Pockets of Paradise: The Burnt Lands Alvar

by Gretta Bradley

(I have learned that it takes a community to write an article about the Burnt Lands alvar. I want to thank, Neil Carleton, Ken Allison and Michel Gauthier for helping me to articulate the beauty of this “pocket of paradise”. I was also helped along by the website of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and The Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility website.)

As a friend of mine says, ”When you step onto the alvar, you know you are somewhere special”. The grasses rustle as the warm breezes blow over the limestone plain. The large cracked pavements looking like ancient alien roads, bisect the landscape. Below, a thick communication cable runs up to a bunker where terrified men and women would have hunkered, hoping to put the world back together following a nuclear war. Here, nature reclaims its own as the concrete spalls and the metal rusts on the Cold War installation.

The alvar is old. Eerie conical shapes of the apex predators of a prehistoric sea, the fossilized remains of cephalopods, seemingly glide along in search of prey in a frozen limestone sea. The blackened remnants of strange tropical corals now lie motionless in time.

Leaving only the thinnest layer of soil following the great fire of August 1870 that had burned everything from the village of Rosebank (Blakeney) to Ottawa, new life would struggle to survive here. Each spring on the Burnt Lands, flooding creates vernal pools that dry as the summer drought sets in, producing a rare community of plants and animals that have adapted in these harsh conditions.

Spring brings an explosion of wild flowers. The yellow lady slippers, wearing their perfect yellow pumps with corkscrew laces, are among the first.  You will need to step carefully to avoid crushing a rare orchid, the ram’s head lady slipper. An overhanging leaf shelters a fuzzy white and purple cup, giving it the somewhat comical appearance of a bearded goat.  In spite of their name, the blue-eyed grasses can be found in the vicinity of their sisters, the wild iris. The columbine hangs its head; red splotches against a backdrop of grey bushes fallen victim to a harsh winter. Starry false solomon seal, sedge and polygala also decorate the forest mat. Mosses and lichens, swollen by spring run- off, cling to the rocks that they will eventually tear down to soil. A few weeks later, the showgirl of the alvar, the wood lily, makes an appearance. At the base of each blood-orange petal, slender filaments radiate from a bright yellow throat.

The bohemian waxwings, the vagabonds of the avian world, are long gone by the time spring birdsong animates the alvar. The barn swallow, with an iridescent cobalt blue cape and a dark mask over a tawny face and chin is as beautiful to see perched on a branch, as it is to watch gliding over the alvar just a few inches above the ground in search of insects. The field sparrow wouldn’t win any awards for beauty, but on spring mornings, this otherwise shrinking violet opens his throat, unleashing a loud, decelerating series of notes that sound like a basketball coming to rest.  If you are patient and walk slowly, northern flickers, cedar waxwings, blue jays, common yellow throats and many more too numerous to mention, can all be found here. The alvar’s lone predator, the American kestrel, can be sighted, silently vigilant on an overhead wire, looking for small creatures stirring in the grass.

There are other winged creatures that inhabit this place.  Butterflies can be seen floating on the breeze at almost any time of year. Don’t overly concern yourself with identification. Enjoy the erratic flight and spectacular wing patterns of these delicate creatures. It is, however, only human to want to put a name to something or to take a likeness. It gives us a way of holding it in memory and sharing it with others. I enjoy hiking with friends from the local field naturalist group, The Mississippi Field Naturalists, kind and patient people more than willing to share their knowledge of both nature and photography.

Butterfly names are as beautiful as their namesakes. The spring azure’s blue and black wings blend with the plant life growing in the scrabble. The great spangled fritillary, one of the largest butterflies in this category, has no intention of hiding. A distinctive pattern of black lines overlies the bright orange wing.  Others here include the hoary elfin, chryxus arctic, satyr anglewing, roadside skipper and columbine duskywing. There are many more.

In the Burnt Lands, you don’t look to lofty heights or sweeping vistas. You fall in love with the Burnt Lands, by looking down (or at most, eye-level). Most things here are small and delicate: orchids, mosses, lichens, grasses, sparrows, swallows and butterflies. The land does not overpower and dwarf, but overwhelms by the tiny, beautiful tenacity of the life here.