Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thump went the snake

Seeing is believing, so they say. And I surely would not have believed what happened this morning had I not seen it.

Sipping coffee in my kitchen and peering out at my yard, I saw something fall into some perennial plants outside my glass door. It seemed to have some bulk and I though that perhaps a bird had flown into the house and dazed itself. But I hadn’t heard that telltale, “thump.”

Intrigued, I stepped out into the 90-degree heat and looked all around, but saw nothing. Then, glancing up at where the object, or whatever it was had fallen from, I saw something that made me question my senses. There, on a ledge under the roof overhand, was a large garter snake, all coiled up, peering pack at me.

So it must have been another garter snake that had fallen from the ledge into my plants. The two were probably vying for space on the little ledge, when one lost its balance and fell to the ground.

I then remembered seeing a shed snakeskin in a closet area inside my house, directly beneath where the snake currently sat. “So that’s how they get in,” I thought. I took my walking stick and gently prodded the critter, but instead of dislodging it like its companion, it found a crack and made its way into the wall.

Instead of a stick, I should have grabbed my camera and snapped a few photos. Perhaps next time.

Still, the event makes me wonder, how on earth do snakes climb up a vertical wall and not fall off? My place has rough-sawn trim and pine shingles, so both would offer at least a little traction. But I just don’t know.

Nature is full of mysteries, but this one beats all.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Yellow Smoke

Wild Plants and Wooly Bears

Driving along a back road a few days ago, it seemed that my glasses had become foggy. But that wasn’t it. Then I realized that the air was filled with smoke. But it didn’t smell smoky. Besides, it was yellow smoke. What makes yellow smoke? Then the answer became clear. With each gust of wind, white pines released a heaping measure of yellow pollen.

Later, back home, I sat on my back deck and watched the tall pines behind my house. Each gust of wind precipitated a burst of yellow pollen, fine, smoky dust. Then a realization struck me. The pollen must not become available all at once, but in stages, over a fairly lengthy period of time.

Pines produce pollen on male cones. These are smaller than female cones and in evidence primarily at the start of the flowering stage. So we have male cones to thank for the yellow coating on our cars, picnic tables, roofs and even the surface of ponds and lakes. And, of course, this pollen provokes allergy symptoms in susceptible humans and probably animals as well.

Soon the time of “yellow smoke” will end and we will forget all about it. Until next year, that is, when the cycle repeats itself.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Save A Tree?"

My latest Central Maine Power bill has a provision for getting receipts for payment electronically. “Save A Tree,” it says. I pay automatically and find that option very useful. But regarding receipts, I like paper and for good reason.

Of course CMP is not unique in their tree-saving efforts. For sure, lots of people who opt out of hard-copy receipts do so in all earnestness. Besides, I’m sure it makes them feel good, too. After all, everything we can do to contribute to the health of our environment is a good thing. Isn’t it?

Let’s consider paper. Here in Maine, the pulp and paper industry (I have absolutely no connection to the industry, by the way) owns the lion’s share of our woodlands. With the exception of a few parks and other lands owned and/or maintained by the various land trusts, we have the pulp and paper people to thank for what wild land remains.

Taking things a step further, were it not for the paper companies, what do you suppose would happen to all this wild land that we are so proud of and that so many of us freely recreate on? I’ll tell you what would happen. It would be sold to private industry, read that to mean developers, before you could say Jack Robinson.

Like them or hate them, the paper companies have kept our woodlands woodlands. As Jim Robbins of Robbins Lumber in Searsmont once said, “In northern Maine, they cut trees and grow trees. In southern Maine, they cut trees and grow houses.”

Jim’s astute comment pretty much sums up the situation. As an example, consider Plum Creek, a mega-developer that eats up woodland and spits out resorts. Plumb Creek has, as we all know by now, gotten its money-making hands on land around Moosehead Lake, the premiere, wild lake of the eastern United States. The company planned to build from the start and after a long, legal struggle, has come out on top and now the once-pristine, Moosehead Region will soon resound to the “music” of heavy equipment and then, hammers and saws. That’s what happens when paper companies are driven to sell their woodlands.

“But these companies cut trees,” someone might say. Sure they cut trees. Paper is made of trees. However, the same person who so dutifully objects to taking the life of a tree has no idea in the world what kind of tree he or she is defending. But I do. Let me tell you.

Historically, paper was made and still is, of balsam fir, Abies balsamea. People who can’t immediately recall what a fir looks like have only to consider Christmas trees. Balsam firs are THE Christmas trees.

Firs grow well over 40 feet tall, but by that time, generally have been attacked by disease and insects. Cut a big fir and chances are good that it will be what woodcutters call, “hollow-hearted.” Firs are short-lived and for that reason, fast-growing. To put it simply, firs are a renewable crop, no more and no less.

In my own lifetime of a little over 60 years, I have seen many woods-cutting operations on the same plot of land. Private woodcutters did this, people who concentrate upon fir and sometimes spruce for the pulp and paper industry. In fact, I was once an independent logger and the woodlot that I now own and live on, was once my worksite.

While I’m getting a bit old to take on a full-fledged logging operation, my woodlot is about ready for another go-around. That’s how fast fir grows.

Industry has, since I carried a chainsaw into the woods for profit, developed a way to use poplar, too. “Popple,” as many refer to the various members of the Populus group, was once utterly worthless, not fetching enough money to warrant cutting it. Poplar is, first and foremost, a pioneer tree. It is one of those trees that quickly colonized cut or burned-over land, establishing the canopy so necessary for other, more long-lived trees to gain a foothold.

So here we have two, different trees that if not cut and used, will sooner rather than later, succumb to disease, insects and even high winds. It’s better to cut fir and poplar and allow a new crop to come online, than to keep the old specimens in situ. Regular, thoughtful and planned harvests insure that our trees and our forest in general, stay healthy.

So before jumping on the “save a tree” bandwagon, consider what trees are worth saving and what are better used to our good when they reach their prime. Besides, if we save too many trees, there might not be any more trees to save. Our forests will revert to houses and resorts, not a good thing at all. That’s the way it works.