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Three Self-Portraits (Tiny Hills)

On August 31, I ambled my way to the highest point in Rhode Island: Jerimoth Hill, accessible via a 1/10 mile trail that ascends a whopping ten total vertical feet. (Friends of mine joked – “Surely Federal Hill is the highest point in the state.” Natch.) Having both Mount Mansfield in Vermont and 31 miles of the AT in the previous two weeks, it was a trifle – I was there to tick a box in the list of New England’s highest points.

But it turned out to be a bit more emotional than I anticipated. I sat on the little rock, festooned with a helpful cairn, and snapped the first of what would end up being three self-portraits over the next month. There was a trail book in a steel strongbox on the rock as well, and in it I wrote: “We are not crushed by mountains, but suffocated by tiny hills.”

Today I’m thinking of Carol and another recently deceased seminary friend, the redoubtable Bill Bradford. Bill was known by many as “the badass chaplain,” and he did indeed completely own his chosen vocation. Bill had depths of compassion that most of us will never begin to reach. He often quoted Paul Tillich: “The first duty of love is to listen,” and he was above all else a man who knew how be present to the sick, the poor, the oppressed.  He will be missed.

My portraits: grieving, waiting, pushing back – against the tiny hills.

Life Lessons from the Appalachian Trail

Three days into the AT, around Lime Rock springs in a crushing 92F heat, I sat down on a rock while my companion went to filter water and wrote these words: “There are places that scrape against the sky, where cold, clear water trickles from the earth, and the spirits of forbearing history reveal their timeless secrets in rustling needles, slow grumbles of thunder, and speechless boulders. It’s hard, hard work to reach these places. But they are necessary, and worth every aching step, bruised tendon, and startling challenge to our egos and self-assumptions that come with getting to them.”

All told, I spent an incredible four days on the Appalachian Trail. The goal was to complete the 51 miles of the Connecticut portion, but ultimately we managed 32 – slowed, alas, by the soaring temperatures. Heat dents the reserves of even a seasoned hiker, and with the thermometer cruising well toward triple digits we lost much time to stopping to rest and filter water.

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At the Great Overlook along the Housatonic River. 

We spent our first night at Sages Ravine, then made our way up the formidable north side of Bear Mountain. From there, we made our way to Lion’s Head and another spectacular summit. Our second night was spent at Limestone Spring, an isolated AT campsite that involved descending a sheer rock wall to reach! From there, we returned to the AT and made our way up Prospect Mountain, then along the Housatonic River and through the fields and farms of Falls Village as the solar eclipse peaked, and at last reached the summit of Mount Sharon, where we made camp. Just as darkness fell, a massive thunder storm rolled in – we covered the tent quickly and mostly stayed dry, thanks to my partner’s ingenuity with her backpack’s rain fly. (The group of Yale students nearby weren’t as clever.) From Mount Sharon, we descended into the environs of West Cornwall and then ascended Mount Easter, then traveled along the ridge line, then up again to the lofty and breathtaking Pine Knob. At the edge of the Housatonic State Forest, we hooked up with a very kind Ranger who drove us back to Kent. (Thanks, Judy.)

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I was sorely tired and yet even now I miss it dearly. I find myself longing for my feet on the trails again, a feeling that’s with me daily. Since then I’ve only had time to summit Mount Greylock in Massachusetts – the final peak of New England’s tallest in each state, save Katahdin which I will ascend next year.

Highlights – drinking from cold mountain springs, the strange and varied sounds of wildlife at night, the breeze along the back of the mountains, making do where cell phones don’t work, mystical and glorious stone stairways that summon Tolkien, and even – just a very little – outdoor privies. Also, there’s a real spirit among AT hikers, an easy friendliness and willingness to share food and stories, and – with through hikers – an almost solemn focus to their work. As for the remaining 20 miles, I intend to finish those up in October.

Six peaks and some 32 miles in three days. Hard, hard work – and the best work ever.

 

To Carol in the Summerland

My beloved friend Carol has passed away.

