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Night Paddling Ireland’s Rare Saltwater Lake, Lough Hyne, June 2019

June 21st, the summer solstice. Ten thirty. Night descended like an elaborate dimmer on an antique lamp. Dark, looming ledges leaned over the rare, saltwater lake. My eyes adjusted to barely imperceptible shifts of light as I paddled a two-man kayak through ever-darkening water. Warm, syrupy salted air filled my lungs and swirled around the elderberry cough drop I sucked to keep from coughing. Pneumonia gripped my back and I sat erect, strapped and locked into the skirt of my waterproof waders. Still, water drizzled down my back and I tried to ignore it. I wished more than anything I wore my swimsuit, instead of this neoprene—and that I was swimming. But then I whispered to the lake—I am grateful. This is beautiful. I’m alive. I am so lucky.

Bats swooped. Grey herons shrieked and cackled. Their loud, ear-piercing night calls made my paddling partner, an accountant from Chicago, ask nervous questions from the stern of our kayak. She worried. “Will we get pulled out to sea?” I assured her, “the passageway is way over there. We’re not going anywhere near it, and besides, it’s so narrow, it’s only big enough for a seal to swim through.” “Or a kayak,” she quipped. “Don’t worry,” I said, a bit disappointedly, “we’re not going out to sea.” And we weren’t going out to sea. We paddled away from the direction of the Rapids, a narrow opening in the lake that bordered Barloge Creek, which then broadened into a harbor out onto the Wild Atlantic.

Lough Hyne, Co. Cork, Ireland. Stetson photo

Several months in advance, I’d planned my trip to Ireland with the intention of paddling Lough Hyne, located almost five kilometers from Skibbereen on the southwest coast of Ireland. I’d arrived by electric car, having driven from the small village of Durrus, which should have been a 45-minute drive–according to Google maps, GPS and my guidebooks of the Wild Atlantic Way. By that night, I’d already been driving in southwest Ireland for five days, and had gained the confidence to pass a tractor, drive 80 kilometers per hour (barely 50mph) on curvy back roads between Durrus and Skibbereen—where gut instinct battled confusing GPS commands, and swear in Irish. I’d converted.

When I first arrived at the lake’s launch and parking area, my jaw dropped. A deep azure uninterruptible sky splashed like a reflection over the pretty blue lake. It’s roughly sixty hectares in area, or 150 acres, but splendidly rich in surprises, hidden coves and rock caves, strange myths and an island of castle ruins, an ancient home to a shameful king, an Irish version of the Emperor’s New Clothes. A group assembled beside the launch, practiced paddling in the air, introducing ourselves. One woman and her granddaughter traveled from Perle, Australia to experience night-time paddling on Lough Hyne, an item on her “bucket list,” she told me. As we struggled to climb into waterproof gear—several layers of thick neoprene overalls and hip-waders—that doubled as a skirt attached to the kayak—and strapped life vests over large busts—the four of us women lamented how unnecessary all of this waterproof gear felt.  Just minutes before we selected our boats, two local swimming clubs waded into the lake. The Lough Hyne Lappers wore wetsuits. The other group—the one I wanted to join—wore togs, what Americans call swimsuits. These women called themselves the Dippers, an inside joke. They swam in their togs for a good while—long enough for our kayaking guides to run through the safety protocols, and to assist paddlers with their gear. We resembled trainees in Willie the Whale costumes at an amusement park. I’m glad that no one was allowed to take pictures—we were all required to hand over cameras, cell phones, car keys and watches to put in a safety box until after we returned from paddling. We launched the kayaks around ten o’clock at night and returned well after midnight. (We were not allowed to take our cameras or phones while kayaking.)

Swimmers and paddlers at Lough Hyne, Co. Cork, Ireland in June 2019. Stetson photo

As we paddled away from the launch in the remaining daylight, I noticed a dreamy rose-colored house that sat nestled in the trees along the shore. Once home to a lord, the 1830 Regency-style Lough Ine House rents for €500 a night in June, complete with a private beach and a small cottage on a 15-acre estate. I spotted an overturned canoe resting beside a little dock but I didn’t see anyone. Immediately, I imagined characters from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: a shy heroine bending to cut roses in the patio garden for a vase in the library; a brooding anti-hero sulking irresistibly in one of the upstairs windows overlooking the lake and the sea beyond. This was one of the many moments I told myself, “One day, I shall live here, and write a book.” (Or, write something, I thought!)

Stetson photo

In pitch black darkness, we could only see the red glowing flashing light on the back of the guides’ headlamps, and the fireworks of bioluminescence streamed like comets from a dozen boats. Like silent firecrackers exploding underwater, microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates, a group of microalgae that act like animals, swim vertically in the water column to feed. Dinoflagellates feed at night. Pulling my paddle through invisible water, I excited these strange little plant creatures. Minature Swampthings. I remembered collecting some of the same dinoflagellates at Kettle Cove State Park in southern Maine. After collecting specimens in a “plankton tow” with a marine net, I inspected a few of the same species abundant in Casco Bay, Maine that marine scientists study in Lough Hyne. Ceratium furca and Ceratium fusus were two such armored species, both characterized by long horn-like bodies—which fascinated my classmates under a microscope—but truly awed and inspired everyone paddling in Lough Hyne with red and blue flashes of bioluminescence. If you’d like to know more about microalgae, see my previous post.

