Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Hockomock Swamp needs to be made a National Park

By Douglas Watts
Augusta, Maine
October, 2010

I say this in jest, only because it should not be said in jest, and because there is something perverse about me even feeling a bit reluctant about screaming it from the tree tops.

Despite 250 years of unsightly wounds, the Hockomock Swamp in Easton, Massachusetts is a natural treasure which should long ago have been made a National Park and should be made one today.

The only way the Hockomock Swamp has protected itself from annihilation is by being inaccessible to people. There are few ways to get into it without cursing yourself and getting mucky, filthy, briar scarred, totally soaking wet and eaten alive by mosquitoes. These facts keep us from appreciating the beauty of the Swamp. But sometimes, on certain special days, the Swamp lets us in and lets us soak in its brilliance.

One of the best ways to get into the heart of the Hockomock is through an old, abandoned dirt road which crosses the swamp from Raynham to West Bridgewater. We walked this dirt road on a brilliant warm fall day on Oct. 10, 2010 from Raynham to West Bridgewater and back, with a few side trips into the thickets.

We entered from Wilbur Street in Raynham, a well-marked side street at the Raynham water tank on Route 138. Go to its end, take a left at the T and follow the "dead end" sign to the Raynham water department pump station. The path begins at a couple of large boulders in a scrub of small trees and is only accessible by foot.

Here, as you walk in, you are descending into what had been a deep, wide bay of upper Glacial Lake Taunton, which had covered much of southeastern Mass. not long after the last Ice Age. As the lake slowly drained, it filled with sediment and vegetation, creating a flat forested swamp. The dirt road from Wilbur Street in Raynham crosses one of the widest and flattest parts of it. This dirt road was built, at ridiculous effort and expense in the late 1800s, by hauling in cartloads of gravel to raise it about five feet above the swamp for a mile and half or so.

Although rough granite culverts were installed beneath the road at irregular intervals, the road has always operated as a very shallow, porous earthen dam across the breadth of the Hockomock, from the high ground in Raynham and northeast to an adjoining high ground in West Bridgewater at Route 106. The swamp flows from west to east, perpendicular to the road.

Walking into the Hockomock from Raynham, you can see this because the swamp on the left side of the road berm (the 'upstream' side) is much wetter than the swamp on your right (the 'downstream' side). In fact, except in very dry times, on your left there is a constant pool of water between the trees and shrubs, and the water moves "up" the road alongside you as you walk. If you look closely at little jams of logs on your left, you can see the tiny waverings of current all moving northeast paralleling the road. The right hand side, the "downstream" side" is moist, but has no open patches of water. It's clear the road berm is acting as a shallow dam, and the water in the swamp, looking for the fastest way downhill must follow the berm as it trends northeasterly in the same direction you are walking.

On occasion you will see a pool of water on your right side that flows into the thicket to your right. These are small, now mostly buried and clogged granite culverts that let some water get through the berm and continue heading east. But in general, for the first 1/3rd mile the road berm forces all of the water in the swamp to move along the road and find a way to get through it. Since the berm is very permeable gravel, plenty of water seeps through it, especially when the swamp is swollen with rain, but the difference between the wet and dry sides of it is readily noticeable.

In this walk, keep an eye to your right, on the 'downstream' side. What you see is a virtually endless expanse of evenly spaced deciduous trees, 30-50 feet in height, with an understory of small green, leafy shrubs of about 4-10 feet in height. This is what I call the Hockomock Red Maple-Clethra swamp. The trees are the swamp red maple, Acer rubrum, the shrubs are the bottle brush or sweet pepper bush, Clethra alnifolia. When the conditions are right, these two plants dominate hundreds of acres of the Hockomock and create its most distinctive look. If you drive down Route 138 between Easton and Raynham at the towns' line and look on both sides, virtually every tree and shrub and leaf you see are these two species. [1]

As you walk down the abandoned dirt road, from your privileged, artificial elevation of five feet of the swamp's ground level, the view looks eerily similar to a well maintained town or city park. The well-spaced red maples rise with straight trunks and only branch and leaf out at their very tops, forming a uniform, yet open canopy just below the sky, with a pleasant but dense crowd of dark green plants hugging their lower trunks. Now and then you see high, gangly shrubs with bright red berries. These are native deciduous holly, not like the evergreen holly we are familiar with. Tim taught us this.

