Tuesday, June 30, 2015

NH: June 22 Trip Log: Lovern's Mill Natural Area, NH

The North Branch of the Contoocook River is loud, frothy, and crystal clear.

On a morning when I didn't need to rush in to my grad school class, I took a few hours and revisited a favorite place of mine I used to visit frequently when I lived nearby. Surrounded by forest reserves and easements is the Nature Conservancy's Loverns Mill Cedar Swamp Preserve Natural Area just ten miles from the Eppig place.

Atlantic White Cedar.

An old woods road follows the North Branch of the Contoocook River for a short while, past tumbling falls and drops. A very busy barrel and cable reel mill  (powered by an overshot waterwheel) once stood where the gradient is steepest, but now only the remains of a blown out stone dam stands off the east bank. The original 1798 Revolutionary-era  mill long gone from this site was the first industry built on this wild, whitewater river by Sam Dinsmore, a Revolutionary war veteran from County Antrim, Ireland. Nothing of any of the several mills that followed it are found here now.  All of it has reverted to wildlands. All of it protected by both the Nature Conservancy and for miles around by private land owners.

Bunchberry in flower.

The road soon intersects with the three mile loop Lovern's Mill Trail. This trail begged to be walked slowly to listen to birdsong, explore along the boardwalk, and to sit on the river bluff that overlooks the freshwater marshes. I'm glad I took the time because I did not get another opportunity for the rest of the week before or after class to take some time to myself. 

Cinnamon Fern. 

Northeasterners have a special relationship with their forests and private forest owners especially are critically important to conservation planning of the region. New England was once fully engaged in agriculture and when the great forests had been logged and the land cleared, hill farms spanned the landscape in a patchwork of walled-off pastures and fields.  Farm abandonment began after the Civil War and slowly the forests began to return. So did the forest industries. By the 1990s land owners recognized the economic as well as the natural value of their properties and they consulted with land trusts to balance stewardship of working landscapes. Most of the forest preserve lands of NH today are privately held.

A living wall of granite. 

All along the trail huge rounded boulders towered over me and the trail wove in and out of dark passages through them. In the half light, lichens and mosses covered their flanks in thick carpets of green, grey, and dusty blue, living walls of granite. A recent study of lichen biodiversity revealed that here on the rim of the cold bowl of high altitude swamplands, these living boulders hold thousands of years of growth. Pollen studies of the swamp core soils at the center of the bowl indicate that this environment has been intact for over 4,000 years and that the northern white cedar have been growing here at least as long. The oldest trees are known be about 150. It's a rare environment, however, and less that 500 acres of northern white cedar swamp remain in the whole state. This protected area is only about 50 acres in size, protected all around by private lands under easement, logging company reserves, and Nature Conservancy ownership. The complex arrangement of protection between state, private, and non-profit easements is impressive.

As I made my way down the boardwalk practically sunk in the high water that collected after a day of heavy rain, I watched clouds of damselflies in their mating flights. The males floated like ebony- blue fairies over the grass beds where the females laid their eggs on stems. A yellow warbler sang from a tamarack overhead and the northern white cedar trunks glowed in the low morning sun. Mosquitoes rose from the moss like mist. Dragonflies darted crazily around scooping them up as they flew slowly, still cold from the dawn hours.

The boardwalk in.

 I can imagine the superstition and fear of the early settlers who dared explore the dark, buggy world of the swamps. It is a strange relationship some people continue to have with the dark, wet, woods and find no solace in a world where insects claim dominion. In this world of bugs. I founnd it a bit like time travel looking back into the Devonian. I leaned against a young cedar tree and it tilted slightly with my weight pressing into it, anchored as it was to the boggy bottom and not the rocky rim. Butterflies, flies, midges, mayflies, beetles, bees, wasps, floating spiders on wisps of web, and a large lazy cranefly filled the air space around me.

The male damselflies were as curious about me as I was about them landing eyes front.

Northern white cedar grow thick on the interior of the swamp, evenly interspersed with tamarack and on hummocks, black spruce. Not very tall, these old trees practically sang for themselves bedecked with white-throated sparrows  darting from limb to limb declaring territory and chipping alarm calls at my presence. They were joined by red-eyed vireos, black-capped chickadees, flycatchers, wood thush, ovenbirds, towhees, a peewee, and a chorus of warblers so numerous I couldn't keep up with birding by ear. The music abruptly ended however as a feather grey missile burst through the swamp: a sharp-shinned hawk.  

On the rim of the swamp, looking in.

Thoreau wrote about the northern cedar swamps as providing indigenous canoe builders with all the wooden thwarts, gunwales, and paddles they could use for their bark-skinned boats that long ago plied the river highways and crossed thousands of lakes and ponds of this region. Confronted with heavy white water (like I can planinly hear  a quarter mile distant) these boats were light enough for one man to hoist upon to his shoulders and walk  well-worn portage trails around. The rivers and lakes are connected by networks of these trails that you can still find hundreds of years later. The Northern Forest Canoe Trail is one such water trail that has been restored by modern paddlers and in many places the old Indian, fur trader, and explorer portage trails are again in use.   