Lough Hyne, in the early evening before dark. Stetson photo

Since the lake is tidally-fed, the Lough is entirely populated by marine species. It was Europe’s first marine reserve. Now it’s a destination for night-time kayakers, marine biologists who study abundant communities of microalgae, the fabled (and very real) five-foot-long lobsters and giant sea stars, and the blue carbon potential of an eelgrass bed in the creek. One of the kayaking guides, Ryan, told me about his master’s degree project on the local eelgrass, and we chatted about the latest carbon sequestration science on salt marshes and eelgrass—called “blue carbon.” Eelgrass is a submerged aquatic flowering plant, a true sea grass with inconspicuous flowers. It spends most of its life submerged, swaying in the ebb and flow of tidal inlets and estuaries in the intertidal zone; its meadows, or beds, capture carbon, and hold onto it, just as salt marshes do. They are quiet climate avengers, in a way.

As we paddled around the perimeter of the lake, circumnavigating the island of castle ruins, we explored rock caves and listened to one of the guides, a graduate student at UCC, tell us about the holy well, Tobarín Súl, situated just beyond our reach. The Lough Hyne holy well draws believers who leave behind their white canes and old glasses—since they’d no longer need them after “doing the rounds,” walking twelve times clockwise around the holy well. Each of the holy wells in Ireland is known for curing (or causing) health issues related to a specific body part. If a believer wanted to curse another person, she or he need only to “do the rounds” counter-clockwise twelve times to cause the ailment, and in the case of the Lough Hyne holy well, might inflict conjunctivitis or blindness, or stink eye.

Once back at the launch, our paddling party stripped out of the neoprene gear as a bearded man announced, “It’s officially my birthday. I’m seventy! Which of you ladies wants to go skinny dipping?” A few laughed. I got scientific. “That would be quite psychedelic! Our bodies would sparkle and glow with the bioluminescence of dinoflagellates! You know—“ No one was interested in the science. Someone liked the idea of glowing bodies and “seeing sparks” but I bantered on, a little ditzy from cold and flu medicine, and antibiotics: “Well, they do reproduce sexually in adverse conditions—that’s why they’re shooting off the light. We interrupted. They were feeding—and…” Only the accountant from Chicago remarked, “Wow, you’re so passionate about this nature-y stuff.” We helped each other out of the gear while the bearded birthday man watched, a little more than disappointed no one was going to go skinny-dipping. I said, “This explains a lot…” and he said, “The Irish invented voyeurism!”

The cool, dark drive back to Durrus on curvy back roads both exhilarated my nerves and tested my courage. No street lights aided; only my headlights and the GPS—and my inner compass guided my way. I had to turn around twice—once when I came to a four-way intersection with no visible signage, and a second time as I pulled erroneously into the driveway for the Maulinward Burial Ground. I second-guessed myself there—and thought, “Is this a sign—a spiritual sign? Like a dark night of the soul sign?” I turned around, and eventually crept silently in my electric rental car down a dirt road.

Durrus, Co. Cork. Stetson photo

The moment I smelled horses—that wholesome meadow-sweet animal scent, I knew I’d come home. On my first night, I’d walked down that dirt road and came nose-to-nose with a mare on the other side of a fence lined with hot pink foxglove. She had a foal just old enough to walk but young enough that it hid behind its mother’s hind legs, staring at me. I talked to the mare in clicks and cries of joy, and sighs—like we were old friends, exchanging gossip from the field. On my last night in Durrus, there was a storm—a wild, windy torrential rain. Tree branches, leaves and flower blossoms danced chaotically through the garden like creatures out of Oz, or fairy land. I spent that last Sunday inside, watching the storm, sipping lemon tea and listening to the sounds of the Four Mile Water falls rushing over the road.

Four Mile Waters in Durrus, Co. Cork, Ireland. Stetson photo

If you’re interested in sea kayaking in this part of Co. Cork, Ireland, and want to paddle at night on Lough Hyne like I did, you can find out how to do this with Atlantic Sea Kayaking.

Glaciers as Social Spaces: Oral Histories, Frankenstein, and Pearl Jam’s Gigaton

Lately I’ve been thinking about glaciers. I re-watched “Chasing Ice,” which is a fascinating documentary film with the first large-scale ground survey of glaciers, directed by Jeff Orlowski and led by photographer James Balog. I’m sure you’ve seen Balog’s incredible documentary films on PBS/NOVA if not “Chasing Ice” or his photography in National Geographic.

Thinking of glaciers as “social spaces” allows us to consider the effects of climate change on the cryosphere—the frozen layers of the Earth, including glaciers and permafrost, from a variety of perspectives. We can examine glaciers as “social spaces” by exploring the ethnography of oral history traditions in the Yukon Territory, the socio-economic impacts, such as the melting of the cryosphere, in those ‘social spaces’ in Alaska, as another example. Additionally, we can explore glaciers as social spaces in literary ecology and contemporary music. How do glaciers “listen?” I explore a few ways below.

