It was only 50,000 years ago when the last great ice sheet of the last glaciers pushed down to cover the Northeast. Only the tallest mountains were spared the press of the ice, while the rest of the region found itself under ice up to a mile thick. Every lake, every river, every stream, and every warm green wetland was obliterated. The Northeast was wiped clean.
The ice advanced so slowly, however, that no one living thing ever noticed. Generations of animals moved south as the ice moved inexorably behind them. Even the trees had a chance to send their seeds south before they succumbed to the inevitable; individuals dying, but species surviving.
The ice approached like a massive bulldozer, smashing, grinding, and pushing debris in front of it. Cape Cod and Long Island are basically great piles of sand and rock that were deposited where the great shovels ceased their southward movement, like the great piles of snow left by snowplows where they eventually back up and turn around.
When the ice “retreated,” however, it was far more passive. The ice did not physically move back toward the north, it simply melted. Billions of gallons of clean glacial water rushed over the sterile surface. Great river channels were excavated, great deposits of clean sand and gravel were laid down, and ever so slowly life began to return.
Today, scientists piece it all together using evidence of every imaginable kind. Fossils are excavated, bogs are mined for their layers of preserved pollen, and the rocks themselves are scrutinized to determine which way the ice moved and when. I have spent most of my adult life delving into the connections between what was and what is, but there was a time when I, too, was unaware of the truth of things.
When I first walked into the Wildlife Biology department at the University of Massachusetts, I had a deep love for nature, but knew very little about it. What I learned in my first four years struck a chord so deep that I signed up for another dose as a graduate student. During that time my affinity for nature was combined and strengthened with knowledge. My “love of nature” became an “adoration for Nature,” with a capital “N.”
Over the past 25 years, I have worked as a ranger for the National Park Service, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service, a preserve steward for The Nature Conservancy, a naturalist for the Massachusetts State Parks, and a field technician on many environmental research projects in the eastern United States. Today, I teach biology, chemistry, physics and environmental science at the high school level. All along the way, I have picked up a broad knowledge of the nature of the Northeast.
It’s now my life’s most ardent pursuit to share my knowledge, to foster a deeper appreciation for the diversity of life that surrounds us every day.
So think of this column as an introductory ecology course that anyone can enjoy. Tuition will cost no more than the Sunday paper, homework will last as long as it takes you to read each column, and quizzes will be short and infrequent.
As you attend classes, I hope that you will find your interest start to blossom, your imagination stirred and eventually an appreciation for wild plants and animals to grow. You cannot care about a thing until you know about it, and the more you know, the more deeply your caring will spread.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.