Report from the Trails: Summer 2016

img_3541

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. 

img_2176
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.

img_2496
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. 

img_2909
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.

img_3356
The Natchaug River, August 2016. (c) Jace Paul.

An Ethics of Hiking (and a Free Photo of the Day)

Hello readers!

I’ve been working on a chapter in Eastern Connecticut from the Trails that considers some prolegomena (“first words”; the Greeks used it to mean “prologue” or “introduction”) for a new philosophy of hiking. In its formal presentation, it considers the big questions of philosophy but specifically geared toward hiking. For example, what is a hike? Is it the distance? The location? What makes a hike distinguishable from, say, a particularly long walk to the store? And, what do we learn from hiking (epistemology)?

One of the more, shall we say contentious, subjects with which I’m grappling is the question of why we hike. Unfortunately, my reflections have drawn me to the conclusion that almost all hikers are motivated by internal stimuli: the desire to be fit, the hope of finding solitude, inner peace, a great view. Some hike as amateur scientists: for bird watching, identifying rare or beautiful plants, collecting rocks. But the relationship with nature, too often, is one-sided. We benefit from hiking, but the natural world receives nothing from our presence. Indeed, as the seemingly endless parade of trash on the trails indicates, the forests and wildlife are worse for our interference.

There’s nothing wrong with going out for exercise, spiritual nourishment, or a glimpse of nature’s secret majesty. Every hike I’ve ever done has been compelled by some degree and combination of those aims. If there’s a philosophy of hiking, however, there’s also an ethics that entails from the truths that philosophy proffers. What ethical duty do we have as hikers to ourselves, do others, and to nature?

A full treatment of the ethical dimension of hiking is a bit much for a blog post. But here are some thoughts to get the ball rolling.

For a start, don’t litter the trails. I don’t wish to sound like priggish, so let me underscore that I make it a point to be very generous in my estimation of other people. We’re all human, we all make mistakes. To harp on the folly and ignorance of other people too often is a prescription for a miserable life. But I would gently suggest that, in the ethics of hiking, there’s an obligation to anyone who sets out on the trails to “do no harm,” as the Buddhists say. And I would encourage anyone thinking of hiking to conduct a little self-analysis and honestly assess if they can meet that minimal goal or not.

Let’s imagine a person who simply can’t get behind the wheel of a car and obey the laws that keep the roads safe. They run red lights. They drive at twice the posted speed limit – in a school zone. They frequently drive drunk. Would it be controversial to eventually say this person, who is unwilling to alter their errant ways for the good of the whole, “Perhaps you should just stay off the roads?” And, would it not be responsible and laudable if that person said, “Yes, indeed, I should stay off the roads until I can adhere to the standards that keep our roads safe?”

I think the same situational ethics apply to the trails. If a person cannot hike without casting beer bottles and soiled diapers into the dirt, if the woods are merely a convenient place to have sex and leave used condoms for the rest of us, if they simply must destroy a tree to declare their love “4 ever” for their partner, if they find leash laws and prohibitions against fires, motorized vehicles, and leaving pet excrement on beaches and foot paths too encumbering, then I think it’s quite fair to say: stay home. The trails are not for you quite yet, but we’d love to see you when you can engage in a symbiotic relationship with the outdoors.

This, I believe, points to the one axiom (a statement that is necessarily true, accepted as fact) I’ve discovered in hiking: nature itself has value beyond what it can do for us. The forests, the flora and fauna in their diversity, the ecosystems – all have an intrinsic worth that’s separate and immutable – unlike the value of meat, timber, ore, and other “products” we harvest from nature.

So beyond doing no harm, perhaps we can also aim to help. A small example – I carry a garbage bag, a mere 5 gallon one, in my pack when I hike. When I see a bit of rubbish on the trail, I pick it up and pack it out with me. It’s what I consider a basic courtesy to the natural world and to other hikers and our park systems, too. We can volunteer our time maintaining the trails. We can donate to our cash-strapped Forestry, Parks and Recreation, and Environmental Protection agencies (all of whom rely increasingly on volunteers and outside organizations with each round of budget cuts and layoffs).

