Wednesday, September 28, 2011

¡Social writing!

Or, lessons in putting words together.

(Disclaimer: I am writing this alone at my desk at 11 p.m.)

I've always thought of writing as a solitary enterprise, something you do in a quiet spot, like an antique desk bathed in dusty afternoon sunlight or a cabin tucked away in the woods. But earlier this summer at the Wildbranch Writing Workshop I was introduced to an entirely new concept: writing as a social activity.

At the workshop, I was incredibly fortunate to be working with Craig Childs. If I had the power to temporarily assume someone else's life, Craig's would be high on my list (along with the frontwoman from Rubblebucket Orchestra). Not only did Craig write his first several books while wandering the desert between river guiding seasons and proceed to spend years living in a teepee, he now makes a living traveling to remote places and writing about them. And he's very good at it.

He also worked at a small-town newspaper for a few years (ahem, ahem) and learned there the valuable lesson that years of procrastinating in college never really teaches you: write fast, and write clear. Even if you're crafting the next Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, you'll never get anywhere if you mull and elaborate over every word, thinking that the mechanics of the universe hinge upon your nailing the flow and meaning of a single sentence. Writing for a newspaper, you learn that sometimes your best writing comes when you're forced to do it NOW.

Lesson number one is speed and clarity. I'm working on that. Lesson number two – the one more foreign to me – is that a writer can feed off the energy of his or her surroundings like a musician playing for a crowd. Sometimes inspiration hits you over the head and you are imbued with the gift of writing like a madman at 2 a.m. But depending on those moments to produce good writing is like waiting for a lightning strike to power your house. There is much to be said for the tired advice that writing is more about persistence than inspiration, but conversely, brooding alone over your laptop is neither glamorous nor good for your health. Sometimes you need a change.

Those inferences are mine, not Craig's. Craig, I believe, simply being an avid, AVID writer who takes notes everywhere and stops for nothing, was writing at a bar one night, sitting in the corner, channeling the energy around him into his words. A friend (or a stranger at the bar?) bet him he couldn't write a page on an assigned subject by the time the friend finished a rocks glass of tequila. Craig did – and at Wildbranch he read us what he wrote, a beautiful piece about surfing in California.

Eight hours later, I was carrying a six-pack into the Sterling College library – a lovely library that stays unlocked 24 hours a day and welcomed us to borrow books on the honor system. Around nightfall on a clear summer evening, about fifteen fledgling writers congregated outside the little library with laptops and beer bottles. Then Craig walked out of the twilight with a liter of Patron. Like children following the pied piper, we filed after him into the library, arranging ourselves in a small room – on window sills, on the floor with backs against bookshelves, at tables, on a couch. Craig put the bottle of tequila on a coffee table, deliberately poured himself a cup, sipped from it, and said, GO.

We wrote feverishly. Nonstop. Fed off the sound of thirty hands hitting 900 keys rapid-fire. I could almost feel people's thoughts shooting out from their heads. It was intense.

We did it four or five times, competing to see who could write the most, until Craig's already ruddy face was as rosy as a tomato from the tequila.

The writing from that night needed some polishing, but it was charged with the electricity of a room of creative people. Combine lesson #1 with lesson #2, stir, and the result is magic.

The next morning, as we did every day, those of us in Craig's class walked out to some mosquito-ridden nook in the woods, took off our shoes at his bidding and scattered barefoot with pens and paper to commune with nature and donate a pint of blood to Vermont's mosquito population. That writing was good too, in an entirely different way.

As in most everything, a balance seems best. Master the art of writing quickly and concisely. Go at times alone into the wild places, and at other times surround yourself with the noise and human energy of a city street, a subway car, a party or a bar or a group of other writers. And take notes.

Writers at the Montague Bookmill.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The saga of Irene continues. In the aftermath, questions arise. A story on the effects of dams on the Connecticut River and its tributaries, reprinted with permission.

Wilder -- The mighty Connecticut River might seem to operate with a force all its own -- rising in the spring, falling in the summer, naturally carving its serpentine path through fields and forest. But this behemoth in the Upper Valley's backyard is in fact a highly regulated, carefully monitored mechanism, manipulated over centuries to suit human needs and bent to human will.
Most days, the river chugs along to the Atlantic without fanfare, powering businesses and providing recreational and agricultural opportunities. But when rising waters push the limits of human control -- as happened Aug. 28 and 29 during Tropical Storm Irene -- how does the great machine function? Do the dams built over the decades protect people living and working near the river, or is it foolish to imagine that the great river can be controlled?
Those who have studied the river's rise and fall concede that the answer might be a little bit of both.
When the Connecticut and its tributaries rise dramatically, as they did during the onslaught of Irene, expertise, manpower and reams of data are called upon in an effort to get the river to run smoothly.
But the owners of the homes and businesses swamped by the chaotic rush of floodwaters in West Lebanon and White River Junction could argue that the Connecticut ran anything but smoothly last month. And some have questioned whether water released from the Wilder Dam played a role in their damaged property and lost livelihoods.
The answer to that seems to be an unequivocal no.
Experts across the board agree that, love 'em or hate 'em, the dams did what they were designed to do and, in some cases, prevented millions of dollars worth of damage.
“None of the flood flows could be attributed to the dams,” said David Deen, the Twin States' river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council, responding to suspicions that releases from the Wilder Dam caused flooding along the Route 12A commercial strip.
Cleve Kapala, who has worked for hydroelectric company TransCanada and its local predecessors for nearly 30 years, said that dam operation and flood control on the Connecticut went exactly as planned.
Indeed, flood-control dams helped mitigate flooding, he said, and hydroelectric dams, such as the one in Wilder, played a minimal role in fluctuating river levels.
“There wasn't any damage as a result of our operations,” said Kapala, TransCanada's director of government affairs and relicensing. “We have high-water operating procedures that kicked in. The facilities operated as they were expected to.”

