I was asked to give the keynote address at this year’s Land and Garden Preserve (LGP) annual board meeting. The LGP stewards the Asticou Azalea Gardens, the Thuya Garden and the 1000+ acres around Little Long Pond on Mount Desert Island, Maine. It’s always hard to replicate a talk with visuals in a blog format such as this, but I thought I’d give it a try.
Good afternoon. The title of this talk is “A View from Little Long Pond,” and before starting I wanted to point out that when I say “Little Long Pond (LLP),” I’m referring to the pond itself plus the 1000+ acres around the pond that Mr. Rockefeller transferred from his private ownership last summer.
And, rather than put this all the way at the end of my talk, I wanted to start with a “thank you” – for the incredible conservation leadership and stewardship of the Rockefeller Family, to all the volunteers and staff of the Land and Garden Preserve, and specifically to Rodney Eason, the Land and Garden Preserve CEO, for asking me to do this talk back in January 2016. I can honestly say that that asking inspired a kind of personal and intellectual growth that has meant the world to me over the past few months.
Here’s an outline of my talk: I expect it to last about 40 minutes and will be sure to leave 20 minutes for questions, although, if you feel the need, you can certainly stop me along the way. During those 40 minutes I’ll run through my methodology, findings, questions, and suggestions. The time I’ve spent on this project has inspired more questions than answers, but I definitely came away with plenty of opinions and, in the most humble way possible, I wanted to share those with you as well.
When Rodney first asked me to do this I knew of his desire for an ecological analysis of LLP and that made me a bit nervous. I’m not an ecologist in the strict sense of the term. I don’t know how to measure the flow of carbon or water or nitrogen or biomass through any ecological system nor quantify predator prey relationships, trophic cascading and what not. I’m a human ecologist and am most interested in the dynamics between human beings and those various non-human systems. LLP is a perfect place to tease out those human ecological relations. My method of coming to understand was utility, plain and simple: use – experience – being there – spending time – coming to know.
Some of the time I did that with my family, with my girls Molly and Maggie. It turns out 13- and 15-year-old girls don’t have the right attention span for attending to what I was interested in.
But dogs do. My dog and co-author Lucy was with me in the winter, spring, summer and fall.
I’ve been visiting LLP since I was a COA student in the late 80s and early 90s, but things took a real turn for me starting May 1 when I decided I needed to buckle down for this talk. So from May 1 until now I spent 4.1 times a week on average at LLP; most of that was running and some walking, at an average of 4.6 miles a visit. Over the 15 weeks that gave me 61 trips to the region and 282.9 miles. It sounds like a lot – enough to give me pause about sharing such data for fear you would say, “hey, isn’t this guy running a college?” Each trip lasted an hour to 90 min. But I got to thinking, if I’m not able to budget 6 hours a week for something as interesting and revitalizing as this, something’s wrong.
I also began to think that running and thinking and generally experiencing wasn’t enough, so I took to mapping and drawing, which, if nothing else, brought some serious focus to my adventures. Hand drawing a map is one of the most powerful ways imaginable to come to know a landscape.
So, through such experience and mapping I “found” a lot of things, I found, for instance, the hide out spot for a gaggle of showy lady slippers, a dog’s gravestone, a monument to someone named LEO on top of Mitchell Hill, an old well based around a still active spring, and a few hundred small, patches of beauty that only lot’s of time or really good luck allows.
In terms of this talk, my key findings are: 1) LLP is most certainly distinctive from the lands that surround it; 2) the user and the user experience in LLP is likewise quite different; 3) there’s a decidedly linear nature to the geography; and 4) the hardwoods around LLP are completely out of the ordinary.
The 1000 or so acres centered on Little Long Pond (LLP) are distinct from the rest of MDI, from both the surrounding private lands and the national park. In absolutely no offense to the park, there is what I call a “Non federal” nature to the landscape.
This differentiation is interesting because we are dealing with the same ecological underpinnings. The canvas and the paint are the same. But the human ecological underpinnings are very different – the unique character of the landscape is due almost entirely to anthropogenic circumstances. That’s interesting, worth noting, and worth teasing out some. What’s at the root of these anthropogenic distinctions?
First, there’s history. The human history of the LLP area – primarily, the history of the Rockefeller family — bleeds into the landscape with much more force than the park. The horse fields and the long-term management of those fields are the most obvious elements of that history, but there’s the boat house, the mixed grassy and gravel carriage roads, and the more subtle touches of history like what seem like rock walls.
Second, there’s the way the landscape bobs and weaves with the private and federal land that surround it.
Third, there’s the emphasis on management for extraordinary views and the more active management of understory vegetation to give the user long, sweeping views across acres of moss and lichen.
