Thursday, February 28, 2019

Herring Run Time

Something in my bones yearns for a good herring run. Thing is, I've never witnessed one and wonder if it's in my Scots-Irish DNA to anticipate the return of anadromous fish to their spawning rivers. I have always loved fly-fishing, cast netting, and just lying face-down in a stream with my goggles on to watch fish. But this time of year, late February and early March, it's like I am drawn to my own natal stream.

Herring Run south of the dam at Conowingo was a natal stream for a large Blueback run. 

Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and Blueback Herring (A. aestivalis) are the two herring species of the Lower Susquehanna Valley. Historical data show that 1908 was when the herring fishery peaked at harvest for 66 million pounds during the annual run. The fishery has experienced precipitous declines of 80% since then. The other day, on a road walk to Lapidum, an extinct river town on the Susquehanna with my dog, son, and daughter-in-law, I stood on a bridge over a small spawning stream just wishing to see a run.   

Once a major herring fishery, the Lower Susquehanna supports only a tiny fraction of the once-abundant run.

As  the stocks steadily declined from the 1920s to the 1950s, technologies improved for taking more fish into bigger ships. From the 1960s through the 1970s, foreign offshore industrial fishing fleets intercepted Chesapeake-bound herring as the fish tried to migrate up the underwater canyon, the old riverbed that extends far out on to the Continental Shelf. Habitat destruction, pollution, continued overfishing, and blocked rivers (dams, culverts, diversions) have added to the pressure. Now there are severe restrictions for catching them and scientists are truly worried for their survival. An entire food chain is affected from Rock Fish to Eagles if the herring runs disappear.

Fishing Creek in Lancaster County was once a major Blueback stream before the dams and railroads.

I remember as a teenager in the 1970s visiting the smaller streams and creeks below the Conowingo Dam on both sides of the Susquehanna during early March accompanying friends, their dads and grand dads, who remarked how each year there were fewer and fewer herring to catch. I remember many times during 1980s when I would hike along the river and see herring fishermen with empty buckets after long days waiting.  But then I remembered to check my field journals and saw that last year I happened on a most remarkable thing...

Gashey's Creek in April of 2018 near Havre de Grace, MD, where I witnessed a small Alewife run a month before.

Last year on March 1, while on a lunch walk along Gashey's Creek near where I work at Swan Harbor, I happened to intercept a small  run of Alewife! Their shoulder spots were clearly visible as they thrashed over the gravel banks into the quiet pools above. I was spell-bound and amazed. These few hundred herring, about 8 to 10 inches in length, flashing silver in the sunlight, made such a racket that as I stood there blinking, several Hooded Mergansers, a Kingfisher, a Great Blue Heron and a Bald Eagle joined me in the valley. I think they were all as amazed as I was!

So today I emailed the Smithsonian River Herring Citizen Science Project to see if Gashey's Creek is their stream monitoring list and asked how I can get involved to learn more about herring restoration. I know what half of you who know me are saying "Oh no! Another messy, muddy, wet, and cold project!" Yes, please. 

A very bad picture of a Bald Eagle that  joined me to watch  Bluebacks work their way up Gashey's Creek last March.


Let's see what trouble I can get into this year. I hope they get back to me.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Environmental History: Donald Hughes Wrote the Book

When I was flailing around for my doctoral research questions my adviser suggested I consider my original set of ecological (native bees) questions reframed as environmental history questions. I had no idea what she was talking about. So she handed me this book by J.Donald Hughes.  I read it almost on a dare, lounging around on a cold day by a flooding river in New Hampshire. But something about this new (to me) field made me think that combining science and history might be kind of fun. A lot of work - archives, interviews, land labs, travel, more archives - but fun.

Image result for what is environmental history hughes

In 2016, I found the author of that book on FaceBook, posting pictures of his world travels, having conversations with students and colleagues. I sent him a friend request and we "friended" each other. I told him how important his socio-ecological perspective of  history has been in my own work on environmental pilgrimage and working/conservation landscape history. We had a few great email exchanges, "liked" and commented on each other's social media posts, especially when I posted pictures of my pilgrimage research abroad. He liked anything I posted on St. Francis - the patron saint of ecologists.  And, he was a reader of this blog.

Dr. Hughes frequently commented on the pictures I posted of my pilgrimage to Holy Island, Lindesfarne, U.K.

Unfortunately at the time I connected with him on social media  he was already sick with leukemia and was returning from what would be his last international trip. Even so, his last few years were spent immersed in the natural and human histories near his home in Lake Worth, Florida, while he kept up a very active online presence.  He passed on February 3, 2019 at home. He was 86.