‘Let the Flood Flow Through'

In the post-industrial era, the Connecticut River no longer powers mills and carries logs the way it once did. Nonetheless, 13 hydroelectric dams owned by TransCanada provide 567 megawatts of power to regional businesses, and additional private dams dot the length of the 410-mile waterway.
In Wilder, a dam was first built in 1882, at the former site of the 40-foot-tall Olcott Falls. The current dam, built in 1950, was constructed three-quarters of a mile downstream, flooding the site of the waterfall and previous dam and creating an “impoundment,” like a giant pond, behind it.
Under normal operating conditions, the Wilder Dam raises and lowers water levels by approximately two feet as it holds water back and releases it to generate electricity. About 42 megawatts of power for the New England grid -- enough to power roughly 7,500 homes -- come from the dam. Dartmouth College and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center are both major consumers, Kapala said
Because it was built as a hydroelectric dam, the Wilder facility lacks the ability to store much water and thus plays a minor role in flood control. The Wilder Dam can hold back about 4 billion gallons of water -- enough to act as a sort of speed bump to check the Connecticut's raging waters, but not enough to offer the sort of flood protection that larger facilities, like the Union Village Dam in Thetford, can.
“Hydro dams do not store water,” Deen said. “They have to just let the flood flow through. Believe me, you don't want those dams storing water. If they did, and there was a catastrophic failure, you've got much bigger problems.”
Dan Grossman, a local historian and blogger from Thetford, writes that a hydroelectric dam like the one in Wilder has a huge impact when it's first built -- stumps from flooded fields and woods can still be seen when the water is low. But after the initial shock, Grossman said, hydro dams have little effect. They “neither mitigate nor exacerbate flooding.”
The Wilder Dam was designed to handle flows of 162,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) -- the size of the infamous 1927 flood against which most other high-water events in the region are measured. Irene's waters, though dramatic, came nowhere near that. The dam's release peaked at 27,623 cfs, while the flow of the Connecticut River below the dam -- after the White River poured into it with floodwaters that had already scoured West Hartford and other communities upstream -- reached flows of 104,000 cfs.
On Aug. 25, several days before Irene's arrival, TransCanada had begun incrementally releasing water from Wilder and other dams so that the Connecticut would be as low as possible before the storm hit, Kapala said.
Cat Buxton, education coordinator at Cedar Circle Farm upriver in Thetford, credited the release with helping save farmland in Thetford and surrounding areas. “We were comparably unscathed because someone was bright enough to release the dam the day before,” she said. “Even the night of the storm, the water didn't even come close to the riverbank.”
Prior to Irene, TransCanada employees also opened the company's emergency operations center at North Walpole, N.H., for the first time in 2011. During high-water events, the logistical center employs between six and 14 people working around the clock to monitor precipitation and water levels and coordinate dam operations along the Connecticut.
By Saturday, Aug. 27, TransCanada had drained as much water as possible from behind the Wilder Dam. The rain started that night. By about noon on Sunday, enough rain had already fallen that the dam's 4 billion gallon impoundment was full, and operators were forced to open the gates partially to allow excess water to spill through.
By 3 p.m. Sunday, the dam was essentially just passing the floodwaters downstream, experts said, though it was still holding back the 4 billion gallons it had already stored.
The dam's output reached its highest flow at noon on Monday, Aug. 29, after floodwaters had already inundated the Route 12A commercial strip. Dartmouth flood ecology expert Frank Magilligan -- along with Kapala, Deen and several other experts -- all agree that the vast majority of flooding along Route 12A in West Lebanon was caused by the raging, uncontrolled waters of the White River.
“When the White River does its thing, there's nothing that can be done,” said Ken Alton, a Strafford resident with a 40-year history of working with area dams. “No controls, no flood control, no dams or anything. It's going to do its thing and it’s going to do an unbelievable thing.”

Flood-Control Dams Prepare for Irene

In addition to the 13 hydroelectric dams, the Connecticut River and its tributaries host 16 dams specifically designed for flood control. Two -- the Comerford Dam at 15 Mile Falls in Monroe, N.H., and the Moore Dam in Littleton, N.H., -- are owned by TransCanada. Neither was filled to capacity during Irene, though the water storage they provided in the northern stretches of the Connecticut helped mitigate flooding as far downstream as Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Local flood-control dams -- including those at Union Village, on the Ompompanoosuc River, and at North Hartland, on the Ottauquechee -- are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Under normal operating conditions, each stores only about 5 percent of its total capacity, just enough to create a small reservoir for recreation.
As with the hydro dams, operators of flood-control dams began preparing for Irene well in advance. Mike Curran, the Corps' operations manager for the upper Connecticut River basin, said all reservoirs were lowered to or below normal levels by the weekend of Aug. 28.
“We knew we were going to get a big storm,” he said. “A couple hours after it started raining we shut down to our minimum release at all our reserves and kept shut down until the situation stabilized.”
The total capacity at the 1,100-foot-long Union Village Dam is 12.3 billion gallons. During Irene, the water behind the dam reached a depth of about 90 feet, or 27 percent of its capacity. The Corps estimates that more than $15 million of property damage in Thetford, Norwich and beyond was prevented by flood control at Union Village Dam.
At the 1,640-foot North Hartland Dam, a 1,100 acre lake is capable of holding 23.2 billion gallons of water.
But though Irene dropped between 6 and 11 inches in the Connecticut River drainage area -- approaching a once-in-500-years event, the Corps reported -- the North Hartland reservoir peaked at just 61 percent of its capacity, or 126 feet. Officials said the dam prevented $38 million in damages.
Army Corps of Engineers officials estimate that the 14-plus flood-control projects in the Connecticut River basin, built with federal money, prevented $540 million in property damage in Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut from Tropical Storm Irene.
The Corps' also estimates that in some places, the Connecticut River could have risen as much as 10 feet higher without upstream flood-control dams.
While both the rains and the floods were historic, some dams saw far less water than in 1974, when a big snowpack coupled with back-to-back springtime rainstorms caused the dams at Union Village and North Hartland to reach 100 percent capacity, Curran said, spilling over walls that stand nearly 200 feet high.
To prevent that from happening again -- and to avoid the potentially catastrophic results -- hydraulic engineer Greg Hanlon, of Lyme, said the Corps began releasing water from its dams on Monday, Aug. 29, after Irene's rains had ceased and the “downstream channel capacity” was well below flood level.
At that point, the Corps began releasing some of the water that had been stored behind the dams, to make room for the water that was continuing to flow from upstream. It continued releasing on Tuesday, after water levels began to further decrease.

