoreau wrote that one October day, rowing on the pond, he heard and spied a loon, a migrator stopping off for a fishy snack before continuing southward. Thoreau tried to approach the loon for the better part of an hour, but failed to guess where it would emerge from its feeding dives. He wrote: “This [howl call] was his looning — perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide.” And also, “At length, having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me; and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.”

Not in the newspaper column:
  • Loons do not start to breed until 3-5 years old, possibly because need to be completely adult to compete for breeding territory.
  • When males fight to death, it is almost the defending male that dies; an intruder that is losing a battle will retreat to try somewhere else.
  • Although taking off is a strenuous process requiring hundreds of feet of space to build up speed, one in the air loons are vigorous fliers that reach speeds of 75 mph.
  • Newly hatched chicks can swim within hours, but will needs about ten weeks of parental feeding and care before being able to fly, and exist on their own.
  • Young chicks will often perch on a parent's back, for safety from predators such as pike or snapping turtles. Grebes are another family of bird species with the same behavior. 
  • When feeding, loons move slowly across the water, sticking their heads under the surface to look for fish. Loons are daytime, hunt-by-sight feeders, and so need to be on bodies of clear water. Small fish will be swallowed before rising back to the surface, so not seeing a loon surface with a fish does not mean that it failed.
  • To dive, loons tighten muscles under the skin. This forces out air trapped by the feathers, allowing them to swim under water with neutral or negative buoyancy. Once back to the surface they fluff their wings and body feathers to retrap air. 
  • Loons eat 10-15% of their body weight every day! Mostly fish, but also frogs, crayfish, dragonfly nymphs, salamanders, leeches...
  • Loons, like many other bird species, swallow pebbles that will stay in the gizzard, to aid in physically grinding swallowed fish into small pieces. A cause of illness and death is swallowing lead fishermans' sinkers, and being acutely lead poisoned.   

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Assabet River Rail Trail - June 2018

Historic plaque describing Marble family homestead, in what
was part of Stow, before Maynard became a town. 
Progress on the Maynard & Acton section of the Assabet River Rail Trail has reached the point where it is easier to write about what is not completed versus progress of the trail as a whole.

The original plan called for ARRT’s completion in May. Construction will now continue into July, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony to be scheduled soon after. Nice to think that people will be able to walk or ride to the event. The major delay was the discovery of serious soil pollution behind the automobile and motorcycle shops just north of Concord Street. This was old dumping, from businesses long gone. Remediating the problem required an additional $600,000 of state and federal funding to remove hundreds of cubic yards of contaminated soil and water. There have also been lesser delays in Maynard and Acton, all soon to be history.    

Maynard, MA: mile marker
for Assabet River Rail Trail
Even with a few sections incomplete, the trail is getting heavy use. In fact, the combination of dog walkers, stroller pushers, walkers, runners, skateboarders and recreational bicyclists so fill the pavement that serious cyclists – the Spandex-clad crew that wants to speed along at 20 miles per hour – are perforce finding that they are at such risk of crashing into other users that they must abandon the trail. Not a surprise. Paved trails in suburban areas always draw so much usage that roadies end up back on the roads again. Ironic, given that these are often the people who put in long years of volunteer work to create the trails in the first place. On the plus side for cyclists the trail already offers a safer commute to the Acton train station compared to Route 27.
Acton, MA: mile marker for
Assabet River Rail Trail

Mileage markers are in place. Maynard’s start at the Stow/Maynard border (White Pond Road), at 0.0 miles. Touch the stones for a surprise – granite, but clear-coated with some type of rubbery-feeling substance. For the numerically compulsive there are markers every quarter mile, so that the last in Maynard reads 2.25. And then, 100 yards farther is the Maynard/Acton border with a 0.0 stone to indicate the start of the Acton section. The northernmost Acton stone indicates 1.0 miles. Overall length 3.4 miles.

Completion of the trail in Acton and Maynard, added to the Marlborough and Hudson work finished years ago, leaves Stow unfinished as a future project with no date set yet.  

Each town has installed plaques to indicate historic sites. Acton: site of a Morocco leather factory. Maynard: Marble family homestead (very badly overgrown) and the mill complex. In Maynard, choices of images and wording courtesy of the Maynard Historical Commission. Road crossing signage and strobe lights have been installed at major roads. Toward the west end – all completed – Ice House Landing has a parking lot and a kayak launch dock. On weekends the lot is often full because of the many people who want to use the trail or the river. In Acton there are parking lots at the end of Sylvia Street and the north end, near the train station.

Unofficial trash bin next to Trail in Maynard, near
Cumberland Farms gas station. (Click to enlarge photos.)
There is a common misconception that ARRT will in time connect to the Bruce Freedman Trail, which is currently wending its way south, through Acton and toward Concord. Not true. Each project follows separate former railroad right-of-way routes, but the only possible non-road connection between the two is the still-active railroad from Boston to Fitchburg. On-road connection (School Street and Laws Brook Road) will work as an alternative.

Final landscaping is a work in progress. Tree and shrub planting has been nearly completed, but a few of last year's plantings did not survive the winter and will be replaced. Going forward, the towns will have to decide what level of maintenance is needed, whether to snowplow in winter, and also whether to install amenities such as benches and trash receptacles that were not part of the original project. Under maybe, the City of Marlborough teamed up with Zagster, Inc., to offer a bike-share program to city residents, employees and visitors. The two-year pilot started with 30 bikes across five stations, including two on or near the Marlborough portion of the Assabet River Rail Trail. Maynard is exploring installing two bike-share stations, one of which to be on the Trail.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

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, ordered on line, as an e-book, or directly from the author. If from the author, the author makes a $10 profit and you get a signed book. Any other venue and the author (me) gets 70 cents.

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.

I continue to write for the newspaper.
My more recent columns are posted at 

Also posting photos at Instagram: #maynardlifeoutdoors

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
Click on photo to enlarge


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 Life Outdoors 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, 45% humidity)
Maynard – Why “Outdoors”
Eighteenth Century
Birds and Bugs
Nineteenth Century
Assabet River 
Twentieth Century
Marble/Whitney/Parmenter Farm
Twenty-first Century