We met at Andover-Newton in 2005. From the very start, Carol demonstrated exceptional kindness and grace. It was while in seminary that I was relieved of my innocence about people of faith; by and large, they are people of many words and scant action. It’s become reflexive in America to assume that someone who professes a deep faith is hypocritical and vain. While my time at ANTS was lovely in many ways, it was my experience that, indeed, many passionate believers are also thoroughly flawed individuals – and I should know, I was one of them. But Carol was one of the few people I have met in all my travels who lived her faith and convictions without the slightest self-importance or condescension. Her belief in the goodness of people and the necessity of compassion were absolute – and amply proven by the unfailing generosity and love she showed to everyone who met her.

Carol and her husband Len were among the very first attendees at a “Film and Television Club” I began at Andover-Newton in my role as the Student Activities director. When I moved on campus, Carol and Len – both avid sci-fi and fantasy fans – invited me over to their dormitory to watch “Babylon 5.” The three of us became fast friends with a common love for philosophical inquiry and popular culture – preferably taken together. We discussed the theological underpinnings of our favorite shows and books. Later, we’d have Professor Kirk Jones’ course “The Jazz of Preaching” together and share many meaningful moments built around music. Our times together alternated harmoniously between sacred and secular: a small gathering for prayer and healing in the campus chapel one night, a pizza party in Sturtevant Hall watching “The Muppets’ Christmas Carol” the next. I adored Carol’s sense of humor and wit, both of which were used effectively in her capacity as a raconteur: I loved her stories of younger days, how she and Len met (such a delightful and endearing tale), and the travels she’d made – her trip to Italy made for a trove of great stories. Such was her warmth and amicability that she insisted on an embrace each time we met up dinner in the cafeteria or went out for breakfast at the diner down the hill.

Carol made seminary a richer experience. We had tremendous fun at the Boston Science Museum’s Star Wars special exhibition and playing board games like “Settlers of Canaan” or “Risk: Godstorm.” She introduced me to local blues artist Ronnie Earl and took a group of us to see him perform at Berklee.  Her good-natured and always up-beat presence was the catalyst for more late-nights in seminary playing games or eating ice cream than I can remember. We grew so close in friendship that Len and Carol were present at my wedding in 2007 – Carol had such kind and sagely words for me at the occasion, and I’ll ever cherish them. Less than a year later in 2008, Len and Carol would travel to India with my mother and I, as part of a border-crossing experience to learn about faith in the 3/4ths world context. Together, we had such fun visiting ashrams and temples, shopping for clothing, and taking a very hairy bus ride up the mountain to Kodaikanal.

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Carol (center) with my mother (left) and Len (right) in the environs of Chennai, India, January 6 2008.

 

 

After finishing at Andover-Newton in 2012, Len and Carol moved out to California, and regrettably the last time I saw her was in 2013. We continued to chat via social media or phone. I learned of Carol’s cancer in 2015, and at the time she told me not to pray, but “tug on the fabric of potentiality.” I had hoped, of course, that she would beat the cancer and continue to bless the world with her presence. Though she did not, I know that in her final days she was surrounded by loved ones and ready for her transition. Len and I spoke at length a few days ago, and during that call I had the chance to tell Carol how grateful I was for her friendship.

Carol’s singular sense of compassion weathered me through the darkest years of my life. When I had utterly failed as a human being, Carol continued to believe in me. My worst misdeeds did not erode her faith in me; she wanted always to see me overcome my demons and become the person that she knew I could become. Because of her faith in me, I did become that person, and perhaps the most difficult part of losing Carol is feeling that the debt of gratitude is unpaid. I would not be who I am today – a person quite literally transformed in every way – without her friendship and support. She modeled for me and for all whom she met the best of what faith should be: self-aware, open to exploration and question, pursued with humility and a desire to evolve and grow in wisdom.  How suitable that she spoke of traveling to The Summerland – a place of reflection and rest for the soul – after death. I regret that River never got to meet her. They would have loved each other.

Carol, I will miss you. May you sing joyfully in the Summerland. May you cast spells in that soft and golden place that reach us still here. All my love, always.

Cultural Masculinity and Being “Less of a Man” Than Donald Trump

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Donald Trump (image courtesy of Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

Note: This article also appears on The Huffington Post.

The Asexuality Visibility and Education Network (AVEN) Facebook page recently posted a question for male aces: does being cis-male and an asexual make one “less of a man?” That is, does being an asexual diminish one’s inner sense of masculinity or the way others perceive our masculinity?