51Z+K0PRVIL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_The senior women of the Saint Elias Mountain region of the southern Yukon Territory (Canada) relayed complex natural and social histories to anthropologist Julie Cruikshank when she did ethnographic research recording the life stories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders. Her book, Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination was published in 2005 (Paperback edition, 2010) but I think it’s still highly relevant. She found that the elders, “grounded precise social histories of twentieth-century life within a scaffolding of much older narratives. [They drew] on established long narrative conventions to reflect on complex life circumstances. In the words [of one elder] Angela Sidney, ancient narratives had helped her to ‘live life like a story.’” (Cruikshank, 2005) Cruikshank, while living with the elders, “heard narratives about glacial caves inhabited by intemperate beings that might emerge unexpectedly: and others that depicted glaciers as living and responsive themselves. Stories dramatized […] bursting of ice-dammed lakes into river valleys, and […] told stories of travel […] sometimes crossing crevasse-ridden glaciers on foot and sometimes piloting hand-hewn cottonwood boats beneath glacial bridges…” (Cruikshank, 2005) They told stories of strangers called “cloud people.” (Cruikshank, 2005) The women’s stories depicted a “winter world” that crossed economic borders, of coastal Tlingit traders, and the shifting power relations described by economic historian Howard Innis on the 19th century market for furs, gold, cod and timber. (Cruikshank, 2005) Cruikshank’s writing is wonderfully evocative of the culture and arctic wonder.

Glaciers, according to the stories, radiate heat and energy. They’re alive. Cruikshank pores into the Athapaskan elders’ stories like a glaciologist drills an ice core, studying its layers, noting the environmental, geophysical changes in a glacier—which tells a social story, since glaciers are part of the Athapaskan and Tlingit life stories. The Little Ice Age (1550-1850) is within reach of the memories of Athapaskan and Tlingit elders; some of their stories are memory and some, myth. After the Little Ice Age, the glaciers receded enough to make coastal lands accessible to Eyak, Tlingit, and Athapaskan nations to converge. Stories map the geography and human ecology of the glaciers and the ecological and social corridors connecting glaciers. Through the study of oral histories, we can glean that “glaciers present some navigational, spiritual, and intellectual challenges of a sentient “land that listens.” (Cruikshank, 2005) This is what is known as sentient ecology. (Ingold, 2000) This is what the elders explained to Cruikshank when they told her stories about glaciers listening and responding.

Similarly, a human ecologist could study the environmental changes, such as those impacts from global climate change on glaciers and permafrost, two related ecosystems, and their ecological place in our world—both as social spaces and quintessential geophysical, temporal yardsticks with which we measure global environmental change. These stories, from oral tradition, captured local traditional knowledge of the Saint Elias Mountain region of southern Yukon, and other parts of Canada, and the stories themselves seemed to shift and transform infinitesimally much like the glaciers.  One of the elders, Annie Ned, told stories of “caribou ‘blackening the ice’ on nearby lakes early in the (20th) century.” (Cruikshank, 2005) When Cruikshank and Shelia Greer prepared a report on the region’s oral history for the Archaeological Survey of Canada, Ned’s story about the caribou became important in another context: “Scientists reporting discoveries of ancient tools and caribou droppings melting from a high alpine ice patch above [Ned’s] trapline cited her oral account in their initial scientific paper on prehistoric caribou.” (Cruikshank, 2005) Thus, the oral histories were not solely cultural translations and transcriptions of the women’s life stories; the stories were also part of a larger natural history of the region. Also, the issue of personhood comes into play: these women tell stories that “summon up a moral system that includes relationships with non-humans – animals and also features of the landscape, like glaciers – that share characteristics of personhood.” (Cruikshank, 2005) I am intrigued by the idea of personhood, the Rights of Nature movement, and an old idea—perhaps ancient, and pan-human, of connecting with land and water—the way headwater streams braid and combine to form a stream, intermittent or ephemeral—after storms, and each stream tells a story as it carves through sediment in the streambed. Similarly, anthropologists and human ecologists study the layers of permafrost, or analyze the many ways to tell a story about navigating a crevice in a glacier—the successful and failed rescue attempts, in order to discover the human dimensions of that glacial ecology. Literary ecologists seek to find meaning in the stories of the ways in which people interact with the natural world, including glaciers.

In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein (1818), she begins and ends the famous story about the mad-scientist, Victor Frankenstein, a graduate student from Geneva, and his creation, a Monster, comprised of human parts reanimated by electricity—on a glacier in the Arctic. At the start of the novel, a ship captain writes to his sister about encountering a strange man, crossing the ice on a sled, totally bereft but driven by a vengeance to confront his creation, the Monster, who fled to the “Land of Mist and Snow,” the glacial Alps, because he wanted a refuge from the cruelty of mankind. At the end of the novel, the reader rejoins Victor and the Monster, as they have one final showdown on the glacier. In Shelley’s real life, she and her fiancé Percy B. Shelley, had traveled through the region of Mont Blanc, home to Mer de Glace, the second largest glacier in the Alps in 1816. Later, while pregnant, Shelley writes the novel, the plot of which takes her heroes to Mer de Glace, that glacier. “Until the eighteenth century, the Alps were believed to be infested with devils, monsters and dragons. By setting her story of Victor Frankenstein and his Monster at Mer de Glace, Shelley links Victor’s activities with those of mountaineering scientists like Horace Benedict de Sausure.” (Nardin, 2006) Why set a story on a glacier? Her 19th century readers most likely shared her interest in alpine mountaineering, science and exploration. (Mary Shelley was an explorer herself; she had the moon in Sagittarius, a sign associated with wide open spaces, exploration of great frontiers and the outdoors. She was well-traveled even before she met Percy, and then they traveled Europe together. The astrological piece is my own theory.) In their travels, Percy and Mary stopped at inns along the way, and heard German stories, including a strange tale about a 17th century alchemist who had lived at Frankenstein Castle. (Sampson, 2018)


In studying Romanticism, and in particular the work of Mary Shelley, I would argue that she pushed the borders of what it meant to be human, and the limits of our imagination surrounding consciousness and creation. Her two heroes, the Monster and his creator, Victor, are both intellectual, Miltonic philosophers; the epistolary structure of the novel has several characters communicate via letters; but the Monster, by contrast, writes in a journal. After failed attempts to socialize, he took refuge in the forest, along the river, and in the Alps at Mer de Glace. At Mont Blanc, he built himself a house, an ice cave within the glacier, and that became his home. He desired a mate and implored Victor to supply him a female counterpart, who the Monster planned to live out his (immortal) days, at Mont Blanc on Mer de Glace. I wish I had a cool photo of Mer de Glace–but I haven’t traveled there–but a quick Google Images search yields lots of incredible photo results! Have you been there? Leave a comment and let me know what it was like!

