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Where We Live by John Silveira and Richard Blunt. Photos and commentary from Oregon and New England.

Want to Comment on a blog post? Look for and click on the blue No Comments or # Comments at the end of each post.

Archive for November, 2012


Field Stone Walls—Landforms Of the Farmington Valley—Part One

Friday, November 30th, 2012

Arizona has its arroyos, Washington its volcanoes, Louisiana its bayous, and New England has its field stone walls. These walls, both abandoned and maintained, are the signature of rural, and urban New England. They crisscross the parks, woodlands and farms of nearly every town and city. Most of these walls are relics of a vanished agricultural civilization that once flourished in farming communities throughout this part of the country. It has been estimated that at one time there were 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England. That is longer than the distance from the earth to the moon. The mass of stone used to build these walls is greater than all of the remaining ancient monuments put together.   The majority of them were built by farmers who gathered these glacier dropped stones and moved them to edges of their fields. The original design of these walls was primitive. They were usually thick, low, mortar free, and tossed rather than carefully laid . The raw material from which these stones were formed began as mud from oceans that have long since vanished. In fact, central New England once lay in a narrow sea that disappeared when North America, Africa, and Europe merged to form a super-continent called Pangaea. Before the continents separated again, this mud became deeply buried, squeezed, and sheared into a swirled lump of hot rock. As centuries past this rock cooled, hardened, and decompressed. These conditions transformed this material into hard bedrock, mantled by a clay-rich soil and covered by forest. When a massive sheet of ice, called the Laurentide Ice sheet, invaded New England from central Canada, about 20,000 years ago. It stripped away most of the ancient clay soil and  lifted billions of stone slabs, and scattered them across the region. As the ice receded, it deposited a mixture of clay, sand, gravel and boulders ; a type of hardpan soil called “glacial till.” The deciduous forest soon returned and, by natural process buried the stones beneath a thick layer of soil. The stones were there, but most were hidden from sight. Over time the upland New England  soil continued to thicken and remain relatively undisturbed during the early European settlement, which began with the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620.

During the last half of the eighteenth century, before the American Revolution, thousands of freedom seeking folks started migrating from their crowded coastal, ancestral villages in Boston, Hartford, Providence, and New Haven, and began establishing settlements in the thickly wooded, upland interior. Their former settlements were somewhat communal, where farmers shared common pastures and tillage fields. In these new settlements, however, land use practices shifted to a pattern of independent, self sufficient farming. This spread a patchwork of private farms over these rich soils. By chance, this rapid spread of farms coincided with the “Little Ice Age;” a climate condition that began about a.d. 1300 and ended  in the late nineteenth century. As forests were cleared for farming, the soil became more exposed to winter cold causing it to freeze deeply. This deep freezing  caused frost heaving, forcing the stones through the soil, and closer to  the surface. Water from spring rains and snow melt could not easily penetrate this deep frozen frozen soil, forcing it to flow over the land surface with erosive  force. The water  washed away enough the soil to exposing the stones. This forced the settlers to clear the stones from their pastures and fields, and find a place to dump them.

These early farms had well defined boundaries  and required plenty of wooden fencing.  These wooden fence lines became magnets for this stone refuse. The farmers carried the collected stones to the field side and tossed one upon the other. The largest stones were pulled, by oxen, on a wooden sled, and rolled into position. Eventually these crude “tossed” stone walls replaced the wooden fences. Many of these early walls were rebuilt into more eye appealing forms as farm populations rose and surplus labor became available. However crude or well built the walls were, the majority of them originally functioned as linear landfills for this nonbiodegradable agricultural refuse. These walls also helped to improve local wildlife diversity, by providing more dry-land habitats for animals and plants that were adapted to cliffs and ledges.

I recently built one of these crude stone walls, in my back yard (pictured bellow), to correct a problem of soil erosion. The stones that I used came from a  garden that I dug a while back. Before being incorporated into this wall, they were stacked in an ugly pile on the side of my house.  This 40 foot wall of stones has become home and playground to a host of little critters, birds, squirrels, chipmunks and a few other  that I have yet to identify. While I was tossing this wall a neighbor was having the natural stone retaining  in front of his house rebuilt by a professional stonemason. As the summer went my curiosity over the many stone wall in my neighborhood began to grow.  After the fall harvest Kolp Gardens had little to photograph, so I began walking around my neighborhood, with camera in hand, looking for stone walls of interest. What I discovered was a wealth of history and lore that has eluded me for the twenty five years that I have lived in the Farmington Valley. All of the photos below  were taken within a two mile radius of my house. Each photo clearly reveals a use of  field stone that was retrieved from one of the past or present farms in this area. Two of the walls were built 1863 by the great grandfather of the current owner of the property. A few of the walls that I discovered were well maintained but the majority were abandoned and in decay. The story of New England’ s stone walls is a very old one. There is much to discover beneath the obvious differences in these magnificent field stone structures. I invite you to join me as I explore this phenomenon in the coming months.