But when you walk off the berm onto the swamps level you are now at the height of the Clethra, which are as tall as you and their branches impede your sight and movement. You also notice there is no flat or level place you can step. You are always walking up or down one hump or clump of tree or shub roots off or or another. You realize there is no ground. No soil. No rocks. Everything your foot finds is a tree root. Everything you see is a tree root or one covered by fresh or rotted leaves. The whole place is made of tree roots and leaves, their fallen worker bees. And every tree and shrub to see, every Acer rubrum and Cletha Alnifolia, at least from the sense of direction, all look the same.

This is why it is so easy to get lost in the Hockomock and why it is so hard to get unlost. Once in it, you can't use landmarks to get out of it: there aren't any. You have to use sound and the sun. And sound is only due to the sound of highways, so that's cheating. Using the Sun is okay. Inside the middle of the Red Maple-Clethra part of the Hockomock there are no landmarks.

It all looks the same in every direction as far as you can see, which isn't that far, since you have to shimmy up the red maples for about 30 feet to get any view, and since they have no branches until 30 feet up, if you fall you will break your arm, leg or ankle you won't be able to get out and nobody will ever find you, so you will die. And not to mention mosquitoes. They were waiting for you, or more accurately, your large internal pool of blood that they can suck from to make thousands of babies.

Without trying to sound too sexist, the Hockomock represents the last bastion of manhood in New England. It is a scary and completely impenetrable and unforgiving place. For every show you've seen on the Discovery Channel about the perils of the Amazon or the Congo, the Hockomock is worse. I've watched grown men tear their own heads off rather than run naked through the Hockomock. Which is why I feel there is a need to protect it. Of course, men in Cat D-9 bulldozers could plow grooves through it; and yes an entire Armada of askeert men in air conditioned bulldozer cabs could make those grooves come together, in exchange for a paycheck, but they would not be caught dead walking through it.

What is more interesting, to me, is examining how the trees species differ even if you increase the water level of the Hockomock by just a few inches. As my brother Tim noticed, as soon you make a tiny gravel berm crossing and raise the deep part of the Hockomock by a foot, you see white oak trees and yellow birch trees and swamp white oak trees burst out of nowhere. If that elevation change is not there, you don't see them. If you lower the water elevation an inch you don't see Atlantic white cedars.

By going to and watching and observing and listening to places like the Hockomock Swamp we learn about science. We listen to the trees telling us stories. Very long and complicated stories, and sometimes, very simple stories. The Hockomock is a place where the trees will take time to sit down and talk to us and reveal their secrets. There is no sound in the Hockomock except the wind through the branches and the water through the trunks. Every thing we walk on and step on is made of trees. In the Hockomock we are walking on tree, breathing tree and hearing tree. In the Hockomock we are in the world of tree. Trees made the Hockomock. The Hockomock is made of trees. There is no rock, no soil, no grit, no mineral. Only tree. The water itself is stained root beer red from the tannin from the leaves of trees. All is from tree. Nothing in the swamp is not from tree.

On our walk back out toward Raynham, I espied in a very odd and treeless part of the swamp, an evergreen out a quarter mile in the open, immense slog. It towered over all the other trees. It was either a white pine or an Atlantic white cedar. I took a picture of its crown at maximum zoom. Upon home, and zooming it more, it is a giant Atlantic white cedar. I can tell by the shape of its needles and crown. It is about 60 feet tall and all by its lonesome.

In the red maple-clethra part of the Swamp, you don't see any cedars. Instead you see a uniform canopy of red maples which built raised beds for thousands of clethra beneath them. It seems people building long, narrow, earthen berms cross the swamp in the 1800s has favored the red maple and disfavored the Atlantic white cedar, which are extremely slow growing and very selective about where they grow.

[1] What is odd is that the red maple-clethra swamp where we walked is nearly identical to the swamp a mile 'upriver' west of Route 138 except there are no high bush blueberries, which are common as an understory species along with Clethra alnifolia. This absence is extremely odd and needs more investigation.


pwax said...

A nice read.

Anonymous said...

Nice! It was enjoyable to read this as I grew up on in this neighborhood and personally maintain the colonial road that you speak of by trimming back the overgroeth annually and clearing fallen trees that are across the trail. Not many people know of the hidden treasure that this area is.