I am currently reading Mary Shelley’s travel journal, which includes her experiences traveling through the Mer de Glace area (I think she and Percy saw it from a distance). Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 9.34.13 PM

Last year, I began to analyze Shelley’s use of water and wetland metaphors throughout her novel as part of my graduate work in literary ecology. It’s intriguing that she creates this social space on the glacier—instead of within a city, or along a river, or in a forest—other places where the Monster hides and takes refuge throughout the story. The Monster feels safe in the harsh environs of the glacier. Unlike a man, the Monster is not vulnerable to the cold, strong winds, snow and ice. Other scholars, researchers, poets and writers have shared this fascination with Shelley’s use of the glacier, Mer de Glace, as a social space in Frankenstein. I am analyzing this as a part of my literary ecology of works by Romantic women writers–and still have a long way to go to read and digest what scholars have already discovered.

I wrote a Mary Shelley tribute poem, “The Bride of Frankenstein’s Monster, On the Eve of Her Wedding,” published last summer on Boned literary magazine’s site; my poem revisited the idea of the Monster, having his wish granted for a mate, and is about to return to the glacier. I wrote the poem from her perspective, while she is preparing for a life in the “Land of Mist and Snow.” This is one way that I have explored Shelley’s novel from an ecofeminist perspective.  For the bicentenary of Frankenstein, poet and scholar Fiona Sampson published the biography, In Search of Mary Shelley: the Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein (2018). I loved this biography!! She writes, “Mary has ‘gone missing’ from literary history; she has faded to white like Frankenstein’s creature who ‘goes out, alone again, onto the Arctic ice to die.’” (Hewett, 2018) The iconic profile of the Monster, loping out across the ice, has haunted my imagination since I first read Frankenstein at seventeen, while my family lived in a historic, haunted house in Maine.

I have been having fun playing with this “Literary Witches” deck of cards, by Katy Horan and Taisia Kitaiskaia, who created a clever way of translating mini biographies on each card of women writers from all sorts of genres and all sorts of periods of literature–from all over the world. Perfect activity for International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month! I like to use the cards for inspiration. And yes, Mary Shelley is in this cute deck. The idea is that each of these writers created “magic” through their literary works. (None are suggested to have been “witches” here–it’s just a clever metaphor.)

Screen Shot 2020-03-11 at 10.03.53 PM

Part of Shelley’s genius was her way of weaving together Enlightenment and Romanticism-era science, the including the invention of electricity and the Linnaean classification system, her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft’s botany and natural history articles, as well as Shelley’s own explorations with Percy, sometimes with a toddler in tow, endowed her with additional “tools” of her trade. Her novel brought glaciers to life for readers with her first-hand observations; she enlivened Mer de Glace into an imaginary landscape accessible to her readers. Today’s literary ecologists are re-examining works in Romanticism (and later periods) to extrapolate Romantic ecology, “dark ecology” and the EcoGothic—related themes that frame how we continue to think about the environment today. Industrialization occurred at the time when Romantic ecology was born—the onset, as many scholars believe, of the modern environmental movement. Is it still relevant? There are some literary ecologists who believe we are still in a Romantic treatment of nature. Paul Kingsnorth and Tim Morton, two ecology writers who promote the idea of a “dark ecology,” are examples of those who believe the age of Romantic ecology may never have ended. We continue to be awed by glaciers—their melting, their sublime power, even, on a smaller scale, glacial erratics—geologic memories of prehistoric, ancient glaciers.

In socio-economic terms, we can analyze the social space of a glacier, and related ecosystems, such as permafrost, and the effects of climate change on that ‘social space,’ for instance, in Alaska, where communities have already been seeing socio-economic impacts of climate change. These impacts include the need for relocating and replacing infrastructure that’s been damaged, lost or threatened by permafrost thawing. Permafrost is a frozen, arctic wetland type; specific grasses, lichens and shrubs are frozen in water most of the year, in some places, frozen year-round (thus the name permafrost) creating a carpet-like vegetation. Thinning, melting permafrost can be found at Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve in south central Alaska. Glacial melting has caused increased large landslides in the national park. In 2015, 180 million tons of loose rock fell into the Taan Fjord causing a huge tsunami-like swell that flattened forests. “Tsunamis of some sort triggered by landslides in bays or lakes are fairly common, but it’s rare that they’re this extreme,” according to Brentwood Higman, author of a study on tsunamis in the Taan Fjord, Alaska. (2018) Melting permafrost is also allowing archaeologists ways of uncovering evidence of human and animal use of the cryosphere—with brown ice layers revealing evidence of caribou use, such as illustrated by the senior women of the Saint Elias Mountain region whose stories Cruikshank recorded and transcribed—detailing their ancestral memories of the “browning ice” phenomenon associated with caribou use. Additionally, archaeology of melting glaciers provides newer access to human artifacts such as wood arrow shafts, darts made of antlers, and birch bark basket fragments found in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. (Dixon, et al. 2005) This is, I think, further evidence of the value of oral histories in adding historic context and narrative basis behind newer findings during archaeological research projects made possible in part by glacial melting and permafrost thinning in that region.