 Basic stone wall in my back yard.

An example of a mortar free stone wall laid by a professional.

A farmer tossed stone wall on the Krell Family farm.

A crumbling wall marking the western boundary of an old farm owned by the town of Farmington.

Two views of an abandoned wall that I discovered on a recent hike. The discoloration on the stones is lichen, a complex plantlike organism made up of  algae and and moss growing in a cooperative relationship on the surface of the stone. This is a classic example of the many collapsed walls found in New England’s forests.

This wall is maintained by the town of Farmington

The two walls pictured here were built in 1863. Most of the material in these walls is red sandstone, which unique to the Farmington area.

This wall is built on a  parcel of land donated to Farmington

Stone chimney near Farmington  River

A crumbled stone chimney near the River

The Old Stone Schoolhouse was school for Farmington children from 1790 to 1872. I also served as a chapel and community center. The stone wall in the foreground is a boundary marker, built in 1863.


Snowy egrets of Oregon, Part 1

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

This time of year I make my morning rounds with my camera starting out with a trip to the north bank of the Rogue River, looking for elk, and ending up at the Port of Gold Beach, where I look for the resident snowy egret and the occasional great blue heron that shows up. During my tour, I may even leave town and drive up to Euchre Creek, about 10 miles north of town, or go to to Pistol River, eight miles south, and I may even go to the Lobster Creek Bridge, about 10 miles upriver. It’s usually just me and my Canon 5D Mark III camera, but sometimes a friend will accompany me. Then I go into the office.

I took a short version of the tour, alone, a few days ago. I just went to the river and the port. There was nothing worth photographing at the river but, at the port, the tide was very low and there was the snowy egret in the shallow water that’s across the road from the animal shelter. The egret was looking for whatever it is egrets eat. I’ll tell you this, though, egrets aren’t vegetarians. This one was chasing things, and weeds don’t move that fast.

I took a slew of photos as this guy literally ran through the shallow water in pursuit of its breakfast.

I used my Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM prime lens on my camera and I think I’ve said it here before that I usually set my shutter speed and aperture and let the ISO drift as it wants. And, of course, when I use a prime my focal length is fixed.

I usually shoot offhand because I’m generally too lazy to break the tripod out of the trunk, hence the fast shutter speed compensates for camera shake. But the fast shutter speed also ensures freezing the action when one of the birds spreads its wings and takes off.

One of the problems, though, is that I often like to shoot with a fairly wide aperture because I don’t always have a lot of light and opening up aperture lets more light into the camera. However, a wide aperture also results in a shallow depth of field. So, when the subject is in motion, sometimes coming towards me but more often going away, it may get out of the thin band where the image is in focus. There’s also the problem that I may not respond fast enough to the autofocus and birds, in particular, are out of that thin depth of field by the time I click the shutter. The result is that a lot of my photos are not well-focused. Just saying.

However, these photos came out pretty good including a surprise photo, the last one posted here, when I flushed a great blue heron that I hadn’t realized was there. Still, I should start shooting at narrower apertures to increase the depth of field and keep more of my subjects in focus. More of my photos would be keepers if I did.

By the way, as usual, most of these photos were cropped for the blog.