‘We Can't Completely Protect Ourselves'

The problem with flood-control dams, Dartmouth's Magilligan said, is that they breed a false sense of security. Some people believe that, with the Connecticut River so thoroughly dammed, roads and buildings can be constructed with little concern about floods.
“Places that had dams still got hammered,” he said. “You can't dam the entire watershed.”
Magilligan, who studies municipal policies related to flooding, noted that planning for natural disasters is challenging because greater protection comes at a higher social and economic cost. That's particularly true on Route 12A, where PetSmart, for example, successfully sued the city of Lebanon several years ago to avoid having to build in accordance with a flood prevention ordinance that would have required a more elevated -- and more expensive -- structure.
PetSmart never built its store, but Jeff Goodrich, a civil engineer based in Lebanon, said if it had, the building surely would have been inundated by Irene. He added that retail stores built after 1980 that complied with the ordinance, such as Shaw's and The Home Depot, remained dry.
Nonetheless, Magilligan said, “we're not living in a risk-free world. When it comes to natural events, we can't completely protect ourselves.”
Deen, the river steward, noted that much of the damage inflicted by the White and the Connecticut rivers during Irene hit structures that had been built in the flood plain after the 1927 flood, including the Route 12A commercial strip.
“We've known for a long time that you shouldn't build in flood plains,” he said. “And we continue to build in flood plains. Not in the 100-year flood plain, maybe, but guess what? We build in the 500-year flood plain and that's what we ran into.”
Several of the experts interviewed for this report noted that in New England at least, the heyday of dam-building is past. Public opinion has largely turned against dams, they say, and it seems unlikely that future dams will be built. TransCanada's hydroelectric dams are all up for review in 2018, and stringent environmental reviews will accompany the relicensing process, Deen said, possibly leading to changes in the way the dams are operated.
In the meantime, though, the Twin States are rebuilding.
Deen, who has been watching the Connecticut River for 40 years, worries that some of the projects -- rebuilding in the flood plain, trying to continue manipulating the river's natural channels -- will ultimately place the region again in harm's way.
“It's really frustrating,” Deen said. “Right now, we're watching the work going on in rivers in terms of putting the river back exactly where it was, putting in bigger berms and riprap, and it's not going to work.”
The Connecticut, Deen said, has clearly shown that it can't be completely controlled.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

I've been doing very little personal writing lately. It comes in spurts, I guess, and right now I'm in a spurt of exercising rather than writing. Barefoot running and hot yoga will, I'm sure, inspire some good words in the future. Today my bikram yoga instructor said, "Your thoughts become your reality. Think carefully."

I'm so grateful that the Valley News has given me so many opportunities to write about rivers. Here's another. Reprinted, as always, with permission, and not to be reproduced or distributed. Photos, also as always, are my own, and are from the Rockies, not the Appalachians, where I also got to shock the hell out of some finned creatures.

Originally published July 20.

Etna -- A cloud of bug spray hung thick in the air as a group of volunteers pulled on waders and rubber gloves on a quiet roadside above Mink Brook last week.
   "This is exciting!" said 10-year-old Oliver Morgan, scrambling down the steep bank. "I can't wait to zap fish!"
   The group of six Hanover and Etna residents had gathered for the first of a three-day project helping state fisheries biologists collect data on brook trout populations in Mink Brook, part of a statewide research project to assess -- as a prelude to protecting -- wild "brookies" in watersheds across New Hampshire.
   "There's a lot of uses for this data," said fisheries biologist Matt Carpenter, who gets to spend much of his summer splashing around coldwater streams. "Data gives you the power to make policies: prioritizing areas for protection, ... protecting what's good and intact, and restoring what can be improved."
   Though it was a hot, muggy afternoon, the air was cool and inviting down in the shady gulch, and everyone seemed glad to be working outside. Another fisheries biologist, Ben Nugent, stood in the water with an intriguing device strapped to his back: an electroshocker, used to send a low-voltage electric shock into the water to temporarily stun fish so they can be collected and counted.
   "Everyone helping needs to wear rubber gloves," Nugent instructed the three young boys watching him eagerly. "OK, now ... get your nets ready. It's like basketball or lacrosse -- you can't make a play unless your net's in place."
   Positioning themselves downstream of Nugent, Oliver, 10-year-old Spencer Brown and 14-year-old Ethan Winter stood ready with their long-handled nets in place. With a beeeep-beep-beep-beep that sounded like a metal detector, Nugent lowered a metal rod into the stream and zapped the water. Immediately, the boys lunged forward, trying to scoop up the slippery silver shapes that floated to the surface.
   "They're all over the place," marveled volunteer Chip Brown, of Hanover. "Look at all those fish!"
   Calls of "got one!" and "zap it again, zap it again!" rang out as the team made their way upstream. The boys' fathers, Brown and fellow fishophile Chan Morgan, sloshed behind with five-gallon buckets into which the boys dropped squirming fish one by one. By the end, 100 meters upstream, the buckets were full of small, flopping fish, and the results were ready to be tallied.
   Sawyer Brown, Spencer's 7-year-old brother, crouched on the bank next to Carpenter. Together, the two measured and weighed each fish, while Nugent recorded their findings along with habitat information such as stream temperature, width and GPS location.
   Nugent explained that data from watersheds such as Mink Brook will be used alongside Geographic Information System (GIS) maps showing population density, agricultural development and other land uses to eventually determine "threshold points" -- at what point, for example, a watershed becomes too developed or too dirty to support brook trout.
   New Hampshire's effort to sustain and improve native trout populations is part of the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a Maine-to-Georgia initiative organized by Trout Unlimited. Brook trout are a good indicator of water quality, anglers value them and they're essential to healthy, functioning aquatic ecosystems.
   But brookies are under duress. Results from the studies so far show that intact brook trout populations exist in only 5 percent of streams where they once thrived, and they no longer exist at all in most large rivers. Maine has the majority of the "intact" populations, while Vermont and New Hampshire each contain fragmented, but self-sustaining, populations.
   "These streams are still recovering from a century of agriculture and industry," said Brown, a Trout Unlimited member and lifelong fisherman who helped lead the push to get Mink Brook included in New Hampshire's research efforts. "The trees didn't get big enough to fall, so large woody debris was really lacking," he added, referring to conditions that create the shadowy pools favored by trout.
   Though some brook trout populations have rebounded as the state has been reforested, challenges such as sediment run-off, urban development, dams and culverts continue to threaten the species' full recovery. Additionally, said Nugent, biologists have thus far lacked the data needed to thoroughly evaluate populations.
   The need for more data was one of the reasons that Chip Brown, when he learned of the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, contacted the state wildlife department to find out if Hanover's largest stream could be included in the research.
   The other reason, though, was to give local students the chance to take part. In all, more than 20 people volunteered over the course of the project, including a dozen Hanover students from second to ninth grade.
   "We don't usually get this much interest from volunteers," said Nugent. "This is really helpful."
   "Part of the reason I love seeing these guys down here," said Brown, referring to his sons and the other student volunteers, "is that I got into fishing as a kid. It's fun to go to a stream and pick up a rock and just find stuff.
   "The high schools have been actively involved in bringing kids to local streams and getting them excited about stream biology, and this is just an extension of that," he added.
   At the end of the day, the students were happily exhausted from chasing trout, skipping rocks and dashing after frogs. And the adults were pleased that Mink Brook appeared to be a thriving watershed. After three days of electroshocking at 16 different sites along Mink Brook and its tributaries, the study yielded 213 specimens of wild brook trout (all of which were released), caddis fly larvae and 54 wild Atlantic salmon fry (which may have been introduced to the brook in an effort to reintroduce that species).
   "It seems like it's in good health," Brown said of the brook, "and we'd love to keep it in good health."
   Adair Mulligan, executive director for the Hanover Conservation Council and another driving force behind the Mink Brook project, said education is another key component of keeping brook trout populations on the incline.
   "Two things that residents can do for the fish community are to plant a riparian buffer zone -- vegetation for shade along stream banks -- and create rain gardens -- depressions with native plants that can collect and filter run-off rather than having it go straight to the stream," she said.
   "This is remarkable to have so many state biologists on our watershed," Mulligan added. "The Hanover Conservation Council is excited because (Mink Brook) is our highest priority."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