In a 2018 study on the economic effects of climate change in Alaska—pertaining to changes to glacial ecology, including permafrost melting, “five certain large effects can be quantified, […] to impose an annual net cost of $340-700 million of Alaska’s GDP.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) These large effects include the melting and thawing of the cryosphere—notably glaciers and permafrost. “Glacial melt affects availability of phosphorus, iron and organic carbon to terrestrial and marine organisms.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) “Melting glaciers will increase the role of seasonal precipitation patterns in determining hydroelectric capacity.” (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) The melting of the cryosphere affects several industries in Alaska and ‘social spaces’ including fishing, forestry, energy demand, tourism and recreation, agriculture, marine and coastal shipping, as well as public infrastructure. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) For native Alaskans, the effects of climate change on the cryosphere include impacts to subsistence living:  “harvest cycles, changes in important food sources, loss of some locations used for fishing and waterfowl hunting,” are among the changes affecting those social spaces. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) The largest effects are directly caused by melting glaciers and permafrost in western and northern Alaska. (Berman and Schmidt, 2019) There are far more examples, but these are just two significant ones that quantify the effects of climate change on the cryosphere—and that as a “social space.”


Glaciers are weighed in gigatons. Pearl Jam, my soul (read: more than favorite, since 1992) band, is an environmental activist band. Pearl Jam’s new album, Gigaton, features the close-up image of a glacier on its cover, (at left) and while it’s not out yet, I will be surprised if there isn’t a song about glaciers, or something environmentally-conscious. (I will post a review once the album comes out March 27th.) I love their new song from this album, “Dance of the Clairvoyants.” Pearl Jam has, in the past, taken inspiration from environmental issues like coastal wetlands, hurricanes, and ocean conservation and incorporated those into their music and activism. They create a social space for environmental activism through their music, their Surfrider Foundation, and their concerts. That’s another way of exploring a glacier as a social space. Set it to music.

Berman, Matthew and Jennifer Schmidt. “Economic Effects of Climate Change in Alaska.” Weather, Climate and Society. April 2019

Cruikshank, Julie. Constructing Life Stories:  Glaciers as Social Spaces, from Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. 2005

Dixon, E. James, William Manley and Craig Lee. “The emerging archaeology of glaciers and ice patches: examples from Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.” American Antiquity. Vol. 70, Issue 1. Jan. 2005

Hewett, Rachel. “In Search of Mary Shelley Fiona Sampson Review.” The Guardian. Jan 2018

Ingold, Tim. The Perception on the Environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. 2000

“Mountain Waves: Glacial melt is increasing land instability in mountainous regions, with huge tsunamis rising in frequency as a result.” Geographical. Vol. 90, Issue 11. Nov. 2018

Nardin, Jane. “A Meeting on Mer de Glace: Frankenstein and the History of Alpine Mountaineering.” Women’s Writing. Vol. 6. 1999

Sampson, Fiona. In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein. 2018

I am American Beachgrass

Call me Ammophila. Long, flexible stems, like strong limbs, withstand the force of powerful winds—winds that stimulate root growth, rhizomatous—a sprawling system to stabilize dunes. My clones and I anchor windblown sand, guard against the highest full moon tides that might otherwise flood the land. Dare to tread “barefoot” over my tall blades, and my gritty green leaves become daggers, laid on their edges. We live in a foredune community, closer to the sea than our inland neighbors.


American beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata)

To them, we are pioneers. We are “ecosystem engineers.” After we have established our colony, our flowering neighbors can take root, too, in this shifting sand dune community: Beach-pea, red raspberry, bristly gooseberry, poison ivy. Sometimes, I get the sense—through my auricles, ear-like lobes that do not listen—but receive information nonetheless, that golden heather or little blue stem, or tufts of reindeer lichens have grown here before, but they’re not here now. My ramets and I dominate the dunes.

Native to Maine, I have lived here perennially for the past three summers. I am hardy, salt-tolerant and adaptable. Terns return, every year, and nest here. Sometimes, I see the rare oystercatcher, or piping plover, but there are many gulls and a few short-eared owls; they soar high above my florets. Owls swoop down over my spikelets—never close enough to study more than a silhouette against a blue sky. Right now, my spikelets have reached an impressive height of fourteen millimeters, that is, when my stems stand upright. One might think that I lack subtlety but up close, I am not so easily seen. Look closely, and note that my flowers are not so obvious. This is a trait of strength—in my community. Weirdly enough, we do have a noneventful relationship with the sea rocket, its lobed leaflets resembling “rocket ships,” and we like that it’s not very abundant. Sea rocket typically gives an aggressive root reception to strangers—anyone not in the mustard family,—and this is not community gossip—we get along just fine. But the neighbor I mind the least—poison ivy. She/he/they—the pronouns elude me, keep the two-legged kind away and minimize the chances of getting trampled.


Path through beachgrass

Rays of sun revitalize me. But I am always a little rough and sandpapery. Supporting us, somewhere deep beneath all that shifts and blows, we adapt and send runners and build our defenses; we thrive even when no one knows. Together, we repair the damage done by trampling and storms. It may appear to others that we are too shifty, or that we “take over.” I’ve been called a “bulldozer,” but I don’t know what that means; I suppose it is a compliment. Our foundation is unlike—theirs. Ours is spread out, and spreading, rhizomatous, unseen so it cannot be buried or carried away with the winds.

