Seasons of the Forest: As I complete my trek through the winter season at Hopkins Memorial Forest, I have the unique opportunity to reflect on each season this year in the forest, due to the fact I have worked each one in this last year. Over the course of four blog posts, I’ll document how the forest shifts and develops as each season pass in the eyes of a student caretaker.
Generally, when getting ready for work this summer I would wear long, sturdy pants, tucked into mid-calf socks, fit into boots that would protect my feet (hopefully) if I dropped an ax on them. Plus, a sun-protective button-down, neck gaiter, and hat. This get-up was meant to protect me from axes, yes, but also the sun, which scorches in Williamstown summers; the branches, leaves, and brambles that creeped onto trails during June and July; the mud, moss, mosquitoes, and bees of the garden; and splintery-wood, rough metal, or other materials we would lug around.
Most days Niko, the other summer caretaker, and I would rotate among tasks. We weeded the Buxton Garden, trimmed the hedges, mowed the lawns, split logs, carried logs, built fences, destroyed and build bridges, cleared invasive species, painted signs, or assisted in research. Sometimes, on rainy days, we would stay inside and organize the lab or the office or one of the various storage locations or plan this blog! And sometimes we would spend most of the day on the trails, fixing water bars or clearing brush. These were my favorite days because they required us to hike, let us explore new parts of the forest, and allowed us to have long, deep conversations. This is definitely not always the case of every pair that works in the Hopkins Memorial Forest, but Niko and I became incredibly close friends, learning most everything there was to know about each other on those hikes.
Every day in the forest was approximately the same. Full of hiking, weeding, podcasts, and conversations, wearing boots and jeans and sun protection. But on one slightly chilly but very sunny late July day, I wore swim trunks, a tank top, and sandals that would (most definitely) not protect my feet if I dropped an ax on them. It was obviously a special day in the forest. In fact, it was the single handedly most-built-up day in my forest employment: Weir Day.
I applied to both Hopkins Forest-related internships – one working directly in the forest and one working in the Environmental Analysis Lab that has various projects in the forest – and in both interview processes, Weir Day was emphasized with enthusiasm! Drew (my supervisor) and Jay (the supervisor of the EA Lab) spoke about it with gusto. They described it as a bit of a party with many people and free food. They called a respite from scorching August days (since you get to splash around in streams). They also said something about shoveling and weighing a lot of sediment.
You see, for the last 36 years, the Williams College Environmental Analysis Lab run by David Dethier and Jay Racela has tracked biological, sedimentary, chemical, and meteorological data about the forest. Although there is an extensive monitoring operation, through constant temperature, air pressure, and precipitation tracking or through repeated vegetation studies that count and catalogue plant-life, gathering data on water, sediment, and organic matter flow is a task that requires annual maintenance and heavy manual labor – the task which we were doing. At various points streams in the forest are partially blocked by weirs, or low damns that do not contain all of the water, which are equipped with gauges, which measure the height of the water level of the stream and the volume of discharge, or flow. Throughout the year sediment and organic matter builds up upstream of the weirs and Weir Day is the day when people hike to them, shovel up the organic matter and sediment, mark it as “inorganic, organic, or mixed”, weigh it and throw it over the edge so it can continue down the stream.
There was a rowdy and happy energy to the volunteers. Most of them were students, faculty, and staff members related to the GEOS or ENVI departments, on campus for summer research. Zilkha Center interns took a pause from their sustainability projects to come help out! A Williams student who was in the area but not working on campus came as well. Alumni from the GEOS department came back too to help out! A couple members brought their children, who spent time playing upstream of our shoveling. As Petra Baldwin ’21, summer intern for the Environmental Analysis Lab, observed the day “brought so many different communities together.” She was surprised that alumni came back for the day and thought it was “wild … [and] so cute.”
It was hard work. By the end of the day my back and thighs ached from hauling buckets and shoveling sediment. All of us were, at least partly, muddy. It was all worth it to see the before and after of views the weirs. Before we started, the water was thick with mud and had banks high with sediment. After we were done, it was only clear water and clean boulders that lined the stream. Later that evening, we got an email saying that we had shoveled over 9 metric tons! (For reference, that is the same weight as 1.5 average full-grown elephants!). If you are interested in learning more about the weirs, or the research that the Environmental Analysis Lab does, check out our “Research” section. And, be on the look-out (COVID-permitting) for a gaggle of scientists heading into the woods one day this August!
– Alice-Henry Carnell, Student Caretaker and Educator, Williams 2022