Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Alvar Constitutionals

I’m vacationing on Drummond Island, just east of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and I have two priorities for the next two weeks: spending time with my wife as she recuperates from fibromyalgia and some version of chronic fatigue, and working on a book about cooperative group dynamics.

As neither of those priorities tends toward the aerobic, I’ve fallen into the habit of taking a break mid-afternoon and going for a long walk. My favorite so far takes me north along the access road to our cabin. Within a mile I pass through a lovely fen, replete with marsh grasses waving in the summer breeze, murky water (stained deep brown with tannic acid from the ubiquitous conifers) gurgling through culverts on its way to Lake Huron, and myriad birds darting through the air fattening up on the plentiful insects that thrive in bogs.
Just another mile down the road, I can reach a rare exemplar of Alvar grasslands, which are fragile eco-systems supported on shallow beds of limestone. This one—part of the Maxton Plains Preserve—is in full bloom, showing off its variety of wildflowers, sedges, and marsh grasses. It’s an odd mix of arctic tundra and Great Plains prairie grasses that survive on thin soil too meager to support trees or shrubs.
Because it is based on limestone—not the pre-Cambrian granite that characterizes the surface geology of most of the North Woods—and because the soil is so thin that conifers cannot get a purchase, the habitat is slightly alkaline. That stands in sharp contrast to the dominant soil pH of the taiga (think wild blueberries and the highly acidic soils needed for them to thrive). The limestone shelves were scoured clean 10,000 years ago by the last Ice Age, and lays so flat that portions of the roadway are nothing more than bare limestone.
It’s an excellent habitat for many rare plants and birds and Alvar grasslands exist only in patches of the upper Great Lakes, in a portion of the Baltic region of Europe, and on some islands off Sweden. What a delight to have stumbled upon a patch so close to our cabin! A daily stroll through the portions of the preserve accessible to me on foot offers a perfect restorative after hours hunkered over a keyboard.
For reasons that escape me (it is, after all, the last day of June, it’s been a wet spring, and we’re unquestionably in the North Woods) we haven’t seen more then 10 mosquitoes in four days and have not spotted a single black fly. (Can you hear me knocking on wood?)
Although most of the folks renting the other cabins at our resort are here to fish (whitefish, trout, and salmon), I intend to catch mine at an island restaurant later in the week. There’s a firm rule here that you are not to clean fish in the kitchenettes. We haven’t even been tempted.
We have a small TV in our cabin, and apparently it’s hooked to cable. However, even though the World Cup is on screen daily, we haven’t even turned it on yet to find out. As Bill Watterson noted in the title of his 1993 Calvin & Hobbes classic, "The Days are Just Packed."

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