What an environmental historian "sees" in the landscape is akin to reading a thick book on the history of that place.

Hughes began his work studying ancient Mediterranean histories that examined socio-economic relationship between cultures and the land. He crafted a new set of historical analysis "lenses" that enabled us to combine environmental and ecological issues of a place with the deep human histories that gave them rise. He was quick to point out that this kind of history was nothing new, that Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides wrote extensively on the environmental impact of people on the land and seas, and the punishments that the gods would and did exact on them. As his work intensified and expanded to include case studies from around the world, it was clear that he and a few others were on to something. He was a founding member of a slew of new organizations that began to emerge that identified environmental history as a distinct (but highly interconnected) field. These include the American Society for Environmental History (1976), the European Society for Environmental History, the East Asian Association of Environmental Historians, and the South Asian Environmental History Society. 

The Red Kite's remarkable return to Spain northwards to the U.K. is a complex story of environmental and policy change. 
I realized early in our social media exchanges that when I posted pictures of my travels, Dr. Hughes was not just seeing the beauty of the landscapes but the mutli-layered socio-ecological stories they contained. And not just landscapes. Pictures of Europe's great raptors, some making historic recoveries in our lifetimes, spoke volumes to him about the conservation practices of monks of the Middle Ages as much as changes in modern European conservation policy. A photo of my son standing atop Hadrian's Wall on the great Whin Sill,  arms outstretched and huge smile on his face, elicited the comment "So many moving parts to this picture, but most of all -I know a Roman historian when I see one!" 

"I can see all the way back to the Iron Ages in this one!" (Iron Age hill fort at the top of an Eildon Hill near Melrose.)

Dr. Hughes was also a minister, very devoted to his church and congregation, interested in the intersection of faith, sacredness, and nature. When I began my trek to investigate one of the Church's earliest conservation thinkers, 7th century St. Cuthbert of Lindesfarne,  Donald was right there on social media looking at Northumbrian landscapes and artworks. Tracing his interest in sacred ecology and environmental ethics through various papers and reviews, his work gave me the courage to dive deep into waters no self-respecting historian would dare enter, but we're talking environmental historians here and I felt I knew the language and the strokes to stay afloat.

 Cuthbert's own spiritual ecology predated Franci's by hundreds of years.
It was Hughes' deep dive into the spiritual ecology of St. Francis that prompted me to investigate the life and times of St. Cuthbert, where I found such complexity in how Celtic-Anglo religious of the early middle ages thought about nature. I continue to wade through this cosmic wilderness and wonder if I can find the roots of Francis' thinking five-hundred years before he was born.

"Francis' devotion did not immediately dissolve multiplicity into oneness, but glorified God in each created being and delighted in their individuality. He advocated that praise be expressed by acting in ways consistent with respect for created diversity, not only by observing a strict rule of abstaining from harm to living beings, but also in positive treatment of all creatures. Nature took its meaning not from its serviceability to mankind, but from its expression of the multiple forms of God’s benevolent presence. "  -  From: "St. Francis and the Diversity of Creation," (1996)

 I think Francis and Cuthbert would have been great friends.

A gentle man, a gentleman, an adventurer, teacher and guide, prolific writer and speaker, and life-long pilgrim, he was giant among environmental historians, a genuine founder of the field. I hope that wherever in the cosmic wilderness he's roaming now, he's writing on human history and the ecology of the universe. 

"The human species evolved within the community of life by competing against, cooperating with, imitating, using, and being used by other species. Thus our species is an offspring of the interacting forms of life on Earth. This means not only that human bodies achieved their forms through evolution, but that the ecosystems of the Earth provided our ancestors with sustenance, set problems for them, sharpened their wits, and to a large extent showed them the way they must go.

-  From: An Environmental History of the World, (2001/2009)

Photo credit: Donald Hughes/University of Denver

An Environmental History of the World: Humankind's Changing Role in the Community of Life is available online in PDF format  at:  An Environmental History of the World - J. Donald Hughes

"Francis of Assisi and the Diversity of Creation," Environmental Ethics 18, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 311-320

University of Denver Publications List:

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

DE Fork Branch Nature Preserve

Well the coonhounds don't care for short walks but we're at least up to two miles consistently several times a week. My leg is almost healed but steep up-and-downs will have to wait. The first half of February here in South-Central PA has brought a mixed bag of the old favorite "wintery mix," some brutal cold, and spring-like days. No one I know, except maybe the coonhounds, are very happy with our sloppy, muddy, slushy opportunities for a decent walk. But on St. Brigid's Day we made a new discovery in the sunny wilds of Dover, Delaware!