Oy. Well, that kind of binary thinking – plopping things readily into either the masculine or feminine category – is anathema to gender/sexual justice, as we know. If we tease the probable intent out of an awkwardly worded question, however, I think there’s a useful prompt for discourse therein. What’s the relationship between the American cultural construct of masculinity and asexuality? Can one accouter themselves in the trappings of ‘manhood’ if they lack that libido upon which so much of cultural masculinity is predicated? And, most importantly, can one be perceived as a “man” without the element of a robust (rampant, even excessive) sex drive?

First, full disclosure: I don’t identify as male, but as agender or non-binary. For some, that may negate anything I have to say on the matter of cis-manhood or the cultural stereotypes around it. Second, throwing myself up for comparison against that cultural construct, I don’t really fare well. If we presume the simplest, monolithic definition of masculinity perpetuated by our media, to be a “man” includes some level of interest in professional competitive sports (especially as an exclusive refuge from women), a gastronomical penchant for meat and beer, and some dalliance with hunting and/or guns. For the sake of honesty, I willingly admit that I know nothing of sports (Trivia Crack gives me a 62 average, or D-, in this category), I prefer good wines over beer any day, and I despise violence and weapons. Add to that a fondness for classical music, a love of gardening, and an unabashed bibliokleptomania, and I’m certain I’d make poor company for John Wayne.

All right, jocularity aside, the generally accepted academic construct of masculinity includes, at a minimum, emotional detachment, using violence as a solution to conflict, self-interest, and entitlement. “Real” men are not concerned with emotional intelligence, which is deemed weak, but with strength and material acquisition.

This is a broad-brush and thus highly problematic view of masculinity, or course, but it’s one that’s accepted, recycled, and imposed on us by our media. (I take care to differentiate between biological ‘maleness’ and socially constructed gender. The latter is the subject of my study, here.) Perhaps I’m an outsider to this variety of male culture and identity, but I was indeed born cis-male, and I’ve seen it in action more times than my eyes can bear. I’ve observed it in men who assume they’re entitled to sex and in the undercurrent of privilege and entitlement that inform and sustain stereotypical masculinity. A complete picture of cultural male identity is way beyond the scope of a brief editorial like this, but we do know that it often includessocializing cis-men to suppress emotions that aren’t directly connected to aggression or lust. The admonition to “be a man” is presumed to mean ignoring pain, eschewing a full acknowledgement and experience of sadness or loss. To be a “man” is also to channel aggression into ambition that takes little or no account of the rights of others. It’s the image of masculinity we see with depressing regularity in film, television, and print. Conversely, it’s mirrored in the construct of “femininity” advanced by the same institutions, many of which focus on physical attractiveness to men as the essential quality of womanhood.

If you think this archetype of the impassive, predatory male swigging his beer, slinging his gun, and stalking women for sexual conquests is a thing of the past, the events of the past week may compel you to guess again. Donald Trump’s hot mic glorification of sexual assault falls right into the traditional assumptions of masculinity, evidenced very well by the cadre of men who leaped to his defensewith the feckless excuse that it was “locker room banter.” Rudy Giuliani reiterated the stereotype of the predatory male with the statement that “men at times talk like that.”

We want to believe that Trump represents the exception, and I’ve lost count of the well-intentioned friends who try to minimize his words with the response “I don’t know any men who speak that way.” But these men, and this type of privileged thinking, exist in great number – Trump’s ascension to presidential nominee is ample proof of that. Witness, too, the context of many of Trump’s most grievous rhetorical attacks on women: The Howard Stern Show. Stern is another example of the vast industry of manufactured “male” identity, an incredibly well-paid individualwhose listeners tune in specifically to hear him demean and degrade women. (”I’d rather have a retarded hot woman than a slob who’s a doctor,” said Stern of beauty pageant contestants.) Let this serve as a remind that patriarchy and misogyny can’t be pinned on one blowhard ignoramus, but are systemic problems sustained by powerful institutions like media, government, and religion. To the extent that traditional masculinity is a credible construct, it is both a product and producer of men like Trump and his supporters.

