January 30, 2012

Harvard Forest

During J-term, I took part in a mini-course at Harvard Forest. It was sort of an interdisciplinary art and science program, so we learned about forest ecology and processed core samples one day and had a writing workshop the next. I put my writing below the jump. Here is one of the drawings I did on our visual art day where we used pencil and pastel on brown paper. This exercise was led by artist in residence Debby Kaspari.

For our writing assignment, we were set loose in the forest with only a map for 2 hours and told to explore and write "something", which we would edit later.

Unedited notes while walking

My coyote
paws 3 1/4 in track
walking, to a trot
with the path, to the side

down a trail. hope it’s what I want,
ponds in the snow
leaves on the bottom
ice on the fringe
CS Lewis ponds between worlds

Not sure I’m where I want to be
Other footprints reassure that I’m not the only one wandering this way
The trail is marked with pink flags
I trust the ecologist who came before
This time no footprints but my own

I found the clearcut site
It’s a warzone
Barbed wire thorns
pit fall traps with spikes inside
Experimental moose and deer exclosure plots
fighting hte landscape to get to the road
no tracks here.
the creatures are more intelligent than I

size of my hand

Prospect hill tower - I did it!
no exhilaration, just a sigh of relief
and curiosity about moose.
Through the trees, can see for miles
a house, a steeple, and infinite woods.

Trail unclear.
This time I’m going to trust the moose
The moose and deer lead me safely down
the hill until coyote or fox led me to an ecologist
Now time to trust the ecologists again.
Thank you animals.

Trusting ecologists pays off
Through the swamp to the environmental monitoring site.
Someone swept the path.
There’s a truck here but I see no one.
At least the way back is clear.
I just hope I make good time.

Fresh human tracks.
My classmates?
This is the right way.

Narrative Version

On Wednesday, after lunch (around 1) to 3pm was “free time” to walk through the landscape and write. Part of the goal was to have some written product by the end of our personal hikes. We were given a map, waterproof notebook, no briefing and set loose.

Looking at the map, I realized that I would need to plan for the most effective 2 hours. I could either stay close, see less and write more, or go far, see more and write less. Choosing the latter, I set a goal to see Prospect Hill, an area with a second research tower and the highest point in the Forest. I plotted what I believed to be the proper route on my map and set out, stopping occasionally to jot down notes.

After fetching my gloves from Fisher house, I modified my route for the detour, aiming to hike most of Prospect Hill Road but cutting into a more direct trail, as opposed to the full Prospect Hill Road route which required a certain amount of doubling back. With only two hours to hike the entire route I desired the most direct and time efficient route possible.

Prospect Hill Road was wide, with two strong divots where car tires had packed the snow and frozen into an ice rink. Human and canid prints snaked between the parallel hazards, choosing the less slippery snow for a foothold. Examining the prints as I walked, I tried to determine when the canid had a human partner, and quite a ways in discovered a set, possibly two sets, of prints with no corresponding human footprints. My field guide suggested coyote as the culprit, and we traveled together for some time. As he hastened to a trot, I did as well, throwing back my wolverine hat and tearing open my jacket as the warmth of vigorous exercise filled my body.

The coyote and I parted ways at the entrance to a side trail and I pressed on toward my goal. A ways after divergence I noticed the entrance to a jeep road that my map indicated might be one of three possible desirable paths. It had been difficult to keep track of trail entrances so at this point it was a guess. I kept my map on hand at all times, comparing the topographic indications.

To the left of the jeep road, snow covering the deep part of the forest floor undulations had melted, revealing small, dark ponds. Closer examination revealed that the floor of the ponds were coated with last season’s leaves in a variety of earthtones. The fringes of the pool retained hints of ice, in another basin the ice covered the surface but was transparent like glass, bubbles struggling to escape. After our lunchtime conversation of childhood books, The Magician’s Nephew comes to mind. In a particularly memorable scene, the characters put on their magical rings and emerge from water into an infinite forest. Trees space out still pools, and each pond contains another world. By diving through the pools wearing the appropriate magic ring, the characters can enter the worlds on the other side.