The presence of dogs off leash is a fourth differentiator.
Then there’s sound: It’s not necessarily that I found LLP to be more quiet than Acadia, — certainly dogs do make quite a bit of noise, especially when you run into that guy that’s training five dogs with whistles — but the sound experience is different. I don’t have quantitative data to back this up, but I bet there are fewer decibels of road noise. The location of Peabody Drive, the slow speed of traffic compared to, say 102, and the relatively narrow, linear nature of the area and the trail system, means you get away from road noise very quickly.
Sixth, the network of trails is radically different. They are soft. But there’s a more profound difference. In Acadia you have a relatively lightly managed forest bisected by heavily structured trails. In LLP you have more managed areas bisected by less intensively managed trails. This makes sense. To manage 3 million people a year the National Park has to take a particular management approach to the construction of trails in order to meet the goal of preserving “unimpaired the natural and cultural values” of our parks for “the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
It’s also been my sense that there is a higher percentage of local, repeat users at LLP in comparison with the typical ANP visitor. Clearly visitation types exist along a continuum, from those riding bicycles who do not even know that they’re not in the Park, to the Jesses and Eds and the others on the trail crew who know every feature of the terrain, but I had the sense that LLP users have a somewhat deeper understanding and familiarity with the landscape. They
know where the “St. Louis Arch Tree” is and cherish that emergence from the forest where the grasslands unfold in front of your feet. There is, in a very real sense, and LLP culture LLP that is distinctive and has a particular knowledge base about the landscape. Like the landscape itself, this distinction is a good thing, one that should be nurtured, cultivated, and maintained … not erased or ignored.
I also found there to be a definitive linear nature to the LLP landscape.
This finding emerged in February of this year. I’m very fond of rivers and whenever I come across a body of water I’m pulled by some magnet and drawn upstream on a quest to know where the most distant droplet of water comes from. I do these “source to sea” adventures all over the Island and did one on Little Harbor Brook, tracing the brooks source to the southern flanks of Penobscot Mountain.
The more I walked and the more I ran I came to know the LLP landscape as four sets of peaks separating three distinct watersheds running north to south. These are Little Harbor Brook, Little Long Pond and Jordan Stream, and Stanley Brook. I think this “finding” – call it a watershed approach –is more than just curious and might be useful for stewarding the lands and waters of LLP.
My fourth finding has to do with the hardwood trees of LLP. I’m a sucker for forests and trees, so it’s not a surprise that I found them and found them to be impressive. You’ve heard of The “Big Five” – elephant, lion, cape buffalo, leopard, rhinoceros – in terms of African animals? Well at LLP you also have The Big Five: maple, ash, oak, beech, and birch. Of all the trees in LLP, it is birch that wins the prize in terms of number and biomass. Birch is the cape buffalo of LLP.
In addition to number and volume, there are also the charismatic individuals, like the Tolkien maple or what I call the sentinel birch. My all time favorite is a 107cm Diameter at Breast Height birch tree that you would never see unless you knew it was there. This has got to be the largest birch on MDI, certainly the biggest I’ve ever seen.
Looking at trees became a great example of “the more you look, the more you see.” I kept looking, kept seeing, and eventually mapped al of the hardwood trees around a loop I came to call The Hardwood Mile. I began to know the trees like people.
The more time I spent at LLP, the more certain questions really kept pushing their way to the front of my mind, questions that linked to the findings themselves.
Recalling the linear nature of the geography and how watercourses define the place, I desperately wanted to understand how silt and water moved through these “systems.” Especially in this very, very dry year, it was obvious to me that there is far more vegetation in LLP than in years past .Why is this; what’s the pace with which it’s
occurring; where is the sediment coming from? Not unrelated, I also was very curious about water levels, the connectivity between smallest headwater tributaries, the main stem of the river, and the ocean itself. There’s no better critter to ask about these things then the brook trout and the “salter” – the anadromous brook trout that makes use of both freshwater and saltwater environs. So, I began questioning not only about the movement of silt through the three watersheds, but also the movement of water, and the movement of the brook trout themselves. I was forced to do some fly fishing … poor me.
My second set of questions revolved around the trails and the terrain I was using every day – what makes sense in terms of trail management? I know there’s loads of enthusiasm around trails and trail building and I myself was very enthusiastic about the Richard Trail, which is exquisite. But as my experience grew at LLP I did begin to think a lot about the impact of trails on the experience and how the specific kinds of trail infrastructure shape the experience, from the more modest improvement projects to the more substantial.
