More walks on the Wild(ish) Side
Exploring Shelburne Pond, Redstone Quarry, and Centennial Woods
By Joshua Brown
Shelburne Pond, June 20
I’m standing with Hub Vogelmann on a piece of limestone bedrock that curves down into Shelburne Pond. “I love to fish,” he says. “When I came to Vermont, I found this place right off the bat.”
Though he brushes away a question about his age like it’s an annoying fly—“tell them 29,” he says—he does let on that he arrived at UVM in 1955 as a young botany professor. He’s been casting lines on this water ever since—and, for much of that span, Vogelmann has worked tirelessly to protect the pond from development.
He’s succeeded at both. “There’s a lot of northern pike in here—and, oh boy, they’re wonderful sport,” he says, with a quiet laugh, “It’s the walleye that are hard to catch.”
Looking out at an unbroken wall of cedars, red maples, cattails and pine trees that ring the water, it’s easy to imagine we’re standing deep in the Northeast Kingdom or viewing a scene from 300 years ago. In truth, it took me nineteen minutes to drive here from Burlington through burgeoning suburbia along Dorset Street.
The largest undeveloped body of water in Chittenden County, Shelburne Pond is about a mile long, surrounded by more than one thousand protected acres purchased by the Vermont chapter of the Nature Conservancy that Vogelmann co-founded in 1960. “In the early seventies I had just made chairman of the chapter and the first thing in my mind was Shelburne Pond,” Vogelmann says. “We had to make it our top project. ‘This is the last shot you’re going to get at it,’ I realized. Even one house would ruin the wild beauty of this place, and developers were hungry.”
Under Vogelmann’s leadership, and with a $270,000 gift from wealthy conservationist Laurence Achilles, parcels from the numerous abutting landowners were purchased over many years. Beginning in 1974, they were transferred to UVM to form the H. Laurence Achilles Natural Area at Shelburne Pond. This partnership between the Conservancy and UVM continues, with the addition of the thirty-seven-acre “Maille Tract” in October of last year.
“Oh, I used to fish almost every day out here,” Vogelmann says, but as one of the state’s leading naturalists, and, for more than twenty years, chairman of UVM’s botany department, he also got to know the surrounding land well, stumping through deep muck with coring equipment or crossing frozen marshes and pond-ice with dozens of classes.
“My field is plant ecology and what made Shelburne Pond attractive to me is the diversity here. This has some of the most diverse animal/plant associations that you find in this corner of Vermont. It’s really rich. We’ve got open pond, a cattail/alder marsh, northern hardwoods, cliffs. We’ve got a 100-acre shrub bog over in that direction,” he says, pointing to a low area where the kidney-shaped pond bulges westward.
“If there is an overriding influence on this pond, it’s the limestone outcroppings which control the soil,” he says. In spring, well-known wildflowers, like bloodroot, spring beauty, trillium, Dutchman’s breeches, and blue cohosh thrive in the calcium-rich forest behind where we sit. But this limestone also makes a home for rare ferns that Vogelmann has identified here, such as walking fern and maidenhair spleenwort.
“Shelburne Pond is a front in which rich northern species are moving south and southern species are moving north,” he says, “It’s a border where you can see change.” Formed 11,000 years ago, Vogelmann expects that in the next 700 years the pond will close in, filling with sediment and slowly become a marsh and then a forest. And today, despite its tree-lined fringe, other alterations in the pond are in motion because of phosphorous pollution, climate change, and exotic species. “More aquatic weeds is the biggest single change I’ve seen out here,” Vogelmann says.
“You can see the direction we’re going,” he says, “Once it spins out, what was a natural landscape will become an unnatural landscape because of global warming.”
Then he sits quietly for three, four, five lingering seconds.
“I’ll tell you, Josh, right out in here, there are some big, big pike,” he says.
Hub Vogelmann is fond of the saying, “the gods do not subtract from the span of time allotted to man the time spent fishing.” As he swings back into his pick-up truck with a boyish smile, I think he must have spent a lot of time fishing. And as a breeze dips the wetland grass and erases beautiful concentric ripples left at the surface by some underwater creature, I can understand why.