Which brings us back to the question of how useful it is to be ‘masculine’ and how sexuality (or in this case, asexuality) relates to manhood. Sex and the drive for it is an integral part of the self-identity of most people on our planet, to be sure. As an asexual, I seek equal standing and dignity in the ranks of our species, not to elevate my identity above others. (I don’t think anyone would argue for an imposed asexuality in any identity.) But the question of masculinity vis-à-vis asexuality invokes the urgency of remaking masculinity by combating the cultural construct of manhood that presently prevails, a paradigm that has done so much harm to people in marginalized groups. In simple terms, I think we ought to be asking not if asexuality reduces one’s stature as a “man,” but rather “what can we do to change the cultural construct of maleness that has wreaked so much damage?” The lack of a sex drive shouldn’t preclude one from the sense of being masculine, but neither should being a “man” continue to include the types of privilege that lead to the objectification of women and subjugation of other identities.

The future paradigm of cultural masculinity should be broader, smarter, and more peaceful than its historical precedent, because if being “less of a man” means being less like Trump and his ilk, we should all pursue that end.

Managing You: Why You Must Keep a Personal Health Record

Pop Quiz:

  1. Who is your primary care provider?
  2. When was your Tdap vaccination? Tetanus? Most recent influenza shot?
  3. Did you have a physical this year? What were the results?
  4. What are the medications you’re currently taking, and what are the dosages?

If you did poorly, don’t beat yourself up – many Americans are unaware of how to keep track of their health. But think about it: do you keep your motor vehicle documents like registration and proof of insurance in a handy folder in your car, along with records of all the service work you’ve had done on it? Do you store your tax returns and important personal documents in a safe, convenient place at home? If you do, then why aren’t you doing the same about what is arguably the most important thing you possess – your body? Shouldn’t you be showing the same diligence, if not more, for your health and wellness?

Allow me to introduce the concept of the Personal Health Record.  Simply put, the PHR is a detailed library that contains all of the most up-to-date information from your electronic medical record (EMR) – the database held by your doctors and insurance providers for the purpose of medical coding and billing – and your own notes on your health. In contrast to the EMR, your PHR is yours to control, modify, and manipulate as you see fit. It can be used through a platform of your choice: an online database, an app for your phone, or – as in my case – a hard copy in a three ring binder with color-coded tabs.

If you’re familiar with pedometers, FitBit, or apps for your phone like CouchTo5k and Fooducate, you already understand a little of how a PHR works. Most Americans, in fact, have used a fitness or weight loss program or app at some point in their lives. You’ve probably written down how much exercise you did, or tracked your caloric intake for a diet, at some point in your life. Your PHR, however, is more complete, integrating the information your health care team already has into a more comprehensive picture of your biological profile. A good PHR can include your fitness routine and calories consumed, but also keeps track of much more. 

The benefit of maintaining a PHR is, of course, knowledge – and, thank you Sir Francis Bacon – ipsa scientia potestas est: knowledge is power. Here’s how one paper, in the Journal of American Medical Informatics, put it:

Personal health record systems are more than just static repositories for patient data; they combine data, knowledge, and software tools, which help patients to become active participants in their own care.

In other words, PHRs give you a variety of additional tools to manipulate data. For example, if you track you blood pressure daily, you can use you PHR to determine your average BP over the course of a week. You can form a data set for how many calories you’ve burned while exercising. Raw data is just the beginning; with the magic of mathematics, your basic data allows software programs to draw conclusions about your health, and advise changes when needed. (You can also manipulate the data yourself, if you’re so inclined.) The article continues:

One of the most important PHR benefits is greater patient access to a wide array of credible health information, data, and knowledge. Patients can leverage that access to improve their health and manage their diseases. Such information can be highly customized to make PHRs more useful. Patients with chronic illnesses will be able to track their diseases in conjunction with their providers, promoting earlier interventions when they encounter a deviation or problem. (The complete article is available here. The National Center for Biotechnology Information is a tremendous, free scientific resource by the way.)

This a critical conclusion: tracking your health improves your general well-being. If you’ve got up to date information, you can – as is described above – note quickly any deviations from the norm and get medical assistance faster. Keeping on top of your weight, having blood tests results on your white blood cell count, A1C, iron levels and much more, recording changes in your weight or sleep patterns, and so on allows you to make smarter decisions. Being conscious of your health on a daily basis gives you an advantage, too, when time is crucial. Often, it’s small symptoms that are overlooked or – worse – ignored that signal a serious health issue.  

