A Morning Walk Through Time

The old railbed, 100 miles from Boston

At the start on Lecount Hollow Rd.

Peter Brannen’s Rambling Through Time is one of those attempts to make the universe comprehensible, which is fun to try but ultimately fails for me. It’s just too big for my brain.

Brannen uses geologist Robert Hazen’s model for a walk, in which each step represents a century back in time. Starting on NY’s Upper West Side, he can’t even get out of the building (the Hayden Planetarium) before he’s passed all of human history. So much for those who think 10,000 BC to the present is a long time! The walk continues at this pace to the Pacific Ocean, but still doesn’t reach the early Cambrian period, when multicellular life as we know it began. And doing that would still represent only 10% of the earth’s history.

At the start on Lecount Hollow Rd.

The old railbed, 100 miles from Boston

For our annual Imbolc walk (a few days late, on Feb 6), Daniel and I decided to pick up the pace. At Hazen’s speed we’d reach the appearance of grass by the end of the Cape Cod Rail Trail, but would not see the first large mammals, much less the dinosaurs, or anything else of interest. To get reptiles, fish, insects, trilobites, and so on, we need to go much faster. See [trail map].

The extended trail runs 25.7 miles, so we used that distance as the benchmark. We increased the pace by 100 times. That means that each step is a century of centuries (10,000 years) and each mile is 21 million years.

Frozen ephemeral pool

Frozen ephemeral pool

We’d need 50,000 steps to reach the early Cambrian. Maybe 60,000, or more if our stride flags near the end. But at this pace it would take just one step to cover all of human history (the wheel, agriculture, writing, pyramids, Buddhism, geology, the Beatles, etc.). The first humans show up at 1/4 mile, about 4 minutes into our 7 hour walk.

A view along the trail

A view along the trail

Starting the walk at LeCount Hollow Rd, 3 miles gets us to the Eastham border, which matches the KT extinction that wiped out most of the dinosaurs who didn’t have feathers or know how to fly. Somewhere in Orleans, Pangaea split up. It had formed 7 miles earlier in Harwich, before the great Permian extinction. Seymour Pond in Brewster/Harwich takes us to the first large reptiles and sharks. The South Dennis trailhead on Rt 134 gets us to the first vertebrates. At the new start of the trail in Yarmouth we see the first multicellular life of the types we know today. (There are earlier multicellular skeletons in our closet.)

Beautiful lichen

Beautiful lichen

If we had the time, Stamford, CT would take us back to the beginning of the earth. I suppose that we could adjust the pace so that the endpoint would be the Hayden Planetarium, but the arithmetic for that hurts my head.

  1. We started the walk this year a little after 7 on the morning of Tuesday, February 6 and finished 6.5 hours later. Our pace was around 3.5 mph. This was to the South Dennis trailhead at the start of the Silurian period

    Now we need to think about attempting the extended trail next year!

      1. 21 mya: Quartenary (1.6 mya), humans [Seashore HQ, Marconi area]
      2. 42 mya: Grande Coupure, Mongolian Remodeling [Fresh Brook]
      3. 63 mya: Tertiary (65 mya), large mammals, angiosperms, grass [Eastham border]
      4. 84 mya: late dinosaurs [Brackett Rd]
      5. 105 mya: similar to today, except with dinosaurs instead of people [Minister Pond, before Rt 6 crossing]
      6. 126 mya: [Samoset Rd, near Salt Pond]
      7. 147 mya: Cretaceous (144 mya), flowering plants [Gov. Prence Rd]
      8. 168 mya: [Orleans Rotary]
      9. 189 mya: Pangaea splits up [Orleans Center]
      10. 210 mya: Jurassic (208 mya), birds, dinosaurs are dominant, conifers [Namskaket Creek]
      11. 231 mya: [before Nickerson State Park, ℗]
      12. 252 mya: Triassic (245 mya), reptiles dominant, mammals, cycads [Linnell Rd]
      13. 273 mya:
      14. 294 mya: Permian (286 mya) [Long Pond Rd, Rt 137, ℗]
      15. 315 mya: [Sheep Pond]
      16. 336 mya: Pangaea forms [Seymour Pond, Black’s Pond]
      17. 357 mya: Carboniferous (360 mya), tree ferns, gymnosperms, large cartilaginous fish, reptiles [Hinckley’s Pond, ℗]
      18. 378 mya: [Katie’s Pond, after Rt 6]
      19. 399 mya: [Great Western Rd, after Bike Rotary]
      20. 420 mya: Devonian (408 mya), amphibians, land animals [Sand Pond, West Reservoir][/caption]
      21. 441 mya: insects, jawed fish, land plants
      22. 462 mya: Silurian (438 mya), terrestrial plants [South Dennis Trailhead, ℗]
      23. 483 mya:
      24. 504 mya:
      25. 525 mya: Ordovician (505 mya), vertebrates, algae flourish, bivalves
      26. 536 mya: Cambrian explosion (541 mya); first multicellular modern phyla, trilobites, fungi [Yarmouth trailhead, ℗]
      27. In the times of the old ones: Ediacaran life forms, green algae, cyanobacteria, bacteria, eukaryotes (2-3 bya), amino acids


