Why does the snow seem to melt first around the trunks of trees?

After all, the canopy shadow in the woods should theoretically keep everything cold longer, shouldn’t it? The sun doesn’t get down there as much as in fields.

But you can’t help noticing in the old snow those bare-earth circles around the base of trees, whether young or old, in our woods along the side of roads. What’s going on there?

My first thought was: Could trees possibly be warm-blooded (warm-sapped)?

Stop the presses! Ever since I was a kid watching a TV “science special” that suggested trees and other plants feel pain, I have felt an affinity for these sturdy, dignified companions. It caused me immediate guilt for carving the initials of the girl down the street on the backyard maple. I could even hear the groans.

Thinking that now I might have discovered a new reason for kinship with trees, I did the modern thing. I consulted Google. Why does snow seem to melt first around trees? I wrote.

You’re not going to believe this: I got 475,000 results. Apparently, others wondered, too.

I didn’t read all of the answers, of course, but I scanned many. Surprisingly, despite our advanced scientific knowledge in the 21st Century, even expert opinions differed on the question

The most fun replies came from amateurs like me. Yahoo Answers has a website for the likes of us. Here’s a sampling of their answers:

“Trees save energy from the sun and give it off as heat.”

“Water drips from the tree branches.”

“The branches overhead make it so there is less snow to begin with. Next to the tree there is a good water supply and this could make the ground slightly more moist which could cause the snow to melt faster.”

“Trees cut the wind and force turbulent air around the tree; warm or cold air carries the moisture away.”

“Cause guys usually pee behind a tree.”

“I don’t know. I live in Florida.”

Interestingly, none that I could find agreed with my idea that trees contain their own warmth.

So, back to the experts Unbelievably, I could find no definitive answer to what I regard as a very basic question. I mean we’re not talking Big Bang here.

The preferred explanation is that dark tree bark absorbs the heat of the sun and thus thaws the snow around the base. Others said water drips down the tree during thaws and thus melts the snow around the base. Very reasonable.

But then you have the it-all-depends crowd that just confuses the situation, such as the following from a study by the University of Washington (State): “… trees in warmer, maritime forests radiate heat in the form of long-wave radiation to a greater degree than the sky does. Heat radiating from the trees contributes to snow melting under the canopy first.” Useless.

Finally, I found a 2011 article in the New York Times that posed the question to the science director of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Now, we were getting somewhere. Dr. Susan Pell cited the prevalent opinion about heat-absorbing tree bark, and then the article added:

“Another possibility,” she said, “is that many plants — in the Northeast, especially those that bloom early in the spring — generate their own heat for various reasons. Some emerging herbaceous plants, like those growing from bulbs, produce heat to melt snow in order to more easily break through it in the springtime,” she said. “This is most famously true of skunk cabbage …”

Skunk cabbage? I’m talking about maple, oak, hickory, ash, beech and birch, not swamp plants.

I give up. You’re just going to have to accept my theory: Trees give off their own body heat. Period.

– GAK 03/21/14

It is hazardous – some would even say irrelevant – to venture into the Ukrainian-Russian confrontation from the quiet confines of Northwestern Connecticut.

But so much has been reported on this “breaking news” story that it might not do any harm to take a long look at what’s going on over there.

(Full disclosure: My father’s people came from Ukraine, and my surname means “Crimean” in Russian and Ukrainian. I also reported from that part of the world for the Associated Press during the cold war.)

Analysts have generally portrayed the Ukrainian crisis as the symptom of an east-west divide – the western part of the country being more aligned with Europe and the east with Russia. Perhaps that’s an oversimplification, but the essence is accurate.

Although Ukraine has a long history as a place and culture in its own right, it is thoroughly Slavic, more akin to Russia than any other country. Their borders, their languages, their traditions, and their politics – with some adjustments along the way – have been closely intertwined for centuries.

So, what has been happening over there, unlike Russia’s conflict with former Communist ally Georgia, is really a dispute between blood brothers, whether many Ukrainians want to admit it or not. The trouble is that Russia is a considerably larger and bossy big brother. Ukraine is also surrounded by six other countries, geographically serving as a bridge between Russia and Europe or a “buffer” between east and west.

