Friday, July 29, 2022

The Drowned Lands: New York’s Black Dirt Region

Rows of bright green radish tops growing in the black dirt . Photo by Gigi Eustace.
In May I was lucky enough to spend some time on a farm in the Black Dirt Region in Orange County, New York. Only about 50 miles northwest of New York City in the lower Hudson Valley, this area is characterized by beautiful estates, orchards and vineyards, charming Colonial-era villages, picturesque farms and fields of deep black dirt. All of these can be found elsewhere, except for that dirt.

Before I go any further, I want you to imagine the softest and silkiest potting soil that you’ve ever seen. That is what New York’s black dirt is like – in fact, it’s more like powder than soil. This special soil was formed some 12,000 years ago after a glacier receded, leaving a bog in place of the ancient lakebed. After that, repeated flooding in the area augmented the development of the swamp-land and added to the soil profile. The deep layers of decayed plant matter in the bog created a soil rich in nutrients (notably sulfur) that is anywhere from 3 to 30 feet deep (some claim as much as 300 feet). This region of New York contains 26,000 acres of Black Dirt, making it the largest concentration of farmable soil of this sort in the US. The only other place you’ll find as much is deep in the Everglades and inaccessible to farming.
An Historical Marker for the Drowned Lands, can be found in Pine Island, NY.

The earliest settlers to the region dubbed this area the “Drowned Lands” due to the soggy nature of the soil. There were many attempts made to drain and manage the land, with various levels of success and resistance to the attempts (see here for more on that story). In the later part of the 1800s, Polish and Volga German immigrants began arriving in the area. Unlike many of their earlier counterparts, they recognized the soil as similar to the humus-rich soil in their homelands and knew just how to handle it. They proceeded to dig a network of drainage ditches that dried out the soil and created perfect fields of fertile farmland, with crowns of dry land popping up in here and there like islands (which is exactly what they’re called by locals). To this day, Pine Island, New York remains the epicenter of the Black Dirt Region.

A view of a drainage ditch with an "island" in the background.

The physical qualities of this soil are remarkable, but its nutrient-rich composition is the star of this show. Black Dirt is between 30-90 percent organic material (most soil is roughly 10 percent). According to Maire Ullrich, an Orange County agricultural extension agent, “It’s basically a giant bowl of compost”. The decayed plant material that creates this compost-like soil also provides a healthy dose of nitrogen and sulfur. This unique sulfur-richness is what makes it exceptional for growing the most famous crop of the Black Dirt Region - the onion.

Black Dirt Onions. Photo by Gigi Eustace.
Onions, onions, onions – the cultivation, tradition, and business of onions is always swirling around the Drowned Lands. The predominant onions of this area are the tennis ball-sized yellow onions with papery skin that we are all familiar with. The sulfur in the soil increases the sugar content in onions and gives it a delicious strong, rich onion taste that turns exceptional when caramelized. It’s also hard to beat in a soup (here's a local recipe to try). 

It's not just onions that grow well in black dirt, of course. All the root vegetables (beets, carrots, garlic, radishes) love to grow down into that rich soil. Lettuce of all types, kale, kohlrabi and cabbages all thrive as well. In the last 25 years or so, growing sod has become a reliable venture and, even more recently, hemp has proven itself in the area. As you can see, it might be challenging to find something that does not grow well in black dirt.

Pulling radishes from the field. Photo by Gigi Eustace.

A vivid purple kohlrabi. Photo by Gigi Eustace.
Plants are not the only things that farmers are pulling out of the black dirt. As a testament to what was once a robust prehistorical world in the lower Hudson Valley, there have been an abundance of fossils found. According to this article, there are actually three distinct geological layers in the area: the deepest level is clay, the middle level is a mix of peat and clay and the black dirt makes up the top layer. Peat bogs are famous for preserving artifacts; in some parts of the world, they may be “bog bodies”, but in this part of New York the peat/clay layer of the black dirt has been holding onto prehistoric fauna. Mastodon finds are arguably the most impressive; not just for their size (the largest animals that roamed the area) but due to their rarity. More mastodon remains have been found in New York State than any other place on Earth and more have been found in Orange County than any other part of the state (more on that here).
A mastodon on the move.
Mastodons are not the only ancient creatures coming to light, stag-moose, giant beavers, peccaries, reindeer and ground sloths have also been found. Many of these fossils are discovered as farmers do maintenance on their drainage ditches after the growing season, but they are under no obligation to turn them over to authorities so there very well may be other types of animal fossils out there that the public has not seen. 

The Black Dirt Region truly has something for everybody. If you are an American History buff, you can drink and eat in establishments that date to the American Revolution. If you are a flora and fauna type person, the countryside and mountains are simply gorgeous and filled with wildlife (I saw a big ole black bear lumbering along). If you enjoy a good adult beverage, there are many first-class vineyards, cideries and breweries to visit. If you are a foodie, the options are nearly limitless. And, of course, if you are a person who loves to grow things, the black dirt is a thing of beauty and wonder.
A storm over an onion field.

Hands fondling some black dirt.I want to thank Gigi and Farmer Bobby for their hospitality. It was a joy to see the endless enthusiasm they showed for their beautiful part of the world. Oh, and thanks Gigi for the great pictures!