Bring on the flood

Imja Tsho

Imja Tsho

Today’s BBC News reports on an important development in Nepal, one which should be a warning to us all (Nepal drains dangerous Everest lake).

Nepal’s army has just completed lowering Lake Imja by 10 ft. This is because it was in danger of flooding downstream settlements with over 50,000 people.

Lake Imja, near Mount Everest (Sagarmatha) at 16,400 ft altitude, is one of thousands of such glacial lakes in the Himalayas. Many of the lakes are filling fast because of accelerated melting of glaciers due to rising temperatures.

The Himalaya region has been described as the third pole of the earth. It is melting, just as the Arctic and Antarctic are.

Lake Imja is a good example of that melting. It is a new lake, composed of glacial meltwater blocked by a terminal moraine. In 1962, it was 7.5 acres, and is now over 260.

I can only guess at the enormous cost of the six-month project, not just in dollars, but in terms of using up limited Nepali resources. It has been necessary to save lives, but sherpas in the region say there are many more lakes that endanger communities.

Mistaken Point

There’s a problem in writing about Newfoundland: It’s an unassuming place, with few of the Michelin green guide must-see attractions. Some of the best sights are poorly marked or hard to reach.

There are little-known attractions here that rival the most famous sites in the world, and some are unique to the area. I keep experiencing what I think is the highlight of the trip, only to have another even more engaging experience. A recent one was at Mistaken Point.


But first, a little background: In 1868, the Scottish geologist Alexander Murray discovered unusual an fossil now called Aspidella terranovica. Four years later, Elkanah Billings found these at the corner of Duckworth and Holloway Streets, where they can still be seen today, unmarked and unprotected in the back of a parking lot. The fossils are in a Precambrian outcrop of black shale.

This was deemed impossible. Scientists believed that the Precambrian period was the time before the Cambrian explosion of multicellular life on earth. There should be only microscopic bacteria, fungi and the like. Others claimed that these were inorganic concretions, gas escape bubbles, or fakes planted by God to mislead those with little faith.

The doubts continued until mid 20th century. Then, Reg Sprigg discovered an assemblage of fossils in the Ediacara Hills of South Australia, which confirmed the existence of multi-celled organisms on Earth between 635 million and 542 million years ago. They’re now found in many parts of the world, especially in now-dispersed regions (England, FLorida, NW Africa, Newfoundland) that were once part of the Avalonia terrane. Some of the best examples of these fossils are in Newfoundland, including at Port Union and St. John’s.

These discoveries answered a question that Darwin raised in On the Origin of Species: Why didn’t the fossil record show more experiments with multicellular life prior to the Cambrian explosion? It now appears that the Avalon explosion was one such, with a variety of diverse and fascinating plants and animals.

In 1967, graduate student S. B. Misra, discovered and documented similar fossils found in great numbers on exposed rock surfaces at Mistaken Point along the southeasternmost coast of the Avalon Peninsula. Mistaken Point is so named because of the difficulty of navigating in the treacherous waters surrounding the point, which led some navigators to turn north too soon, when attempting to go around the peninsula.

Mistaken Point tour

I’m not a fan of guided tours, but I’m glad that the ecological reserve at Mistaken Point now requires that. Fossils that have lasted 565 million years can be destroyed in a weekend by humans.