 Reprinted with permission from the Valley News. Not to be reproduced or distributed.

Though gardeners and naturalists can find wonder under every leaf, the production of honey might just be the most mysterious and exhilarating in the catalog of backyard miracles.
   As an aspiring apiarist, I spent this spring reading up on the art of beekeeping. I've certainly dipped my finger into plenty of jars of honey, and I've cautiously watched beekeepers in action at the state fair. But when my friend and fellow convert Hao invited me to help out with a hive he was keeping in my backyard, I nonetheless harbored a degree of skepticism. I had no doubt that professional beekeepers knew the secret of coaxing honey from a stack of wooden boxes, but I found it hard to believe that while Hao and I were obliviously going about our business, a swarm of insects was crawling and flying over the backyard, producing tiny miracles one drop at a time.
   Nationwide, honey consumption is on the rise, as is the interest in backyard beekeeping. "Feral" hives have been almost wiped out by parasitic mites and a little-understood phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, and a growing number of hobbyists-- 95 percent of the 175,000 or so beekeepers across the country, according to the National Honey Board -- have taken on the vital task of keeping orchards productive and roadside flowers blooming.
   "If you were to go out today and find bees in a tree somewhere up in the woods, chances are they swarmed there (from a captive hive)," said Troy Hall, president of the 100-member-strong Kearsarge Beekeepers Association. Hall keeps about 100 colonies in fields and orchards from Cornish to Fairlee, and area farmers have been very welcoming. "We're benefiting each other," he said.
   In Vermont alone, the number of beekeepers has grown by several hundred over the past few years, to over 2,000, state apiculturist Steve Parise said. And nationwide, honey production in 2010 was up 20 percent from the previous year, to 176 million pounds, according to the National Honey Board.
   Some of the newcomers are concerned about the environmental and agricultural impact of the loss of wild bees and want to help, Parise said. Others are retirees looking for a new hobby, or casualties of the recession trying to turn visions of back-to-the-land living into a second career. But many, it seems, are part of a burgeoning group of young professionals turning to the do-it-yourself and make-your-own movements so they can decompress after long hours at workplaces that are increasingly driven by technology.
   "I'm probably the youngest person at most of the bee clubs, but more people my age and younger are starting to get into it," said the 25-year-old Hall. "Anything in agriculture, like having a garden or keeping bees or doing something with chickens or cows, a lot of people are rediscovering that. It's like a renaissance of the local agriculture movement, and beekeeping is definitely a part of it."
   I've admittedly jumped on the low-tech bandwagon. Sometimes I feel like some offbeat superhero leading a double life: newspaper writer by day, aspiring 19th-century homesteader by night. In addition to beekeeping, I've taken to sewing, playing banjo and typing letters on an old Corona typewriter. My backyard is home to a flock of chickens and an overflowing garden, and my kitchen shelves are lined with mason jars of jam and pickles.
   Many of my friends are spurning the technology that dominates their workdays as well; if it weren't for our utter dependence on the Internet to keep our hobbies going, I'd be afraid of falling asleep one night and waking up in Little House on the Prairie. My beekeeping partner is Hao Xu, 42, a post-doctoral researcher at Dartmouth who for years hardly lifted his head from his study of brain functions and biochemistry. Then he realized he needed a respite from the lab, and began to explore a litany of interests that could well belong to someone from another century: swing and ballroom dancing, sailing, pottery, origami, gardening, beekeeping.
   "It was a fantasy," said Xu, of his initial interest in beekeeping. He admits that when he got started two years ago, he had no idea what he was getting into, but he was intrigued. "I saw myself going into a beehive -- a beehive being a house," he said, laughing. Nonetheless, he wrote on his Facebook page that he wanted to become an apiarist.
   "I got responses, so that's how I got started," Xu said. He met up with Hall -- who's since become his "guru" -- and tagged along on an inspection one of Hall's colonies. Then he bought a queen and started his own hive. "I got really fascinated," he said. "I bought my hive nine months before the season started, I was so psyched."
   For Xu, beekeeping is an escape from the lab, but it's also an extension of it. He understands what happens when fructose and glucose from the nectar of a flower are collected by worker bees and brought back to the hive; how the molecules mingle with enzymes, break down in a delicate chemical dance and are transformed into honey.
   "I have to say, when we were doing the honey extraction, I felt like I was doing an experiment," he commented. "I had a protocol, I followed the steps, and it came out pretty good."
   Xu's understanding of the process adds to his enjoyment of beekeeping. I, on the other hand, am drawn to the mysteriousness of it all.
   Though I did the requisite research and learned to handily throw around jargon like "swarming" and "supers" and "queen extruder," I'm content to know only what role I must play in keeping 20,000 or so bees healthy and productive, and chalk the rest up to natural wonder.
   The range of engagement levels you can have in backyard beekeeping is perhaps one reason behind its popularity. At the low end of the spectrum, you can keep a single hive, check it every few weeks and largely forget about it until it's time to reap the sweet rewards: up to 60 pounds per season. At the other end are people like Hall.
   "It just kind of started off as a hobby," he said. Over the past seven years, though, his hobby has grown, and he now spends part of his time as a lumber broker and part as an apiarist, tending hives, selling the honey and breeding queens. "They're fascinating insects," he said. "It's just endless, the growth curve. ... There's always something new to learn."
   "I eat quite a bit of honey," Hall added. "Everything I can put sugar on, I use honey."
   Honey is touted as a pure sweetener, a healthier alternative to processed sugars, and beeswax is a popular byproduct for making candles and beauty products.
   But none of these benefits can really explain the draw that entices apiarists. It's elusive. Like canning or weeding, beekeeping offers something almost therapeutic, especially after a long day spent staring at a computer screen with a cell phone glued to your ear.
   "I enjoy watching the bees," Xu said thoughtfully. "There's something magic about it. I can spend hours just watching them coming out of the hive and going back in."
   The moment it became real for me was an afternoon in late July. For hours, Xu and I and a couple of other friends scraped beeswax off the honeycomb and whipped the frames, heavy with honeycomb, around in an extractor, a large plastic bucket with a hand crank that uses centrifugal force to draw out the honey without damaging the comb.
   We were sequestered in the garage on a hot afternoon, sweating, unable to wipe our foreheads because our hands were dripping with gooey honey. Finally, when the entire garage smelled like a vat of warm honey, Xu turned the plastic spout.
   For a moment, no one spoke, then we jumped around and laughed and gave each other sticky high-fives. A thick amber stream gushed from the spout, 20 pounds of it in all. It was beautiful.