However, I had time constraints, so I pressed on. A class member crossed my path and we exchanged directions. His footprints led me in the right direction, but I kept my gaze focused to the left to find the path up Prospect Hill. The map claims there is a trail, put I’ve had difficulty pinpointing the “trails” and little difficulty locating jeep roads and town roads. Two pink flags flanked a slight opening in the trees. Tentatively, I took a few steps up the path, and sure enough there was another pink flag following a continued gap. Topological markings on my map indicated that these flags were most likely not a coincidence, so I followed them up a steep incline. No one had passed this way since the snowfall on Monday night, so I couldn’t trust footprints anymore.

After completing the incline, the trees opened up to reveal a clearcut space. The space was vast, but could hardly be called a field as short thorny brush coated the hillside, waist to chest-high on average but in some cases entirely taller than me. In the distance I could see the corners of a moose and deer exclosure. The reconnection to Prospect Hill road should be just beyond the exclosures. The bushes posed a significant obstacle but my goal was so close. I sought the most direct path, with the least resistance by thorns, but this was not always possible as no official path had been cleared, or if it had, I had lost the trail.

Large portions of trees were strewn haphazardly in my way, the thorns snagged every piece of me, grasping and tearing, holding me back. Frequently, I tore my sleeves free, snarling in frustration as my jeans were pierced and entangled. I thought of turning back several times, but since the the way back was equally imposing, pressing on seemed the less painful option. Interestingly enough, throughout my endeavor I did not see a single animal track. It seemed that the local wildlife was intelligent enough to avoid the brambles, though I wasn’t.

After a significant distance, I stumbled out onto the road again, across from a solar powered station. The road sloped upwards again as I neared the tower, and tracks reappeared, this time a track I had never seen before: moose. I double checked my assessment with the field guide, but it was hard to mistake tracks as long as my hand. The moose both crossed and followed the road multiple times, heading to the same destination. Finally, the fire tower was in sight, indicating the summit of Prospect Hill. I sighed with relief and checked my cell phone clock; only forty five minutes to get back from a place that took me an hour and a half to reach.

Despite initial visions of myself finding a comfortable seat and writing prolifically at the summit with an epic view of the surrounding area, I instead began to study my map and search for the trail down. There wasn’t much of a view anyway, since trees had filled in most of the area and the only real clear space was a gap for a power line. Just as the trails branching from Prospect Hill Road had not been clear, the marked trail that would bring me back to the Jeep road was not clear. There were several flags along the border of the forest that might indicate a trail, but I started and turned back several times before electing to just follow the moose tracks. The incline swiftly increased, but the moose followed the easiest path down the steep hill.

Occasionally, I would lose the moose only to pick up another, or a deer, all ultimately trending towards the same direction. I continually checked my map with the topography until stumbling across canid tracks. As I lifted my gaze to check the general direction of the track, a blue flag leapt out from the surrounding white snow. Whether this flag indicated a trail or a general study site was unclear, as there was not a consistent string of markers, but scattered between yellow-marked trees somewhat haphazardly. I tested the string to the left, then to the right, before electing to just go “forward” on the direction that my map indicated would probably lead me to the Jeep trail. However, I made sure to stay close to the flags and painted on the quite likely probability that they would trend in the direction of civilization. In actuality, my orientation had a significant percent error as I faced about 15 degrees farther east than I should have to reach the jeep road, but amongst the undulations of the swamp and without a compass, rough approximation was the best I could hope for.

The terrain shifted from relatively sparse trees with relatively smooth space between them, to frozen puddles amid mounds of moss and trees. Instead of hiking straight through the region, I was forced to hop between the segments high ground, to avoid breaking through whatever ice was below. Eventually I reached a stream, rushing beneath a layer of thin ice, which I crossed with a great bound, clutching the tree at my landing point to steady myself. More ecological markers appeared in the distance. I raced onwards, through the thickening pine and hemlock. Flags grew more frequent until suddenly, a wire fence appeared. A few feet later, a small wooden building could be seen through the fence, and looking upward, a great metal tower peeked out between branches, lined with instruments. I had been here before! Testing the fence to see if it was electrified, I dove between the wires and broke into a trot, hoping I hadn’t triggered a security system.

The boardwalk leading to the Environmental monitoring station had been swept since the class visited the day before. A green Harvard Forest pickup truck was also parked at the entrance, but I could see no one around. Maybe they were inside. I didn’t care to find out, here was the road, and it was 3:07. I had to get back. I quickened my pace again.

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