Crimea is an anomaly. If you look at a map, it might seem logical that the peninsula is part of Ukraine, because Russian land technically does not border it. During Soviet times, that hardly mattered, because everything belonged to Moscow. Nikita Khrushchev, whose political career was forged in Ukraine, officially bequeathed Crimea to Russia’s western neighbor in 1954, but hardly anyone outside the region paid much attention.

Blessed by a mild climate, Crimea has been the playground of czars, commissars and oligarchs as well as the warm-water port for Russia’s Black Sea fleet. It was no accident that Stalin hosted the 1945 wartime conference of allied leaders in balmy Yalta during frigid February.

Just across the water from Vladimir Putin’s beloved Sochi, Crimea is not likely to remain in Ukrainian hands. Mr. Putin is already talking about building a bridge to the Russian mainland to seal its fate.

Despite my personal interest in Crimea, it is just a sideshow in the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine. As Ukrainian emigres in the United States will tell you, the resentments run deep.

Ukraine, with its fertile farmlands, was once the “breadbasket of Europe.” During Soviet times, it wasn’t even the breadbasket of Ukraine. When Stalin forcibly collectivized agricultural property into state farms and raided Ukraine’s food stocks in the famine of the early 1930s, an estimated 10 million Ukrainians perished. The depth of hatred was apparent nearly a decade later, when some locals aligned with the invading Nazis against Moscow.

After World War II, the far western sector of Ukraine was carved out of Poland and Romania, while the eastern sector, which had become the country’s industrial base, remained, in all but name, an extension of Russia.

Enter Mr. Putin after the Soviet collapse and his determination to restore Russia to superpower status, often under the guise of “protecting” Russian populations beyond his borders. That, by the way, was the argument Hitler used to invade Czechoslovakia’s German-populated Sudetenland in 1938.

Not a good situation.

– George A. Krimsky 03/03/14

Our annual “Spring Banquet” for the local wildlife went off without a hitch this past weekend. Everyone came.

This will be the fifth year my husband and I have laid out a special spread at winter’s end. We don’t actually wait for the official first day of spring, because the birds and other backyard critters are especially grateful for hand-outs in the cold, not when the bugs and berries are out.

Basically, what we do is to go through our cupboards and fridge looking for foodstuffs stored over the winter that have proven popular and healthy for furry and feathered creatures. We have discovered, for example, that Cheerios are welcome, Wheaties are not. Don’t ask me why, but the bird experts generally say cereal is okay. We draw the line at Fruit Loops, though.

None of this stuff could go to a human food bank, by the way, because the packages had already been opened or exceeded their expiration dates.

Nuts are always a favorite in our house, and we were able to fill a large can with peanuts, cashews, almonds, pistachios and scraps of pecans. We washed the nuts to get rid of the salt. We found a box of ancient grain baked crackers containing golden millet, amaranth, quinoa and teff, which sounded exciting, but the “ferric pyrophosphate” turned us off. We also found some stuffing mix from last Thanksgiving, which looked appetizing with all the dried bread and herbs, but nothing but dust poured out of the package. Oh, well.

The freezer yielded some interesting goodies, and we examined them carefully for wildlife edibility. We didn’t think the frozen bag of croissants would do any harm, after being microwaved. Crows and squirrels particularly like the aroma.

Christmas cookies? Okay, we decided, once we scraped off the little red and silver balls. The oatmeal and raisin giants always do well, great fun watching a squirrel try to get one up a tree.

Then there was the package of Lefse from my Norwegian relatives in Wisconsin. Lefse is flat bread made of potatoes, flour, butter, cream, salt and sugar. Unfortunately, the package showed a tinge of green inside, so we tossed it.

And we can’t forget the Lutefisk, also a Norwegian holiday treat. Lutefisk is a dried white fish, normally cod that has been soaked in very cold water for a couple of weeks and then a few days in lye. That ingredient set off alarms, so we tossed the Lutefisk as well..