Monday, September 12, 2011

hurricane, part three: rivers

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News.

Royalton -- For a while, the outlook seemed dire. Few people had imagined seeing such things floating downstream: cars, propane tanks, dead cows, filmy sewage. For days after the rains ceased, pieces of homes and remnants of lives drifted past in the brown, roiling floodwaters, and even as the human impact of Tropical Storm Irene rose to the forefront, many residents worried about the health of the region's beloved rivers.
Now, almost two weeks later, a consensus is emerging: from an ecological standpoint, it's not as bad as it could've been. Vermont’s watersheds and fish populations are still reeling from what one Dartmouth researcher called a 500- to 1,000-year flood, but thanks in part to the state's reforestation and relative lack of industrial development, experts agree that recovery shouldn’t be too far in the future.
“The river will recover,” said Mary Russ, Executive Director of the nonprofit White River Partnership. “How long, I don't know, but generally … a flood is a short-term event with a short-term impact. Nature knows what it's doing.”
Not only that, but for the long-term health of rivers such as the Ottauquechee, the Connecticut, the Ompompanoosuc and the White -- as well as the many streams and tributaries that feed them -- flooding can have a positive effect.
“I know people don't like to hear this, but floods are an important ecological agent, as well as an important geomorphic agent,” said Frank Magilligan, a Dartmouth geography professor who studies flood ecology. “A lot of ecosystems have some demand for disturbance.”
Magilligan said certain niche species, such as the cobblestone tiger beetle, depend on flooding to create the pebbled island habitat they favor. Nearly every fish species, he added, needs the occasional flood to “mix things up,” creating the woody debris they love to hide under. And New England's once-extensive floodplain forests, filled with silver maples and cottonwoods, require floodwaters for their continued survival in the fight against invasive aquatic plants and land development.
“Some disturbance is good for the entire spectrum of the ecosystem,” said Magilligan, who has studied flood ecology for more than three decades.
Some disturbance, yes. But Irene's devastating floods went above and beyond, introducing a new set of variables into the natural system of flood and ebb. Magilligan estimates that, statistically, Irene was an event that occurs every millennium or half-millennium.
Nonetheless, in some places, such as at the U.S. Geological Survey gauge on the White River in West Hartford, the infamous flood of 1927 eclipsed that of Irene. Strafford resident Ken Alton, who worked with hydroelectric and flood control dams in the region for more than 40 years before retiring, said that in 1927, the flow of the White River peaked at 120,000 cubic feet per second.
One way to visualize a cubic foot of water is to think of it as a unit the size of a basketball -- then picture 120,000 basketballs rushing past at every second.
After Irene finished dumping up to a foot of rain over the spine of the Green Mountains, the White River -- which is the longest free-flowing river in Vermont, the longest undammed tributary of the Connecticut and the recipient of much of the rainwater that falls on the eastern Greens -- peaked at “only” about 80,000 cfs. The typical river flow in late summer is about 8,000 cfs, Alton said. He's seen it as low as 60 cfs.
“Never in my career did I envision this,” he said.
In other places, though -- such as the Saxtons and Black Rivers in southeastern Vermont -- Magilligan said river levels were well above those from 1927 or 1938, when another hurricane hit. “In some places, they were 100 percent greater than the largest measured discharge,” he said.
What's striking about Irene's impact is that today, 80 percent of Vermont is forested. Earlier in the 20th century, only 20 percent of the state was tree-covered; the rest had been largely cleared for horticulture and pastureland. Vegetation absorbs rainwater, leaving less of it to flow into streams and watersheds, and it also acts as flood protection for rivers, with root systems keeping soil intact and preventing erosion and sediment runoff.
Additionally, the '27 flood occurred in November, when trees weren't photosynthesizing. Bare trees take up less water than those with leaves.
That Irene surpassed previous flood records even against such mitigating factors as timing, forestation and agricultural land use is one of the reasons Magilligan thinks it's likely the biggest flood event in a century, if not longer.