But perhaps most importantly, seek out greater knowledge and peace in yourself and in your dealings with nature. Learn the names of the trees, rocks, and animals around you. I am convinced that intimate contact with the forest abolishes all delusions of a self apart from nature; that as our understanding of the intricacy and diversity of the Earth’s geology and biology increases, our feelings of emptiness and disunity decrease. Meditate on these bare but astonishing realities. Hike, but stop and sit in the sunlit field, close your eyes, and listen to the music that was once your home.


What is hiking to you? What does your ‘philosophy’ of hiking include? Comment below!

IMG_4054

Free Photos of the Day 4/28/16

Hello, friends!

I think it’s about time I shared a few new photos with you all! I’ve been busy keeping up with my exercise and staying fit since surgery, I’ve completed a CNA course to keep busy in the medical field while I wait for nursing school at UCONN to start, and – of course – spending as much time as possible with my precious daughter. I’ve also kept up with my hiking and photography; in fact I’ve hiked well over 100 miles since the beginning of this year!

My hike today was at the beautiful Salmon River trail in Colchester, CT. The weather went from warm and sunny in the morning to cold and grey, but I managed to get some decent shots of the Comstock covered bridge, the Salmon River itself, and Day Pond falls. Also, a flower that I must confess I’d never encountered before – a beautiful royal purple specimen with broad, pungent petals and three distinct broad leaves. The Connecticut Botanical Society and some hunting around identified it as the Trillium erectum, also known as the wake-robin, purple trillium, and stinking Benjamin. The leaves, in maturation, are said to give off the scent of rotting flesh, and the flower, leaves, and stem contain calcium oxylate (CaC2O4), a poisonous compound that can cause skin sores, general numbness, and even death. It’s the same compound found in rhubarb leaves. A beautiful plant with deadly potential!

The shot I captured of the trillium is included as a Photo of the Day which means, as you know if you’ve been following this blog, it’s yours free under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. In plain terms, you are free to use it for any creative or commercial purpose provided you include prominently the words  “Photo by Jace Paul” and a link to this blog.

As a bonus, I’m also including a photo of Day Pond Falls below, also free for your download and use!

IMG_2586.JPG

Hope you had a good day, friends, and enjoy the photos. Stay positive!

IMG_2566

Eastern Connecticut from the Trails

Hi friends!

For the past two years, I’ve been working on a book about eastern Connecticut’s 130-mile trail system, and it’s finally finished. (With three jobs, raising a child, and working on a full slate of scripts/poetry and other projects, I can’t believe I actually got it done!) Eastern Connecticut from the Trails: A Hiker’s Guide to the Last Green Valley will be released on November 18, 2014. Packed with full-color original photos like the many ones you’ve seen right here on my blog, this handy little book is a perfect introduction to the unique geology and wildlife of the “quiet corner” of Connecticut.

More than just a guide to the state parks and forests, Eastern Connecticut from the Trails uses the great hiking opportunities found in the area as a doorway to exploring concepts like northeastern coastal forests, the impact of glaciers on the soil, and how to make the most of successional plant communities. This is no book for sedentary eggheads – everything comes from a hiker’s perspective, and the goal is to encourage the reader to get out on the trails and enjoy the diversity and majesty of the natural world firsthand. I’ve also weaved many personal anecdotes from my years hiking over 400 miles on the trail system and, of course, there are detailed descriptions of Eastern Connecticut’s major forests and parks, maps, and directions to the places you’ll want to visit. 

The retail version of the book will likely sell for $25 or more, but I will be offering Kindle versions on Amazon or a .PDF directly from this site for $4.99. All profits to help fund my nursing school endeavors.

I’m very proud of this book and hope you’ll consider getting a copy!

frontcover1

Last Child in the Woods

A few years ago, my ex-wife bought me a copy of Last Child in the Woods for my birthday. I read the introduction to my then-baby girl under a pignut hickory tree on a bank of Crystal Pond in Eastford, even though she was just six months old at the time. The book makes a compelling case for getting our children back outside and reaping the benefits – physical and psychological – of contact with nature. It also presents the sobering picture of the present generation’s apathetic disposition toward being outside.

A longtime hiker and amateur naturalist, I didn’t really need to be convinced to spend more time in the woods. But I hadn’t considered the implications for River, who I know would spend a lot of time “naming nature” as I do.