Submitted by Pam 

Monday, July 18, 2022

What’s This Bug? The Solufigid/Camel Spider.

 What we have here is a solufigid (Arachnida solifugae). They are found in arid regions around the world and have many, many names: solifuges, solpugids, wind scorpions, wind spiders, sun spiders, false spiders, jerrymanders, madres de alacran and camel spiders (probably the most widely-known name here in our country). Some names are specific to certain regions. For instance, in South Africa, they are called roman spiders, red roman spiders, rooi spiders, kalahari ferraris, haarskeerders (Afrikaans for “hair cutter) or baarskeerder (“beard cutter); the latter two so-named for the local belief that they cut people’s hair in their sleep to use it for nesting material (Solufigids like hair that’s been shed from humans and animals, but the harvesting part is myth). And that’s not all of the South African names, see more here.

When the US military went into Iran and other parts of the desert Middle East, our troops came across these unusual-to-them creatures and, of course, told everyone back home about them. They adopted the prominent name from the area, camel spiders (For clarity, I’m going to use this name for the remainder of this blog). This awareness of camel spiders to Americans, spawned many urban myths. It just so happens that the misconceptions highlight some of the most unique aspects of this creature. It’s been said:

Some of the many species of solufigids

 -  that camel spiders are spiders from Hell.

Clearly these creatures are not literally from the underworld. In fact, they are not true spiders, although they come from the Arachnid genus. There are over 1,000 species of camel spiders, and none have the correct anatomy to qualify as spiders. They do have the eight legs (the two front “legs” are called palps and function more as feelers or hands for grasping prey), but little else a spider has. They don’t have venom or spinnerets. Additionally, spiders have separate heads and thoraxes, while camel spiders have a large one-piece head/thorax combination (which takes up 1/3 of its body).

- that camel spiders charge at people.

These are animals that avoid the sun and/or daylight exposure. In fact, the Solifugae name is derived from Latin and means “fleeing from the sun”. If caught out in the sun, they will rush into whatever shade they find and sometimes that is the shade a human is making. They’ve also been known to use a walking person’s shadow as moving shade, which makes it seem they are chasing that person. At night, they will rush towards any light they see, including flashlights and campfires. Seeing them approaching rapidly from the darkness would give anyone a fright.

- that camel spiders can grow to the size of a dinner plate.

A camel spider sitting on a hand.
Two soldiers holding what appears to be gigantic camel spiders, but the photo is deceiving.A widely-shared picture from Iraq shows soldiers holding two locked-together gigantic camel spiders. While this made for titillating conversation, the photo is a classic case of false perspective. Camel spiders in the Middle East don’t grow to more than 2“, and most are around 1”. If you consider that dinner plates are 10½-12” in diameter, it’s clear just how much their size has been exaggerated. 

- that camel spiders can jump up to 6 feet and run up to 25 mph.

A camel spider amongst the rocks.In reality, camel spiders are not good jumpers. However, their chief hunting behavior is to run at breakneck speed towards their prey. I mean run – while they can’t go 25 mph, they can do 10 mph. And they can keep up this speed indefinitely; there is no “slow” switch. Once night falls, they barrel out of their hiding places and start running. According to this man, they have a preferred route that they transverse over and over. While this article tells of researchers who tried to keep up with these speed demons and had to give up after a non-stop two-hour dash. As it zooms around, a camel spider will attack and devour any prey that is unfortunate enough to cross it’s path. They will literally run into something, rear up, slap/grab it with their palps and then begin chewing on it immediately. In no time, the camel spider will have shredded, liquified and consumed It and be off looking for something else. As horrifying as this running-attacking seems to be, camel spiders should be considered beneficial due to some of their food choices. Their diet is varied and includes many creatures that are deemed undesirable by humans, like venomous insects, spiders, scorpions and centipedes. Here's a video showing an attack on a millipede that shows just how fast they work (it is not sped-up, it’s in real time).

A camel spider reared up with its impressive jaws wide open.

- that camel spiders will screech as they attack.

They do not scream (again, an anatomy thing), but their powerful jaws can cut through feathers, bones and shells and that could create an ugly sound. And some species do clack their jaws as they attack. Or perhaps the noise in question is that of onlookers screaming in horror.

The face of a camel spider. - that camel spiders lay their eggs in animal’s fur (particularly camels) and eat camel bellies.

Camel spiders are not parasitic, nor are they blood-eaters, so they have no reason to seek out an animal host to lay their eggs on. They lay them in out-of-sight and underground places like burrow and under rocks or logs. As far as eating camels goes, these arachnids are fierce and have a varied diet, but it does not include large mammals (although a small mammal may become a meal if it runs into it).

A camel spider covering itself with sand.
Camel spiders have so many interesting behaviors, but my favorite is their ant-slaughtering. It appears that they like to accost ants at the opening to their colony and cut them to pieces as they come out to defend their home. The camels spiders are not eating the ants, they are simply killing them. And in a way that seems almost gleeful. Scientists have theories (scientists always have theories), but there is no real explanation for these attacks. Be that as it may, this behavior is inexplicably mesmerizing to watch. Here’s a video and here’s another. 

Submitted by Pam

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