The Happy Hydrophilic

Victory Bog in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Many of my childhood days were spent playing in a small, murky pond down the hill from our house where throughout spring and into summer, I would watch the frog eggs change into tadpoles, eventually becoming the very same frogs that dove into the mud much faster than the speed of my hands reaching out to grab them.  I spent hours upon hours tromping through the swampy ground that was my parent’s property, following small streams through the wetland, loving the squishy feeling beneath my feet and sucking sounds of my shoes as I sunk up to my ankles in blackish mud.

My favorite water adventure was on a school field trip where we visited a bog in northeastern Vermont and I saw for the first time massive amounts of the clearest water I’d ever seen flowing between tussocks of vegetation.  It was my parents’ swamp on steroids!  Twenty-three year later I still dream of that place alive with an array of water-loving grasses and sedges, the cool water weaving it’s way among them in search of somewhere else to go.

Cranberry leaves in fall at a bog near Saratoga, NY. Photo by

I currently live in a part of the country where water is not so plentiful, and I embrace every rain drop and snowflake that falls from this big blue sky above me.  I find myself drawn to the banks of rivers where I explore the shores for signs of beaver or muskrat, turn over rocks in search of segmented little invertebrates, and check deep pools for fish that disappear as my shadow falls on the water above them.  I listen to the water washing across and around rocks, transporting soil to another place; I watch ducks and fallen leaves hitching a ride on the flow, headed downstream on a journey to an unknown place; I feel the gentle breeze and cool air on my skin, cooling and calming me.

I need water, not just to satisfy my senses and refresh my mind, but to live.  Your body is literally made up of nearly 80% water, which could be one explanation for the draw to it.  Water is so important to proper body function that the Institute of Medicine determined that an adequate intake for men is roughly 13 cups a day, and for women is about 9 cups a day (

Crab on beach in the Netherlands. Photo from

I used to believe (perhaps a bit naively) that my attraction to water is because my astrological sign is Cancer, represented by the crab.  Daydreaming that I was a crab crawling around on the bottom of the ocean floor in search of treasures, I would kick up sand, turn over shells, and pick apart mats of seaweed.  I longed to be carried away by a current, to pop up out of the water to discover that I was at a new and exciting place, where I would crawl up the beach to check out my unfamiliar surroundings.  Maybe my affinity to water is due in part to this but I suspect the biological piece is slightly greater.

Ten Days on the Tundra (4)

I am the luckiest girl in the world, of this I am certain.  On days like these I cannot imagine my life any different, nor would I ever want it to be…

Rescuing a Short-Eared owl chick from the roadside.

At 8:30am I hopped into a truck and headed north on the Dalton with 2 other workers to join them for the day.  We spent the day hiking across the tundra and working alongside the Kuparuk  River.  This is one of the many rivers that begins in the Brooks Mountain Range and empties into the Arctic Ocean.  Our task was to remove sticky traps used to capture insects that live above and alongside the river and replace them with fresh new traps.  Lacey is the graduate student who is studying the aquatic invertebrates that live along the river and she is hoping to correlate these to the birds that live along the river, or use the river as a food source in the fall (which is now, the end of July).  We spent much of our day changing out traps with the beautiful backdrop of the mountains behind us.

Hiking out to the sample site.

After this work was done, we traveled further north up to Oksrukuyik  Creek where we wandered across tundra to the riparian area.  Here we attempted to do a bird census (count) but didn’t hear or see a single bird in the tall willows.  After giving up on that, we walked up the creek turning over rocks looking for mayfly larvae.  We were unsuccessful at that as well but were not concerned as we had seen several mayflies on the sticky traps earlier in the day.  Lacey was very interested in this because the mayflies apparently should not be hatching this early and they most definitely are.


Traveling between sites, we happened upon a number of wildlife sightings.  There are no herds of caribou here yet but we did encounter caribou hunters who have come to set up camp and scout the area since the season starts soon.  I keep forgetting that it is early fall here, as it is confusing when I see Golden Plover chicks in downy plumage and unable to fly.  One only has to look around at the vegetation to tell that it is changing color right now.  The blueberries and salmon berries are ripe for picking, their leaves already turning shades of yellow and red.  The summer flowers have all gone to seed but the fireweed persists, adding brilliant pink to the still green landscape.

Fireweed grows on disturbed areas near the Alaskan pipeline providing a burst of color.
Working diligently to replace sticky traps.

Squirreling Away

Squirrel with nesting material.

It’s that time of year.  The leaves are turning, the days are warm and the nights cold.  I’m noticing animal behaviors changing and one of my very favorites to watch are the squirrels.  I stare in amazement at them acting strange and laugh because I can totally relate to their behavior.  I too exhibit some strange behaviors this time of year!

Observation 1:  An energetic squirrel hunts through the grass looking for a large seed which it discovers  in just a few seconds.  With seed in mouth, the squirrel bounds to another area of the lawn just 15 feet away and hurriedly digs a small hole in the dirt in which to put the seed.  As it lowers the seed into the hole, it whips its head side to side, as if scoping the horizon for spies looking to raid the cache this guy is creating.  When all appears clear, the squirrel drops the seed and bolts from the hiding spot.  The hunt for a new seed continues and the scenario is played out all over again.

Observation 2:  I hear rustling of branches and then thunk, thunk, thunk…thunk, thunk, thunk!  Sir squirrel is dropping things out of the tree onto my deck at an alarming rate.  If someone were to be standing underneath, they would be pelted by crabapples in the same manner as one would be hit by hailstones falling from the sky.  I advise anyone who walks beneath trees in the fall to be aware of this potential assault as pine cones, twigs, seeds, and fruit can come crashing through the branches at you without warning!

