By KEVIN PROFT/ 5.15.2013 - The Outing Committee of the Rhode Island Sierra Club does its best to make its outings varied and diverse. During the spring of 2013, I am happy to report we upheld that mission. In March, we walked along Matunuck Beach to witness the erosion damaging Rhode Island’s southern coast, then headed to prime Woodcock habitat at dusk to observe the birds’ annual mating ritual. In April we cleaned up the Blackstone Valley Bikeway. Last weekend, we headed to the Great Swamp to look for hopping, slithering, and plodding wildlife.
Ban the Bag… and Bottle and Styrofoam Cup
For the second year in a row, the Rhode Island Sierra Club did its annual Earth Day cleanup along the Blackstone Valley Bikeway near the Kelly House in Lincoln. Six of us set out on a sunny Saturday morning to pick up trash washed onto the banks of the Blackstone River or littered alongside the bike path.
I don’t know if O.C.D. is a spectrum disorder, but if it is, I place myself squarely on that spectrum. I fret about stove burners possibly left burning, feel happiest when my sock drawer is well organized, and sometimes reopen an envelope I just sealed to ensure I actually placed the letter inside. Tics like these, whatever they mean, allow me to excel at cleanups, but also leave me feeling incredibly frustrated by an impossible task.
That’s what a cleanup is after all - an assignment that cannot be completed. First, had we completed our cleanup near the Kelly House last year, the Club would not have had to return to fill another 8 trash bags this year. Even if we were able to get every scrap of trash off the ground and into a garbage bag, a new bottle would soon wash ashore.
Second, the nature of the most frequently littered items - plastic bags, plastic bottles, and Styrofoam cups - make it impossible to collect every piece. Anyone who has participated in a cleanup knows that plastic bags and plastic bottles do not remain plastic bags and plastic bottles once set loose in nature. Nature, as it does with so many other materials, breaks the bags and bottles down into smaller and smaller pieces. This means that instead of simply picking up a bottle and placing it in a garbage bag, one must pick up many small fragments of a bottle greatly increasing the chance that many pieces will be missed - you can imagine how this makes me feel.
What I’ve come to realize, and what I must remind myself of when I participate in a cleanup, is that a cleanup’s success is not measured by the amount of trash collected or overlooked, but by its ability to unite community members in the often neglected cause of volunteering time to improve the environment. A cleanup's symbolic power will always far outweigh its practical purpose.
But still, I just wish I could pick up all those tiny pieces Styrofoam.
Sierrans often surprise me. It was cold. It was drizzling. One glance at the sky told me the predicted rain was on its way. As I’d expected, the parking lot of the Great Swamp Management Area was empty when I arrived. It looked like it would be me and Nova Quinn, who I’d dragged along as my passenger, hiking the outing alone.
But, as the two of us set out on the trail I got a phone call. Someone else was on the way. She’d gone to the wrong parking lot, but would soon arrive and I should wait for her. A few minutes later, Kirsten Maar met Nova and I on the trail. Not only had Kirsten braved a wet morning and triumphed over minor adversity to join this Sierra Club outing, she’d also brought a child-like enthusiasm with her.
Kirsten immediately set about inspecting each black swampy hole along the trail for frogs or snakes and snapping photos of fiddleheads as we hiked. She’d already found a turtle with yellow spots on its shell in the short distance she’d walked before reaching me and Nova.
Our destination was a vernal pool tucked away off the beaten path about a mile from the parking area. Seasonal ponds are important habitat for many animals, such as frogs.
A variety of birds and tree frogs provided a wonderfully wild soundtrack as we hiked to the pool. When we arrived, we found it almost completely overgrown with bright green grass shoots, sticking about a foot out of the shallow water.
Searching for half-submerged frogs amid thousands of intersecting blades of grass is akin to trying to find Waldo amid hundreds of rambunctious museum goers, all inexplicable wearing red stripes. The frogs are perfectly camouflaged in their environment - their bright green faces are the exact color of the grass, and their brown backs blend perfectly with the dead reeds floating just below the water’s surface. They may as well be invisible.
What’s more is that the frogs know that as long as they don’t move, they won’t be seen. As Nova, Kirsten, and I crept along the edge of the pool, eyes scanning the reeds, the frogs remained perfectly still. Then, just before being stepped on, they’d leap into the water. If we were lucky, we’d see the splash and the hole in the dead reeds they’d left behind on their way to the bottom of the pond.
Despite our stealthy tip-toeing, the frogs must have viewed us as three bumbling giants stomping around in their back yards. We fooled ourselves into believing that we would sneak up on one before it spotted us, but in reality, there wasn’t a frog in that pond that didn’t know we were there.
Eventually, we tried a new strategy. We returned to a spot that had yielded a lot of splashes, stood still, and searched the grassy water from a fixed vantage point. After a few moments, a croak unexpectedly sounded from just feet in front of us - Darwin would not have been impressed. Even with this lucky clue, it still took minutes to locate the frog among the grass. Its big, golden eye was trained right on us.
Spirits renewed, we searched for others. Before we left we’d spotted a handful of frogs, all nearly indistinguishable from their surroundings.
Back on the trail, we stumbled upon a toad while walking in a small field. Like the frogs, the toad relied on camouflage to avoid confrontation; we never would have seen it had it not hopped out of the way of my foot. The toad looked exactly like the leafy soil around it.
Just before reaching the parking area we spotted one more swamp dweller - a black water snake. It was resting in the tall grass next to a dark pool of water. After our encounters with the frogs and toad, I was surprised by its stark outline in the green grass, and wondered why the snake had not evolved to look more like its surroundings.
Then, the snake slithered into the perfectly clear water and nearly disappeared from sight; all we could see was its head which remained above the water’s surface. The snake stood out on the grass, but was invisible in the swamp’s black pools. Perhaps this is where it does its hunting and, thus, where it relies most on blending into its surroundings.
The Great Swamp is one of my favorite places to walk in Rhode Island, and on this rainy Saturday it didn’t let me down. The armored protection of the spotted turtle, and the perfect camouflage of the frogs, toad, and snake, reminded me of the ingenuity of the natural world. Afterwards, I couldn’t help wondering how many small marvels I’d overlooked during our walk.
Check out more Facebook pictures from the outing here.