Last week, we were at Mansfield Hollow counting needles to sort the different types of pines. We found a Norway maple growing around an ironwood tree. River, as always, was enthralled by the details of nature. I always keep a tree identification guide and one of the Audubon Society’s field guides (usually the guide to New England) in River’s baby bag. For me, the intimacy of encountering a forest demands identification. For a rare, incurious few, I suppose it’s possible to simply face and appreciate the state of being in nature, but I find it’s more common that we want to get to know the names and stories of the things we see outside. River kept the pages of our guide turning with her queries, and even offered a hypothesis or two when the book or my knowledge fell short (she supposed that the maple’s sturdy branches were keeping the ironwood tree warm).

When we finished our survey of the plant life, we played hide and seek in a meadow flooded with sunshine. She casually identified black-eyed susans and yarrow, to the exceeding edification of her proud father, and I introduced her to the joy of breaking milkweed leaves from the stem. She explained, in her own words, the importance of conservation and humankind’s kinship with the kingdoms of life – all of which, at her age, is just parroting what she’s heard before, but of this are the seeds of more abstract reasoning made.

In all that we did, however, we were alone. As always, the trails were empty, the groves and fields uncluttered with human voices. I was refreshed from the momentary flight from social media, e-mail, and my cell phone, and in the escape experiencing what seems to me an authentic humanity.

Don’t worry, I’m not aiming for a Luddite-like treatise against industry here. There is no halting the march of technology. River, at merely three, can already operate a smart phone and a tablets. But I’m hopeful that she will know when to put her phone down and grab her field guide or a hiking stick. And above all, I long for her to have companions in the parks and on the trails as she grows, that she will not be one of the last children in the woods, singularly adoring her cousins the trees and brother dragonflies.

IMG_2366

Free Photo of the Day 7/21/14 & An Epigram

American White Water Lily
Canon T3i: 48mm; 1/320 sec; f/5.6; ISO 200

Hi friends!

Two updates today. The first is your free photo of the day, this one of an American white water lily (nymphaea ordorata). It was taken at the The University of Connecticut’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology plant growth facilities. I spent another day there with River last week and photographed a few of the gymnosperms currently in bloom. I also photographed two “sweet” plants that you might recognize. They’re posted below and the first person to correctly identify them gets, er, bragging rights!

The second update is an epigram I wrote called “Dairy Cow.” It’s a bit reminiscent of the late Ogden Nash. If you know a little bit about climate change and greenhouse gasses, the joke will be apparent. PLEASE NOTE: The poem is not offered for public use and is copyrighted for use in my upcoming book, “Where You Will Find Me.”

Enjoy, and as always please consider helping me with my goal of becoming a nurse. Thanks!

Dairy Cow

She gobbles the grass without knowing,

The gasses she makes are stealing the snowing.

 

Can you identify these plants? Good luck!

 

AP Life (And Your Free Photo of the Day)

IMG_2421
Canon T3i: 194mm; 1/60 sec; f/5.6; ISO 400.

Hello readers! I apologize for the dearth of updates this week, but I’ve been busy finishing some film and TV projects I worked on last year. First and foremost among them is AP Life, a television show much like The Big Bang Theory but with a female lead cast. (Not all nerds are male, Hollywood!) In July and August of 2013 we filmed a pilot episode and 4 followup episodes in Connecticut, New Jersey, Boston, and New York City. Well, the whole losing my home and being poor thing derailed my work on the editing of the project but lately I’ve had the time to get it done, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. Given the production values that networks expect from even sitcom shows these days, AP Life won’t ever be broadcast as we shot it. So as much as I loved writing and directing the series, I’m still going forward with my nursing school plans. But I’d never say no to an interested executive who likes the concept of My So-Called Life meets The Big Bang Theory (meets Mean Girls? A little bit!) You can watch a preview video for the show below.

Your free photo of the day is another shot from the Richard D. Haley Native Plant Wildlife Gardens in Hampton, Connecticut. I searched high and low for the identity of this flower and my best guess is that it’s a variety of spiderwort, most likely the Virginia or Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana).

Stay positive, friends!