Thursday, October 15, 2009

Blog Action Day '09: Climate Change


In the early fifties my dad moved us from Port Chester, NY to Woodstock, Vermont. There were a number of reasons the move was not popular with me. There was no ocean in Vermont, people didn’t know what pizza was, there weren’t any chestnut trees and the climate was very difficult. Just like the Pilgrims needed the Native Americans, we needed the farmers next door and a nice community to make it through that first winter. Things did not improve for many more seasons to come.

My immediate reaction to Vermont was that the summers were short and cold, you could never buck up enough wood to keep warm, and growing seasons were unpredictable but you had to grow food to survive. When you were the kid weeding, picking, dusting and harvesting vegetables, milking a goat and feeding heifers, chickens and a couple pigs, you had to work hard at making it fun. Rarely was I successful.

Someplace in lost albums there are pictures of my dad, 6 feet 6 inches tall back then, shoveling snow over his head, building temporary corduroy roads to get us home from church or school or shopping, chopping ice and giant icicles off the roof, turning rivers of water out of the road before in ended up in the Ottauquechee River and spraying DDT on long rows of potatoes until the plants were all white to deal with potato bugs. These were responses to the climate back then. Winter snow was higher than the top of the ground floor windows by mid January and minus 35 degrees was common. Howling winds and snowdrifts only managed by the road grader were common.

Fast forward more than 55 years and changes are more obvious. It has not been -30 degrees here in Marshfield since our first winter in ‘89-‘90. Snow comes in various amounts but in the past five years, late winter storms have come few in number but deep in inches to the point that without the tractor and bucket, there would be no way to keep the driveways open. January thaws bring +50 degrees days—several of them, plus freezing rain, ice and downed power lines that are frequent around the state.

Animal life is interesting. Chickadees, the “everywhere bird” at Vermont birdfeeders in the fifties have moved further north where it is colder. Woodpeckers are abundant because of the demise of the hardwood and softwood forests. Pileated woodpeckers, representing America’s largest living woodpecker, are everywhere, especially on dying sugar maples. Cedar waxwings arrived in Marshfield perhaps five years ago and apparently are here to stay. Turkey buzzards from the south have moved to the north. Although they head slightly south each fall, they are noticeable in mid Vermont by the first of March.

Bald eagles nest in every state in the Continental US except Vermont but a recent restoration project is changing that. Peregrine falcons that were absent from Vermont were restored here beginning in 1979 and are doing very well. White and also rose breasted nuthatches, often described as territorial, approach the feeders in an abundance that contradicts their territorial label. Titmouse now visit each year but only briefly. Rufous Towhees have been seen here twice lately, kicking up maple leaves in search for food. Late spring storms have pushed in individual Scarlet Tanager couples, Indigo Buntings and Rose Breasted Grosbeaks. October eruptions of Pine Grosbeaks and Evening Grosbeaks prevail annually but always for different time frames as they stop to eat the seeds from crabapples like sargentii. Shrikes snatch small birds of winter from the feeders. Barred owls call often but are most noticeable just after New Years. Turkeys are well established over all of Vermont, having gone from nonexistent to “too darn many” along western farm fields, all in 30 years.

Vermont’s moose population continues to grow and move south. Moose have become a problem in the lower New England states as they check out new territory. I have personally witnessed two fine examples of Canada Lynx close by. A neighbor has recently seen and photographed a bobcat on her front lawn half a mile from here. Other neighbors are missing housecats, perhaps the result of bobcats but more likely due to fishers. River, lakes, ponds and streams see more otter now but mink in various color shades prevail. Black bears are appearing everywhere and often receive publicity for bad behavior. We have had many here at the house but none for the past month or so.

In almost twenty years at this house, skunks just did not exist. Parts of the lawn and adjacent fields are now full of Japanese beetle grubs and skunks have arrived to feast on them. They are willing to share their defensive scent with feral cats, sadly in abundance, the result of one way trips from urban areas, and Vermont poverty. Possums have made it to the western side of Vermont to Burlington and slightly north. Coyotes are everywhere and wolves are on the northern border. Bats of all type have succumbed by the thousands to white nose syndrome, a terminal illness of unknown etiology.

Insect populations have grown so quickly as temperatures have changed that almost every day from spring through fall you can spot a new insect you have not seen before. The greatest current threat is probably the Asian Longhorned Beetle. Vermont’s fine forests now occupy over 75% of the state but special tree species are gone or going. The emerald ash borer is taking out the ash trees, wooly adelgid is heading hemlock to extinction, balsam adelgid is wiping out large portions of our surrounding forest with trees dying within 5 years or less. A red ant I do not want to know about is building colonies beneath the long needle pines that coincidently are dying.

Beech trees are dying by the thousands as they are first attacked by beech scale and then a fungus follows the weakened bark. They stand pock marked, tall and partially leaved out for a few years while the vascular system fails and they die. Viburnums are attacked by beetles and they succumb in a single season. American elms can be found but not many have withstood the Dutch Elm beetle. Butternuts, precious for nut meats that go with maple fudge, are fighting butternut canker and are difficult to find now. They will be history in another 10-15 years, perhaps less. Even lilies including the wild L. canadense and L. superbum are being defoliated by the lily leaf beetle that over time will cause the demise of these favorite wildflowers.

Invasive plants are abundant and grow in number annually. Wild parsnip, garlic mustard, giant hogweed, and Japanese knotweed are four of the most important. The knotweed gets my vote for doing the most damage as it proliferates along streambeds although it can be found practically anywhere. It is shallow rooted but grows in masses, tall and quick, and shades out any vegetation underneath its leaves. When streams rise, there is nothing to hold the banks and they fall into the rivers and move slowly to Lake Champlain or the ocean via The Connecticut River. There are a variety of terrible aquatic plants clogging St Albans, Shelburne and Missisquoi Bays and Lake Champlain below the Crown Point Bridge. Inland ponds and lakes are noticing similar levels of intrusion by weeds and the zebra mussel haunts Lake Champlain by the trillions.

Climate change may have an obvious impact although this past summer the temperature was colder than usual and the month of July saw more than 15 inches of rain. Weather conditions have brought on more precipitation both during summer and winter seasons. This is not new and it will not go away. Many of these problems cannot be erased and those that can be erased must take a second seat to human protection. Climate change is like a book of many pages. It may be a long read, but we cannot save the ending until later.

George Africa

The Vermont Gardener

Vermont Flower Farm

Blog Action Day 09


Anna/Flowergardengirl said...

I can see that you wrote this from your heart. I could hear your frustration and anguish over a Vermont that you once disliked and now love. I'm so sorry. We are or have seen the same thing in NC. I may not agree with all your reasons as I think it may be cycles and some man made creations---I do see the damage though as you have stated. warm wishes to you.

joey said...

Always a joy to visit, enjoyed this piece of history through your eyes, George. Stay warm and well :)

garden girl said...

very sobering indeed George. Thanks for this post - glad I decided to catch up.