Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Today's nature walk: predation and toxicity

If I walk across the street, across the river, and through a quiet neighborhood, I can get to a trailhead in Beartown State Forest in about 12 minutes.  The trail goes up and along the ridge to Laura's Tower and Ice Glen in Stockbridge, both well-known destinations. It's about 3 miles to Laura's Tower, which Dave and his wife showed me last summer. That day we got a ride back to the schoolhouse (about 1.6 miles by road) from their house in Stockbridge.

Lately I've been taking about an hour and a half each morning to explore the first part of the trail, since I am usually anxious to get home and continue unpacking and hanging pictures.

Today it was muggy and buggy already at 7:15, but I did see some interesting things:

Coyote scat in the trail.  

This scat has obviously weathered and is several months old; I don't know why I missed it before, it's right in the middle of the trail.  You can see a small furry mammal was dinner.

An Amanita mushroom coming up in the middle
of the trail.  These are beautiful but poisonous.
Mountain Laurel blooming and two well-behaved
dogs waiting while I take the photo.  Laurel (Kalmia
latifolia) is also poisonous. One of its common
names is "Sheepkill."

My favorite critter (favorite amphibian,
anyway) the red eft.

The red eft is a salamander, the terrestrial juvenile of the Eastern Newt.  This newt starts out in water, hatching from eggs, and the greenish-brown larval form has feathery gills. It then transforms into a red eft, loses its gills and takes to the land for two to four years, traveling far to find a new pond and thus prevent inbreeding. Once it finds a pond, it transforms again into a breeding aquatic adult with slimy olive green skin and black rimmed red spots. They breed in late winter or early spring.  During their courtship dance, the male deposits a "sperm packet" on the bottom of the pond which the female picks up to fertilize the eggs she is already carrying. She then proceeds to deposit 200-400 eggs, but only a few each day, and then abandons them. The larvae hatch in 3 - 8 weeks, and only about 2% of them make it to the red eft stage.

Newts are carnivorous; the efts eat snails, springtails and soil mites; the larvae and adults eat worms, insects, fish eggs and other small aquatic animals. They in turn can be eaten by birds, fish, turtles or mammals, but this predation is usually deterred by their toxic skin. The eft's orange color serves as a warning to potential predators of their toxicity, so they are rarely eaten.snails, spring tails, and soil mitessnails, so they ar, so the, 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The wall builders

Yesterday was a red letter day, as Terry and his son Kyle have come to begin the stone wall.  Their first order of business is to sort the rocks.  Some are “junk” (their term) and will be used as backfill behind the wall.  Others will be cut to size or split along their natural seams.  To split a rock, they use feathers and wedges.  First they drill a few holes along the seam and insert two feathers in each hole.  Then they pound wedges in between the feathers.  You can hear the rock begin to split as the wedge drives the feathers apart.  If you’ve ever spit logs you know what I mean.

The feathers are the outside pieces,
the wedge gets pounded in between them.

Terry pounds in a wedge between the sedimentary
layers of the rock.

Ready to split
Kyle turns it over with the machine
Voila, two pieces of rock

They can split along a vertical seam, too,
not just between the sedimentary layers.

They’ve told me the first few days are spent getting to know the rock and building the wall in their heads. Actually the wall will be built in their heads over and over until they are ready to do it physically.  Because so much time has passed, the edge of the “cliff” has sloughed off quite a bit and the excavator will have to come back and clean it up a bit and re-set the gravel base for the wall before Terry and Kyle can get started with the wall.

The cliff has collapsed a bit over the winter and spring rains.

They're getting to know this one.

I’ve been wondering about the origins of this rock and have found out that it started out as the carbonate shells of marine animals deposited on the floor of the Iapetus Ocean, actually the continental shelf of the ancient continent Laurentia, which at the time (over 500 million years ago, or during the Ordovician period) was near the equator. Over millions of years these sediments built up and became limestone, sandstone and shale, which would have contained fossils.