Redstone Quarry, July 18
It’s lightly raining. It’s the kind of rain that covers rocks with a sheen but leaves no puddles. The day lilies growing here at the bottom of this abandoned quarry are mist-coated but don’t sag with extra weight from the falling drops.
Charlotte Mehrtens, professor and chair of the geology department, points with her sneaker to thousands of dimples covering a flat rock at her feet. “They’re raindrop impressions,” she says. The dimples look as wide as a pencil eraser, so it must have been raining harder than now when these marks were made.
When, it turns out, was about 500 million years ago. These raindrops fell on an ocean beach before the first sea creatures heaved themselves onto dry land. And the step-like edge of the quarry we’re standing on is a chunk of the Monkton Formation, a hard stone built from layers of sand deposited in shallow tidal waters. The rain marks on the beach dried, Mehrtens tells me, and then were covered with more sediment, perhaps from an incoming storm. Then geological time, with its sickening reaches, devoured millennium after millennium, heaving unbearable weight overtop, capturing these once-delicate dimples under layers of clay and sand.
Today, these rocks are slick with Vermont rainwater. Goldfinches careen over the cattails and bank steeply up the red- and sand-colored cliff wall here at the top of Burlington’s Hoover Street. The air is sharp with the smell of chives growing wild in the cracks that line the sloped terrace at the base of the cliff. A small child rides her tricycle across the nearby pavement, shouting that she’s “never, ever coming back.” In winter, families (including Howard Dean’s, I was told) come to play ice hockey on the small wetland pool at the south end. This three acres of abandoned quarry is so strongly a part of the neighborhood that it seems as much backyard as nature preserve.
But for nearly fifty years it has been owned by UVM, a favorite destination of both introductory and advanced geology classes. “Redstone Quarry provides us with an opportunity close to campus to have a cut-away view of a portion of the earth,” Mehrtens says. “Vertical thickness means time to a geologist.”
This thickness is visible because Levi Willard started cutting rock here in 1805 and the quarry prospered into the early twentieth century. Blocks of the reddish-brown stone can be seen in many buildings in Burlington today—including UVM’s Redstone Campus.
Now Mehrtens leads lab groups here to measure and count layers of rock, revealing a repeating pattern every few feet. “What process could produce that?” Mehrtens asks. As her students learn, it’s millions of years of climate change: sea levels rising and falling every 10,000 to 100,000 years—driven by the subtle oscillations of the Earth in its orbit—that changed the patterns of sediment deposited here.
Within this larger pattern, each layer of rock, some hair-thin, others thicker than a mattress, represents an event, Mehrtens says— a flood perhaps, or a Katrina-sized storm. “Rock speaks to periods of chaos,” she says, “separated by boredom.”
We’re standing on what was once a tropical shore of the Iapetus Ocean that was near the equator. Later, these rocks were rammed eighty miles from east of where Montpelier now stands, Mehrtens says, squeezed “like a watermelon seed” by the collision of continents that destroyed the ocean and tossed up vast peaks that would erode down to become our gentle Green Mountains.
“Studying geology forces you to reconcile our time frame with nature’s,” Mehrtens says, “humans and how the earth works are totally dissimilar.”
Centennial Woods, September 27
Or maybe they’re not. I’m on a lunchtime run to Centennial Woods listening to a cassette recording of a conversation I had with professor of anthropology Luis Vivanco. It’s difficult to make out what he is saying because of the sound of two trucks, one on the tape I made when we came walking here in June, another rumbling down Catamount Drive as I start into trees spattered with the first reds of fall.
“This truck is not an intrusion on a space of nature,” I hear him say, “we think of nature as something separate from the social world, but I’m trying to show how nature and the social world are complex and integrated. One thing I always emphasize for students is that you need to start by questioning this space as a whole. If you want to understand Centennial Woods, you can’t ignore the truck!”
A few feet into a thicket of honeysuckle and spent goldenrod, I stop to look at a kiosk holding several posters. One says “Move Yourself: Wellness Walk starts here 1.05 mi.” Another series of photocopied sheets protests a proposed UVM development in a stretch of woods that adjoins the designated Centennial Woods Natural Area (or, if the poster is correct, was once part of the designated natural area.)