Daughter Emily and Grandson Aiden in front of the new signage at Fork Branch Preserve in Dover.

We arrived late in the afternoon to low, glorious sun and cold, crunchy snow.  Located within the city limits of Dover, the area is developing around a low floodplain forest that a local family deeded to the state DNR in memory of their parents Anne and Dr. James McClements. Everything except the forest is new - gates, signage, trails, parking - and we felt kinda special counting as one of the property's first winter visitors. There's even a school bus parking spot for school groups - a perfect use for this natural oasis near the Air Force Base and NASCAR Speedway.

River Birch.

The two-hundred fifty acre tract is stunningly quiet, though swamp and vernal pools are all around, so it could get quite froggy and noisey come spring! We want to come back for that. Winter flocks of chickadees, titmice, sparrows, and nuthatches followed us along peeping and tittering. Emily called in a red-bellied woodpecker which followed us around for the better part of half-a-mile, sure it had discovered an early spring rival.

Emily and brother George are both wildlife photographers.

The walk was so pleasant and quiet. We were the only ones there. I enjoyed having both my children out on a hike. We rarely hike all together any more as everyone has families and busy lives of their own, so I treasured every minute of it. Both were raised outdoors and have kept their passion for wildlife art, photography, and hiking. I'm really very proud of them both!

Turkey Tail growing in a recent wound.

The frigid temperatures in the days leading up to our hike revealed several trees with fresh frost cracks. I remember living in northern Vermont and listening to the rifle shot sounds in the night as thin-barked trees like paper birch burst their skins.  Some trees, however, showed human damage, probably caused by machines or equipment. It's amazing to me how quickly a wound can be populated by fungal spores with fruiting bodies appearing within months of a gash.

Sunset in a Young Woods.

Though the forest around us was typical for a Delaware lowland, it's easy to forget how forests we take for granted are being threatened by development. Delaware has seen building booms come and go and it appears the state is in the midst of another as new developments pop up, roads are constructed, and office buildings and stores seem to show up overnight. It's really a choice we have to make - to set aside things that are common now - before they become rare or even just gone when we aren't paying attention. A common woods is not so common when you consider the complex interplay of tree species and environment and how important forests are for all life on earth. Another office building will never be as important to our health as a fine parcel of woods to wander.

Typical Delaware lowland forest.

We took our time, stopping often to listen and look. Aiden was just a happy soul to have woods to explore and snow to play in - no structure or directions except to stay on the trail, so sometimes he was far behind investigating or far ahead trail blazing. The new bridges wet areas revealed smooth snow over swamp pools and animal tracks bee-lining from one side of the frozen pool to the other.

Fox tracks coursing across a frozen, snow-covered pool. 

The mile of flat track we slowly walked is one completed of two loops planned for this preserve. The trail will be simple enough, a figure eight of two loops for the future. Plenty of local wildlife have already discovered the ease of travel along a human-built trail as we intercepted White Tailed Deer, Red Fox, Raccoon, and 'Possum strolling along through the snow the night before.

Mature Polar canopy with a health understory of Holly and Sassafras.

We called for owls as the light faded from our walk. I called a Barred Owl but no answers. Em called a Pileated Woodpecker and presto-bingo! A big red-crested, feathered pterodactyl came right to her call. ( I always look left and right before we call - using our voices - lest unsuspecting fellow hikers be confused as to what the heck we are doing!). He swung around trees and circled us through the Poplar canopy, curious but not staying long. By now we were getting pretty cold and the car was only a few hundred steps away. Heat on - blasting - we looked forward to a slice of Shortbread Cake and lengthening daylight through the month on this St. Brigid's Day.

Shortbread cake with  elderberry jam for St. Brigid's Day!


Celebrating the fact we all were able to walk together, here are the links to Emily and George's websites. Emily was always entranced by the magic of the forest when she was small. Our hikes into the Shenandoah Mountains and Appalachian Foothill forays had me believing in fairies as she narrated what magical things happened along the trails after people had gone home. So its no accident that she named her woodworking business after them. George loved to walk so quietly that we could literally walk up on animals - and not frighten them off - to sit for long periods without a word between us in observation and fascination. His interests turned to wildlife photography and the art of the walk-and-stalk.

The Fairy Paintbox

George Eppig Photography