We signed up for a tour that lasted most of the afternoon. After seeing the fossils, we went on to the nearby eastern point of Cape Race, which has one of the most powerful and important lighthouses in the world. It’s also the site of the Marconi wireless station that received the first distress message from the Titanic.

You can see a bit of our tour in the slides below. We were given a good introduction to the natural history of the area on the 45-minute walk out across hyper-oceanic barrens. We had to wear booties to avoid damaging the fossils.

We were able to explore shelves which had lain at the bottom of the ocean over 565 million years ago, populated by creatures that have never been seen alive.

This whole experience was one of the highlights of our trip.

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“First Life with David Attenborough” has more about these early creatures, including the fractal nature of their body organization:

Is Blanc the center?

Hamlet of Blanc

Hamlet of Blanc

In my last post, I speculated that İstanbul was a good candidate for the center of the world.

But now, I’m sitting in İstanbul’s antithesis, the hamlet of Blanc sur Sanctus, France, wondering whether the center might instead be here. Where İstanbul is large and hyperactive, Blanc barely hangs on and wonders about its future.

Moss near Blanc

Moss near Blanc

Blanc sits above the valley of the river Sanctus, whose early traces form a boundary between departments of Aveyron and Tarn. It’s in the Langedoc region, where names still resonate in Occitan. It’s also in the Parc naturel régional des Grands Causses, a lush region of limestone plateaus, cascading mountain streams, beech and pine forests, and family-scale agriculture.

Blanc was settled at least a millennium ago. A chateau was built in the 10th C. The place changed over the years, growing and prospering, especially in the 17th C. But by the mid 19th C, there were only 54 inhabitants, and the last two left in 1960. The combination of a the general rural exodus and WWI were too much for it. Today, it and its environs are protected by an association, Sauvegarde du Rouergue, and by two men who operate a set of guesthouses on the site.

Forest primeval?

Forest primeval?

We’re staying in what used to be the school and post office. It’s restored to protect it and to provide modern conveniences, but with the perfect weather we had, we could have lived outdoors.

Some would say that Blanc represents well the past for France, and the world. Small-scale agriculture is uncompetitive and too difficult. People are drawn to the cities–the good jobs, shopping, culture and night life, automobiles, new technologies and modern conveniences. Wherever the center may be, it certainly can’t be in Blanc.



And yet, in Blanc you can take long walks through forests and meadows to reconnect with nature and your own body. You can drink pure water from mountain streams. You can feel how rocks were carried to form walls and houses, rather than to read about them or see them in a museum. You can understand how water and topography have always shaped human lives and continue to this day.

Enfant Sauvage

Enfant Sauvage

Moreover, you can see that the life in Blanc is not so different from that in similar places in Turkey, the US, China, or elsewhere in the world. Few people would choose to re-enter that rural lifestyle, but many people seek the kind of peace and wholeness that it promises. There’s a solidity to life here that is more than merely the fact everything seems to be built out of rock. Nearby, the “wild child” of Aveyron perplexed early 19th C villagers with his back to nature existence.

Blanc affords an opportunity to find one’s individual center in a way that the intensely social world of İstanbul does not.

Citizen Science in Wellfleet

Herring River estuary

Herring River estuary

The current habitat for communication between science and the public is dysfunctional. One need only look at the “debates” about climate change or disease prevention to see the problem.

Scientific findings are regularly misrepresented and sensationalized in the mass and social media. Even when well presented, those findings are ignored or distorted, attacked through faulty arguments, or tied to unsupported inferences. At its best, current science/public dialogue tends to be one-way, with the occasional enlightening article, book, or video, followed by public commentary. This rarely serves to deepen  understanding, much less lead to enhanced inquiry.

State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference 

Wellfleet marina

Wellfleet marina, note osprey nest, upper left

The 10th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference held yesterday at the Wellfleet Elementary School represents an alternative to that typical dysfunctional science/public relationship. One refreshing note was an effort by scientists to explain not only the results, but also the assumptions, methods, and theories behind them. People asked about the selection of factors to study, or about habitat assessment in tidal river versus bay sites, not to discredit a finding, but to understand more about how results were achieved. The conference was itself a small data point for the case that ordinary citizens can engage in science-based discussions, given enough time and well-crafted presentations, displays, videos, and other materials.