Third, I also became increasingly curious about what I called earlier the “LLP culture.” I spoke with a lot of people during my excursions to LLP — actually 95% of people I ran into were on the carriage paths – and I thought that really coming to know what was going on in the minds of people who use the area would be really useful: why did they chose this place; what did they come for; how did they use it; how often; how many, etc. I definitely wanted to know those things and thought that you knowing them would be very interesting and, more than likely, very useful.
Not surprisingly, I began to question the trees.
During my ten years at World Wildlife Fund I was also very much interested in trees, largely of the neotropical forests. And the place you went to if you wanted to know trees in the tropics was Barro Colorado Island. At 3840 acres it’s more than three times the size of LLP. It was formed in 1913 when the US dammed the Chagres River to help create the Panama Canal zone. The island became a nature reserve in 1923, managed by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. There’s unlikely to be a swath of land anywhere in the world we know more about than Barro Colorado – if a leaf falls we know from which tree.
It struck me that this might be a very interesting model to follow, especially where silviculture and forest management is concerned (I say a prayer every time I walk by those recently planted American chestnut trees). And in my eyes, there’s no greater threat to LLP than invasive insect pests like the emerald ash borer, the red pine scale, and the hemlock wooly adelgid. Knowing our trees is the first line of defense in saving them.
It’s human nature I suppose: it’s hard to ask yourself these questions or pose the questions to a group without your mind leaning in the direction of answers or at least suggestions on how to answer them. So I will close with ten suggestions, made in the most humble, appreciative way imaginable.
- I would suggest beginning a sediment tracer study – that allows you to pin down specifically where sediment is coming from, how quickly, what particle size etc. These kinds of studies have been done in freshwater environments since the 1960s, but recently the methodologies have been improved.
- In tandem with that study, I would use brook trout as an indicator species for freshwater health and freshwater connectivity in the three watersheds. I’d again recall the three drainages and watersheds, each with distinctive characteristics. I’d also note that Acadia National Park has done an extensive brook trout study in Stanley Brook , so replicating that kind of work in the two drainages further west could be a very, very interesting way to compare and contrast the impact of use and land management on a watershed.
- I also came away from my time at LLP thinking we should maintain the open water nature of LLP. I’ve become bored by complaints or questions about what is natural or not: the human footprint across the island is very heavy, there’s no need to be embarrassed by that and decide to manage the land for outcomes and choices and aesthetics in addition to general ecological health. It’s perfectly appropriate to say “we are managing Little Long Pond to protect the scenic and ecological qualities of open water” just as it’s perfectly appropriate to say “we’re mowing the fields to maintain the grasslands.”
- What about my hunch that the LLP visitor is a year-round resident or summer resident and a much more frequent return visitor?;What about this “Little Long Pond Culture”; who are your visitors; what’s their penchant for volunteerism? I’d implement a visitor study.
- I’d define a large, long-term area for looking at tree phenology and disease resistance. I’d map, catalog and keep on top of your beautiful trees.
- OK, this one might get me thrown out of here, but I’d caution against overbuilding the trail system. The trails are some of the most precious on the entire island. I’d lean away from mapping and displaying trail maps and away from signage. I’d maintain a sense of exploration, adventure, and discovery for people. Let them get a little lost. There’s nothing like that on the island and it’s such a unique value.
- All this, I wholeheartedly recognize, would take a lot of work, among volunteers, of committees, and of new person power. I’d steer that volunteerism to low tech, high labor needs associated with weed removal, sediment removal, and tree work and away from trail building and maintenance.
- Well, you had to know this one was coming. COA has a 40+ year history of work with Acadia, a relationship that helps define who we are as an institution. But the management scheme of LLP opens a whole new range of learning opportunities for our students, which is my bottom line as president. Doing something collaboratively seems like a no brainer. Our students are fantastic and could and would do fantastic work at LLP.
- But beyond the somewhat self-centered suggestion of involving COA, I just get the sense that there’s an increasingly strong aptitude for cooperation among island institutions. I absolutely know that’s the case for philanthropists. It might be a very interesting and powerful idea to use the LLP area as a platform for cooperation, because where institutions themselves are powerful reasons to cooperate and people or leadership among those institutions are important as well, in my eyes, there’s nothing stronger than place as a gravitational force for pulling people and institutions together. I could envision the lands of the Land and Garden Preserve as being that gravitational center for understanding the relationship between place and education, and human health, and genetics, and land management.
- Last and maybe most importantly of all, my suggestion would be to keep doing what you’re doing. LLP is an incredible place both because of the way glaciers sculpted the land 12,000 years ago and the way you have sculpted the land today overt he past decades. Whatever magic you’ve imparted on these lands — keep doing that.