Water Closet for June 23, 2017
[pullquote]”Swamp dogwoods, button bushes, arrow wood, tussock sedges, cattails, elderberries, swamp roses, and half a hundred other water loving plants have taken over.”[/pullquote]From the oak forest highlands above the Essex Railway bed north of Middleton Center a beaver-created scrub-shrub swamp outdoes the Garden of Versailles for diversity and beauty. Last Friday Middleton Council on Aging/Conservation Commission hikers climbed up from where trains traveled almost a century ago on decade old skidder trails. Hundreds of oaks had been selectively cut and hauled away. The light that poured past the remaining oaks has resulted in thriving forest understory and ground cover. The high knolls above the waist to shoulder deep beaver impoundment provide fine perches with steep slopes like bleachers for viewing the handsome garden of 200 acres stretching a mile from North Main Street easterly to Liberty Street. In perfect weather after a week featuring three inches of rain in three days a score of old timers looked out across the water garden with its countless plants, many flowering, and all with new spring leaves.

A human generation ago this beaver created scrub-shrub beaver impoundment was a red maple forest. A few surviving scraggly maples still stand above lush populations of water plants. – Judy Schneider photo

The herbaceous and woody shrubs of various heights blowing in a fair westerly breeze of clear air reminded the Closeteer of waves in native prairie grasses as described by Willa Cather in My Antonia. As the settlers moved west, the prairie with its head-high grasses and buffalo gave way to corn and cattle. What happened in our red maple swamps has gone just the other way. The bottomlands along our streams and rivers have gone back from trees and farmer-drained fields to beaver meadows as they were before early English and French trade with the Indians wiped out the beavers. Just two decades ago, before the beavers returned the whole was a swamp dominated by 30 to 40 foot tall red maples. A few branchless gray trunks still stand. New maple shoots growing from hummocks are stunted and more bush-like due to year-round water. Swamp dogwoods, button bushes, arrow wood, tussock sedges, cattails, elderberries, swamp roses, and half a hundred other water loving plants have taken over. In deeper sections of Emerson Brook, of which the wide natural garden is a flood plain, there are stretches of open water. About fifteen years ago the old Closeteer and older pal Fran Masse found a beaten up canoe someone had left abandoned on a flanking knoll. On a fine late spring day they paddled in the open areas not blocked by bushes down to Pout Pond, midway between Essex and Liberty Streets. Most of the red maples while severely stressed were still standing and leafing out; the beaver dam downstream near Liberty Street was then only a couple years old. The trees with many fewer leaves allowed much light in. A new beaver meadow had started. The explorers encountered northern water snakes and black racers basking in the sun; several racers lay on the top of a huge new beaver lodge. Painted turtles charged their batteries on fallen sun-exposed logs. Patches of Atlantic white cedars were also showing early signs of sickness from root-damage due to high water. The old timers at the time didn’t fully appreciate the dramatic transition from forest to an open shrub garden they were seeing. Neither will ever forget that day in a lovely place within a mile of their homes and town center that no one except passing animals ever visits. The old Closeteer vows to go again in a kayak and push his way through plants from Essex to Liberty. Now would be a good time while the water is unusually high for June and many plants are coming into bloom.   Alas, like many of his vows in these waning years they may not be honored. However, the high knoll perches so close will be visited more often. During winter after long cold snaps he had been out on the ice with nervous Friday groups. When covered with snow the area is laced with visible animal tracks. The winter-colors without lush greens are muted but when frosted with snow or sparkling with ice is just as lovely. The cattails, sedges, arrow wood, dogwood and high-bush blueberry stems along with dead leaves, dried flowers, and fruits of herbaceous plants provide a spectrum of fine winter reds and browns. Lichens and the few evergreen cedars and white pines still alive, give us sprinklings of dark greens. This coming winter the Closeteer will hope for many days of near zero weather so he can get out there again and safely visit places rarely accessible. The ice in such places is deceptive due to springs and heat producing biological activity from the increasingly thick organic muck below. In testing the impoundment’s edges the Closeteer has gone through the ice to his knees several times. The winter garden is more safely viewed from the surrounding uplands. The beauty of a walk on safe ice is its levelness and access to places no one has gone since the muskrat trappers decades ago. Fran as a boy was one of those trappers. He knew no Middleton beavers.

The red maples’ shade gone the light joins the year-round higher water. The result in just 16 years is a diverse water garden covering almost 200 acres of the Emerson Brook floodplain. At least a dozen of half a hundred water loving species can be seen here from Essex Street, Middleton. – Judy Schneider photo

Beavers since 1996 have built dams all over the county and much of New England. Many of the resulting beaver meadows and shrub swamps created are similar place to place. The dozen or so in the tri-town area differ when their details are examined. Water depths, dam heights, impounded areas, rates of stream flow, surrounding topography, and past human history provide scores of variables. Wouldn’t it be nice if each watershed had a team of botanists, ornithologists, geologists, and historians to periodically explore the impoundments and record what was happening? We now know that what the earth needs most for its health besides peace are large natural areas left untouched by our species. A very readable and widely acclaimed book now making the rounds throughout the world by German forester and superb writer Peter Wohllenben is The Hidden Lives of Trees. He, never preaching or getting overly technical, tells us once again how all life-forms are interconnected by more than just DNA. We tamper with these connections at our peril.


Precipitation Data* for Month of: Mar April May June
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 6.65 4.53 4.06 3.95
   2017 Central Watershed Actual 2.86 6.53 4.87 3.0**as of June 15

Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For June 15, 2017  Normal . . . 33 CFS     Current Rate . . . 54.1 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru May.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for June..
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or         <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584