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At home with nature

After 40 years, Conservancy steward still teaching

Email|Print| Text size + By Amy van Aarem
Globe Correspondent / January 6, 2008

Wes Osborne doesn't hold a degree in ecology or botany. His background, he said, is in "experience and common sense." He also knows Black Pond Reservation in Norwell probably better than anyone. For the past 40-plus years, he has been the Nature Conservancy steward for the reservation.

His history with the site goes well beyond 40 years. As a child growing up a few miles away in Assinippi, a village in Hanover, Osborne spent hours exploring the forest and bog. "I used to go over and do a little duck hunting," he said, "but this was back when I was 15, long before the conservancy took over."

At 84, he is the oldest working steward in the Massachusetts chapter of the Nature Conservancy. One late fall day, dressed in jeans and hiking boots, he nimbly navigated the mixed terrain of the 103-acre property that includes forest, pond, and quaking bog.

Not even a heart attack a couple of years ago made him reconsider his post. "I was only in the hospital four days, but they made me take it easy for about a month," Osborne said.

The land has a storied past. In 1775, as part of the expulsion of Acadians from Nova Scotia, a small group settled in the Clapp homestead on the land. It was the Acadians who provided the subject matter for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem, "Evangeline.

Today the property remains an open classroom, available to anyone. Captain William Vinal, an emeritus professor of nature education at the University of Massachusetts, was instrumental in getting the initial 50-acre tract of land dedicated in 1962 as the first Nature Conservancy preserve in Massachusetts. Vinal, in a 1974 guide book, referred to the reservation as "an area of learning . . . a classroom to learn about the unity of life."

Like Vinal, Osborne creates learning opportunities. Trekking through the site to the pond, he stops and steadies himself with his walking stick to point out various species of plants and trees, such as the coastal white cedar that does not grow more than 50 miles inland, an evergreen that thrives on the mossy base, such as sphagnum, which is overabundant at the pond. Osborne picks up a handful of the moss, squeezes it, and lets the water run out. He said the Indians used the moss as an antiseptic.

Osborne received an associate's degree in agriculture from the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a good base for his 35-year career as tree warden, but everything else he learned was through "Captain Bill" Vinal and basically spending his life at the site.

Black Pond is one of the few remaining glacial kettle-hole ponds - a hollow formed by glaciers as they receded from New England 15,000 years ago - in the state.

In 1980, a boardwalk was built through the swamp that was designed to not disturb the vegetation. Vinal built a platform from which he conducted lectures. The pond and bog have been studied for years by students from all over the world who come to examine such plants as the carnivorous sundew and pitcher plant, both capable of trapping insects.

Nature Conservancy volunteers are building a new walkway, essential to protecting the bog mat. In the 1970s, the property had to be closed for years because of damage from overuse; closing the site reenergized the plant life.

Bogs are wetlands that have formed across the surface of shallow ponds. The roots of encroaching wetland plants (particularly sphagnum moss at Black Pond) form floating mats, creating an unstable, "quaking" surface. Osborne describes it as "like a float on top of water," as he trudges out to a mossy area and jumps, as if on a trampoline, to display its buoyant properties. "One winter, I was out in snowshoes, testing the water near the pond, and I started to sink," Osborne said.

Karen Lombard, assistant director of conservation science for the Massachusetts chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said Osborne is "the eyes and ears for us. I don't get out there much, maybe once a year, but Wes handles the mowing, maintenance and boardwalk issues and coordinates with the [Norwell] Conservation Commission when necessary."

Osborne, who visits the property four or five times a month during the warmer months, said, "It's a reverent place, a nice place to go all alone." Then he adds quickly that, "I like coming here alone or in groups. The schoolchildren are the ones who really enjoy it, to get that hands-on education. That's what Captain Bill wanted it for."

To schedule a tour of Black Pond Reservation, call Karen Lombard with the Nature Conservancy at 617-227-7017, ext. 323. For more information on the property, visit tnc.org.

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