If I were to dream, —and I do not dream, I might have some deeply-embedded geological urge to fear replacement. (Some of my neighbors might say that I overanalyze, but we are engineers, after all.) One day, perhaps, the two-legged rangers shall come and replace me with Virginia wild rye! Morphologically speaking, she may be similar in many ways—my inflorescence is not obvious—and I am hairless; she has a hairy inflorescence!


Beachgrass along stream bank, Kettle Cove State Park

For coastal management resource information on American beachgrass in the Northeast, click here for NRCS Plant Materials Program – Coastal & Shoreline plants. For more technical information on coastal sand dune coastal management topics, click here for the Maine Natural Areas Program.  For two scholarly journal articles on Ammopila breviligulata (American beachgrass), see Cheplick’s discussion paper on “Patterns in the Distribution of American beachgrass,” in Plant Ecology and “Non-target effects of invasive species management,” (Zarnetske, Seabloom and Hacker, 2010) in Ecosphere.

Collecting Micro-Algae in the Gulf of Maine

On several cold, windy days this past winter, I did something strange. With fingers puckered bright pink from bitter cold saltwater, I maneuvered what looked like a child’s “butterfly net,” called a No. 2 plankton net, dipping it into saltwater off of the pier at the college, and over the sides of rocks at Kettle Cove with one goal:  to collect micro-algae. 29512469_10215096996719687_200223694655488735_n

I’ve been studying marine botany–the first time experiencing SMCC as a student, rather than as a member of the adjunct faculty. I collected phytoplankton (micro-algae) using No. 2 plankton nets (see below), both at Kettle Cove State Park and off the pier and docks at SMCC this past winter (January-March).


Kettle Cove State Park, Maine


No. 2 plankton net for collecting micro-algae

In addition, I accompanied Prof. Megan McCuller to learn how to scrape algae off of the side of the dock and floats in order to obtain a sample of benthic diatoms (and dinoflagellates) that were attached to the side of the dock. I learned how to use the dissecting microscope (my favorite part) in the lab, and I transferred a number of samples to a wet-mount slide to examine the tiny organisms that were drifting and even swimming through slimy green algae. When I say “benthic,” I’m referring to the life found at the bottom of the sea, or in this case,
the bottom of the littoral, or shoreline zone, and sublittoral, also known as the “spray zone,” where the waves crash on the rocks between the high and low tide.


Dissecting algae scraped off the side of the dock, looking for benthic diatoms and dinoflagellates

The benthic scrape method yielded the most results (mostly pennate diatoms and one dinoflagellate) while my final plankton tow at the floats on March 20th yielded more results (centric, pennate diatoms and two dinoflagellates) than my previous plankton tows at Kettle Cove or off the pier January-March. My observation was that collecting phytoplankton during the weeks of nor’easters yielded fewer diatoms, or I only collected very tiny diatoms (mostly Navicula sp.). My hypothesis was that ephemeral run-off from storms, high winds and choppy conditions had an impact on those plankton tows.

Is your head spinning? Mine did.

First, it’s important to know that phytoplankton are the “plant” variety of plankton, whereas zooplankton are the “animals,” such as copopods. Here’s a copepod (below), swimming through some Phaeocystis pouchetti, which is not a diatom, but in the genus of algae belonging to the division of Haptophyta. It blooms in March and April, so it dominated several of my samples from plankton tows off of the SMCC pier in early to mid-March. A copepod, however, is an example of zooplankton, a microscopic crustacean found in both marine and freshwater habitats. As an aside, COPEPOD is the Coastal and Oceanic Plankton Ecology database with an interactive atlas on plankton. Pretty cool! Copapod by Pouchetti


For the basics of plankton, see “Plankton 101: the Basics on Gulf of Maine Plankton and Why You Should Thank Them,” by Sally Mack, UNH Sea Grant.

Below are a few images captured using the Leica microscope at 100x and 400x magnification, calibrated to microns for measurements. I identified fifteen diatoms and three dinoflagellates, some of which I’ll show in a series of posts yet to come. (Side note: I got a 100 on the micro-algae project, which made the cold, challenging plankton tows certainly worth the effort, besides the pure joy of learning.) Phytoplankton are microscopic, photosynthetic organisms. There are two main groups of diatoms and these are pennate (Pennales) and centric (Centrales). For identification purposes, I used a number of guides, including this one developed by my professor, Charles Gregory, at SMCC, and University of Maine Sea Grant. Once under the microscope, these diatoms (micro-algae) are quite dynamic, distinctive and fun to examine.

The golden “bracelet” pattern below is a pennate diatom called Licmophora lyngbyei.  I collected several Licmophora during the benthic scrape from the side of the SMCC dock/float on March 20, and identified them under the microscope at 40x magnification. Since it is a colonial, epiphytic type, it is often observed attached to other plants/macro-algae such as in the image below. The cells are characteristically wedge-shaped, with fine striations separating parts of each cell. Cells are united in fan-shaped colonies. To me, it looks like a great idea for a charm bracelet for a marine scientist!