We had amassed a pretty good stash. Once we had set the banquet date, when it was forecast that nothing would fall from the sky (Saturday, March 15), it was time to set the table.

With guests that fly, jump, dive, climb, crawl and waddle, the layout is important so that everyone gets a fair share. This, of course, is optimistic, because in fact no one shares. Each species has its pushy ones, too. We have given up on trying to maintain order among our guests and just enjoy the show.

Invitations are not a problem, as we rely on the crow community to be town criers. When they first see us begin to distribute the food in bird feeders and pie plates on the deck, the “caw” goes out.

As usual, the black-capped chickadees arrived first – noisy and energetic. We knew the party was officially under way when the first male cardinal swooped down in his blazing robes. Then came the morning doves, which looked like a gaggle of nuns.

Blue jays, those avian Spitfires, dive-bombed the group. Jays seem to coordinate their hunt, like those raptors in Jurassic Park, with one or two swooping down for food before the next sortie flies in. Sparrows also joined the fun, with each coming in for a seed or small nut and then disappearing into the trees.

The chipmunks surprised us by jumping and cavorting as much as the squirrels, but their larger cousins got the lion’s share. We recognized two of our favorite guests from previous years, an older female Chipmunk we call Daisy and a brash younger male named Scooter. They live in a drain pipe up the road. Daisy would scrounge for 20 minutes until her pouches looked like saddle bags, while Scooter, who can jump 10 lengths of himself at a time, just grabbed and ran.

As the day wore on, the crows become more brazen. They may have been the initial announcers but were cautious about joining the feeding frenzy. They started landing away from the table and then walking up to feed, but they spooked easily.

As afternoon dissolved into night, visitors become sparser, and we retired for the night. Although we had the leaf blower at the ready for the morning clean-up, the deck was surprisingly neat following the day-long bacchanalia. I suppose we have the raccoons to thank for that.

With the banquet done for another year, we’ll revert to planters and baskets for the humming birds. Given the persistence of the winter, however, who knows when that will be.

– Susan Aiken 03/19/14

My husband and I have been lifelong schnauzer owners.  After the last one died about five years ago, the only sounds around our home were our own, the plaintive cry of birds outside the window and the normal creaking, gurgling and cracking noises from our aging house.

So, it didn’t take us long to realize the scratching and rumbling sound on our deck each winter night signaled a visitor, and a persistent one.

As we trained our flashlights through the glass door, we couldn’t quite catch it but realized the elusive shadow was too big to be that of a stray cat, and it wasn’t meowing.

We had a vague memory of being warned not to feed wildlife, but we were just too curious.  So, we quietly left a plate of cookies and a ripe banana on the deck floor, and retreated to wait behind the curtain.

Within minutes, our visitor was staring directly at us while sitting straight up with the banana in her hand-like paws.

“Well, hello Dolly!”

This would be the start of a relationship that lasted three years.

A raccoon is a distinctive creature.  What amazed us was how much this one reminded us of our schnauzers. The same kind of face, piercing dark eyes, pointed ears, and black and white coloring. Even the button nose was a match.  At first we truly wondered if one of our beloved dogs had returned.

We instinctively assumed she was female, and she eventually equated the name Dolly to “banana,” her preferred meal.  We never knew why, since they don’t grow around here.  Nevertheless, bananas became a staple on our shopping list, and we watched prices like they were retirement stocks.

The bonding process had its limits, however.  If we tried to approach her, Dolly reacted with a hissing sound that was intimidatingly effective.

But she was very tolerant of other critters, happily eating alongside squirrels and chipmunks.  And she would stand beneath the bird feeders waiting for seeds to drop.  Room-service bananas were hers alone, however.

She became part of our lives.  When one of us would return from an outing, the first question was: “Has Dolly been by?”

All this was a learning experience for me.  I grew up in the Upper Midwest, where raccoons were generally considered destructive pests and were constantly hunted and trapped, often with dogs. They were always respected for their prowess and power, and stories would circulate about how they would drown dogs in the lake. I never remembered a raccoon as a Disney character, and assumed that the reputation was deserved.

