Notes from the Field: Winter Walks and Wonderings

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When I bought my property 22 years ago, as the light faded from the afternoon sky and dusk started to settle, unless it was winter, you couldn’t stay out because the mosquitos were so bad you were driven inside. The only good part was that before the mosquitos got too bad, the sky would be filled first with dragonflies and then with bats. I know people aren’t fans of bats, but I loved watching both of these creatures’ aerial displays as they pick my predators out of the sky both before and after the stars arrived. It happened because my property backs up to some of the squishy edges of the 100-plus acres of Sagg Swamp Nature Preserve, one of the the Nature Conservancy’s protected properties. If you travel farther east down my road past my house, you’d cross a small bridge, the division between Sagaponack and Bridgehampton that the swamp straddles. On the north is the freshwater stream that has meandered from the wood duck breeding ground of Jeremy’s Hole — one of the few places, according to Larry Penny, that the alewives still bred — to skedaddle down the center of the swamp and cascade over the weir becoming, on the south side, a shallow rill that feeds into Sagaponack Pond. It’s part of a chain of aquatic areas and wet habitats that flows from the northern part of Sag Harbor all the way to the sea, and is the last hole in the greenbelt that carves its way all the way back through a series of other ponds that originate at Otter Pond and Sag Harbor Cove.

Carving a path for nature from one side of this island’s fork to the other is all very interesting, you say, but why am I talking to you about the swamp at a time of year when all its flora is naked and all its fauna is hunkering down for the winter? Mostly because I believe this is the best time to be exploring. And not just because there’s no mosquitos. The structure of the various oaks, tupelos, red maples and sassafras are easier to see when the sky resembles parchment upon which ink has been dropped and then blown on through a straw. There may not be any avian occupants, but if there are, they stand out like startlingly misshaped fruits, waiting to be plucked.

I’m going to tell you right now you won’t see the ducks or even any of the water of Jeremy’s Hole, at least not without wearing hip waders and venturing far off the paths, and I’ve never seen a single one of the flying squirrels The Nature Conservancy claims inhabit the place on its website. And that there’s a tremendous amount of destruction that’s occurred, from over browsing by deer to skeins of cat briar and other invasive plants, like phragmites, and euonymus, eliminating much of what drew me to the site when I was a child. (Of course, there was also a supposedly haunted house which was, when I was climbing through the place, partially collapsed, and very exciting to explore.) But I still find the visit exquisite. Perhaps because it’s one of the few places out here where you can still lose sight of all humankind and be surrounded by only the natural world and your thoughts. Or maybe it’s the extraordinary selections of lichens. Or the way I’ve learned to see that there’s still an incredible variation of color and texture and shape to be observed even when it’s not the obvious time to be observant.

I admit I take my clippers, but only to snip back those that have recently invaded, never those whom have always called it home, but mostly I take my camera. It’s a trick I learned from the photographer Laurie Lambrecht who has be documenting and studying the place for years.  Encouraging me to explore the swamp more in the winter, especially in the snow, she dragged me out there one day bundled up and fairly unenthusiastic. By the end of the walk I was a convert. I am always grateful when creative people let you inside their thoughts and share their excitements and Laurie’s gift of visiting the swamp in the snow helped bring me farther down the path of not just being seduced by brilliant colors and luxurious foliage, but also seeing the beauty in the various textures of bark and the patterning of twigs and branches.

Now I separate slippery octopus inky purple from sooty charcoal from rich wet burgundy maroon where previously I would have just seen black. And what I used to refer to as beige or grey has fractured into moss and slate, an immense assortment of violets, pinky creams, biscuit, chalk, nude, heathered taupes and various other now obviously discernible shades. I notice how some branches weave and others rut, how bark peels, flakes or alligators in patterns that both repeat and don’t. Seedpods and leaf skeletons take on personas as intricate as clouds and the patterns of lichens and mosses are staggering in their complexity. The walk is both meditative and illuminative once I learned to look through a different lens of expectation and I would recommend it for all as a brilliant way to start the new year.

A quick a note on the mosquitos. Since I’ve moved in, their population on my property has plummeted. Unfortunately, so have the bats and dragonflies. I believe the credit, whether good or bad, belongs to the county. There are two forms of mosquito control happening all around us without a lot of discussion.

The first, mosquito adulticiding (the use of chemicals to spray and kill adult mosquitos) is something you can opt out of by going to www.suffolkcountyny.gov and printing out the no spray form from the Division of Vector Control. You’ll need your tax map number, and to submit this form every year, but it allows you to request to keep your property chemically clear by shutting off the county trucks’ aerosol equipment within 150 feet of your property. The second form of control, over which we have no influence, is the addition to our waters of chemicals to keep mosquito larvae from become adults. Unfortunately, not only have these chemicals been proven toxic to frogs and salamanders and possibly fish, all of which prey on both mosquitos and their larvae, but they also keep dragonfly larvae from maturing as well.

I’m not saying I’m a fan of mosquitos, and if there’s a public health emergency for a mosquito-borne disease the skies will be sprayed regardless of our registering to opt out, but I do get nervous when we, as a species, start making decisions that have possibly domino effects. I love being able to sit outside watching the moon rise in spring, summer and fall as well as winter now, but I miss my dragonflies. And my bats.

Paige Patterson is desperate for an armful of watermelon colored oriental poppy plants.

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