Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Trees - A Plan for Maynard

Postcard of tree-lined streets (maples and elms), circa 1900
Earlier this year, Maynard contracted with Davey Resource Group Inc (DRG) to conduct an inventory of town-owned trees along streets, in parks, at the cemetery, etc., and then recommend a prioritized maintenance schedule for future tree care. The resultant report, titled Tree Resource Management Plan, dated July 2020, is available at the town’s website under Public Works (DPW), Cemetery and Parks Division. The gist of the report is that Maynard has too high a percentage of one genus of trees (maple) and is skewed toward too many mature trees and not enough young trees. Also, there are many town-owned sites suitable for trees that are empty. The DRG report included recommendations that Maynard plant approximately 400 trees a year for at least the next five years. And estimated that proper tree management will cost on the order of $250,000 per year.

Recommendations are that for an urban or suburban community, no one species make up more than 10 percent of the tree population, and no genus more than 20 percent. Glenwood Cemetery is a special case, as after the hurricane of 1938 killed most of the original plantings circa 1870, the near-majority replacement was with sugar maple. For all of Maynard’s public spaces the inventory is 25 percent Norway maple, 43 percent for all species of maple. Note that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has deemed Norway maple an invasive species and has banned it sale or distribution. Existing trees are allowed to continue to exist.

Tree stump, Nason Street
The tree-planting recommendation of 2,000 trees over five years stems from the inventory study showing that roughly 40 percent of sites suitable for trees are either vacant, or occupied by a stump, dead tree or dying tree. The recommended total also included an estimate for trees apparently health now but will die before the five-year planting period. Appendix D lists short, medium and large trees that are suitable to plant in central New England.    

Separate from what the town can do, property owners should consider planting trees on their own property. Too often, home owners remove trees that are dead, dying, or just too big for the space they occupy, yet do not take action to add trees. Trees have economic, environmental and social value. Realtors estimate that properties with mature trees command a premium sale price. Shade trees on the south and west side can reduce energy costs. Trees and shrubs reduce stormwater water run-off and absorb pollutants from the air. Trees dampen noise, and provide habitat for wildlife. Lastly, research has shown that adequately treed neighborhoods improve mental and physical health when compared to tree-barren areas.       

Insects, both native and invasive, can be tree killers. For much of the past decade, Maynard’s birch and maple trees suffered from winter moths consuming leaves in early spring. The presence of this pest has been diminished recently via introduction of species-specific parasites. Gypsy moth caterpillars have been harsh on oaks especially, but also maple and other species. Spotted lanternfly is an invasive species that has not yet reached eastern Massachusetts.    

European copper beech on Acton Street may be
the largest tree in Maynard. (click to enlarge)
The largest tree in Maynard (not meaning the tallest) appears to be a European copper beech (also known as purple beech) on the west side of Acton Street.  Size is officially calculated as a ‘tree points’ number from girth in inches plus height in feet plus 0.25 times average spread in feet. The tree’s girth is 252 inches. Conservatively estimating height and span both at 60 feet yields a tree points number of 327. While arguably the largest tree, probably not the oldest. Copper beeches were first offered for sale in the U.S. circa 1820, and not widely available until 1850s. Although this tree and the copper beech on St. Bridget’s property are impressive, there are likely native sugar maples that are older.   

Not in the newspaper column:

1912: Maynard had a Moth Department to combat gypsy and browntail moths

1938: Hurricane knocked down hundreds of trees, including spruce trees in Glenwood Cemetery, replaced by sugar maples

1941: Elm tree designated as the state tree; plantings promoted

1960s: Dutch Elm Disease kills hundreds of elm trees

1960s: Multi-year drought contributed to death of hundreds of trees, mostly maple

1967: Conservation Commission established

1970s: DPW budget for purchasing trees less than $1,000/year

1999: Maynard qualifies to be a Tree City USA (needs annual renewal)

2018: Creation of Rail Trail included removal of >650 trees that were at least 4” diameter

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A Phone in the River

September 9th, and an idle glance at the Assabet River from the south side of the Rail Trail bridge brought into view a cellphone on the bottom of the river, face up, in about a foot of water. Next day, still there. Next week, still there. While clearly visible from the bridge, getting to it would not be not simple. A person would have to enter the river on the north side, walk across about 60 feet of algae-slick rocky bottom, and then back. Clearly, the owner decided this was a lost cause. In all probability the phone is will still be there until the next serious high water moves it downriver.

Can a cell phone be rescued from a brief immersion in water? Yes. Newer models are water resistant. Recommendations in general are to get the phone out of the water as fast as possible. If it was on, turn it off. If it was off, do NOT turn it on. Wipe the externals dry. If possible to open it up, remove the battery and SIM card. Dry the inside. Next, there are emergency kits specific for rescuing wet phones – basically a plastic bag with packets of desiccant, to draw out the water. Takes about 24 hours. Prices are in range of $5 to 20. These work far better than burying the phone in dry rice. Don’t try drying the phone faster with a hair dryer! High temperatures can permanently damage cell phones. [And a little surprise: first generation 5G phones downgrade to 4G within minutes when the temperature gets much about 85 degrees Fahrenheit because the phones generate too much heat to safely stay in 5G mode.] Now, back to our phone-in-the-river, and let’s see if we can imagine various scenarios.