Lots of Lichmyflora from benthic scrape

Licmophora lyngbyei – a pennate diatom growing in a colony

Real Gyrosigma to Use Final

Gyrosigma sp. collected during benthic scrape off dock at SMCC, March 2018

One of my favorite of the pennate diatoms that I collected is Gyrosigma, a canoe-shaped pennate diatom, shown below. It’s very common in the Gulf of Maine. But when we look at these microscopic diatoms, it’s important to note the scale; these are measured in microns because they are so small. In the specimen below, the end of the organism had broken off, and it had begun to disintegrate. That’s why it appears to have jewel-like features, when in actuality, these are other things–including bacteria, that have gotten inside its cellular structure. Another pennate diatom I collected at Kettle Cove had a “bracelet” pattern (at least to my untrained eye); in Thalassiosira nordenskioldii  have drum-shaped cells connected by barely-visible gelatinous strands to form a chain. According to Dr. Gregory’s Field Guide to Phytoplankton in the Gulf of Maine, some species of Thalassiosira have been known to cause mechanical damage to fish gills, copopods and invertebrates. For example, this study details several examples, including the impacts of toxins found in Thalassiosira rotula on sea urchins. (Many types of diatoms are examined as part of that study by Gary Caldwell, in Marine Drugs, 2009.)


Thalassiosira nordenskioldii, a pennate diatom collected at Kettle Cove State Park, February 2018

Thalassiosira is also described as a “harmful species” on AlgaeBase, an awesome resource for those studying algae. It’s a global database with the taxonomic, distributional and other information about micro and macro algae, as observed by scientists all over the world. As a student new to the study of algae, I found it an incredibly helpful resource, even if it helped to direct me to other sources on a species that I had collected for my class project in Maine.

Finally, I will end this post with my favorite discovery–a cool pennate diatom called Chaetoceros gracilis, which looks like something between a Star Wars X-wing fighter and one of the Cylon ships from BSG, if only…in a galaxy far, far away.  In many ways, this microscopic marine world is another dimension that’s just as deserving of our fascination. I will post a few more diatoms (and dinoflagellates!) in my next post.

Chaetoceros gracilis Star Wars Fighter

This pennate diatom has an oval-shaped cell in valve view, with distinctive spines that diverge at oblique angles to form an “X” shape. I collected this specimen at Kettle Cove in February 2018. 

Strange Wetlands: Preventing a Lesser Known Tick-Borne Illness, Anaplasmosis

My trusty dog, Sophie-Bea, a dachshund-pointer, and I frequently walk through wetlands. First, my land is rich in wetlands: a black ash seep, which I call “Fern Gully,” a vernal pool with wood frogs and sallies, and a perennial stream that flows into Raymond Pond. We like to walk along a pine-needled path from my woods down to the pond and back. Lately, a thick mustard yellow froth of pollen coats the surface of the pond. If I had let the dog wade in the water, she would have come out looking more like a yellow lab, albeit a weirdly shaped one. (She’s black and white.) At the edge of the pond, she sniffed the water and it turned her pointy black nose into a clownish canary blotch.  IMG_0295

This time of year, we’re more mindful of ticks. In addition to treating her with Frontline, I pat her down with a natural bug repellant called Skeeter Skedaddle™ – the kind that’s dog-friendly. I love how it smells. I wear it, too, and slathered it on that day, like any other day. I made the mistake of wearing sandals though and by the time I got home, I unstrapped the sandals to find a fat tick stuck to the top of my foot. It glowed red in its belly. I pulled it off and noticed two bite marks. After disposing of the tick, which is unwise to flush into the toilet I’ve learned, but to burn the tick with a match (carefully in the sink), I applied witch hazel and hydrogen peroxide onto the bites, along with a dab of antibacterial ointment. It doesn’t itch. It did worry me.

A year ago this month, I came down with a terrible flu-like illness called Anaplasmosis. It’s a tick-borne illness caused by a tick bite from a tick infected with the germ called Anaplasma phagocytophilum. Last summer, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent out an alert about Anaplasmosis. The alert explained that cases of Anaplasmosis are on the rise in Maine. Previously, it was rare for someone to contract this illness from a tick bite in the Pine Tree State. Even in summer 2012, hospitals misdiagnosed people with “the flu,” when in some cases, it was actually this Anaplasmosis. In my case, it was most likely Anaplasmosis, since I walk through the woods often and come into contact with areas known to inhabit ticks. I occasionally find ticks in my home.

Symptoms of Anaplasmosis include fever, headache, malaise, severe body aches, cough, joint pain, stiff neck and confusion.  In June 2012, I thought I’d eaten a bad avocado, or been exposed to the bad kind of an algae bloom while swimming in the lake. (I wrote about the algae bloom in my Adventures of Fen Fatale series.) At the time, I was working for ASWM and I started to feel sick on a Monday–sweaty, coming down with a fever, nausea. Images of globs of algae clung to me as I suffered through a fever of 102 degrees for two days. On Tuesday night, I called 911 and the EMTs came to my house, since I was convinced I was dying of some kind of poison,  tetanus or some other ill fate. It felt like my organs had seized up and everything hurt.  Chills all over. The body aches were so severe that I had to crawl down the stairs to let the EMTs into my house (rather than let them bust in the door). The EMTs found me delirious from the fever. Even after the fever came down on Wednesday, I couldn’t walk for a few days; my relatives came to take care of me, since I was bedridden. (This is highly unusual for me, since I have an almost superhuman immune system.) It was frightening, too.

See fact sheets, prevention info and notices to Maine residents from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention here. 

