June 22, 2017

Piper Brook

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

Geology defines this farm.  I’ve grown so familiar with the lay of the land that it’s easy to overlook the reasons for its moods, shapes and uses.  Piper Brook, in particular, changes course, character and grade, directly reflecting the underlying conditions.

At first, the brook struggles north, crossing our southern boundary, tumbling, falling, zigzagging across the hard, erosion-resistant quartzite members of the Vassalboro Formation.  The surrounding land is wooded and uneven, the soils thin and impossible to till.  Huge pine trees struggle for grip, roots twisting between the layers of foliation.  Star moss and spruce needles carpet the ground.  Hemlock and silver maples battle for sunlight.

In the spring, trout fan their eggs in the shallow, gravel-floored rills between the rock spines crossing the channel.  The watershed is a bit over one square mile at this point.

Immediately downstream there’s a confluence with a smaller brook.  This joins from the west, following perfectly the contact between the quartzite and the friable phyllite underlying our fields.  The topography slopes upward to the north.  The overburden thickens.  The bedrock surface falls away beneath it.
The combined brook slows and heads east.  The water deepens.  The bottom changes from gravel to silt.  The brook meanders a bit but remains reasonably direct.  Alders, pussy willow and balsam poplar forest the banks.

Drainage from our fields swells the volume slowly.  After a quarter mile, the brook turns southeast and slows still further.  The water deepens.  The bottom turns to peat.  Beavers dam the flow.  Large meanders weave through a tangled swamp of flooded cattail and water lilies.  Call Brook joins from the south.  The deer love the all but impenetrable growth along the banks.  Redwing blackbirds, great blue herons, wood ducks and hundreds of other species congregate, breed and raise their young.

The resulting deadwater is visible from our porch.  It’s a blue, sparkling ribbon in spring, a swaying carpet of lush green in summer, a dazzling quilt of colored leaves in the fall and a white snowmobile trail in winter.  It’s never idle but always murmuring, moving, twisting and vibrant.  But its changes are subtle, month to month.  The free-flowing freshet of May becomes the vegetation-choked backwater of July, the colorful leaf transport of September before turning into the frozen roadway of January.  Amazingly, it does it all without ever seeming to change, day to day.

Raccoons, muskrats, porcupines, pine martins and coyotes fight for space.  Flocks of wild turkeys eye the battle with disapproval from island aspen roosts.

The watershed is over five square miles by the time it leaves our eastern boundary.

Underneath it is the impermeable glacial till that makes it all possible.  It defines the character of the deadwater, delineating the drainage before the habitat-appropriate species moved in.  It loaded our fields with rocks and graded the slopes to their shallow pitch before the sandpaper of the plow smoothed them further.

I shove in the clutch on the tractor and gaze with a sense of wonder.  Looking at this farm is viewing history, alive, active, still at work and patient beyond humanity’s perspective. In a very real sense, we are geologic agents.  Realizing that we’re working parts of a process that both predates and will outlast us is humbling, yet inclusive.

I look around, staring with awe at my piece in a vast puzzle.