Oops. Perhaps the phone owner saw some photogenic wildlife in the river and wanted a photo. Animal sightings in or near this stretch of river have included beaver, muskrat, great blue heron, and snapping turtle, also the less photogenic fish, snakes and frogs.

Click to enlarge
“Oops.” Via use of a camera with a telephoto lens it was possible to make out the phone maker and model – a Samsung Galaxy 5 – introduced in spring 2014. This model met IP-67 water resistance standards, meaning that it should not be damaged by immersion in water up to one meter deep for less than 30 minutes.  Even at launch, the phone was criticized for clunky appearance and software, and too many unnecessary features, such as heart rate monitor. Samsung released the next model Galaxy 6 a year later. If this particular phone had become the hand-me-down to a child that was unhappy with being stuck with an outdated phone, it may have ‘accidently’ fallen into the river in a plot to get a better phone.

Distraction. Distracted walking is a thing. People have become so engrossed with what is on the small screen, or talking, or texting, that they have walked into lampposts, Honolulu passed a law making it illegal to look at a phone while crossing the street. London and other cities have experimented with padded lampposts. Vehicle/pedestrian accidents are increasing, and the pedestrians are increasingly at fault. (This is not to say that distracted driving is not contributing to more accidents, too.) Perhaps a person managed to walk into the side of the bridge and dropped their phone.

Ire: Two people walking, one intent on whatever is on the phone, while the other is trying to start an important conversation. In this scenario, the (one-sided) conversation could be along the lines of “What do you think? Hey, I’m talking to you! This is really important!! How can that phone be more important than what I am trying to tell you!” Splash.

Anger. This time, an imagined two-sided conversation. “I don’t want to date you anymore.” How can you say that when we are perfect together?” “I’m not happy with you anymore. Sometimes you say bad things about me in front of our friends.” “But you know I’m just joking.” “It doesn’t feel like joking.” “I’ll stop.” “You say that, but you don’t” “But I really, really love you.” “It’s too late for that.” “Yeah, well, remember those photos I took of you last week? On this phone? If you break up with me I’m going to put those on Facebook!” Grab. Splash.

UPDATE: After submitting this to the newspaper, a visit to the bridge discovered that someone had thrown a rock into the river that came to rest on top of the phone. The edge of the phone is still visible.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Vitamin K

How to write about a vitamin when deficiency is rare and there are apparently no benefits from taking it as a dietary supplement? Keep it short.

First, the name. Seventy to one hundred years ago, when vitamins were being isolated as naturally occurring chemical compounds and confirmed as being essential to health, the naming was by alphabetical lettering: A, B, C, D, E…  “B” later turned out to be several water-soluble vitamins, hence B1 through B12 (with 4, 8, 10 and 11 later losing their vitamin status, much like Pluto no longer being a planet). The current list skips from E to K because compounds tentatively assigned letters F–J were either reclassified over time as part of the B set, or not being essential. The Danish scientists who isolated the substance also wanted to use “K” because it signifies “koagulation,” (in English, “coagulation”).

What does vitamin K do? Nearly 20 enzymes (functional proteins) are designated as “Gla proteins” because they are initially synthesized with some glutamate amino acids which are then converted to gamma-carboxyglutamate (Gla) amino acids by the action of vitamin K. When the vitamin is not in sufficient quantity the amino acids in these proteins are under-carboxylated. Sufficient vitamin K means the enzymes are adequately carboxylated, and therefore able to bind calcium. Let’s cut to the chase. With vitamin K, blot clots. Without vitamin K, no clots. Gla proteins are also involved in bone health and some other stuff no one has figured out yet.

In the 1920s, animal studies with fat-free diets led to uncontrolled bleeding, reversible after fat was restored to the diet. The addition of purified fat and cholesterol to the diet did not work, suggesting there was a vital substance needed in only small amounts. Meanwhile, dairy farmers saw incidences of uncontrolled bleeding when cows were fed moldy silage made from sweet clover. The cause was a fungal fermentation metabolite of coumarin, a compound found in many plants. “Warfarin”, a coumarin metabolite, was developed as an effective and widely used rat poison – when mixed with food, the rats that eat the food die from internal bleeding.    

The histories converged. Vitamin K was confirmed as a clotting co-factor. Warfarin inhibited the process. In 1951 a person who attempted suicide with rat poison was successfully treated with intravenous vitamin K. The actual mechanism was not discovered until 1978, when it was shown that warfarin blocks an enzyme that recycles vitamin K after it had donated a carboxyl molecule.  The next step – a large step – was to see if small doses of this rat poison on a daily basis could inhibit unwanted coagulation, such as occurs in deep vein thrombosis in the legs, a condition potentially fatal if clots dislodge and travel to the heart and lungs. It worked. Warfarin became both a rat poison and a prescription drug, and remains so to this day. In this context, vitamin K – oral or injected – is a drug used to reverse accidental or deliberate overdosing with warfarin.  