Poster session

Poster session

You can see from the schedule that there was a wide variety of presentations and posters. There was talk about dolphin mass strandings, bathymetry, auditory evoked potential, sentinel species, estuaries, cross-shore sediment transport, salt marsh backup, turtle gardens, terrapin clutches, brumation, eutrophication, cultching, winter/spring blooms, quahog seed, anoxic shellfish, temperature-dependent sex determination, anthropogenic effects, and many other topics related to the diverse ecosystems of the Outer Cape.

There were some good videos from the Friends of Herring River and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Brian Sharp complemented the latter with a talk and a tour of the IFAW van used for marine mammal rescues. This was especially salient given the mass strandings of dolphins in Wellfleet Bay in the early part of the year.

Mayo Beach, with groin

Mayo Beach, with groin

These presentations emphasized the interconnectedness of ecosystems, with humans as an integral part. Mark Borrelli from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies talked about how groins and revetments prevent local beach erosion, e.g., to protect a house, but shift the erosion elsewhere. Thus, they are simply “erosion relocation structures.” Sarah Martinez from the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary presented a poster on the consequences for horseshoe crabs of their use as bait for conch and eels. Moreover, the revetments that relocate beach erosion also disturb the spawning, much of which occurs above the high tide mark.Vincent Malkoski from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries spoke about the data on horseshoe crab fisheries. These findings have led to harvesting closures for five days around the new and full moons in May and June to allow lunar spawning. Diane Murphy from the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant spoke on the relation between oyster and clam growth and the wide variety of habitats they find in Cape Cod Bay.

Avoiding Either/Or Thinking 

Fishing boats

Fishing boats

One consequence of creating the forum in this way was that discussions avoided the either/or kind of thinking often expressed in mainstream media. For example, although most of the participants shared deep commitments to preserving natural environments and generally opposed rampant development, I heard statements such as “you can’t say that dredging is always bad or good; the decision is about choices and values.” There would then be productive dialogue that critiqued human-made alterations of the shoreline, estuaries, ponds, and so on, but acknowledged values others might hold for commerce, recreation, or housing. Zero-based planning  is no longer an option in the Wellfleet area: Every change today, even one that seeks to undo earlier construction, interacts with a myriad of alterations over centuries and can have unintended consequences for the environment.

Interactive map

Interactive map


Through Q/A, posters, and ample time for informal discussion, the conference fostered one to many, many to one, and many to many conversations among participants including scientists in the same and other disciplines, students, and general public. There was an interactive map on which people could write their hopes and concerns and peg them to a geographic spot. The map activity will be continued at the library to solicit input from those who did not attend the conference. I saw numerous examples of scientists taking seriously the concerns or knowledge of the public.

This was perhaps enhanced by the fact that many of the projects involve direct citizen science participation , e.g., the river herring count, the horseshoe crab spawning assessment, terrapin sightings, and the dolphin rescues. Others involve coordination with local activist organizations, such as the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.

Some were of special relevance to those involved in commerce, such as oyster farmers. Jessica Smith and Barbara Brennessel from Wheaton College had an interesting poster on a study of genetic diversity among hatchery versus reef oysters, showing, as one might expect, a greater diversity for the reef oysters. This provides indirect support for seeding oyster beds with pelagic, rather than hatchery, veligers. Some oyster farmers still collect these wild larvae for seeing their beds, despite the method being considered slower, difficult, and old-fashioned. A quahog farmer of 30 years was able to add comments about changes over three decades that was missing from most of the shorter-term scientific studies.


IFAW van

IFAW van

Perhaps a meeting like this requires a supportive habitat such as Wellfleet in order to thrive, just as the terrapins, horseshoe crabs, eels, dolphins, ospreys, and other creatures do. Would it fail to survive elsewhere?

Richard Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix that no organism can survive without a supportive environment, but also that no living environment exists without organisms. In this case, the conference organism succeeds because of the town environment, but also shapes it to become more supportive of exactly the kind of discussion heard today.

