Water Closet for 11-8-13 Bog Hike
Last Sunday thirty six people participated in the Middleton Stream Team’s annual fall hike. Walkers 5 to 82 years climbed the up and down the three mile path, at times no path at all. Although there was no tally at the end, we think all made it. A couple days later the Stream Team received a humorous blog with good photos of the hike from Alison Campbell1. The purpose of our treks is to get people out into the wilds and later into the woods beyond their own back yards. Although Alison says she enjoyed the experience, woods-whacking Stream Teamers are left in some doubt. Her last line is: “And I make a vow I probably will ignore, to find wildlife in the mall next time.”
Let’s hope for the sake of Alison’s soul that “ignore” is the key word in her ending. Stream Teamers have too long seen our countryside mauled by malls. To shop seems the dominant verb in America. President Bush urged us to carry on as before even after 9/11. Every region, especially here in eastern Massachusetts, has these Meccas. What blasphemies, of gaudy excess.2 Their time may be passing. Many folks now shop without leaving their computer screens, which may be worse. Stream Teamers urge all to step outside into the air.
To paraphrase an old post WWI worry: “How are you going keep them down on the farm after they’ve seen Paris?” Now it might be, “How are we going to get them out in the swamp after they’ve seen malls, Amazon, and EBay?” It seems a no brainer to us old swamp walkers. One place is real, the other . . . And farms are gone, much of their land back to wooded or opened-to-the-sky beaver flooded swamps.
But let’s leave the electronics with their addictive software for the air wafting over the torn surfaces the glaciers left behind. Over ten thousand years ago out from under a vertical half-mile of ice the largely dead ground, scraped and then washed clean of topsoil, quickly recovered. Plants returned from the south. People soon followed. Millions of depressions continent-wide were full to the brim with melt water. Peat moss crept in from the edges of these. In time other plants grew on its remains. Generations of plants yearly died and along with sediment in run off from the surrounding uplands filled isolated glacial ponds and lakes. Some, poorly drained, became bogs.
What rare and marvelous places bogs are! There are only two of any size we know of in Middleton. These comprise only 19 of the almost 10,000 acres in town.3 Both are surrounded by barely hidden ledge, well exposed in places. Less than a century ago the now white oak and red oak covered uplands were pastures. The cows no doubt strayed into the bogs despite the water and soft ground when the grasses and other plants on their poor rocky fields were nibbled down. At times, when uplands were over grazed by animals with sharp hooves, much soil joined the run off; its sediment descended and enriched the lowlands. Professor Robert Thorson, author of Stone by Stone4 a book about New England’s walls, tells us that before the English arrived with hoofed livestock, the now bare ledge and scattered rocks were hidden by eight inches or so of topsoil that had formed over the land in the 10,000 years since the glacial ice melted. The topsoil in latitudes south of the ice’s terminus is several feet thicker than ours. Yankees trying to farm hard-scrabble stony fields left by the tens of thousands in the 19th century for the several foot deep soils of what are now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.
Bogs too are thick with organic topsoil to depths of many feet. The hikers jumped up and down on what Alison likened to a water bed. Not really, but we like the image. Due to drought, the last three months,5 the water was gone from the surface and just a damp mattress of sedges, one rare; cranberries; and a few pitcher plants made up our supporting substrate. The sedges are a fall tan; they shade pitcher plants and cranberries that are still green. We picked and ate a few prettier-than-rubies cranberries which probably gave the word tart its meaning. The old Closeteer guiding the group loves the taste, which reminds of childhood pickings and all he has since learned about the benefits of the berries made famous by Cape Cod’s cranberry bogs and Ocean Spray ads. The bog water too is tart. Sphagnum bog and swamp waters here have low pH levels which help explain the plant species that compete best within them; species that are very different than those a few feet away upslope.6
The hikers, grass high to six plus feet, hobbled through the dense growth on wobbly tussocks felt but largely unseen. Imagine walking across six acres of pillows piled several deep. Language eludes us here. You must go out and try our bogs and swamps; tough going, but much more interesting and challenging than asphalt, our usual substrate.
Such a surface tucked among little known uplands in town was a good one to explore at the beginning of Halloween week. Aren’t bogs and swamps where the monsters hang out? In some European swamps blackened corpses a couple thousand years dead have been found, their skin and much flesh beneath intact. One found in Denmark had a rope noose around his neck. Acid waters pickle. Don’t be alarmed, swamps and bogs are interesting habitats. It is where much water is, hence life. The drought allowed us to visit.
We are tempted to go on and bog you down with more information. We’ll end by once again urging you off the lawn, couch, and away from malls and computers. Leave the small handheld ones at home. Even in our well populated suburban towns there are many places off beaten paths. If you need paths check area towns for trail guides.7
1 “A Boggy Day in Middleton” by Alison Campbell on Brain4rent’s Blog
2 The Stream Team has nothing against market places. It is the suburban mall that bothers. They have torn the hearts out of our cities and towns. Many have been built on invaluable agricultural land. Witness the asphalt covering 100s of acres of once prime vegetable land in Peabody and Danvers. Traffic to and from them clogs our highways.
3 Roughly one-third of Middleton’s 10,000 acres are wetlands (swamps, wet meadows, streams, ponds)
4 Thorson, Robert. Stone by Stone (2002). Thorson is a professor of geology at the Univ. of Conn.
5 In August, September and October of this year our area got 6 inches of rain. The 30 year average for that period is about 12 inches.
6 Bog cotton, myrica gale, leather leaf, sundew, bog sedges, red maples to mention a few others
7 “Hiking for Health and History” available at Middleton town offices and library – free.
Boxford Trail Guide by BTA/BOLT – $25