It turned out that we had a neighbor who agreed – a lady who lived alone and was constantly peering out her window in search of marauders.  Dolly’s frequent visits to our place had not gone unnoticed.

We came to guard Dolly’s privacy.  One summer day, we saw a man walking around with what looked like a cage.  I approached him and asked what he was doing.  He said he was the “official trapper” for the town and had been engaged to rid the area of raccoons, skunks, foxes and woodchucks, because of concerns about rabies.  Residents couldn’t have their dogs attacked by a rabid beast.

When he asked me if we had seen any such varmints around, I replied with my own question: What does he do with the animals he traps? Oh, he said, they are never harmed but released into the wild in Roxbury, our neighboring town with plenty of woods.

Hmmm.  So much for all the concern about rabies.

“’Haven’t seen any,” I replied.

After a few days, Dolly didn’t come around.  Bananas were spoiling on the deck.  We assumed the trapper had done his job.

We didn’t think we would ever see her again.  But about six weeks later, we saw Dolly lying on the deck railing looking into the house with those plaintive, banana-wanting eyes.

We didn’t have any bananas on hand that day, but remembered that Dolly would try peanut butter and crackers when we had misjudged the banana supply. When I finally got this reserve repast prepared, I walked outside to find six little raccoons bounding up on the deck.

Yes, she was a female alright. They were the most adorable and rambunctious creatures we could ever imagine.

We now had a family of seven to feed.  So, off to the supermarket I went to stock up on everything they might enjoy.  Bananas, off course, and peanuts, fruit, sunflower seeds, and husked corn on the cob.

The day she and her new family came to visit happened to be Father’s Day.  Before leaving for a celebratory dinner, my husband said the sight of Dolly and her kits waiting to be fed was the best gift he could have received.

The growing family stayed for about a month.  But the neighbor lady was on the prowl.  She called the trapper again, and he soon caught them all.

Now we assumed she really was gone for good.  But a month later, there she was back on our deck, this time alone.  We immediately noticed she was bleeding.  Her left hind leg was missing.

She got her banana, ate it and limped off.  We never saw her again.

Dolly had come back to say good-bye.  She left three paw prints on our hearts.

– Susan Aiken 02/25/14





Tired of all the snow?  Think of the birds and all the other critters out there who have to live in it.  At least, they don’t have to go hungry.

My favorite place to watch them eat is from an old, overstuffed bucket chair in the living room, located next to a full-length glass, sliding door.  The door opens to the deck.  Bird feeders hang at the nearest corner of the deck, about 15 feet above the ground.

The bird feeders are hung on a forked oak branch, with two crossbars.  Oak branches wear well; they don’t rot like birch or crack like hemlock.  This one has withstood 16 winters.

There are only two feeders.  One is a standard tube, with horizontal perches for bird convenience.  The other one is also a tube, but equipped with a ring at the bottom that spins squirrels off if they land on it.   I have never seen a squirrel thrown off mine.  I think that is because they have already experienced these devilish contraptions, operated by a hidden battery, and learn quickly.

The birds are too light to set the thing off.  The squirrels still try to beat it by hanging by their rear feet from the crossbar and try to reach the seed door at the bottom.  But the feeder is too long for them to reach the food.  They get very frustrated.

It’s not that I don’t like squirrels.  I do.  Someone described them as The Flying Wallandas of the mammal family.  They are great fun to watch.

Not only are they incredibly agile, they are quite handsome.  Ours are Eastern Gray squirrels.  Their fur is a soft gray, with flecks of brown along the spine that denses up around the head.  The ears taper to a pink point, and Asiatic brown eyes are lined with a precise, tan-colored ring.  Then there’s the tail, fluffier than the pelt, trimmed in white and very versatile.  When a squirrel hangs from a branch, its tail helps the hind legs hold on.  It also flicks to show anger or alarm.  When a squirrel is foraging on the ground, it tucks its tail over its back, out of the way.