The other major medical use is to prevent infant bleeding that may occur days to months after birth. Vitamin K is poorly transported across the placenta during pregnancy, so supplementing the pregnant mother-to-be is not effective. Breast milk is not a good source. Infants are given a one-time injection, or else several months of weekly oral treatment, as a precaution.

How much is needed to stay healthy? The U.S. National Institutes of Health thinks an Adequate Intake is 90 and 120 micrograms per day, respectively, for women and men. The European Union posits that 70 micrograms per day is enough for all adults. Any diet that contains sufficient amounts of leafy greens (spinach, lettuce) and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussel sprouts…) should deliver enough. Most of the dietary supplement products in the U.S. are 100 micrograms, although a few are as high as 500. In this range there is no concern for side effects for taking too much.  

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Rail Trail: Two Year Anniversary

ARRT Ribbon cutting ceremony, August 10, 2018
Recently, the north end of the Assabet River Rail Trail, encompassing Acton and Maynard, reached its two-year anniversary. A ribbon-cutting ceremony had been held on August 10, 2018, at the Acton terminus. This represented the end of two years of construction, as the ground-breaking ceremony had been in Maynard, July 2016. The south end, spanning Marlborough and part of Hudson, had been completed years earlier. The gap in the middle, Stow and part of Hudson, may be years away. In the interim it is possible to do two miles west from the Maynard/Stow border on a privately owned dirt road, to Sudbury Road in Stow, then two miles on roads – Sudbury Road and Route 62 – to reconnect with the south section of the trail, in Hudson. From there, it is 5.8 miles of paved trail to Marlborough.

A recent walk on the Acton/Maynard portion, 3.4 miles in length, found the asphalt in almost entirely excellent condition – no surprise. There is one crack developing about 50 yards west of Florida Road and a series of small cracks about 50 yards east of Ice House Landing which may in time need preventive maintenance, i.e., crack filling. Paved trails typically last for 15-20 years before repaving needs to be considered. Given that the south end was completed in 2005, those towns may be coming up on some seriously expensive maintenance.

Questionnaires sent to trail managers by the Rails-to-Trails conservancy in 1996, 2005 and again in 2015 led to reports on how trails are being maintained and what organizations are paying for that work. See for the most recent report. A salient fact: Per that report, the cost of maintaining an asphalt-paved trail averaged $1,971 per mile per year. This encompassed work done by town employees and a value put on volunteer labor; collectively, the 2015 report tallied this as about 13.5 hours of labor per trail mile per year. The Assabet River Rail Trail organization, incorporated in 1995, had provided volunteer efforts involving trail clearing to create a walkable path before the paving began. Volunteer work continues on the paved trail.

ARRT trash bin near Cumberland
Farms, maintained by volunteers
The nature of work – town-paid and volunteered – includes litter removal, repairing vandalism and removing trash dumping (old car tires, etc.), mowing plant growth bordering trails and combating invasive plant species. Trees fall on trails, or else are standing dead trees threatening to do so. Drainage ditches bordering trails need to be kept clear of plant debris or else their function is compromised. Some towns will operate leaf blowers in the fall, and snow plowing in winter. Maynard and Acton have decided to not clear snow from the trail. Towns may choose to plow trail parking lots, thus providing parking for people who want to ski, snowshoe or hike. There are also information kiosks, benches, signage and in Maynard a couple of trash receptacles, all of which also require maintenance.

The 2015 report also noted, surprisingly, that 60% of the returned questionnaires did not confirm a written maintenance plan. While personal injury lawsuits are very rare, the report went on to suggest that towns should have a process to regularly inspect trails, correct unsafe conditions, and keep records. Signage of rules and regulations and hours of operation need to be posted at trailheads and other access locations. Not everyone is aware that ARRT’s signs include “Maximum Speed: 15 mph” and “Give an audible warning before passing,” but the signs are there. Guidelines for what organized volunteer groups can and cannot do need to be established, for example using herbicides.

Part of the rail trail guidelines sign

As for what was observed during the recent walk-through, there was remarkably little litter along the trail, with the exception of downtown Maynard, and only a few instances of graffiti. Kiosks were empty or near-empty of content. Maynard’s Department of Public Works mows the trail’s shoulders; Acton’s does not. In both towns, there are dozens of standing dead trees that will in time fall on the trail. Toward the westernmost end of the trail, a fallen tree has broken a wooden railing. Several of the trees that were planted as part of the trail landscaping in 2018 have died. Consideration should be given to combating invasive plant species such as Oriental bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, and purple loosestrife, the last beginning to appear in the wetter sections of drainage ditches.

When tested on August 25th, the button on the pedestrian crossing light on the east side of Florida Road did not work, and same for south side of the Main Street crosswalk. Buttons and lights on both sides of the Route 117, Summer Street and Acton Street crossings were working.