There can be difficult interviews in my line of work, where a person needs to be prompted with questions every few seconds to keep them talking. There are also easy ones, where a person shares the relevant details with little effort on my part. And then there’s Nick Hill…
I’ve never met someone so enthusiastic about plantlife, specializing as he does in their history and methods of survival. This plant ecologist describes their near brushes with extinction like the epics of Homer, and you know what? They’re enthralling.
The first three hours I knew him, as we drove to the distant shores of Brier Island, Nova Scotia, I hardy said a word as he gave me a near complete history of the Eastern Mountain Avens, an endangered flower found only in two places on Earth – atop Mount Washington, New Hampshire, and on the small island we were bound for.
The day was April 18, 2017, when the pair of us carpooled to Brier, following the Digby Neck to its very tip and taking all the ferries that necessitates. By noon we joined the growing gang of scientists who’d come to take stock of this rare plant and oversee our efforts to save it, many of the organizations responsible for the project soon to arrive. It’s here I met Tom Neily, a botanist and lichenologist with the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute and a very quiet man, Nick’s exact opposite really, in personality if not profession. We were sitting for perhaps five minutes when Nick insisted on visiting the field, his restlessness overriding his patience, so the three of us set off early.
The largest and most significant population of Eastern Mountain Avens on that island grows at the border of two ecosystems – the locally famous Big Meadow Bog and the swamplands which surround it on all sides. The runoff of these two worlds collide in what’s called a lagg, a low point of Earth with such unusual chemistry that most plants can’t prosper, leaving the extremely resilient avens to grow in a near complete lack of competition. Unfortunately this chemistry was upset by the ditching of Big Meadow Bog in 1958, lowering its water table dramatically and upsetting the ecosystem at large. It’s this ditching we’d come to see corrected.
Through mud and moss we three trudged, Nick leading the way and Tom bringing up the rear. The transition from swamp to bog was marked with the shortening of trees and eventually their disappearance, a kingdom of sphagnum moss and tall grasses opening up before us, its borders filling in ominously with shrubs and seedlings. Shortly we were at the bog’s eastern ditch, two metres deep and filled with stagnant water.
Before this ditch and two others, Big Meadow Bog was too wet for the growth of grasses or trees, but now and for decades the surrounding swamp has been swallowing this iconic ecosystem whole by way of woody growth, the critically endangered avens fast losing ground. But amid the invading trees we saw hope – a mini excavator with its bucket hard at work. Piloting the machine was biologist Mike Parker with East Coast Aquatics, filling in the ditch which had so long imperilled this ecosystem. Everywhere I looked there could be seen felled trees on the bog’s side of the border, part of their efforts to speed up recovery.
Mike and a colleague elsewhere in the bog were building ditch blocks every several metres – dams of sorts, made of ancient peat borrowed from nearby as well as multitudes of mud. Already these were holding back growing pools of water in the eastern ditch and Mike was filling the spaces between with piled dirt left over from 1958. He astounded us with his progress, saying the defunct lilly ponds which had once defined this bog, supporting myriad species of plant and waterfowl a little to the north, were filling in for the first time in decades. Big Meadow Bog, in front of our very eyes, was coming back to life.
With hasty directions and no real hesitation, Nick Hill, a man twice my age, took off running toward the nearest resurrected pond, leaving Tom and I to follow in futility. My camera and pack made running difficult and more than once I fell flat in the bushes, filling my hands with thorns and bruising my ego considerably. I pride myself on cardiovascular endurance but Nick put me to shame that afternoon, more used to such squishy terrain than I was and driven on by his admiration of these ponds. At least that’s how a young man comforts himself after losing a race so completely.
We never did find the ponds, our energy falling short of our waywardness, but written into the landscape, at clear as day even to my untrained eyes, was the ecological narrative Nick described during our drive. There was the woody growth crossing this bog’s borders and creeping toward its centre; the ditches carrying away precious water except where it was backed up by Mike and his colleagues; the gulls which had conquered this land since its drying, fertilizing the soil and encouraging the invasion of unwelcome plants. Big Meadow Bog was an open book, a case study into the true size of the human footprint.
One revelation Nick and Tom shared with me had to do with climate change of all things. The ecosystem under our feet was called a raised bog, they explained, because as it matures, it literally swells in size as more and more carbon is sucked from the air and locked in its ageing peat. With ditching, however, came this peat’s decomposition, causing Big Meadow Bog to deflate over time and expel its stored carbon at an alarming rate. This bog should be fighting climate change, but instead it’s been forced to contribute.
Nick, Tom and I made one last stop on our own, to the smallest of this bog’s ditches in the southwest, an area which East Coast Aquatics filled late last year. Here Nick glowed with pride and leapt atop the ditch blocks which had since become part of the landscape. He pointed out how high the water table had risen, obvious in the softness of the ground and the countless pools now level with the moss. In fact the water table had recovered so exquisitely that it rediscovered old streambeds, Nick told me, sitting derelict for decades like so much else around here. This is how a bog aught to be, I thought.
The Eastern Mountain Avens were not yet in season to my great disappointment, but when the gang of other researchers finally caught up with us we saw another of this story’s aspects up close – the invasion of gulls.
Believe it or not the herring gull was once a rarity on this island, but as this bog dried it gave way to ideal nesting habitat, fast seized upon by these shrill creatures. Today the north end of Big Meadow Bog hosts their largest breeding colony in Atlantic Canada, numbering 8,000 strong at peak season. As we worked our way through the seedling spruces of the north end I was dumbfounded by their numbers and am quite sure I’ve never seen so many in my life, adorning every suitable perch and filling the skies with a deafening symphony of squawks. I’m told locals can’t stand it.
Were it not for these gulls and an old piece of legislation protecting them, East Coast Aquatics might have been able to finish their restorative work this spring, plugging these destructive ditches for good, but as soon as these birds begin to nest they mustn’t be disturbed. Mike and his colleagues will have to pick up their work in fall when the gulls have moved on, returning wetness to Big Meadow Bog and driving away invaders of plant and animal. By the end of 2017, the largest population of Eastern Mountain Avens in all of Canada was secure, and their natural history might merit another chapter.
While reflecting on my experiences of the day I’ve realized that there’s a lesson in Big Meadow Bog for all of us who think of nature vaguely as a tall forest or towering shoreline with well maintained trails. It’s important to realize that the astounding biodiversity of our planet and province depends entirely on the variety of ecosystems we see fit to protect, even those we don’t typically associate with beauty.
Big Meadow Bog is just such a place, unclassical maybe, but marvellous in its own right; a place we can afford to protect no less fiercely than Kejimkujik, the Cape Breton Highlands, Crystal Crescent or the 100 Wild Islands, and not just for the sake of one flower.
Nick tells me that once the restoration is complete and the heart of Big Meadow Bog begins beating anew, they plan to erect a walkway showcasing its finest features. In time he hopes it will be accompanied by an education centre and become another of this small island’s mounting attractions. In this way people can see what I’ve seen and likewise fall in love with an ecosystem they haven’t given much thought, one that’s only too rare. And if they catch sight of the ever modest avens in their ongoing bid for survival, so much the better.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with the Chronicle Herald.