The most intriguing thing, to me, is the way squirrels eat.   They sit on their haunches and the front legs transform into tiny hands with fluttering fingers, pushing food into their mouths.  There’s something very human about it.

They are voracious eaters and, like us, are into instant gratification.  A well-stocked bird feeder, with all those seeds and nuts and fruit for the taking, is a God-send.  They don’t like anyone horning in, even their own kind.  Birds keep a wide berth.

Humans have devised all kinds of ways of keeping squirrels off bird feeders.  I don’t think it’s because we believe they should starve.  But they are real pigs.  They are also clever, and because of that, they test our mettle.  My father-in-law rigged up an electric plate that zapped them when they touched a feeder, but somehow they figured out if they didn’t stand on the grounded plate they wouldn’t get shocked.  So, the old man resorted to a pellet gun.  But as soon as he would open the sliding door, even very quietly to take a bead on them, they took off.  Thus, the spinning feeder.

As for the birds, anyone who watches them – even rank amateurs like me – can detect the basic techniques of each species:

First, there are the grab-and-go eaters, like chickadees and titmice, different from the stay-and-feed types, like junkos and crows.  Then there are the perchers, like goldfinches and nuthatches, as opposed to the ground or flat feeders, like doves and wild turkeys.

Perching birds tend to take their food to a nearby branch to eat, but woodpeckers stay for a few bites before flying off.  (They prefer suet, but raccoons like it too, and invariably knock the holder to the ground).

The experts say that grab-and-go birds don’t like to stick around for fear of predators, like hawks.  The stay-and-eat types mostly congregate in groups on the principle of safety in numbers.  This does not apply to crows, who are big enough to do what they want.  No one hangs around, though, including squirrels, if a hawk is detected in the neighborhood.

My favorites are the junkos.  With their chunky little bodies and yellow beaks sticking out of dark gray feathers, they merrily eat away on the railing and the deck floor, oblivious to others.

Chickadees are the gutsiest of the lot.  Some don’t even wait until I have finished filling the feeders before alighting, sometimes mere inches from my head.

All these antics are endlessly fascinating, and I don’t care whether we’re fooling around with Mother Nature by interceding, as some purists believe.

Wildlife is entitled to the pursuit of happiness, just like I am.

– GAK 02/09/14

Blue Jay

August 19.

The date fell on a Friday back then.

People around here were getting pretty sick of all the wetness that summer.  Farmers couldn’t get into their fields without sinking in mud.  Cellars hadn’t dried out yet from eight inches of downfall the previous weekend.  Now it was raining again, and hard.

Bill Bader, the unofficial historian of Washington Depot, said in his book, An American Village, that even all that water, carried to town by two back-to-back hurricanes, hadn’t prepared the residents for what they woke up to that Friday morning.

Once called Factory Hollow, the village alongside the Shepaug River had seen busier days.  The last train had come through seven years earlier.  The mills, plants and creameries that justified rail service had pretty much disappeared, leaving a score of smaller wood buildings, consisting of working-class houses and shops that serviced the grand homes and private schools up on Green Hill.  Nevertheless, the depot was still the seat of town government, and a new two-lane bridge had opened up traffic on Route 47 between the depot and points south.

Like any river, the Shepaug had always acted up from time to time, inundating adjacent streets or pushing great chunks of ice over its banks.  But that was a tolerable trade-off for a dependable source of water power and natural sewer system, even though both functions had outlived their efficacy by the middle of the 20th century.  In fact, some concerned citizens on the hill had angered townspeople by telling them not to throw their trash and waste water into the river.

On Thursday night, residents were getting a little worried.  The river had swelled over its banks under a downpour that showed no sign of letting up.  As Bill and his sister Irene waded through two feet of water on Main Street, they heard the familiar voice of local volunteer fireman Cliff Couch singing “Wake the Town and Tell the People.”  But few residents of the valley were alarmed enough to evacuate their homes, and most went to bed thinking nature would play itself out as it always had.

Perhaps it would have, if an earthen dam upstream had not collapsed early the next morning under a 16-inch deluge.