And they’re not joking about speed and ease of communication, either. I get my office visit summaries, diagnostic images, test results, and more through MyChartPlus, and last time I had blood work done I had all of the lab results before my doctor did. I can also make, cancel, and reschedule appointments online or with my phone. My doctor can send me letters or messages through it, too.

So what should you include in your PHR, and how should you manage it? Well, the format is a matter of personal taste; you may prefer a desktop software program – as simple as a Word or Excel sheet or a more complete program created specifically as a PHR like Microsoft’s HealthVault (n.b., Microsoft ended support for the Healthvault for the Windows phone literally today, as this article was published. The online and desktop service seems to still be available). Web-based applications like MyMinerva or Dossia Health Management System give you the piece of mind of knowing your data is backed up offline – though, conversely, it comes with the risk of security breaches that could put your private medical information into someone else’s hands. For smartphone users, the MyMedical and OnPatient PHR apps are both great, but shop around to find the one you prefer. And, as I mentioned before, you can also keep your records in a well-organized binder – a bit old fashioned, I suppose, but easy to access and reference when you need it. I print my information from my EMR or get copies at the doctor’s office, and file them away for use when needed.  

As to what information to include, I am of the mind that more is better. I include a daily record of all my exercise, I take my vitals and record them each morning, and I even have flow sheets to monitor my diet. Full disclosure, however: I am of the “Type A” personality, to the degree that I color coordinate my pens to my scrubs, and my scrubs to my lunchbox.

Here’s a saner list of what you want to include, at a minimum, in your PHR: 

  1. Your prescriptions, the dosages of each, and the frequency of administration
  2. Your immunizations
  3. Your physicals, including the list of current health concerns/chronic illnesses and doctor’s report on your overall health
  4. Lab results – (blood work, biopsies) and imaging results – ultrasounds, X-rays, and the like.
  5. Your insurance information.
  6. Reports from any specialists you’ve seen, histories of any procedures (surgeries) performed
  7. Emergency contact information
  8. Your allergies to any medications and/or latex
  9. A copy of your living will, advanced directive, or any legal documentation of this sort (including DNRs)
  10. A journal with anything you’ve noticed or consider worth reporting (what are called Observations of Daily Living or ODLs). This can include simple reports such as, “I’ve had a dull pain in my side for the past three days,” or “I’ve been feeling nauseous a lot lately.”
  11. A brief record of your emotional/cognitive health and what you do to maintain it. This isn’t often recommended, but I think it’s important. Doing things you enjoy – and that reduce anxiety – are vital to good health. Making a record encourages you to remember to take care of your emotional being, too – through meditation, creative arts, gardening, a hobby, or whatever it is that gives you joy. 
  12. Your fitness routine and at least a sketch of your diet. 

It may seem daunting, but I ask you again to consider: aren’t you worth it? Don’t you deserve at least as much attention as your car? At least some experts think most of us just don’t care, and that’s why PHRs have yet to come into widespread use. Maybe they’re right. I prefer to think, however, that most people would embrace PHRs once they see how easy they are to use and the benefits they offer. Being “in charge” of your health is empowering. There’s a sense of pride in ownership when we are diligent monitors and protectors of this fleshy vehicle that carries us through life. Maintaining a PHR gives you a complete picture of your wellness, and with that knowledge you’re better prepared to make smarter choices for continued good health. 

One final note – if you need some information to get your PHR started, remember that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act gives you the right to inspect and receive copies of all of your medical records, electronic or otherwise, upon request. Ask them what software program they use to manage your EMR, and how you can get a login ID and password to access all of your health information. If your PCP doesn’t offer an online EMR, ask that they do so (it’s 2016, come on).  

Note: This article also appears on medium.com.

Report from the Trails: Summer 2016

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The yellow-blazed Brown Marsh trail in Goodwin State Forest, September 2016. (c) Jace Paul.

Hello friends, 

Another New England summer has passed into history, and with it the prime hiking season for observing the full diversity of our region’s flora and fauna. This year, the state of the forests is all about water – or the lack of it. Droughts have become typical for Connecticut, as in many other states, and as of September 9, 2016 Connecticut remains in a state of Drought Alert, with most of the state in a moderate drought condition and some areas (the northeast region from Windsor Locks to Putnam) in extreme drought conditions. The combination of high temperatures and very low precipitation has both immediate and long-term effects on our ecosystem.