Not only was the magnitude of Irene beyond the scope of typical river flooding, but a host of contaminants and debris were introduced into the Connecticut River and its tributaries.
Storm drains overflowed. Fuel oil spilled. Septic systems backed up. “All kinds of unidentifiable gunk washed into the river,” said Greg Russ, a fly-fishing guide and project manager at the White River Partnership.
Russ and his wife, director Mary Russ, were at their Royalton office on Wednesday morning preparing to collect water samples along the White River. Their organization aims to restore the health of the river corridor for both wildlife and human recreation, Mary said, so the two pay a lot of attention to water quality.
“We test for three parameters,” she added. “Bacteria, turbidity and conductivity. We anticipate that bacteria will be off the charts.”
Sure enough, when Russ sent in the results yesterday, seven of the nine sites tested on the White River failed to meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for “swimmable” water. The EPA states that 235 E.coli samples per 100 ml water sample is considered acceptable for recreational uses; the results from Sept. 7 measured as high as 1,413 E.coli samples (in Tunbridge). Details can be found at
High levels of coliform bacteria, from human and animal feces and soil, are not necessarily harmful to either human health or that of the river ecosystem. But the presence of fecal coliform is an indication that other pathogenic bacteria could also be present. Common sense would dictate that swimming should be avoided until the water quality improves.
The good news, though, is that because they're organic materials, bacteria break down and filter out of rivers quickly. “Usually after a flood we see a link between water quality and water clarity,” Mary Russ said. “As soon as it clears up, the water quality will improve, even this season. I don't think we have to wait until next season for the water quality to be safe for swimming.”
An official from the Vermont Department of Health said that his agency never recommends swimming in rivers because, unlike designated public swimming sites, they are not tested by the state.
Other contaminates, such as heavy metals like mercury and lead, take longer to dissolve, but again, there's good news. Magilligan, the Dartmouth researcher, said Vermont's rural landscape means less runoff from roads and industries than there might be in more urbanized areas. Even the time of year, he said, works in favor of water quality: because it was closer to harvest season, there may have been fewer pesticides or fertilizers to wash into rivers.
Results on conductivity testing for heavy metals were not available this week. Liquefied propane, which was contained in the propane tanks that washed into the Ottauquechee, dissipates into the air, posing little environmental hazard.
Oddly enough, the water quality indicator most troubling to the ecological health of watersheds doesn't come from sewage or floating chunks of manmade debris seeping out chemicals. It's from the sediment that entered waterways through eroded streambanks and washed-out roads. Plain old dirt. Or, in scientific terms, turbidity.
“What really surprised me was how sediment charged the water was,” Magilligan said. “New England has one of the lowest levels of sediment discharge in the country, but this was really choked with sediment.”
Turbidity can provide food and shelter for dangerous pathogens, and increased turbidity is considered to have caused “significant cases” of gastroenteritis in the U.S., according to the EPA. But perhaps the wildlife that depends on clear, cold waters suffers the most from the sediment suspended in rivers and streams.

For Ron Rhodes, head fly-fishing guide at Hanover Outdoors, the season is over. Fall usually presents excellent fishing opportunities, but this year “there's not a whole lot of work,” he said. “No more trips in Vermont.”
Many smaller fish were swept far downstream, while those able to resist the flood's power tried to seek calmer waters, such as those in floodplain areas. When waters receded, however, many of the trout, walleye and the few Atlantic salmon that managed to spawn this far upstream were generally left to die on dry land, experts said. Rhodes noted that he's come across a number of dead fish while cleaning up along the White River.
“There unquestionably was damage to the fish populations during this flood,” wrote David Deen, river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council, in a report, though the extent of the damage is difficult to document since so many dead fish would have been swept downriver.
The sediment that continues to choke rivers and streams is likely affecting fish that survived the flooding itself. Sediment particles are abrasive to fish gills, making breathing difficult. Lacerated gill tissue also provides an entry for toxic chemicals to enter the bloodstream, Deen wrote.
The problems confronting fish are further compounded by the decimation of their food supplies, in the form of washed-away aquatic invertebrates and their eggs.
The turbidity of the water may prevent invertebrates from laying eggs or hatching, and fish face the same problem.
“We're concerned how this is going to affect spawning,” said Rhodes, referring to the annual autumn reproduction of brook and brown trout. Rainbow trout, which spawn in the spring, will perhaps be less affected, but as a hardier non-native species introduced from the West, rainbows are also less of a priority for conservationists.
Even more than other coldwater species, brook trout require clean, clear water. They're are a prime indicator species for water quality. They also need gravel river bottoms to lay their eggs, so sediment build-up may hamper their efforts to procreate.
Rich Kirn, a Vermont fisheries biologist, said that full population recovery could take anywhere from one to five years, depending on location.
At the White River National Fish Hatchery in Bethel (which breeds Atlantic salmon to release into Connecticut River tributaries as part of a reintroduction effort), hatchery manager Ken Gillette said that flooding wiped out Atlantic salmon stock by 50 percent, or about 7,500 fish. Additionally, about 40,000 lake trout fingerlings destined for the lower Great Lakes were lost. The financial impact has not yet been assessed.
Kirn added that the state-run Roxbury Fish Hatchery lost more than 70,000 of its 90,000 brook and rainbow trout, but that four other state fisheries were untouched. “We will have some declines, but there are certainly still quite a few fish we'll be stocking,” he said.
“One of the major points is these populations have evolved to withstand these kinds of events,” Kirn added. “This is a devastating flood and we will see an impact, but these fish are resilient and the population will rebound.”
There will be no bans on fishing, and Fish and Game's Kirn doesn't think eating caught fish poses a threat to human health. Rhodes, however, said he personally wouldn't eat fish from waterways affected by the flooding. The health department deferred the matter to Fish and Game.
While it might seem that fish -- and fishermen -- bore the brunt of Irene's ecological damage, many other species depend on a healthy fish population for their own survival. Bald eagles, mergansers, herons, raccoons, mink and otters all hunt for fish, and migrating birds use the waterways for water and shelter.