“It got to Washington Depot close to seven – a great big wall of water carrying all kinds of debris, trees and rocks, cattle and buildings,” Bader wrote in his 1998 history with Pamela Redmer.  “It was ungodly.”

Particularly seared in his memory was the house knocked off its foundation by an uprooted tree that acted “like a battering ram.”  He and others watched the two-story building “gently float away,” not knowing two elderly residents were still inside.   A man and wife, they were both killed, their bodies found downstream after the water subsided.

Little was spared in the depot that day, including the Bader family market, which was too badly damaged to rebuild.  Bill later earned his living as an arborist.

Eventually, the townspeople of Washington learned that they were not the only ones to suffer.  Hundreds of buildings were destroyed and 54 people died in the Housatonic watershed alone in what came to be called the Great Flood of 1955.   Then President Dwight D. Eisenhower later flew over the area and said he had never seen such havoc wreaked outside a war zone.

Bill Bader was not here to mark the 58th anniversary of the most important event of his life.  He died Aug. 10 at the age of 85.



July 1, 2013

Small towns have a special way of honoring their own.  You can always tell if it’s the real thing – not a  thinly disguised fundraiser or obligatory testimonial.

The invitation is usually informal, mostly by word of mouth.  A lot of people pitch in with food, drink and setting up, without having their arms twisted.  Trying to keep it a secret from the guest of honor is absolutely fruitless, but, so as not to cause panic, the event is downplayed as “just a few friends getting together.”  Finally, scads of people show up and have a helluva good time, including the guest of honor.

So it was in Washington Depot the other evening as some 250 townspeople gathered at the pavilion near the ball field to congratulate Barbara Johnson on her retirement from Town Hall.

What really stood out on this occasion was the genuine affection people had for someone who, for the past 34 years, held the job of – are you ready? – town assessor.

Few municipal employees are as maligned as assessors.  They are the ones who have the effrontery to tell homeowners what their property is worth, thus determining how much they must pay in local taxes.  Even the tax collector is less subject to public rebuke.

Barbara got her share, of course, especially in a community with more than enough lawyered-up weekenders who know a thing or two about the price of property.  But it’s very difficult to stay angry for long at a white-haired lady of impeccable grace and an angelic smile – especially when she was usually right.

One reason she was so often right about such things as unreported outbuildings is that she is an inveterate walker, personally acquainted with most roads in town and the properties that abut them.  This pastime had a residual benefit of keeping the assessor remarkably fit into her 80s.  Barbara also knows about a lot of local skeletons, and although she may not have revealed them, a mere encounter with that glint in her eye could be enough to stop frivolous complaints.

Anyone familiar with the culture inside Bryan Memorial Town Hall also knows that when  Barbara was under siege, there were only two options: (1) Hide or (2) Come to her defense.

As a measure of Barbara’s stature within her own profession, six other assessors from around Litchfield County came to the party to say how much she would be missed. So did former State Sen. Andrew Roraback, who, as a newly appointed superior court judge, wasn’t going to get any votes out of it.

The attendee who probably deserved the Medal for Bravery that day was Delisse Locher of Morris, Barbara’s successor.  Nevertheless, people were cordial.


Updated Monday, August 19, 2013


EDITOR’S NOTE:  Today is the 58th anniversary of the 1955 flood.  Water volume recorded in the Housatonic and Still rivers at that time equaled between 50 and 480 times the amount recorded today.  Other rivers on this list were not measured in 1955.


Current River Streamflow Data for Northwestern Connecticut:

Streamflow is determined by the amount of water discharge in cubic feet per second (CFS) at a given measurement point in the river at a given point in time.   The figures below were recorded around 6 a.m. on today’s date.

SITE                                                   CFS Median               TODAY

(River & Place)                               (on this date)               (Aug. 19)       

Housatonic – Falls Village                    306                           381

Housatonic – Gaylordsville                  463                           735 

Naugatuck – Thomaston                       34                              61

Shepaug – Washington                         20                              38

Still – Colebrook                                     29                              51

Weekeepeemee – Woodbury                 5                                 7

 Source: Real-time data from the United States Geological Survey