Thursday, April 30, 2015

Suspended Spring

Friday morning, April 24, all signs point to a revocation of the sweet weather week. It's thirty-nine degrees at the gates of Halibut Point, overcast and blustery. My favorite warbler-watching spot on the quarry cliff is bound to be inhospitable.
Yellow-rumped warbler
Warm days mean comfort not just for me but for bugs. Bugs bring birds. Birds go after them in aerial pirouettes I can only guess at. I hope to catch them in still moments between sorties on unobstructed  perches. Yesterday the still air allowed some satisfying portraits.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher
Today winds on the cliff are gusting to 25mph. The aerialists are grounded or elsewhere. The usual bird sounds are obliterated or absent. The kibitzers must be camping in leeward canopies.

Hermit thrush
On the entrance path where I'd seen the hermit thrush yesterday oak leaves skitter along in a series of false bird alerts. A towhee pweets indistinctly above the roar, without its usual confidence, opting for respectability over retreat.

Solitary mallard
The only bird visible is a mallard drake waiting forlornly for companionship at the edge of the quarry. Usually a troupe of his kind fly in for the day. The pewtered sky entirely fails to glorify his iridescent head.

Shad, budding 
Shad blossoms have suspended their unfurling in the chilly air. Their whiteness succumbs to the dull tones around them. But they swell as runners do at the starting line, on their mark, getting set.

At the shoreline the panorama is unfailingly grand. The ocean and the exfoliating granite flow together in the half tide.  Under-saturated colors mute the patterns.

I meander on a second loop around the quarry. The moors and side trails through the woods are  deserted, like showing up at the office on Sunday morning, the furniture in place but no one there. It's eerie but the calendar assures you of companionable events.
The advances of spring follow neither art nor science. They get there all the same.

The wind performs a beneficent service, blows the gray away. During my second loop around the quarry the sun comes out. When I return to the shoreline color gratifies the view.
Red maple blossom
High clouds provide the perfect light to enjoy the complexities of a red maple blossom. I expect the cool weather will keep those adornments fresh longer than usual.
Goldfinch and aspen blossom
The emergent flowers of a big-tooth aspen sense the moment to procreate, tied in to the sustenance of a goldfinch. Life goes on.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Dogtown College

In the last posting I remarked on taking an eye-opening class through Dogtown College. Three Board members of the group have helped me this week to recall its flavor and direction: Peter Anastas, Nancy Goodman, and my (now) wife Kay who was treasurer.  

Besides Tree Identification I remember participating in Natural History with Ivy LeMon - "the butterfly lady" - and Life Drawing at Jane Robbins' Thousand Hands Gallery in East Gloucester Square. The cost was $24 for 8 sessions.
. . .
Dogtown College shimmered and pulsed on Cape Ann for a few years, beginning in 1979. It drew on many of the same community strengths, aspirations, and talents that energized other innovations of the period, such as the Cape Ann Cooperative School, the Food Coop, and the Gloucester Folklife Festival. All these expressed themes from the Sixties rooted in American arts and enterprise. They resolved to reach for the best and not wait for established institutions. 

Physicist Steve Heims resided here then, pondering a more rewarding teaching environment than he customarily found as a college professor. He explored possibilities with his friend Jonathan Bayliss, a corporate and government administrator with deep literary interests. The conversation drew on discussions that Jonathan had had with Charles Olson and Peter Anastas on creating free universities based on Olson's years as rector of Black Mountain College. Olson imagined a local center of learning called Dogtown College, the geographic and mythic Dogtown from which Maximus emerged in his epic poem, Dogtown the protean core of Cape Ann.  

Dogtown College: a word-pairing delicious with ironies.

Jonathan Bayliss looks over Dogtown College brochure
Gloucester Daily Times, April 4, 1979
Courtesy of Catherine Bayliss
Mention of Steve Heims' name these days invariably brings an affectionate response. Nancy Goodman recalls a brilliant man who "introduced me to the concept that advances in technology aren't without consequences....I think of Steve as the visionary, more than the person to carry things out." 

A core of organizers got to work. Says Peter Anastas, "We never expected that we'd have a bricks-and-mortar operation. It was going to be like the free universities of the Sixties that were kind of floating, that never had physical locations. Josh Brackett jumped in. He was a terrific organizer. The first thing Josh did was put together a curriculum as a newsletter. We had a public meeting, a sign-up. Dozens and dozens of people came. It was amazing. People wanted to learn, and they wanted to teach."

