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YNA 2001 Winners Hero

Twelve winning essays from the YNA 2001 contest year

Bog Trotting

Rebecca_header

Bogs are part of our family lore. When I was about six years old, my dad told us about the Ponkapoag Bog. He told me that his class went on a field trip to this Massachusetts bog. They walked out into it on boardwalks and saw all sorts of interesting plants. So he took our family there. We walked and walked and walked. It seemed like forever. Dad kept talking about what a great place it was when you got there, a boardwalk going all the way out into the middle of the bog so that you could see all the different plants and animals.Finally, with our hopes high, we reached our destination. Blocking the path was a rusty chain. The boardwalks had rotted and fallen into the bog. For a six year old, this was a great disappointment. I think my dad was disappointed, too. From then on, whenever my parents suggested a walk or a hike, my sister and I would cry out, "It's not another bog walk, is it?"

Lee Hill Bog


Now I live about a mile from another bog. The first time I visited the Lee Hill Bog was on a Science Club walk. We proceeded into the bog, not very cautiously (like most eight year olds). I was most certainly not watching where I was going because I stepped into a particularly muddy place and began to sink. I thought I was about to be sucked under, but I'm told I didn't even get up to my knees. I did not look fondly on bogs for a while.

I have walked past the bog many times since then. I must have ignored it until this fall, when I walked down the short rocky path behind the Lee Library. The leaves scattered before me. The ones overhead were bursting red, orange, yellow,and brown. The sphagnum moss was a deep red, only slightly greenish in the center of each mat. The dew was still sparkling on the tips of the cotton grass, making each stalk look like a fluffy fairy wand.

 

September 27, 2000, 10 am
I walk out into the Lee Hill Bog. The leaves have all turned and the cotton grass has gone to seed. I can hear the songs of migrating birds: phoebes, white-throated sparrows, towhees, catbirds, chipping sparrows. I push through the under brush, looking for pitcher plants. I find some. Each clump is a different color: some are a deep, shiny red, some are a bright green, and others are bright green but with a network of veins that look as if they are carrying blood. I split one open and find at the bottom all the plant's recent victims. Some of the insects are simply a dark mush, but others are barely damaged. On one tiny fly I can see those tiny emerald eyes staring at me, sparkling in the sunlight.

In another clump, the pitchers are all split open, but they are still in the ground. Then I see the clumps of ice on the moss below them, each one an exact mold of the pitcher it had been in. The water inside must have frozen, expanding, but the pitchers had refused to reshape themselves for the ice, and it had split them. It really was amazing. I made up my mind then that I would find out more about this mysterious place.

I wrote a letter to a local naturalist asking about the Lee Hill Bog. As a biologist working for the USDA soil conservation department for 30 years and as a longtime member of the Lee Town Conservation Commission, Mr. David Allan had acquired a lot of knowledge about the Lee Hill Bog, now owned by the town of Lee. In fact, Mr. Allan worked hard to have the town preserve the Lee Hill Bog as public land.

Formation of a bog sketch (Click to enlarge.)


My mom and I met with Mr. Allan on Saturday, November 18, 2000. It was a cold, bright morning. The sun was darting in and out of the clouds. Mr. Allan told us that the Lee Hill Bog probably began forming around 10,000 years ago when the glaciers from the last ice age began retreating from this area. Bogs usually start as ponds with very poor drainage. The soil left by the glaciers here is gravelly and erodes along with the soil down into the low pond. Little by little, the weeds and brush start to grow around the edges of the pond where it is beginning to fill in. When this vegetation dies,it decomposes and turns to peat. The peat, as well as the gravelly soil, makes a spongy bedding that allows sphagnum moss and other bog-dwelling plants to grow. After thousands of years, the pond is filled in by peat. Then trees and shrubs such as blueberries and bog rosemary start to grow. The brush and small trees gradually fill the bog.

We took a short walk into the bog, with Mr. Allan talking about different plants that live in bogs.

 

Brightly colored pitcher plant


Leaf of a pitcher plant


Bright green pitcher plants with red veins


November 18, 2000, 11 am
The trees are bare now. The pitcher plants are tinged brown and filled with ice. Every so often I hear a lonely bird's call. Each note seems to say, "Winter's coming." Mr. Allan brought some examples of plants from his own homemade bog. He gave me the samples to take home, dissect, and study. Mr. Allan's theory of bog formation agrees with the encyclopedia articles I have read. However, an article I found in the April 1991 Discover argues with this theory. The author, Lee Klinger, thinks that bogs actually form from sphagnum moss gradually taking over and turning the soil so acidic that no other plants can easily survive. Because the soil is so acidic, the dead moss does not decompose; it simply builds up, forming peat. This peat absorbs so much water, the entire area becomes waterlogged and soggy. After thousands of years it becomes a bog, and all the trees start to die off. Then bog plants start to move in.

The pitcher plants in the bogs continually grabbed my attention. They have tall "pitchers" that are about six inches high when full-grown. These pitchers are actually leaves that the plant has modified. Usually there are about 10 pitchers in one plant, although I counted 59 in one. They range in color from deep red, to pale green, to bright green with blood-red veins, to a dull brown when they pass their prime. In the summer, the plant flowers. The tall (around 12-inch) stalks hold dark yellow or purple blossoms. In the fall, the flower becomes a round, five-lobed seedpod with a small "umbrella" on the top.