Tree health is compromised when dry conditions weaken or destroy the newer, non-woody roots, and water circulation to the higher parts of the tree is diminished. Poorly watered trees are more susceptible to infectious fungi, root rot, and insect invaders. The ash-borer, an invasive species that kills tens of millions of trees each year, thrives when trees are already compromised by drought. Of course, the big (bad) insect of 2016 was surely the ubiquitous gypsy moth caterpillar (Lymantria dispar), which devoured hundreds of acres of forest canopy across New England. Gypsy moth outbreaks are not uncommon in our region, but this year’s was the worst in some three decades because the species thrives when – you guessed it – precipitation is abnormally low. Trees already compromised by drought, then, experienced additional hardship when their canopy disappeared into the mandibles of thousands of hungry caterpillars. The outbreak was finally brought under control by the fungus Entomophagia maimagia, which normally controls gypsy moth populations but requires a wetter spring season to do so.

With this array of environmental concerns for trees, we should expect a “blink and you’ll miss it” autumn foliage event this year. The good news is that trees are hardy by and large, and it takes more than a year or two of drought conditions to cause lasting damage on forest health. However, given the reality of climate change and the expectation that drought conditions will occur more frequently in the coming years, tree health and forest mortality is a serious concern going forward. 

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Dusk on Pine Acres Pond, February 2016. (c) Jace Paul.

The drought also affected river, stream, and wetland health. If you’ve been out at all this summer, you’ve no doubt noticed the very low waterlines of many of our streams and rivers. Connecticut was forced to ban fishing in several areas due to the very low water levels of rivers and streams, where salmon and trout numbers are reduced. Diminished flow not only affects fish and other aquatic life, but also causes concentration of environmental pollutants like heavy metals and agricultural runoff, leading to decreased water quality. Algal blooms (particularly of cyanobacteria) can deposit toxins in the water, increase surface acidity, and choke out competing plants and fish in the surrounding environments.  Waterfowl and aquatic insects have fewer options for nesting and feeding, and plants that thrive in standing water or along river banks die off.

Mosquitoes, however, are more complicated: some species, like the Culex variety, thrive in drought conditions because they lay eggs in stagnant, warm water and in the muddy areas that remain when streams and rivers dry up. Across much of New England, however, the overall mosquito population was reduced this year.

Mammals and reptiles have been forced to venture farther afield for hunting and nesting, and bear sightings are on the rise across the state. Vernal pools, a critical component of our ecosystem where turtles home, dried up very early this year, and there was a rise in the number of turtles killed on roads as they attempted to find water.

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An old trail sign in Natchaug State Forest, April 2016. (c) Jace Paul.

Agriculture in Connecticut has also been impacted by the drought. The peach crop was already decimated by an unusual cold snap in February, but extreme heat and dryness became the nail in the coffin for peaches, pears, and plums across the state. This year’s apple crop will fare slightly better, with only a modest fifteen-percent reduction in volume due to the drought.

Given the many challenges to our natural landscape, the need for strong leadership in environmental justice is clear – but, unfortunately, the news from the political ecosystem is just as dire in Connecticut this year. Governor Dan Malloy, already under fire for gutting the state’s funding to hospitals, schools, and arts programs, announced a 14% reduction in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection budget, forcing the agency to close three state campgrounds and drastically reduce services to other state parks and beaches. The DEEP outlined how this severe cut would impact the programs and staff that monitor environmental quality and oversee conservation efforts. Incidentally, governor Malloy also slashed the DEEP budget in 2015. In short, environmental concerns continue to grow, with the DEEP sounding an alarm on many issues, while the political establishment in Connecticut drains the resources available to combat them. 

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A marsh in Gay City State Park, June 2016. (c) Jace Paul

Thankfully, Connecticut has a number of private organizations picking up the slack. The Connecticut Forest and Park Association continues to play a vital role in protecting and supporting our woodlands. Without them, we simply would not have many of the trails that we do, nor would they be as well cared-for as they are. The Last Green Valley also helps protect the woods and wildlife of Eastern Connecticut, with programs like their RBV stream monitoring program doing what the DEEP no longer has the personnel to do. Finally, smaller organizations like the Friends of the Goodwin forest provide a tremendous service engaging the public with free educational programs and forest/park maintenance. If you can, support these organizations by donating or volunteering.  