Eroding streambanks do more than deposit silt. They also factor into waterways that change their course, reverting back to the floodplains and valleys they once occupied before mills and dams diverted them and people began farming and living on land that had once been at the mercy of rivers.
While fish populations, water quality and human recreation are all expected to recover in a relatively short time -- a few years at most -- Magilligan, the Dartmouth professor, said Vermont's physical landscape will experience the most long-term effects of the flooding.
Stream channels that were considerably altered, wiping out roadways and agricultural land as well as natural habitat, could take up to ten years to return to pre-Irene dimensions and slope, he said. Trees and plants torn away from riparian buffers -- the strips of vegetation lining streambanks -- will also take some time to come back, though again, recovery may be expedited.
“Vegetation is an important vehicle by which channels recover, and on the humid East Coast … vegetation comes back pretty quickly,” Magilligan said. “That's the charm of the East Coast. Something like the scale of Irene in Utah would have an impact of 50 or 100 years.”
Mary Russ, of the White River Partnership, said that rivers changing their course and flooding their banks is inevitable, especially as climate change continues to bring an increase of severe weather events to the region. While fertile floodplains have long been a mainstay of Vermont agriculture, Russ said that farmers and landowners can take steps to mitigate against future damage.
Allowing a riparian buffer to grow, or planting one with native vegetation, is an important consideration. A buffer not only provides natural habitat for birds and fish, which enjoy shady overhangs, but also prevents erosion and helps keep the river on-course. Russ noted that several places along the White River that had utilized man-made riprap, or large stones deposited on an eroding bank, were wiped out, while several hundred yards away, areas with natural riparian buffers held up far better.
Another option, for those willing to consider it, is to step back and let the river run its course.
Several months ago, Jennifer Megyesi, owner of Fat Rooster Farm in Royalton, applied to the state's River Corridor Easement Program for her 3½ acres abutting the White River. Under the program, the Vermont Land Trust and the White River Partnership agreed to purchase development rights to Megyesi's land. Megyesi took the money -- approximately $10,000 -- and in exchange, she agreed to maintain a 50-foot buffer along the banks and prohibit future development.
The land can still be used for agriculture.
Megyesi said that this past summer, a crew of 30 volunteers planted 1,100 trees to stabilize the riverbanks, which were already eroding from a history of intensive clearing and dairy farming.
The eroding riverbanks were depositing silt into the water, which diminished habitat for fish and other wildlife.
“Ours is an organic farm, and we've always tried to curtail our farming practices with conservation in mind,” she said.
Neither Megyesi's home nor her farm were damaged by the flooding, but the land set aside as a river corridor easement was completely flooded.
She said she feels very fortunate.
“We took (that land) out of production,” she said, “so we didn't feel that loss.”
Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305.

Friday, September 2, 2011

hurricane, part two: agriculture

Reprinted with permission from the Valley News.

South Royalton -- In West Woodstock, a pile of 200 dead chickens await disposal outside Thymeless Herbs Farm, decomposing in the heat while the owners struggle to find homes for those that survived. In South Royalton, an 81-year-old man stands on his stalled tractor as the waters rise around him and sweep his cows down the White River. Just down the road, a farmer ignores his own inundated fields to help save his neighbors' homes.
“We're done for right now,” said Suzy Krawczyk, owner of poultry farm Thymeless Herbs, and a mother of five. “We lost a lot of birds. That was a major part of our income.”
Across the Upper Valley, farms and farmers were hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene -- or hardly hit at all.
Koi Boynton, development coordinator for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, said the state hasn't yet estimated the financial cost the flood will have upon Vermont's agricultural economy.
“It's tough to say right now,” she said. “Everyone's still in emergency mode, responding to basic needs at this point. We're waiting for the dust to settle, then going out to make sure everyone’s okay before assessing the real damage.”
Irene did not treat all farms equally. “Some farms have had no flooding,” said Vern Grubinger, a vegetable specialist with the University of Vermont extension. “On the other end of the spectrum, there are farms that have been completely wiped out. That's what's so unusual about this.”
Typically, Grubinger said, flooding is a localized event that affects agriculture in the vicinity of a single watershed. This time, the damage is statewide, though scattered.
Geo Honigford, owner of Hurricane Flats Farm in South Royalton, is one of those farmers who had his farm “wiped out.” Sixty five acres of corn and cabbage, carrots and kale, tomatoes, potatoes, “everything you'd find in a supermarket,” Honigford said: gone.
Plants are bent, swept to the earth in the remnants of Honigford's murky, silt-covered fields -- but they still look edible. The air is ripe with the scent of tomatos on the vine, and tiny green heads of lettuce poke through the mud. But none of it will get eaten. The FDA considers any crop that has come into contact with flood waters to be “adulterated and not to be sold for human consumption.”
“We have sweet corn that's absolutely gorgeous,” Honigford said. “You take a bite and it's delicious. But we’re not supposed to be selling it.
“I have stuff that I picked before this happened,” he added. “Potatoes, onions, shallots. But this is a total devastation of the growing season. It's a kick in the teeth.”
Honigford, who didn't have flood insurance and estimates the financial impact of the flood to be around $45,000, ignored his own obliterated crops to organize a community-wide clean up of his neighbors' homes this week. His own home was undamaged, and he said there was nothing to be done on his farm that couldn't wait.
Asked what he would do with the thick layer of silt that now coats his fields, Honigford had a simple answer: "Farm it. The river giveth and the river taketh away."
For five of his neighbors, though, the clock was ticking. He was trying to help alleviate mold damage before it rendered their homes permanently inhabitable.
After putting in several 12-hour days to save his neighbors' homes, Honigford said he barely has time to think about his own loss.
“It hasn't sunk in yet,” he said. His wife works off the farm, but the couple has two teenagers to support and depend on the income from Honigford's crops. “I don't sleep much,” he said. “I dream about onions floating down the river at night.”

