Not far from where I live is a place that seems as if a chunk of Nantucket or the New Jersey Pine Barrens was dropped in the middle of western Massachusetts. In contrast to the surrounding landscape’s rocky soil, supporting forest with a mixture of oak, hickory, maple, ash, hemlock, and other trees, the Montague Sand Plains are an expanse of dry, sandy habitat with an abundance of pitch pine and scrub oak. The habitat is extensive enough that it supports populations of a variety of plants and animals that are considered rare and of conservation concern in Massachusetts.
The reason for this big sand pile is that about 15,000 years ago, when the last glacier was receding, glacial sediments plugged up the Connecticut River in what is now central Connecticut, forming a dam that turned the river into a massive lake extending to northern Vermont. The Sand Plains are one of the deltas that formed where melt water streams carrying glacial sediment emptied into the lake.
To someone ignorant of the natural world (e.g., most of the people in charge of making major decisions that affect it), the Montague Plains might appear to be a scrappy wasteland not worth protecting. In the early 1970s, the State thought it would be a perfect spot for a landfill to dump all of Boston’s trash. Shortly after the people of Montague managed to fight off this assault, Northeast Utilities decided to put a nuclear power plant there. The only legal means for preventing this was to speak up at a hearing held by the Atomic Energy Commission, whose decision would preempt all state and local laws. A local organic farmer named Sam Lovejoy recognized that these hearings were a farce, and 41 years ago today [well, yesterday, since I finished this after midnight], he knocked over a 500-foot weather tower that Northeast Utilities had erected to test wind direction. His intent was to spark a public debate on the effects of nuclear reactors. The details are given in the documentary Lovejoy’s Nuclear War, which I just had the opportunity to see today. But the upshot is, the nuclear plant was never built, and the Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area remains a special place.
So last summer, when Lang Elliott came for a visit and was looking for some interesting bugs to film, I brought him to the Montague Plains. In addition to things like tiger beetles, wolf spiders, and velvet ants, sandy places like this are home to all kinds of digger wasps, each of which stocks its burrow with a particular paralyzed prey item to feed its offspring. Some species specialize in spiders, others in flies, or grasshoppers, or metallic wood-boring beetles, and so on. I knew a spot where we could be sure to see some cicada killers (Crabronidae: Sphecius speciosus), which are wasps that are big enough that they can actually fly while carrying a cicada, and their burrows look like they could be the work of a small mammal rather than an insect. The cicada killers did not disappoint, and at one point we got a good look at a mating pair:
Lang was excited enough about the cicada killers that he came back two more times to get additional footage. When Julia and I joined him for his third visit, he showed us the spot he had found where the males all hang out together while the females are busy hunting and bringing back cicadas to their burrows. His mission this time was to get footage of a wasp carrying a cicada into her burrow. This proved to be a major challenge, because when you saw one coming, there was no way of knowing which burrow it was heading for, and when it landed it would zip into the hole so quickly that if I was lucky I might manage one shot like this…
…but there was no time to set up a tripod with a video camera before the wasp disappeared. Eventually we decided to place a twig over a burrow, just to slow the wasp down enough to get the camera set up. When the wasp returned, she dropped her cicada and flew away. Lang got everything ready and removed the twig, but when the wasp came back again, she seemed confused about where her burrow was, and she started dragging the cicada every which way across the sand. While Lang waited patiently for her to get her bearings, I followed her around and managed some better shots, including this one:
She then proceeded to run up Julia’s leg, continuing until she bumped into the lens of Julia’s camera:
If I’d been a little quicker, this could have been a great in-flight shot:
Around this time, another insect showed up–I seem to remember it being a fly–and chased the cicada killer back and forth over our heads several times. Presumably it wanted to lay an egg on the cicada so its offspring could devour it after being deposited in the cicada killer’s burrow. Eventually, the wasp managed to lose her pursuer, came back to the ground, and Lang got beautiful footage of her finally dragging the cicada into her burrow (which I’m hoping he will post on his website one of these days…).
The Montague Plains are now facing another assault, this time from Kinder Morgan, the energy company formerly known as Enron, which proposes to put a major natural gas pipeline through at least 148 “permanently protected” parcels across Massachusetts. This proposal is not based on need; as Kinder Morgan’s public affairs vice president candidly stated at an informational meeting last fall, the company bases its decision to go ahead with a project based on two criteria: 1) whether they will make money on it, and 2) whether the government will let them do it. The second criterion is no problem, since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, like its predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission, virtually never denies a project. And their decision, too, trumps any state or local laws, such as those governing “permanently protected” conservation land. The first criterion will also be no problem, because the plan is to export a good chunk of the gas overseas AND have electric ratepayers in New England cover the cost.
The cicada killers likely won’t be affected by this pipeline, and maybe it’s just fine for public and private land to be taken through eminent domain for the sake of enriching a corporation with a terrible environmental record. And maybe I’m just being a NIMBY for not wanting Kinder Morgan to put one of the largest natural gas compressor stations in existence–with three turbines each droning louder than the loudest rock concert in history, belching formaldehyde and other chemicals into the air–right next to a conservation area that is within a mile of my house. It could be that choosing to live within the evacuation zone of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant isn’t enough of a sacrifice for me to make. But the fracking to obtain this gas is destroying livelihoods and communities in other parts of the country, not to mention causing earthquakes and contaminating aquifers with a long list of toxic chemicals. And not to mention that natural gas (methane) is an even more potent greenhouse gas in the short term than carbon dioxide, and is just another fossil fuel rather than the “bridge to a clean energy future” as is often claimed.
It’s easy for people to be convinced that all this devastation and all these pipelines are necessary when all they pay attention to is the price of electricity (especially when the supply and price are being deliberately manipulated in order to convince them). But I can’t help but think that the $3-4 billion cost of this pipeline would be better invested in efficiency, conservation, and renewable technologies.
I guess all I’m saying is, it would be nice if everyone could think a little more about where our energy is coming from so I can stop worrying about these assaults on my local landscape and get back to thinking about bugs.