Indian Cucumber in blossom.

I find dark forests not the least bit frightening and I don't carry the unnecessary baggage of superstition, but I did put into context the good possibility of bumping into wildlife in this low light, hushed environment. The dramatic hilly  terrain of the rim, the shadowy depths of the sun-starved forest floor, and a fresh pile of bear scat in the trail gave me a little pause. It was still steaming. I think I caught a glimpse of the bear browsing far ahead along the edge of the swamp where dappled sun helped a large patch of berries to grow luxuriantly. But if it was just a shadow or the real thing, I never found out.  I stood a long time and watched, but was unable to hear anything over the roar of birdsong and scolding red squirrels. 

Maybe the bear was browsing this nice patch of partridge berries at the edge of the swamp.

The path got quite muddy in low spots and hoof prints of a moose filled with water as if she'd just passed this way in the early morning hours. My love of northern woods wildlife overcame any concerns and I continued along the trail a bit faster and a lot quieter hoping to spot the bear or catch up to the moose. It hard to blend in, though, with the constant chucking and alarm calls of a very upset red squirrel who, for some reason, followed me rather than going about her business. I noticed another large patch of partridge berry nearby and wondered if the bear and the squirrel weren't feeling a little protective of it! I certainly would! 

Sphagnum Moss in its element.

I came to an absolutely beautiful spot along the edge of the swamp and sat transfixed by the color, the sound, the juxtaposition of water, granite, moss, and trees.  The night before I had done a thorough reading of the Pope's encyclical Laudato Si, Praise Be.  I wondered, looking around at the blending of living and non-living material - cells of sphagnum and grains of glacially-ground sand, fern fronds higher than I could reach, and boulders draped in tapestries of lichen - if we've come to some sort of balance in the Northwoods - some kind of making-peace with landscapes that require our stewardship and care as opposed to landscapes of extreme exploitation a century and more ago.

Red Squirrel.

Conserving whole landscapes is a little like making peace with ourselves, dropping irrational fears and unrestrained greed, to allow wild nature to simply be within us too, I think. I recalled the recent release of a video in which an entangled dolphin swam trusting, maybe even in friendship, up to a group of marine biologists to ask for help. Understanding relationships and community is the foundation of ecology, and the divers - being ecologists and biologists - knew that their role was no longer as scientific observers but willing participants in responding to this simple act of asking for help. They became part of the story, connecting in the most intimate way with a most vulnerable creature who had sought them out. Ecology, from the Greek oikos meaning home, the study of home - the study of our place, our landscape, and our neighbors who share home with us.

A beautiful rest.

I moved from that beautiful rest and walked further along, considering what it meant to be at home, to be so comfortable in a particular place that it is seamlessly part of you. Laudato Si, the title of the Pope's letter was borrowed from St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Sun, seemed a good sentence starter for a poem I wrote in my journal  to Little Sister Red Squirrel still following along.  I sat down next to a tiny creature shining like a fiery star in the dark universe of the forest floor and sketched Little Brother Red Eft.

Fiery star of the dark forest floor. 

The trail  reached into a wild and birdy marsh and I sat here too, a beautiful place for a writing break. The winds were just high enough to deter clouds of flies and mosquitoes, which come as part of the landscape. You must accept the messy, biting, buzzing annoyances and the downright danger that comes with the reality of wildness. I laugh sometimes, mostly at myself, but other writers too, when the romanticism of place runs roughshod over the realities of what it means to be physically in nature. 

A boreal refuge.

Things have claws, fangs, teeth, four legs or six legs or eight. I trip and fall and I get hurt. It's painfully cold or frighteningly hot. Storms rage or floods rise and wash life from the land.  That moose I was following and calmly calling "she" could well have been a large grumpy bull. That bear could have had a cub or two. So we need to not only learn to appreciate our place but understand our place in it.  We are powerful guardians and yet we are as vulnerable as an entangled or tiny wild thing at the mercy of it all. 

Fresh water marsh, West Mountain rising in the north.

This is the landscape where I go to learn more about what it means to be a steward. As Pope Francis says in Laudato Si we need more of these places, communally protected, shepherded, cared for, where the conservation of wild land "takes us to the heart of what it means to be human."

Rosebud Azalea.


Though the Northern Forest Canoe Trail passes far to the north of Lovern's Mill Natural Area above the White Mountains in NH.  The modern trail now logs 72 miles through the state and uses the Connecticut River, Upper Ammonoosuc, and the Androscoggin as the main route (as it did 300 years ago!) - but it's important to remember that hundreds of linked water and portage trails spanned all of New England and northern cedar swamps were important sources of raw materials for the building of lightweight bark canoes. I have no doubt some of the Lovern's Mill Trail around the swift water of the North Branch served as an old route into and out of this swamp.


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