Earth Matters

Every two weeks, the Hitchcock Center publishes a column, "Earth Matters: Notes on the Nature of the Valley," in The Daily Hampshire Gazette. Writers include Hitchcock staff and board members, former board members, presenters in our Community Programs series, and friends of the Center. Look for the column at the end of Section C of the weekend Gazette or on their website. We will keep a complete list on this site, so if you miss seeing a column in the newspaper, or want to see it again, come here at any time.

Hunting groundwater in a frozen bog

By Christine Hatch

I love the winter landscape. It’s stark, quiet, and reduced to its essence. And fieldwork in winter makes a scientist feel hearty and tough, like an explorer; discovering a known landscape anew. I recently had a chance to experience this as part of a project to restore a natural wetland at the site of a retired cranberry bog. Our job was to map groundwater seepage by measuring surface temperatures throughout the bog. This particular field expedition had to be conducted under very specific conditions that are hard to come by, and this was our third year trying. Ideal conditions for this work are the coldest and clearest of winter days, with no wind or precipitation, and no snow on the ground. We found our window in the first week of February, and headed to a retired cranberry farm in Plymouth in search of groundwater.

Published in Earth Matters on March 7, 2020.

Fibershed: A green and local clothing concept

By Katie Koerten

Every now and then I experience something that gives me so much hope for what humans can do to address climate change, pollution and environmental degradation. One such thing was a textile exhibit at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment last fall called “Fibershed: From Farm to Fashion Within Fifty Miles.”

Published in Earth Matters on February 22, 2020.

How worrisome is the mosquito menace? Not so much here in Massachusetts

By Joshua Rose

Every summer we see more headlines: West Nile Virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Zika and others. Last year was the worst on record for EEE in Massachusetts, killing three people. Some communities spray pesticide from trucks or airplanes to control mosquitoes. Many homeowners pay private companies to spray their yards. Parents slather their children with DEET. A press release from the Centers for Disease Control proclaims “Mosquito Bites: Everyone is at Risk!” How afraid should we be? Do we need to exterminate all mosquitoes for our safety? Spoiler alert: Not very, and no.

Published in Earth Matters on February 1, 2020.

Learning to be good stewards of our forestland

By Ted Watt

My partner, Dave, and I are fortunate: We own just under 200 contiguous acres of forest in the hilltowns of western Franklin County. As we explore the land, we’re coming to love it — large white pines on the west slope, stunted black oaks on the ridge, bobcat tracks on top of the higher outcrops, and a couple of small, ecologically rich pockets of wildflowers. We have a lot of deer — two years ago, we found extensive pawing through the first snows in December as they foraged for buried acorns. We’ve visited some seriously roughed-up red pines that the black bears regularly use for signal trees. As we come to know this land better, we also wrestle with what it means to be stewards of forested land these days. We want to do the right thing.

Published in Earth Matters on January 4, 2020.

A fern that climbs into the Ivy League

By David Spector

The word “fern” comes from the same root as “feather,” but not all ferns have feathery fronds. One of our local ferns could easily be mistaken for an ivy. The well-named American climbing fern is an evergreen fern with small hand-like “leaflets” (the technical term is “pinnules”). The leaves of this fern climb and wrap themselves around other plants, a habit that makes them resemble ivies and other vines of flowering plants.

Published in Earth Matters on December 30, 2019.

Can trees help us with climate change?

By Lawrence J. Winship  For the Gazette December 8, 2019 This past summer, driving back from a family wedding in Montana, I saw thousands of rail cars headed east, fully loaded with Wyoming coal. One particular scene sticks in my mind. An enormous train thundered along beside the interstate highway in front of a wind […]

Published in Earth Matters on December 8, 2019.

The Return of the Woodlands: A story of natives and invasives

By John Sinton

I began this series on environmental transformations in the Pioneer Valley in March, describing the land and its peoples before the English arrived in the mid-1600s and the effects of the influx of people, plants and animals that followed. In the second part, I left our readers at the height of deforestation around 1850. The few remaining great trees grew in inaccessible spots, the rest cut for potash, buildings, fences, heating and sundry other uses. The construction of railroads beginning in the mid-1840s placed further demand on forest resources. Williamsburg woodlands accounted for 11 percent of its land cover in 1841 but only 8 percent in 1860; Northampton’s forest cover was 25 percent in 1840 and 11 percent in 1860. Hold in your mind the image of bare, deeply eroded hillsides and limitless views.

Published in Earth Matters on November 23, 2019.

A bird’s eye view of landscape ecology

By Tom Litwin

The jet rolled down Bradley’s runway, gaining speed until it reached about 170 mph and lift off. The thud of the wheels being contracted confirmed we were gaining altitude. From my window seat, I watched the landscape unfold below. Hartford’s tall concrete buildings and dense network of roads were quickly left behind as the plane turned north. Below were the Connecticut River, agricultural fields, suburban neighborhoods, parks and woodlands, and commercial and industrial centers that created a patchwork of shapes, colors and textures. The patchwork ebbed and flowed as we approached and passed over Springfield and Northampton. As the jet tracked to the northeast we crossed the mountains and dense, unbroken forests of Vermont and New Hampshire. Within minutes the coast of Maine, with its hundreds of islands, appeared. Our bird’s eye view of the New England landscape ended as we reached the Canadian Maritimes, turning east to begin the journey across the vast North Atlantic.

Published in Earth Matters on November 9, 2019.

A stream in the niche of time


There’s a tiny creek tucked into the Santa Lucia Mountains, in central coastal California. The valleys below burst with green lettuce and strawberries almost all year round, because the mild climate and rock-free soil favor agriculture. Rainfall is concentrated in a single season centered around the winter months from October to April, and during the rest of the year, farmers must rely on water stored behind dams in the mountains or, more commonly, groundwater. But in most years much more groundwater is pumped out of the underground aquifers than is recharged from rain. Drought years are even worse. It was here that we went looking for fish.

Published in Earth Matters on October 30, 2019.

Want to save the Earth? Start at home with a land trust

By Kristin DeBoer

Looking back at last month’s youth-led Global Climate Strikes, and my own family’s growing concern for this planet we call home, I find myself thinking about what “home” means and where we can really make a difference. When the climate and politics of the entire world seem overwhelming, it may seem insignificant to focus on the health of where we live. But perhaps acting at home is the most hopeful thing we can do. And that can begin with the land.

Published in Earth Matters on October 12, 2019.
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