Winter in the Woods with the Vermont Master Naturalists

by Gabe Allen

On Sunday, January 28th, Allaire Diamond, a conservation biologist for the Vermont Land Trust, led the morning session on the history of native cultures and traditional craft as the 2017-2018 Vermont Master Naturalists BTV candidates gathered for the third time. In addition to the 10 current master naturalist trainees, an equal number of guests, teachers, interns and prospective candidates joined in.

After introductions, Allaire started her story at the beginning of human culture in Vermont. Relying on information from Jan Alber’s book, Hands on the Land, she explained the recession of glaciers from the most recent ice age, the formation of Lake Vermont, and the subsequent Champlain Sea. Allaire then narrated the next 10,600 years of human habitation and culture with astonishing depth and efficiency.

From 11,000 to 9,000 years ago Vermont was home to Paleo-Indians. These early settlers of the spongy post-glacial tundra subsisted on a diet of berries, plants, and a great deal of red meat. They hunted game ranging from giant beavers to woolly mammoths with stone-tipped spears and lived nomadically. Next, came the Archaic Period from 9,000 years ago to 3,000 years ago. The warming climate sprouted oak and hickory forests and smaller game prevailed where mammoths had once roamed. Allaire described a cultural revolution that accompanied the warmer climate during the mid archaic period. Innovations in tool making flourished and the archaic people invented canoes, toboggans, and snowshoes. Their trade routes were so well connected that a Caribbean conch shell was found in a burial site from this period. As the climate cooled once again, around 3,000 years ago, the vibrant culture of trade and innovation declined, and the oak and hickory forests gave way to the maple-beech-conifer forests of current day Vermont. The Abenaki, who inhabited Vermont starting after the archaic period, hunted with bows and, in 1100 AD, implemented corn and squash agriculture.

Then, Allaire began to pass around the fascinating collection of handmade items that she had on display as she spoke. We started out with a scraped birch bark makuk. Allaire explained that birch bark is hydrophobic from the inside out and that the makuk, a water-tight little pot, was made by turning a section of birch bark inside out and joining the edges with red spruce root fibers. We all laughed when she told us that the white birch bark canoes that are a trope of New England art depicting Native People would surely take on water and sink. After the makuk, many more crafts made it around the circle, many of them made by Allaire herself. Among them were black ash woven baskets, elm bark that resembled full grain leather, and wool that was dyed red from indigenous lichens.

The makuk basket

In the afternoon, Projects and Programs Coordinator at the Winooski Valley Park District and first year Master Naturalist, Remy Crettol, took us on a walk on Derway Island. Before leaving, he showed us a number of aerial photos and GIS maps of the peninsular floodplain in the far north end of Burlington.  From the air, it is easy to see that it’s not really an island. The Eastern and Northern edges of the peninsula were once clear-cut pastureland, but the interior of the “island” was left largely untouched due to its frequent flood regimen. Derway’s wildness, as well as the variety of flood-disturbance regimes stratified by elevation, made it a perfect place for the naturalists to learn and explore.

Remy discovered Derway as a student at UVM, and he has spent many hours monitoring and exploring the land through his job at the Winooski Valley Park district in the years since. It was clear that he had an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna on the land. He mentioned specific trees before they came into view and recounted past mammal sightings around every corner.

the silver maple

The first tree we stopped at was a gnarled old silver maple. Its girth rivaled the Vermont record holder from the fieldbook that someone had brought along, and its trunk was riddled with hollows where heavy limbs had fallen off in years passed. A branch tip had been knocked down from high up on the tree, so we were able to observe the distinctive swollen buds of the maple up close. Before moving on, the group was distracted by the squishy bark of the surrounding American Elm saplings. Remy pointed out that the elms had a telltale idiosyncrasy: the last bud on each twig stuck out at a strange angle.

Looking up at the branches

As we moved deeper into the land, the group dispersed somewhat as plant-lovers, mycophiles, and mammal trackers were distracted by different stimulus. The tree-lovers found swamp white oaks, named Quercus bicolor for their distinctive two-toned leaves, cottonwoods, with distinctive dark bark down low and blanched white bark in the canopy, and thickets of the shrubby buttonbush in the lower laying land. Meanwhile others found frozen tracks of squirrel, raccoon, and fox. In places where the deeper snow had melted, but not all the way, rodent tunnels had been unearthed and refrozen.

Ferns in winter

As the sun sank lower in the sky, most of the group broke off to head back to the cars, but a few of us kept walking to the old fence line along the end of the peninsula. We shook walnut fence posts that had outlived the wire strung between them, and found some ancient barbed wire sticking out of the trunk of a living oak. Just before we were going to turn around, Remy startled a fox and sent it skittering across a frozen inlet.

At times throughout the day, the discussion turned from facts to philosophy. A topic that came up more than once was the role of storytelling in modern science. One person expressed the similarities between research and storytelling. If you strip away the systematic skepticism of the scientific method, a scientist, or naturalist for that matter, is nothing but a raconteur trying to make sense of the world around them. Someone else mentioned the importance of self-awareness. Perhaps a good scientist is wary of the narrative in their own head. With this in mind, I let my thoughts wander to the startled fox as we walked back to the cars. Perhaps he was a solitary male in search of a mate, and he was as new to Derway as myself. To find out I will have to return and keep asking questions.


Photos by Garrett Chisholm and Rebecca Harris

Closeup of Silver Maple photo by Jessica Rubin

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