“There are losses expected in farming and horticulture,” Grubinger acknowledged. “A modest loss is not atypical. Hot weather during strawberry season can ruin a crop.”
Floods, too, are to be expected. Floodplains are often the most fertile cropland; an occasional deposit of river silt makes for rich soil, and many farmers seek out floodplains despite the risk. Today, though, a major flood leaves behind contaminates from overflowing storm drains, industrial runoff and sewage.
“The extent of contamination is going to vary so much from place to place, depending on what's upstream,” Grubinger said.
However, contaminates left by receding floodwaters in Vermont are largely carbon based, he added, alleviating long-term effects. “They break down over time. I would be a lot more concerned if we were a highly industrial state with chemicals and heavy metals, things that don't break down so readily. Fortunately, we're a very rural state, so yes, there will be some manure and sewage but those things do decompose.”
After a few months, Grubinger said, toxins will be filtered through the soil and crops can be planted again. Contaminates from the flood should not affect organic farmers' certification.
However, farmers do have to worry about the effect of water: “Fungi can grow on corn and can form microtoxins, not from the flood itself but because the corn got wet,” he added.
Wet or silt-covered corn poses a problem for farmers with livestock. David Ainsworth, a fifth generation farmer at Westlands Farm in South Royalton, lost about 10 of his 40 acres of corn meant to feed his dairy cows over the winter. Another 25 acres is now coated with a layer of silt.
“I heard from a friend that used to farm up at the junction of Route 100 that he had a field get flooded,” Ainsworth said. “He went ahead and chopped it, and it broke his chopper. That makes me a little hesitant.”
Ainsworth is hoping for a “gentle rain” to wash some of the silt off. He thinks that if he can chop the corn, he might be able to salvage it if he can vaccinate his cows. A friend might have a few extra acres of cow corn he can buy, too. But no matter what, the flood is going to set him back.
“There's more expense involved, but I have no idea how much right now,” he said, noting that he'll also lose a “few thousand” dollars in sales from his farm stand, because his road is currently closed to traffic.
“We'll keep going,” he added. “We'll come up with some money from wherever we can to get things back up, and we'll try to help our neighbors too.”

As the state -- and its farmers -- begin the long process of recovery, Boynton, the agriculture development coordinator, said one of her office's biggest concerns continues to be the plight of dairy farmers, some stranded with no electricity and with access roads washed out.
Duke Perley, 81, is one of those. He's been milking cows on his family's land at Perley Farms in South Royalton for 40 years. Last weekend, Perley was in New Jersey to attend his Aunt Betty's funeral when he heard about the storm racing up the East Coast.
“I told my nieces, let's get out of this storm. Let's go to Vermont where we’ll be safe. Next thing I knew I was standing on the steps watching the water rise.”
From a stalled tractor, Perley watched his cows float away in the raging White River. He had recently suffered a heart attack and had a pacemaker installed, and was so upset by what he witnessed that he became anxious he was having another one. A boat came to rescue him.
In the end, though, after driving his nieces back to New Jersey, Perley was planning to return to Vermont and help the family farm recover.
“I lost a lot of money and a lot of time, but we'll be all right,” Perley said by phone from New Jersey.
Perley's daughter, Penny Severance, said she “wouldn't bat an eye” at putting their losses at more than a half a million dollars. Their house was ruined, farm equipment lost and 25 cattle dead or missing. The family was unable to milk their remaining 35 cows for days, and when they finally received a generator on Tuesday evening, the 620 gallons (5,400 pounds) of milk they gained had to be dumped down the drain. There was no refrigerator and no way to get the milk off the farm.
But as Grubinger, the UVM vegetable specialist, put it, “I think the future for agriculture is bright. This is a bump in the road right now, but we're going to have strong dairy farms. We're going to have strong horticulture. This is a short-term impact and agriculture is going to rebound as it often does.”
“I worked 27 years on the busses,” Perley said, referring to his earlier career. “I got up on the farm when my uncle got too old, and I said, ‘I ain't never leaving.' I dealt with that river for 40 years and this was something that I never expected, but I’m 81 and I’m still going to farm.”

Yesterday afternoon, Ainsworth took a break from the clean-up effort to erect signs for the Royalton Farmers Market. The market, he said, will continue as planned. Many farmers were hardly affected by the storm.
At Cedar Circle Farm on the Connecticut River in Thetford, Education Coordinator Cat Buxton said her farm didn't suffer any losses.
“This past spring was the highest we've ever seen the river,” Buxton recalled. After Irene, though: “No bad news to report.” The farm stand at Cedar Circle was running a brisk business on Wednesday morning. Nancy Franklin, at Riverview Farm in Plainfield, said her apple orchards escaped unscathed as well.
At Crossroads Farm in Post Mills, Tim Taylor and his crops also survived. “But our customers didn't,” he added, alluding to the ruined Woodstock Farmers' Market, a major buyer of his produce. “That in itself presents some interesting problems,” Taylor said. “You expect to be able to sell to someone and suddenly, you can't. You have to find other markets.”
Hanover's Co-op Food Stores buys produce from 13 local growers, but spokesman Allan Reetz said maintaining a steady supply of vegetables there hasn't been much of an issue.
“One farmer might've lost two or three important crops,” Reetz said. “Cooking greens, like kale and chard for example. But where one grower lost some of those crops, another grower was also growing a comparable crop and is quickly saying, ‘I can fill this need. I can shift over and we can keep getting this food to market.'
“It's heartening,” he added. “It's a local food system that's not dependent on the demands outside our region.”
Some farmers have also pledged to donate surplus produce to help feed volunteers contributing to the relief efforts, said Royalton resident and State Representative Sarah Buxton (no relation of Cat Buxton).
On Wednesday afternoon, Buxton stood with a yellow steno pad in hand, addressing a group of volunteers by Hurricane Flats Farm. The workers were caked in mud, flecks of it drying on their headlamps, their eyeglasses, in the creases of their elbows and knees. “Royalton has suffered at least $10 million in damages,” she told the volunteers, who were listening intently while scarfing down grilled chicken, pasta salad and sandwiches. “At least five farms suffered severe damage. But,” she added to the hungry group, “someone just dropped off a big wheel of cheese.”
Krista Langlois can be reached at or 603-727-3305.
Nature Blog Network