Science for Everyone


Digging Holes and Identifying Earthworms

Post by Ben Lemmond, Resident UVM Field Naturalist Masters Student

“Pieces, patterns, processes” is one of the fundamental mantras of the field naturalist program, some of the others being “don’t be a bird plow” and “use the layer cake approach.” About a week ago, one of my committee members by the name of Josef Gorres came to visit my project in situ here on Hurricane. Josef is a soil science professor and earthworm researcher at UVM, and, accordingly, we spent the weekend digging holes and identifying earthworms. Ever since his visit, I’ve had one such process on my mind: how have the soils formed here? And, perhaps more precisely, how has enough soil formed here to support a dense spruce-fir forest, after most of the trees were cleared around the turn of the 20th century?

Not being a soil scientist myself, I can’t give a totally satisfying answer to this question. But here are some of my observations so far.

First of all, I am surprised at how visible the disintegration of granite is. I always thought of granite as some sort of superlatively hard type of rock, but standing on some of the outcrops by the ocean on Hurricane, you can scuff a shoe on any of the rocks and feel the granite flake away; look around, and whole sections of the rock seem to be missing, sliced away in deep cuts by the waves or pulled out horizontally like pieces of some geologic game of Jenga. Standing on granite by the shore gives one the feeling of standing on a giant sugar cube, not on solid rock.

Secondly, the making of soil – that slowest-of-slow process, the inchworm on the ecologic freeway – seems to be happening very much in real time. On the south end of the island, near the old cutting shed, there are a number of rocks that were cut and left behind sometime very close to 1914. You can actually look from one rock to another and see the story of succession and soil development: crust lichens give way to foliose lichens, foliose lichens collect granite fragments and plant debris, eventually enough accumulates to host pincushion mosses, and then finally you start to see vascular plants, who demand the most of their host soils, springing up through it all. As an added bonus, you get a tiny little experiment in island biogeography happening on these rocks, as there is an apparent correlation between the size of the rock and the complexity of the life forms on it.

And, last of all, thanks to Josef, I’ve gotten a glimpse at what lies beneath. There are soils so acidic they expel the iron from the rock and ball it up into knotty concretions. There are weathered chunks of rock, rounded by water from a time when Hurricane Island stood below sea level. Near the cutting shed, there are flakes of granite chipped off by stone workers. Wherever Europeans settled, there are earthworms brought over in ballast soil or garden plants. I’ve got a few collections of soil that I’ll take to his lab now that I’m back in Burlington: I can’t wait to see what else I learn.

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Updates from the Field Naturalist

Post by Ben Lemmond, UVM Field Naturalist

Just for a moment, rewind your mental tape back late March of of this year: that time when everybody starts talking about spring (because, you know, the equinox and all) but, if you live in New England, the actual idea of anything turning green anytime soon seems pretty far-fetched. It’s that magical time of year when the petrified dog poop and cigarette butts of last Fall start to emerge from underneath the ash-colored snow on city sidewalks, not to be covered up by anything green for another two months. Poet and author Ranier Maria Rilke once said “The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.” Think back to early spring. Even in that grey season, with the gears of spring still stuck in neutral, what big moments were setting the stage so that they unfold as soon as things warmed up?

It was around this time of year when I found out that I would be working with the Hurricane Island Foundation for my master’s project, though I hadn’t a clue what exactly that would mean. Being a graduate student, I’ve learned, means constantly doing things you feel wildly unprepared to do. It’s a special kind of limbo, one where you’re constantly travelling between paradoxical versions of yourself: student and teacher, professional and newbie, expert and idiot savant. This way of life almost guarantees surprises, since everything moves too quickly for any part of it to become familiar. Suddenly I am standing in front of a lab room full of college sophomores, explaining how to pipette solutions through a channel slide with a thin slice of rabbit psoas muscle mounted on it, in the hopes of making it twitch with the right combination of solutions. In what strange spring was that vision of myself planted?

Field fashion

I’ve now been on Hurricane for four full weeks, conducting an initial ecological survey and developing my own coarse-filter map of general landscape and vegetation patterns here. This means that I’ve been spending most of my time wandering through the island with a canvas bag full of nature-nerd paraphernalia: field guides, a GPS, binoculars, a hand lens, plants to be pressed, many of these items (except the plants) cycling through my free hands and pockets or slung around my neck, depending on the terrain and the amount of backup I needed to make my way knowledgeably through it. I have to admit, this task has been more challenging than I expected, mostly because the better I feel I understand the plant communities here, the more fragmented, temporary, and in transition they appear to me.

The flip side of this apparent chaos is that every day in the field is another opportunity to be surprised. The other day, I found the island’s one and only eastern white pine next to the island’s one and only red maple on a hillside of an obscure outwash I decided to explore on a whim, after my field foray was officially over for the day. White pines and hardwoods certainly used to be a presence on Maine islands, but were almost entirely cleared for shipbuilding or lumber by the mid-1800s. On a 125-acre island where many of the spruce are ageing out, the presence of these two species is significant, even though I don’t know exactly what to make of it yet.

An interesting facet of the island is that, species-wise, there are many of these lone individuals here: in addition to the pine and the maple, there is exactly one American elm, one grey willow, one royal fern, and one steeplebush here – at least that I’ve found after four weeks of walk-throughs. The other week, a bird-banding class caught the first robin and red-eyed vireo that any of us had seen on the island. Anywhere else, many of these species would be completely unremarkable. But on this island where things are moving constantly and complexly, a place where chance encounters often teach me more than what I set out to look for, even a robin or a pine tree regains some of the magic of something seen for the first time. I know that sounds hokey, but it’s true: I have never been so excited to see a pine tree. That might not be what I write in my official report at the end of it all, but for now, I’m really enjoying the way that being on a small island brings these small surprises in to sharp focus.

Ben Lemmond is a graduate student in the Field Naturalist program at the University of Vermont. Learn more about the program at:

Looking out from the high cliffs

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