Pitcher plants are insectivores. The plant attracts insects using its color and scent. The insects fall into the pitcher and drown in the water collected there. The plant then digests the insects and uses them for nutrients.

Field sketch of a pitcher plant (Click to enlarge.)


Bogs are so acidic that for plants it is as if they are trying to live in a pond full of orange juice. Mr. Allan pointed out that the harsh conditions in bogs change the appearances of many of these plants. The poor soil, for example, makes a big difference in black spruce. A 70-year-old black spruce out of a bog could reach more than 15 feet, but in a bog, the same tree would be only about three feet tall. Mr. Allan told me about two other local ponds that might interest me. He said that they represented what the Lee Hill Bog would have looked like at earlier stages of development.

The first one was a place called Spruce Hole Pond. It is what is also called a "kettle hole." Mr. Allan said that when I looked at it, I could imagine what the Lee Hill Bog might have looked like about 1,000 years ago.

A 50-year-old black spruce growing in a bog


It was a cold, windy day when we set out; the sky was blanketed by steely gray clouds. We walked down the narrow, winding, and very rocky paths for about a quarter-mile. Spruce Hole lay before us. It was not nearly as big as the Lee Hill bog, but it looked much wilder. A steep drop surrounded the kettle hole, putting it at the bottom of a deep valley. This was probably a factor in the development of the bog because it would have made the drainage very poor. The brush had filled in almost the entire pond. There was a space about 25 feet by 35 feet where you could see open water. It wasfrozen over and the ice had formed beautiful patterns. As I walked, I listened to the sound of ice crystals in the waterlogged sphagnum moss crunch under my feet. I moved over to a small huddle of trees.

Bird's nest perched in a blackberry bush at Spruce Hole Pond


Making my way through the shrubs, I found a bird's nest left from the past spring. It was perched on a small blackberry bush and it sat there, abandoned. There was what seemed to be an endless amount of blueberry bushes and other brushy plants, each one more determined than the last to not allow me to walk by them. I turned around, defeated by the wall of shrubs. I walked down to the other end of the pond. It was clearer, and I could move easily over the frozen ground. The ground was much less firm here than in the Lee Hill Bog. It sank under my feet, and the closer I went to open water, the more I sank. This is probably because the pond is not entirely filled with peat, as is Lee Hill Bog.


Spruce Hill Pond


36 November 30, 2000, 9:30 am
As I walk I imagine what Spruce Hole Pond will look like in thousands of years. Will it be completely filled in with peat, a real bog? Will there be more trees? Will it even still be here, or will it be drained, with a large house on the edge of the hill? Maybe there will be someone standing just where I am, imagining what Spruce Hole would have looked like a long time ago, in the year 2000.

Later that day we went to look at another pond called Winkley Pond. Mr. Allan had suggested looking at this pond, too. He had told me that the Lee Hill Bog would have looked something like Winkley Pond about 5,000 years ago. Unlike Spruce Hole, there was no ice on the pond and the water lapped gently at the shore. It was at a much earlier stage of bog formation. It could have been that this pond had simply started to turn into a bog later, or it could have been that the people who lived on the pond might have cut back the growth to keep their swimming docks free of brush. The shrubs were still sneaking in slightly around the edges.

 

View of Winkley Pond


November 30, 2000, 10:45 am
The first thing I notice that makes Winkley Pond so different from Spruce Hole and the Lee Hill Bog is how much open water there is in it. The second thing that strikes me is how much humans have shown their presence. Houses dot the shoreline, and there are fishing wire and plastic bags on the beach. If you do not look down at the litter, the pond is really pretty. The clouds in the sky have rolled back to reveal a bright sun that makes the pond look glassy and unreal. It is very hard to imagine the Lee Hill Bog ever having open water like this, even 5,000 years ago. I think after visiting three different sites, all at different stages of bog formation, and spending time simply sitting and admiring pitcher plants, listening to the songs of migrating birds, walking over carpets of moss, and gazing up at trees exploding with color, I now know bogs better. Even though many of my original questions have been answered, more questions have replaced them. So I think that even though I have learned so much, bogs are, in my mind, still mysterious and fascinating places.

 

References

Alden, Peter and Brian Cassie. National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Allan, David, retired biologist for New Hampshire and Maine. Interview by Rebecca Kane. November 18, 2000.

Crow, Garrett E. New England's Rare, Threatened and Endangered Plants. U.S.A. Washington, D.C.: Government Print Office, 1982.

Cvancara, Alan M. Exploring Nature in Winter. New York: Walker and Company, 1992.

Environmental Protection Agency Bog Facts. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on August 21, 1997:http://www.epa.gov/OWOW/wetlands/facts/bogs.html

Johnson, Charles W. Bogs of the Northeast. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1985.

Kricher, John and Gordon Morrison. Eastern Forests. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Levathes, Louise E. "Mysteries of the Bog." National Geographic, March 1987: 397420.

Lyons, Janet and Sandra Jordan. Walking the Wetlands. New York: Wiley Nature Editions, 1989.

Milne, Lorus J. and Margery Milne. Mysteries of the Bog Forest. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1984.

Project SMART. University of New Hampshire. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on July 730, 1998: http://www.smart.unh.edu/smartfmb98/bog/bog1.html

Zimmer, Carl. "Bog Man." Discover, April 1991: 6367.

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