Josh Brackett standing, second from right.
Cover photo of literary publication
courtesy of Peter Anastas
Nancy Goodman brought "a faith in people's natural curiosity and desire to learn, if they're given a rich environment to explore." She had met Josh in the Clamshell Alliance opposing the Seabrook nuclear power plant. "Josh was the playful one, compared to Jonathan who was intellectual and very sincere. Josh was able to see the humor in things. He didn't take it quite as seriously, though he was equally passionate." 
Peter Anastas: We felt that there were incredible resources in Gloucester. Why go out of town when you had somebody like Steve Heims, a theoretical physicist who worked at the highest levels of physics, to sit down with people, explain to us particle physics and relativity? People loved it. Jonathan Bayliss had been reading Melville for 25 years. He had been yearning to share everything he was thinking about. He'd been Leo Alper's mayoral assistant. He gave a course on City government. I wanted to teach writing.
Peter Anastas
North Shore Magazine, May 19, 1979
Sawyer Free Library files
I had an incredible experience working with all these folks who were interested in writing. The course I taught - but I didn't really teach it, I was a facilitator - we called it The Writing Voice. The attempt was to have people find their own voice on the page. Almost everyone who was involved in it came through saying they learned something about themselves and about writing. 
At other times we had seminars on Jack Kerouac and Henry David Thoreau. Joe Garland was involved, talking about Gloucester history.
Coming from the academic world, we really had to learn a new way of being. I had been in graduate school where the professor was king. His opinions were the received opinions. In Dogtown we opened ourselves to being challenged, and it was a terrific learning experience.
Writing seminar
We did a twenty-four-hour Charles Olson marathon at Hartley Ferguson's apartment. We read Olson at different times. We left the apartment to go out and actually look at places in Gloucester that he had written about. People were exhausted, but they came away saying they had an understanding of Olson they'd never had before.
We got a lot of support from the newspaper. The newspaper seemed to be very interested in what we were doing. The kinds of people who became involved went beyond the arts, or writing. A lot of folks came and took courses who were never involved in the artistic community.
We raised money by having dinners, in the basement of the Unitarian-Universalist church. Chris Barton did the cooking. A wonderful person. She was running a vegetarian restaurant, The Garden of Eatin'. She cooked these enormous dinners. People would come and pay a  small amount. We would have entertainment. It was a way to keep the community alive.
Eventually it wound down. We knew it was time. We knew we'd done what we set out to do. Like a lot of post-Sixties kinds of enterprises, the attempt wasn't to try to create something to last forever. The attempt was to bring people together. When people felt the time had come to move on to something else, that's what we did. And that's how it ended. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

What's That?

A clamor in the trees around the parking lot indicated something newsworthy in the crow world, something that took form within a tangle of brush as I approached my car. Fifteen feet away a bird appeared so large, dark and sinister-looking that I decided it was an eagle--in a Peabody industrial park.

It must have been hunting in that thicket, not disabled, because it extended massive wings, flapped a few times and soared to a utility pole down the street. I pursued it through a series of photo moments and crow complaints.

Perhaps the crows could say specifically what it was, or perhaps they only generalized it as a threat. But I was a curious human with a zoom lens.

Surprisingly, even with pretty good photos I couldn't decide from Peterson's Field Guide what I'd seen. I did scale back my first impression--conceded it was a large hawk--that the 'eagle' reaction came out of being startled at close range by a large brown bird with a nasty-looking beak.

In comparing my photos to the field guide, red-tail hawk seemed the most logical  if uncertain conclusion. Red-tails are a common enough sight hereabouts. But they should have red tails, and at a distance they appear much smaller than this guy did. What to do but ask Mass Audubon's Chris Leahy? He's an approachable expert if you don't mind exposing the thinness of your knowledge. 

For instance, last fall I had sent Chris this picture of a swept-winged raptor sailing over Halibut Point. I had asked him which falcon it might be. Chris had sent a sobering reply.

"Are you sure it was a falcon? The length and shape of the tail, the 'chesty' look in contrast to the elongate rear end and the heavily barred primaries suggest a female (big) Cooper's Hawk to me. Travelling accipiters often fly with their wings folded back like this making them look pointed. If it was a falcon, it must have been a Peregrine, but that wouldn't have been my assessment from the photo. It's a great example of how with raptors, shorebirds and other 'critical' groups, 'jizz' (seeing the 'whole bird') is crucial."