If all this seems like a glut of bad news, the hiking season this year was nevertheless a wonderful one. Of course, nature is a web of relationship, and often a curse for one species is a boon for another. As a hiker, I observed fewer mosquitoes and deer ticks and more of certain species – the shore at Black Spruce Pond, for example, was rife with frogs, which drew magnificent herons and cormorants to observe, too. Snakes traveling afar afforded me the opportunity to see four of Connecticut’s fourteen species in the wild, including the eastern black racer whose numbers have been drastically reduced in recent years. As of today, I have done 67 hikes totaling 345.7 miles, including all of the Natchaug and Nipmuck trails.

Our forests and parks continue to be a jewel to our state, and if you haven’t been hiking this year, I urge you to do so while the weather is still accommodating. Above all, take action to protect the future of our wild lands and the species that inhabit them. 

See you on the trails.

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The Natchaug River, August 2016. (c) Jace Paul.

An Orange Chicken, a Quirky Quercus, and a Scenic View of Scotland (AND a Free Photo)

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The Chapin trail snakes through a magnificent understory of ferns and saplings.

Hello friends,

It often pays to take a detour on to unmarked or previously unexplored trails (but not into the forest itself, please). Yesterday, I discovered an entire new wilderness preserve purely by chance. I was heading north on the Nipmuck trail, planning to go just past Gurleyville road and turn around. Right around the site of the old Chaffeeville Silk Mill, I noticed a white-blazed trail exiting on the road, and through trees I spied a Town of Mansfield sign announcing the “Coney Rock Preserve.” The sign warned of a “steep” ascent leading to a grand view of the Fenton River. I calculated the total distance of the trails (I wanted at least six miles of hiking that day) and headed up the hill.

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The very old white oak (quercus alba) found in the Coney Rock preserve.

The choice to deviate from my planned hike was well rewarded, as I found myself at first in an extensive hemlock grove and then breezy, silent deciduous forest appointed with a gorgeous understory. Along the hike, I laid eyes on two barred owls in the canopy and discovered one of the oldest white oak trees I’ve ever seen (see photo at left). From about 1830-1850, deforestation for agriculture was at its peak in New England, with some 60-80% of all native forests obliterated by human activity. Connecticut forest, thus, are fairly young, and it’s a wonderful thing to find a tree as old as this grand old lady, who clearly predates the most frenetic period of deforestation. (A sad note: after a dramatic falling off in the early to mid twentieth century, deforestation in New England has been steadily rising in recent decades.)

 

I took the most circuitous route possible and made my way along the Olsen, Woodland Road, and Mullane trails to eventually return to the Chapin trail, where the park’s eponymous rock is located. The parks and rec information kiosk hadn’t exaggerated the view; it really is quite a magnificent west/southwest view of Scotland Connecticut. Unfortunately, the remnants of tropical storm Hermine have been cluttering our skies with low, grey clouds these last few days; I’m sure the view would be even better on a sunnier day.

As I left Coney Rock I took a photo of this gaudy mushroom – the Laetiporus sulphureus, also known as the “sulfur shelf” and “chicken of the woods.” August and September are great months for mycologists as many of our native species appear during this period; the Laetiporus is one such example. They grow in large fan-like clusters called rosettes at the base of oak and beech trees (but typically not conifers) and have a pleasant aroma. As you can see from the photo (below), they also have a shocking salmon hue, very bright and hard to miss if you see one. I don’t generally eat mushrooms, but those who do report that the edible Laetiporus has a lemony flavor and tastes a lot like, well, chicken. (N.b., while that links to a recipe for cooking the chicken of the woods, always consult an EXPERT mycologist on the proper identification of mushrooms you find in the wild. Many species are toxic and possibly fatal if ingested!)

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The shocking, orange/salmon colored “chicken of the woods” growing at the base of an oak tree.

 The free photo of the day is found as the featured photo for this article. That’s Chaffeeville road passing over the Fenton River, just at the ruins of the silk mill site.

Have a great day, friends!