Beyond the kiosk, an inviting path curves out of sight into the greenery. This beloved and beleaguered sixty-five-acre patch of mature pine trees and small streams, stitched into a contested landscape of human developments, is the most visited of UVM’s Natural Areas. Numerous classes from forestry to wildlife biology to literature use it as a field site. Geography professor Beverley Wemple told me she saw four different courses here last week.
And Vivanco and his ethnography students come to watch the nature watchers—and to consider the boundaries and meaning of nature itself.
“Many students walk in here and say, ‘ah, nature. I’m in nature.’ But, these are clearly anthropomorphic places. To a large extent, what is here and how it functions is a product of social practices we have imposed on this space,” he says.
Beverly Wemple’s hydrology class illustrates the point. She brings them to this natural area to study urbanization.
“Because UVM owns Centennial Woods, it provides great access as an educator,” she told me, explaining that she often leads her first-year students here to explore the waters. “It’s a striking example of what happens in a watershed when you urbanize it. Centennial Brook is so heavily impacted by urbanization, we can see radical changes in its channel morphology. From the geomorphic and ecological indicators we use to measure integrity—biological integrity, channel stability, insect diversity and so on—we know it’s in bad shape.”
And, perhaps unexpectedly, that makes it a “great classroom,” she says.
“To the untrained eye, you think ‘this is the woods.’ But how do organisms move through the landscape? And what kinds of things do they need? And how does human development of the landscape—even if you can’t see it or hear it—affect how that system works?”
That sunny afternoon Luis Vivanco and I rode our bikes across campus to look at this kiosk, it was covered with some other posters. One advertised it as the starting point for “A Poetic Walk in the Woods with Lyrical Art Display to Inspire Nature Conservation.” Another invited people to a planning meeting for a co-housing development under construction along the boundary of Centennial Woods on East Avenue. A list of animals one might see here was posted, and across the top someone has scrawled illegible graffiti.
“There is a political struggle going on in a space like this,” Vivanco said that day, “We don’t see it happening right now, but somebody laid down the track and said this is what you should walk on.” I fast forward the tape to where he was talking about the posters. “These signs are kind of contest—look ‘No Camp Fires!’—to tell you what this place is for.”
In my notebook, I wrote down some of the uses he and his students have catalogued here: birthday party scavenger hunts through the woods, camping, building forts, having a fire, measuring trees, climbing trees, looking for spiritual renewal in a “cathedral of trees,” taking drugs, powerwalking, collecting insects, collecting fiddleheads, picking herbs for tea, gathering firewood, mountain biking, and, yes, running.
“How does one place start representing this world-wide struggle between conservation and development?” Vivanco said. “This is the kind of research I do in Costa Rica. People are saving the rainforest from someone or something and these different symbolic qualities get put on it. You’ve got all these different mentalities and groups fighting over the same piece of land and fighting to control its meaning. Centennial Woods is a great example of this because of its proximity to the city and the freeway and the university. All the different competing interests come crashing down on this little space.”
As I jog farther into woods, I turn off the tape and listen to the huge white pines hiss in the wind. I spot two people with a pile of scientific gear straddling a small stream. They’re Flavio Sutti and James Ferro, teaching assistants for Natural Resources 1, testing out stream sampling equipment—like a pH meter, and some containers for collecting insects—for a water pollution lab they’ll be teaching later in the week.
Cresting a small hill, I can see down onto a grassy wetland and am reminded that I once saw some beavers and their felled trees in Centennial Woods. But I see no sign of their tracks or teeth today. And, six or eight years ago, in these woods, my wife and I watched great horned owl nestlings, puffy and remote, scrutinizing us in return.“No, nature and the social world are not identical,” I hear Vivanco saying, when I get back to my office to listen to the rest of the tape, “they both have the power of the real. When a tree falls because of lightning strike and kills someone—that’s nature asserting itself! The complex idea is this: nature is a cultural construction, but it also has its own autonomy that we can barely understand.”