Sure enough, a second photo gave emphasis to the field marks he has assimilated into mental flashcards. 
Returning to my puzzle, I submitted my current photos to Chris. He pronounced it an immature red-tail, which doesn't acquire distinctive coloration until the second or third year. But my photos obscured the definitive diagnostic feature--a dark "belly band" of streaks.

I went back to another picture of the hawk that gave a clearer view of the belly band, as well as its business-like talons. Chris had been able to make the call in part from factors of experience beyond plumage details, from a larger pattern of shape, site, timing, size, season--from "jizz."

The scenario took me back to 1979, early  in my landscape interest, when I signed up for a course in Native Tree Identification through Dogtown College, a locally-founded learning forum. Its idea was to match knowledgeable people with seekers in curricula without walls, degrees or exams. I was the only student in the class with Louis Catalini, Essex Aggie grad. 

As Louis and I were driving down the highway he would distinguish between white pines and hemlocks on the horizon, by their color, location, and silhouette. Nothing to do with needles, cones and bark descriptions in the field guides. He said he just knew. 

Over the years I've gotten to be pretty good at that myself. I'm looking at the landscape all the time. To borrow from the birdwatchers' lexicon, I've absorbed some "jizz" factors in my own walk of life.

Learning begins with curiosity, with asking "What's that?" Thinking back on the emergence of Dogtown College here on Cape Ann prompts me to sound out a few of that gang for next week's posting.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bluebird Quest

Of all the birds a gardener could choose to attract, the bluebird is the quintessential helpful garden bird. Gardeners go to extreme lengths to attract and keep them in the garden for their advantageous properties. Bluebirds are voracious insect consumers, quickly ridding a garden of insect pests...Wikipedia.
Who wouldn't feel lucky to see a bluebird at home, or in a favored habitat? It's the ethereal promise in "Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly" and the jaunty companion in Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah's "Mr. Bluebird's on my shoulder." It used to be more common in New England. 

Ed Jylkka of Rockport is one of the birders enthralled by this member of the thrush family. When we went out recently on a winter reconnaissance of bluebird venues, and to the shop where he fabricates bluebird nesting boxes, Ed related  his first-hand adventures around the quest to enjoy bluebirds locally.
Eastern bluebird, male, Sialia sialis
Chris Jylkka photo
Ed Jylkka
Bluebirds do come to Cape Ann. I've seen them at Loop Pond meadow. That's perfect because it's a large open space fringed by trees. I've heard of them at Johnson's Quarry.
Ed Jylkka evicting mice from bluebird box
I've tried at Halibut Point but I haven't seen bluebirds there yet. I check the boxes periodically but all I've done is evict white-footed mice. Virtually every box I clean out at this time of year has a white-footed mouse nest in it.

I have to tell you about one discovery that I had, visiting my son down in Weston about five years ago. He has a piece of property with a pond, pretty much surrounded by woods. He said he'd love to put some houses up. It was late fall, they won't nest, but I had read they will use them for shelter. Sure enough, one day he saw a bluebird going in in the winter. He opened the door. There were nine in there keeping warm. They've nested there ever since. 

Bluebird female
Chris Jylkka photo
Like robins, they get by in the winter here on berries--privets and multiflora roses that are invasive species, but provide food for birds.

I make nesting box kits, put the boxes around in different areas, and help people assemble kits at a Trustees of Reservations workshop over at Ravenswood. Ideally the boxes should be placed about 5 feet off the ground, on a stake or tree in an open area. That height seems to discourage English sparrows that are the chief problem for taking over bluebird nests, or even killing them. Five feet is generally too low for the sparrow's liking. 

The boxes have a little ladder cut in to help the babies climb up to the opening.

 Our common grey squirrels will typically enlarge the hole of a wooden box and take over. One of the inventions I'm proud of is this piece of PVC pipe, just the right diameter, press-fit in there snug. It keeps the squirrels out.

Ed Jylkka photo
One day I saw something when I went to empty a house. It had big black eyes looking out at me. I rapped on the box and out came a flying squirrel. He jumped out and glided away. I came back with my camera. This time when I knocked he went up on the tree and I got a picture of him.

