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Exploring the Taconics in the Vermont

02/07/03 12:00AM By Ted Levin
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(Host) Commentator Ted Levin says that it's the mountains of Vermont's southwest corner that give the region much of it's southern character.

(Levin) During the spring of 1975, while slowly working my way from Long Island to Vermont, I spent a season at an environmental education center in Dover Plains, New York. It's a hamlet in the Taconic Mountains, in the heart of Duchess County, an hour and half north of New York City. There I was very much taken by peculiar lime-rock outcroppings, rubbed smooth over the course of several millennia by the movement of tens of thousands of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and black rat snakes, crawling in and out of hibernating dens, abrading rock with glacial force. It was an altogether beautiful landscape, surrounded by woods full of oaks and hickories, where the air hummed with birdsong.

To my surprise, I discovered that those same Taconic Mountains whose southern rim reaches within a heart beat of New York City, extends into Vermont, along the state's southwestern edge. To be precise, the Vermont Taconics run 75 miles into Vermont, from near Lake Bomoseen in the north to the Massachusetts line. Although the mountain range has a number of 3,000-foot peaks in Vermont, at 3,882-feet Mount Equinox, west of Manchester, is the loftiest. Wind-swept and spruce-clad, the summit of Equinox echoes the spine of the Green Mountains, a bitter, northern mountain out of context in a southerly range. By Fair Haven, the Taconics degenerate to a series of short, rounded hills.

The drier slopes of the Taconic Mountains, which support a woods of red and white oaks and shagbark hickory, gives the southwestern corner of Vermont a distinctly southerly feel. Sort of like Duchess County, New York, minus those snakes. There are even pockets of black oak and red cedar, and on south facing slopes chestnut oak glades, where the trees are short and their crowns gnarled. Throughout the oak woodlands wild turkey and gray squirrel fatten on an abundant mast crop.

Much of the Taconic Mountains is made of sedimentary rock, ancient ocean floor deposits of clay and lime that hardened and cemented into stone. The rock was eventually thrust up by colliding continental plates. From a geologic standpoint, at least, the mountains appear to be upside down. Older rock, mostly limestone, lies on top of younger layers of slate and shale. This stratification confused geologists until the theory of plate tectonics demonstrated that, under the intense pressure of continental collisions which occurred more than 400 million years ago, the Taconic Mountains buckled, folding over themselves. Hence, older rock on top of younger rock.

The Taconic Mountains are porous. Streams run below ground and surface as springs, some with substantial flows. The damp, water-eroded caves that pock the limestone are critical hibernating sites for bats, including the federally endangered Indiana myotis, a small, brown, nondescript beast, which is far more common in Indiana and Kentucky than in southern Vermont. Like the bat, the Taconic Mountains seem curiously out of place in Vermont, which makes them all the more alluring.

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center, Vermont.
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