This is an uncropped photo and it gives you an idea of what this part of the port here in Gold Beach looks like. In the center is the snowy egret that’s taken up residence here.. When the tide is low, the water at this part of the inlet is just inches deep.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 250     focal length 400mm


This guy was actually sprinting through the water in pursuit of his or her grub.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 250     focal length 400mm


Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 250     focal length 400mm


Here it had just snagged something.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 250     focal length 400mm


It’s spotted something else.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 250     focal length 400mm


It started walking out of the water. I don’t know what it was looking for as it approached the shore.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 250     focal length 400mm


Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 320     focal length 400mm


It reached the shore, it looked around, then it flew to another part of the port, about 100 yards away.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 500     focal length 400mm


It lit here and seemed interested in the prey it found here. What I didn’t realize was that it was near a great blue heron which I hadn’t yet seen.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 500     focal length 400mm


Suddenly, the snowy egret took off but, as it did, the great blue heron flushed. I was just lucky to have caught it in this photo of it as it flew off across the port.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 500     focal length 400mm



Elk in Oregon, Part 2

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Yesterday, I posted seven photos of elk to this blog in the morning. Later in the day I got a call from one of the magazine’s employees, Toby Stanley, Jr. He told me that the same herd was back on the north bank of the Rogue River and was right up to the road. I didn’t realize how close to the road he meant until I got there.

When I arrived I was startled to see they were indeed right up to the road, looking as though they were getting ready to cross. All that stood between them and the other side was a fence that they can easily jump over and the occasional traffic on the road.

There was already a pickup with a camper shell parked on the shoulder. The driver was watching the herd when I got there. I pulled in behind the pickup and immediately switched out lenses and put my Canon EF 400mm f/5.6 L USM lens on my Canon 5D Mark III. The lens is a prime that has pretty good image quality and a lot of reach. When I was preparing to buy another lens, I agonized over whether to get it or the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 L IS USM zoom lens. I’m not made of money, so I had to make my purchase wisely. It isn’t the most expensive or cheapest I’m looking to buy when I part with my cash, I try to get the most bang for the buck. So I read many reviews. There was one review in which the author, who lives in Toronto, placed photos of a distant building he’d shot, using the 400mm prime lens and the zoom lens, with the zoom set to 400mm. The image quality taken with the prime was noticeably better than the zoom’s, and that should have clinched it.

But I kept thinking about the versatility of the 100-400mm zoom. I can’t remember if it was in a forum or in the comment section to a review where a poster made the comment that he chose the 400mm prime because if you have the zoom you’re almost always going to be shooting it at 400mm. I thought, “Of course!” With that, I went for the prime. (Having said that, there have been moments I’ve thought I’d like to back out a little with the prime, but overall the 400mm prime has been just what I wanted.)

One of the first things I noticed was that there are now two full-grown bulls in the herd. The second one hadn’t been there all fall. So, I figure the rut must be over. Anyway, there I was, sitting in my car and, hoping not to spook the herd, I slowly got out with my camera in hand and started taking photos. The herd was nervous. I was excited. I was getting the best elk photos I’ve ever taken. Had I been a little less cautious, I might have been able to get closer to get a better angle on the two big bulls that were standing in water that about came up to their chests. I’m all for dramatic photos, but I was afraid that if I got too close I’d spook the whole herd. When someone else pulled over and took the spot I wanted without spooking them, I realized I’d missed my opportunity.

But I kept taking photos.

Some moron, in a big white dump truck leaned on his horn as he went by and did spook the herd. They started to run, but stopped after he’d passed. I’m not a person who expresses road rage or anything like that. In fact, I’m usually pretty calm in almost any situation. But for this guy I expressed myself in the most vulgar way I could think of on such short notice. If you, the truck driver, are reading this, I hope you saw it my gesture. I meant it sincerely.

Still I got some good photos; 175 in all. Choosing among them has been difficult, but here’s what I’m posting:


This bull was one of the first photos I took when I got there.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 800     focal length 400mm


This is just a small part of the herd. But you can see the fence that runs alongside the road, blurred in the foreground. They can easily leap over it without even having to get up a head of steam. They just can jump over very high fences from a standstill.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 500     focal length 400mm


You’re going to have to look at several photos of the bulls because, as I said in the previous post, only the babies can compete with them as far as interesting photos go.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 1000     focal length 400mm


This one’s almost up to his chest in water.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 800     focal length 400mm


Another one.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 800     focal length 400mm


Sights like this are hard to beat and they’re happening less than two miles outside of Gold Beach.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 1250     focal length 400mm


I didn’t crop this one. This is how my camera saw it.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 800     focal length 400mm


And here’s what competes with photos of the bulls with their magnificent racks: A momma grooming her calf.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 1000     focal length 400mm


A close-up. I don’t know what she’s licking off of it.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 1250     focal length 400mm


This guy just looks cool.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 800     focal length 400mm


This was among the last photos I took. They’re alert and curious about me.

Shutter speed 1/1000     f-stop 5.6     ISO 1000     focal length 400mm



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