Then along came the Taconic Orogeny, (an orogeny is a mountain-building event) which lasted 35 million years. This is when a couple of volcanic island chains collided with the eastern margin of Laurentia, shoving the rocks of the island chains, the ocean bottom, and the continental margin up and over the rocks of the continental shelf. The limestone, sandstone and shale was folded and metamorphosed into marble, quartzite, slate, phyllite and schist. The intense heat and pressure destroyed any fossils that would have been in the rock. Two formations of marble were the result of these events, the Stockbridge formation and the Walloomsac formation.  Lee sits atop the Stockbridge formation.

In 1845 a fellow by the name of Amory Gale gave a lecture on the history of Lee (available as a Google e-book) in which he stated that marble was the most valuable mineral in Lee, (though paper-making was the town’s largest industry) that its supply was inexhaustible, of easy access, and of superior quality. He quotes the famous geologist Edward Hitchcock describing the stone as “a pure crystalline double carbonate of magnesia and lime.”  The marble was pure white and susceptible of a very fine polish.  It could withstand 26,000 pounds to the square inch, whereas Italian marble would crush at 13,000 pounds to the square inch.

At the time of Gale lecture, 500 people were employed in the marble business in Lee, whereas 972 were employed in the paper business. (Total population at that time was 8700; most people were farmers.) Though the marble was judged superior to Italian marble, the quarry employed  Italian immigrants to retrieve the stone. Still today there are streets and prominent citizens of Lee with Italian names.

Lee marble quarry in its heyday
Lee marble was used to build two wings of the Capitol building in Washington, D. C., and St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York City, as well as many local buildings, such as the Lee Public Library.

The public Library in downtown Lee
The quarry still exists today but produces mostly marble chips and crushed limestone. (The supply was not inexhaustible after all!)

I think the rock in my yard might be limestone that is only partially metamorphosed into marble; I haven't seen any fossils in it, but it's not as hard as marble. 

Skehan, James W., Roadside Geology of Massachusetts
Kirby, Ed, Exploring the Berkshire Hills, A Guide to Geology and Early Industry in the Housatonic Watershed

Monday, June 16, 2014

Beartown, Benedict and Red Efts

The reason I haven’t written any posts in over a month is because I was busy packing up my house in Boston and moving into the Schoolhouse. Yes, I’m in residence! (Don’t tell the local building inspector, though: I don’t have a Certificate of Occupancy yet.)

It was a close call with the floors, since the last coat of polyurethane went on the day the movers were loading up the truck in Boston.  Fortunately we had planned that they would store everything overnight and bring it to South Lee the next day, which allowed the floors to dry overnight. 

Laika inspects the floors before the movers arrive
The unpainted living room, furniture but no boxes

When I arrived nine days ago, I had a bathroom complete with sink, shower and toilet (tile installed and walls painted), hot & cold running water, kitchen cabinets with no countertops, the downstairs bedroom/office painted, and primer on all the other walls and woodwork.

Since then I’ve gotten a working phone line, internet access, a refrigerator, and the three upstairs bedrooms painted. Today and tomorrow the painters are finishing up downstairs. Wednesday, the countertop is scheduled to come, and the washer and dryer to be hooked up. Not sure when the upstairs bathrooms will be tiled and completed, but I am hoping it will be within two weeks.

Fridge delivery, will it get through the door?

Yes, and it fits right into the cabinets!

In the rental unit, the floors are installed but not sanded and the carpenters are finishing up with the interior doors and trim. The tile guy is preparing the bathrooms over there, then he’ll do the tiling in both units. Then it will be the painters’ turn over there.

Meanwhile, I’ve had visitors: my dear friend who relocated to the west coast came for a couple of days even though I’m not really ready, but she won’t make another trip east until next summer, so she had to come anyway.

My friend reads the Sunday NYT (delivered by a fellow who went to school in the building) on the front porch.
Yesterday my daughter, grandson and granddaughter came and we went to Benedict Pond in the Beartown State Forest for a picnic lunch. It was too cold to swim, but it is a lovely spot that I’m told doesn’t get crowded, even in the height of the season.  

With my daughter and granddaughter at Benedict Pond
This morning I finally took Laika for a walk in the woods.  The red efts are abundant (a year ago I counted 21 in one hour on this same trail) and the mountain laurel is about to bloom.

Laika waits on the trail