The conference was well-organized with good snacks, including clam chowder. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the special beauty of Wellfleet, but also sadness about what we’ve done to destroy this, and so much else of the natural world. The fact that a conference such as this is so rare punctuates that sadness. How much did you hear from political candidates or mass media this year about protecting the environment we all live in and depend upon?

Small but good things are worth preserving. I hope to make the conference an annual event.

Can a community stop fracking?

Photo courtesy creative commons by Helen Slottje

Mari Margil and Ben Price have a detailed article in Yes! magazine this month about Pittsburgh’s recent ban on natural gas drilling, which uses the “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing technique. Pittsburgh is the first major city in the US to ban corporations from natural gas drilling.

The ordinance has a direct impact on Pittsburgh, but as they point out, its implications go much further:

Provisions in the ordinance eliminate corporate “personhood” rights within the city for corporations seeking to drill, and remove the ability of corporations to wield the Commerce and Contracts Clauses of the U.S. Constitution to override community decision-making.

Community decision making is essential in this arena for two reasons: First, exemptions to the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act for the oil and gas industry, expanded even further in 2005, mean that the burden of proof is now on communities to prove that any drilling practice is unsafe. This, it’s essential that communty decision making be supported and seen as the proper venue for judging the value of any drilling. Second, no individual landowner can have much impact on the drilling. The horizontal drilling methods mean that the fracking can proceed, regardless of landowner approval. All the landowner can do is decide to forego any royalties. This effectively grants all power to the corporation doing the drilling.

This issue hits home for me, since Fort Worth has been a major site for fracking (Smith, 2010). Although the oil and gas industry has asserted that fracking does not pollute underground water supplies or air quality, does not cause earthquakes, and is all in all a benign way to produce clean energy, it’s difficult to accept the assertions when they continually seek exemptions to EPA review and refuse to release data on the chemicals and procedures they use.


Searching for trolls in Skurugata

It is generally understood that Trolls, when their territory is encroached upon by mankind, withdraw to some more secluded place. So when Eksjo was built, those that dwelt in that vicinity moved to Skurugata, a defile between two high mountains whose perpendicular sides rise so near to each other as to leave the bottom in continual semi-darkness and gloom (Hofberg, 1890).

It’s also generally understood that humans venture into the lair of trolls at their peril, and wise ones know not to walk defenseless into bottomlands of “continual semi-darkness and gloom.” But we knew of the troll ways and were not about to follow the path that the hunter Pelle Katt did in Hofberg’s fairy tale.

A Swedish friend asked why we were going to Småland, as if searching for relatives were the only thing to do there. We’ve learned there is much more, including visiting 12th century Romanesque churches and meeting local people over coffee afterwards, exploring lush forests with gorgeous lakes, taking walks in well-designed parklands, looking at quaint, red wooden farmhouses, and walking through villages with winding, cobblestone streets. But we were intrigued by the descriptions of Skurugata, which seemed of a different order of things.

Skurugata is about 13 km NE of Eksjö. To get there, we drove past lovely little farms with red houses and barns, cows, and piles of logs from the abundant woods.

The walk to Skurugata itself started off simply enough, a winding path through the woods, with moss-covered rocks and ferns. But it soon descended into a narrow ravine, with straight granite sides. At times, there was little more than 20 feet separating the sides, which rose to 50 feet and more. The walking was a bit tricky, since the rocks were moss-covered and slick from rain. There was also some climbing and descending that benefitted from the use of hands.

It was easy to imagine getting a foot caught in a crevice or losing one’s balance on an unstable stone. But the most dangerous part was neither the trolls nor the rocks, but the sheer beauty that made it hard to focus on walking carefully. The camera was shock-proof, but not my head.

Hofberg’s tale made me more sympathetic to trolls than I’d been before. Being forced out of one’s home is never good, even if it’s to a place as beautiful as Skurugata. He relates that every year a whole battalion of Småland grenadiers would march through Skurugata, beating drums and blowing horns, and occasionally firing volleys. Who knows how the poor trolls suffered through that! And Pelle Katt was no saint either.

We tried not to add to the troll’s’ misery, although we did intrude on what seems like a sacred space and took pictures that only hint at its beauty.

[Double-click on any photo to enlarge it.]


Hofberg, Herman (1890).  Swedish fairy tales. Chicago: Belford-Clarke.