Flying squirrel
Ed Jylkka photo

I didn't know we had them around here. I researched it and found out there are two types in Essex County, the northern and the southern. They differ mostly in habitat. The northern likes big pine trees and forests. The southern likes it more open.

Most people have never seen a flying squirrel because they're nocturnal, and they don't go poking around in the right places. That explains their bulging black eyes. They have great night vision. Sometimes they colonize house attics to keep warm in winter, if they can find a way in, which obviously doesn't take much.
Red-winged blackbird
Ed Jylkka photo
My interest in nature goes back to kindergarten. In fact I think it was something I was born with. My grandparents came over from Finland to work the quarries. I grew up in the woods around here. 

I used to accompany a gentleman named Courtney Worthington, a neat name, on bird walks with John Kieran, Dick Hale, and a bunch of others. They asked me to consider joining the Friends of Halibut Point State Park. And I did. That was at least twenty-five years ago. I've been the vice-president for probably twenty years.
Tree swallows
Ed Jylkka photo
The public can and always will be able to go to Halibut Point and see birds and indulge in natural things. I've led a lot of walks, nature walks, bird walks, wildflower walks. I'm interested in just about everything, but I'm not an expert at anything. Interested enough to learn. I do it out of gratitude for the place.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Granite Museum

At a particularly warm spot in our interview, Halibut Point State Park's first supervisor Gail Halloran reminisced about Rockport native son Walter Johnson who loved to share his knowledge of the granite quarrying industry. Gail provided the photographs.
Gail Halloran:
"Did you ever know Walter Johnson? He was a great teacher. His father came over from Sweden in the 1800s and became a quarry foreman. Walter spent a summer working as a quarry tool boy, in 1919. He taught me how to split granite. He used to give demonstrations here. 

He'd walk over here every day. He was over here so often, talking to people, that he started giving impromptu tours on Sundays. On rainy days we'd sit here, like this, and he'd tell me all kinds of stories. He introduced me to Ray Parsons, who was a blacksmith. We got a lot of tools from him. We have a lot of tools that aren't on display.

Walter called me up one day. "Gail, what are you doing? I want to show you something." He lived over on Phillips Avenue. He said, "Meet me outside." He had this wooden Swedish sled that he wanted to show me. "Get in. I'm going to give you a ride." And we went down the hill. He was eighty-eight years old. I had a lot of fun working here."
Walter Johnson and granite at Halibut Point, 1987
The concept of a Granite Museum appeals to many people who experience Halibut Point, but the State remains ambivalent about including one within the Park. The primary mission has remained quiet enjoyment of nature, unique scenery, and a monumental glimpse at a quarry. A display facility carries vexing questions of funding, staffing, and security.
Nevertheless when a Town-owned stone building was torn down in Rockport in 1985, some choice granite blocks were stored at the Park for incorporation into a potential museum.  

The cake, ground-breaking day, 2000
By the year 2000 passionate organizers seemed to have garnered the necessary support for the museum. Friends President and driving force Marianne Edwards commissioned a cake depicting the sketch by planning consultants City Design. They hoped a granite museum would be dedicated by and to Walter Johnson.
Ground-breaking ceremony, September 30, 2000
L to R: Arnold Hage (past-president of Friends), Ted Tarr and Marjorie Davis (Advisory Council), DEM Regional Director David Hall, State Representative Bruce Tarr, Park staff Dick Knowles, Friends President Marianne Edwards, DEM Commissioner Peter Webber, Gail Halloran, Ed Jylkka (current vice-president of Friends), Walter Johnson in wheel chair.
Gloucester Daily Times, April 17, 2001
The granite museum has yet to materialize at Halibut Point. Recently the Friends of the State Park have formed a partnership with the overseeing Department of Conservation and Recreation to create the best possible display of granite industry items. 

In Phase One, just now going out to bid, the Friends have committed $25,000 with 2:1 matching funds of $50,000 from the State, to assess the structural and spatial potentials of the existing Visitors' Center for educational displays. If all goes well, Phase Two will allocate a similar level of funds for the installations. 

The scale and setting of the quarry provide a monumental tribute to the resourcefulness and resolve of the granite workers. Expanded display facilities will give the public better exposure to their accomplishments in a competitive industry at a dynamic time in American urbanization. 

A full-fledged museum may not be practical but we can anticipate dedicated displays that conserve and share the materials dear to Walter Johnson's heart.