Both of these observations realte to food and food storage.  This has led me to think about my own behaviors this time of year.  The cold weather inspires me to start stocking up on food as well.  I find myself harvesting from the garden and preparing the vegetables for the freezer for winter months.  I start buying non-perishable foods from the market to have on hand.  I begin cooking warm and hearty meals to help give me energy and feel warm on the cold days.

Squirrel nest.

Observation 3:  Racket among the branches.  I look up to see frantic running up and down on the tree trunk and branches.  The animal is gathering leaves that it then stuffs and arranges into a big ball in the axis of many branches.  It looks like a big mess of leaves with rough edges sticking out on all sides.  This is not attractive to me at all and others have stared at these things and asked aloud, “what in the heck is that thing?”  The squirrel’s winter nest is not pretty and it does not look inviting.  In fact I have personally wanted to just climb up into the tree and pull it apart because it looks like there is all kinds of interesting stuff in this loose ball of stuff.  I will not do that of course, because this is the equivalent of my down comforter that I pull out every October.  I would be extremely upset if a squirrel decided to pull apart the thing that I curl up with in order to stay warm during the winter months!

We are not so different, squirrels and humans.  In fact all animals have habits and rituals and routines.  It is easy to watch wildlife and observe our differences and it is not so difficult to see ourselves in them.

Rainy Day Robin

Photo from

Dreading my 20  minute walk home I stared out the window of my office at the rain pouring down and pooling on the cement below.  Suddenly, a Robin flew toward me and landed on the skinny ledge opposite the glass.  It was holding a dripping maple leaf in its beak,  every discernable feather was curled and out of line, and water drops were rolling off its wings. With its large brown eyes, the Robin peered in at me with pure envy.  I stared back, perhaps even more envious.

You see, this bird is designed to be out in the rain.  I am not.

To cope with the inconvenience of precipitation, I have numerous rain coats, rain pants, and waterproof boots, shoes, gloves and hats.  And let’s not forget the umbrella that lives in a closet somewhere.  I have to lug this stuff around with me in a backpack every time the weather forecasters tell me there is at least a 50% chance of rain.

The Robin, on the other hand, does not have to carry any extra gear with it to deal with a potentially rainy day.  It has feathers that are slick to allow water to run off before it has a chance to soak through to the skin to make it feel cold.  This fortunate animal has the abilitity to contract its muscles and stand its feathers up to create a natural down jacket in order to trap its body heat to keep warm.  When I am cold, the hair on my body also stands up and I start to shiver, which is its way of trying to keep me warm. However, I have yet to actually get warm by sitting still and shivering.  A Robin can do this for hours!

So I stare at the Robin and it stares at me.  I wonder if it is thinking about how I can survive being contained inside the building.  I wonder what it would think it if were to come inside with me for awhile and not have to deal with the rain or snow or wind.  Would it have a preference if given the option?  Would it choose to stay indoors where it is always the dry season or go back out to the ever-changing weather it is accustomed to?

Finally one of us blinks and in that instant the bird flies off, leaving me with both the gift of the maple leaf on the ledge and the gift of wonder to take with me as I splash through the puddles on my trek home.

A Swinger of Birches

Robert Frost

Growing up in Vermont, Robert Frost was naturally a part of my life.  I can’t recall at what age I was introduced to this marvelous writer, teacher and observer of the outdoors and rural life, but at a very young age I felt connected to him.  Always thick, heavy, hard-backed, and full of words expressing a shared view of the outdoors, I have checked out his books from the library over and over since the age of ten.  Finally there was someone who saw, felt, and understood the natural world like me!  I think we would have been good friends had he not died 14 years before I was born.

In the woods across the dirt road from my house, if you followed a small brook as it bubbled through mucky channels and underneath fallen logs, you would reach the bending birch.  I discovered the tree with my best friend who lived down the road as we roamed and explored the woods just like we did every day.  Instinctively, I reached up to grab the bent trunk but was too small to grab ahold.  So I jumped up, reached high above my head…and missed!  Determined to succeeed, I spent the next several visits jumping and reaching for that solid gray arc.  When I finally curled my fingers around the solid trunk I was thrilled!  Now I could swing, bounce, spin my body around and around on it, do pull ups, or just dangle in hopes of stretching myself to add inches to my height!

The birch tree gave me much more than a new playground on which to spend endless amounts of time.  To this day I can still feel the smooth, papery bark slip across my palms as I struggled to hang on.  When I moved my body, the entire tree moved with me – sinking low toward the ground, swaying side to side, springing up toward the sky.  The trunk was very pliable, adapting to the conditions and pressures that it faced such as strong wind or heavy snow that might have otherwise snapped it into pieces, thus ending its life.  The birch tree was resilient, flexible, and strong. 

Bending Birches

I see qualities of the birch within myself, qualities that perhaps I learned early on in life as a swinger of birches.  Life is full of external and internal pressures that take thier toll on us physically, mentally, and emotionally.  If we allow them to break us and we fall crashing to the ground it is very difficult to get the whole self back up and put together again.  Faced with such pressures, I am reminded of that mighty birch tree and its ability to bend and flex, adapting to its current situation, always bouncing back into place once the stress is gone, and ready to take on the next big wind that is trying to blow it off course. 

To read Birches by Robert Frost: