This Thing Called Courage

Monday, March 23, 2009

Out Into the Wild, Forty-five Minutes Away

LAST NIGHT CLAY AND I went out to hear the woodcocks peenting and twittering their magic across the early spring sky. Our destination was the large-- very large-- fields on either side of the road as one enters the Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge, in Harvard, Massachusetts. Oxbow National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is located in north-central Massachusetts, approximately 35 miles northwest of Boston, MA. The refuge lies within the towns of Ayer and Shirley in Middlesex County and the towns of Harvard and Lancaster in Worcester County. The refuge consists of approximately 1,667 acres of upland, southern New England flood-plain forest, and wetland communities along nearly 8 miles of the Nashua River corridor. The Nashua, meandering through the old mill towns of this area, was once one of the state's most polluted rivers; now it's one of the cleanest, thanks to a consortium of caring people and organizations.
Oxbow NWR was formed by three land transfers, from the former U.S. Army, the Fort Devens Military Installation, and a recent purchase of private land in Harvard, MA. Two of the transfers from the Army (May, 1974 and February, 1988) formed the original 711-acre portion of the Refuge located south of Massachusetts Route 2. The third Army transfer occurred in May of 1999, and added the 836-acre portion of the Refuge that is located north of Route 2. Finally, approximately 120 acres were added to the Refuge in April, 2001, with the acquisition of the former Watt Farm property along Still River Depot Road in Harvard.
A variety of wetland habitat types are maintained and protected at Oxbow NWR. Beavers play an important role in the formation and succession of some of these wetlands, and their activities are welcomed, but managed by use of exclosures and perforated pipe ('Beaver Deceivers') to prevent damage to other habitat or refuge facilities. Some areas of wetland on the refuge are experiencing invasion by non-native species, including the common reed (Phragmites) and purple loosestrife.
Active management of these invasive species has been initiated using a host-specific beetle on the loosestrife, and water level changes for the Phragmites. Additional control methods are being evaluated. Open fields on the refuge are maintained in that condition to benefit a number of species of birds that require this habitat type (woodcock, meadowlark, bobolink, bluebird) by mowing every three to five years. Some areas of the refuge are maintained by mowing, discing or blading to provide nesting habitat for the state-threatened Blanding's turtle.
The refuge and neighboring U.S. Army Training Area support the highest density of nesting Blanding's turtle east of the Mississippi River. The Blanding's turtle (see pic) is one of our most endangered species.

The temperature was 36 degrees and falling when we got there, just at the golden moment of sunset. The wind was cold and out of the north, sweeping across the vast fields. But for all of that, we were in heaven. While New England was formerly full of meadows and fields, most of these have either been reclaimed by the forest, or stolen away for development. This is a shame, because many species of insect, mammal, and bird life depend upon this type of habitat. Too, there's something wonderful about meandering through a meadow, especially at sunset. 'That Great Blue Wall,' as Thoreau called Mount Wachusett, shone a bright slate blue on the western horizon. The sky faded to torquoise, then robin's egg blue, then, finally, indigo. Venus came out first, then Sirius, then the other stars. And we heard and saw woodcocks. The temperature fell, the wind blew, but nothing stops these nocturnal performers, so bent on singing their hearts out for the sake of breeding. Even the weeds put on their fanciest, most fragrant flowers to breed-- perhaps we all do.

When the show was over, we adjourned to the parking area, further down the slope and close to the river. No more meadow, but thick woods and thickets. The sky became ink black and the stars multiplied and blazed, so brightly you felt you could almost touch them. We walked Fionn and Clay said, "Be careful, there's something wild right here in this bush, scuffling and making noises." We began hearing things-- the night was alive with sound: the howling of coyotes (and is there a sound that better exemplifies the wild?), the other-wordly hooting of owls, and then, a tree crashing to the ground. Why? What (or whom) precipated it? Shortly after that, we heard something big plunge into the river-- otter, or moose. But which? We voted for moose, as it was clearly something very large. I had brought two drums along, and these I pulled out of my car, and we began drumming, to the stars above and all this wildness. The sound carried all the way up the slope. The owls responded. It, all of this, was wild and wonderful and almost trance-inducing. Some long-buried gene that revels in the wildness of things-- and the wildness of ourselves-- seemed to wake and stir at this, and dance. Only 45 minutes away. When I got back home I felt as if I had wandered into a fairy tale.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about our experience at Oxbow. I have been going there every Sunday night since the beginning of March to help usher in the spring. It is such a treasure to me.

Your friend, Clay

2:08 PM  

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