Since then, I’ve done some research on how to prevent this from happening again. The reality is that Anaplasmosis is treated differently than that of Lyme Disease. When a person suspects that a tick bite has left that tell-tale sign, a bull’s eye shaped bite, that person has an option of getting an anti-biotic to prevent the onset of Lyme Disease. The same is not true for those who might have contracted Anaplasmosis. The main “prevention” is to reduce exposure to ticks by wearing appropriate clothing and checking clothes and skin for ticks. Apparently, in cases of people contracting Anaplasmosis, they often don’t remember getting a tick bite, and there is no tell-tale bull’s eye mark. For specific prevention and treatment information, visit . If you do get a tick bite, pay attention to symptoms if they occur. If you get a fever, and think you might have come into contact with a tick, contact your doctor or a health professional. Treatment is important. Anaplasmosis can be serious, or fatal, in babies, toddlers, elderly people and those with a compromised immune system. For others, it can mean a week of severe body aches, fever, malaise, etc. It certainly knocked the wind out of my sails.

Read these related blog posts:

Mosquitoes, ticks and bees are summer hazards, as are sunshine and poison ivy – Washington Post Blog – June 17, 2013

Drs. Oz and Roisen: Tick, tick, tick  – June 2013

Tick-borne disease is on the rise in Maine and Anaplasmosis in particular – May 2013

Beneficial Uses of Dredged Material – Are you Picking Up What I’m Putting Down (or vice verse)?

What is dredging? Underwater excavation is called “dredging.” Usually when people think of “dredged material,” they imagine the murky water from the sediments stirred up in the process of dredging a river, waterway or wetland. For example, the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) is beginning the work of dredging the Kennebec River in midcoast Maine to allow a 510’ warship built by Bath Iron Works to be transported safely down the river. Because this project is happening at the height of summer (and tourist season) and not in the winter, several petitions cried for a halt of the project. But the Maine Board of Environmental Protection and a federal judge rejected those petitions.

What most people don’t realize is that sometimes the Corps uses dredged material to restore coastal and wetland habitat. Depending on the type of sediment—rocky, gravel & sand, consolidated clay (hard and soft clay), silted/soft clay, or a mixture of these—there are a number of ways that dredged material can be used beneficially. Some applications include berms, shore protection, aquaculture, beach nourishment and replacement fill.

On the west coast, the Southwest Washington Littoral Drift Restoration Project, a state-federal collaborative effort, is evaluating the beneficial use of dredged material at Benson Beach (WA). In Florida, there is a potential project using Section 204 funding for beneficial uses of dredged material in the Destin area.

After the Gulf Oil spill, President Obama signed a bill in 2010 to allow for funding for the use of beneficial dredged material for coastal restoration in the Gulf.

The Coastal & Hydraulics Laboratory within the Corps is one of the lead organizations doing research on beneficial use of dredged material. One of their active projects is the SuperDustpan Beneficial Use Project in the Mississippi River. For their 2004 technical report, go to:;220

When coastal estuaries and islands erode, one option to restore the coastline is beach nourishment. This means replacing sediment. Dredged material is commonly used for “beach nourishment” projects, for example, in the Gulf shipping channel (near Texas) by South Padre Island

EPA has a number of resources to help in evaluating “beneficial use of dredged material” for the purpose of beach nourishment here: has also been involved in dredged material management projects:

The use of dredged material is a contentious issue because sometimes the sediments are contaminated, or the projects fail to serve their purpose. It is important to use clean dredged material. The links below go to more information.

Port of Portland Disposing of Contaminated Dredge Material on West Hayden Island

EPA’s Contaminated Sediments Program

Dredged material as a resource

Waste to Resource: Beneficial Use of Great Lakes Dredged Material

Around the country, other organizations (state, federal, regional coalitions and nongovernmental partners) are exploring beneficial uses of dredged material. For example, the Great Lakes Dredging Team—a partnership of state and federal agencies—are committed to assuring that dredging in channels within the Great Lakes is done in a timely manner that also meets environmental protection, restoration and enhancement goals. This team has a number of references available on its website for several applications of beneficial use of dredged material, including reclaimed mines and beach nourishment.

From a global perspective, beneficial use of dredged material is a growing area of research and technology. The international organization, PIANC, the World Association of Waterborne Transport Infrastructure, and has been involved with several research projects on this topic. For more information on understanding dredge & fill permitting programs, visit:

Why does the Turtle Cross the Road?

As I was driving home the other night after work, I had to swerve to avoid a little wood turtle that was crossing the road. I slowed down, looked for a place to pull over. There was none. I decided not to pull over, considering the high volume of traffic. Then I continued to fret over the fate of the turtle the whole way home. I hoped that the other drivers would notice him, too, or her, and hoped the turtle wasn’t attempting a roundtrip across busy Route 302. Why do turtles do that? They have the tendency to pull their heads and legs into their shell when scared by an oncoming car, then can get smashed. Some turtle species like the sandy soils along the embankments of roads and this is where they choose to make their nests. It spells disaster for some turtles whereas others choose less busy roads and survive. For a related New Jersey story, “Rising Turtle Deaths Stymie Researchers,” go to:

As one way to address the roadkill problem, wildlife biologists and engineers with state and federal agencies, such as FWS and the Corps, have developed wildlife-friendly stream-crossings. For additional resources on wildlife stream-crossing research, visit the following links:

USDA Forest Service articles

Biologically Sound Stream Crossings, by Scott Jackson (PowerPoint presentation for ASWM)

Massachusetts Stream-Crossings Handbook

US FWS -Ashland NFWCO (Midwest) – Planning and Designing Fish Friendly Stream Crossings

Stream Continuity Project (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

Wildlife-Friendly Stream and Undercrossings Research

Natural Heritage – Turtle Information and Conservation Tips (Mass Natural Heritage Program)