Friday, August 15, 2008
Exploring the Towle Conservation Land
Among Carlisle’s many conservation properties, the Towle Land may be the most visible. Situated about half a mile west of the town center on Route 225, its rolling field provides a scenic vista for the hundreds of motorists who pass by every day. The Towle Field is one of the few large open fields in town, allowing space for cross-country skiing, open skies for star gazing or kite flying and meadows that are home to grassland birds.
Although the Towle Land is most often associated with this beautiful field, the property includes a great variety of terrain and wildlife habitats, including low forested rocky hills which show evidence of glacial activity, a small pond, several small streams, wetlands and vernal pools. In fact, a large portion of this 112-acre conservation parcel is heavily wooded. The Towle Land extends south from Westford Street to a small frontage on Bingham Road and a well maintained trail system allows visitors to travel through both the fields and forest where a large variety of birds, wildflowers and other wildlife may be found.
The Towle Land is also home to a number of interesting historical sites including a cow tunnel, reminiscent of Carlisle’s agricultural past, stone structures that are believed to be Native American in origin and what may possibly be an old quarry site.
A baseline assessment of the property, compiled by the Land Stewardship Committee (LSC) in 2006 and revised in 2007 describes the history of the land. The Towle Land was named for Dr. and Mrs. George P. Towle, who purchased farmland on Westford Street in 1912. It is believed this land had been used primarily for agriculture for many generations prior to its purchase by Dr. Towle. The Towles used their fields as pasture land for Hereford cattle and western cow ponies, and with his neighbor, Lawrence O. Sorli, Towle built a ‘cow tunnel’ under Westford Street in 1914 to allow the cattle to reach pastures on the opposite side of the road.
There are remains of an old quarry in the lower woods, but the dates of any quarrying operations are not known. According to the LSC baseline assessment, it is believed that Native Americans used parts of the Towle Land as ceremonial sites. An area in the southeastern section of the property contains a significant number of stone piles which are located adjacent to wetlands. In a section of the woods closer to Westford Street is a turtle effigy, similar to one found at Great Brook Farm State Park. According to the LSC baseline assessment, “The head is pointing in the direction of the winter solstice sunrise.”
The Towle Land was acquired by the town in five separate parcels, beginning with the purchase of the original 84 acres in 1968 from Phyllis Towle, widow of Dr. George Towle. This acreage includes the meadow now known as Towle Field, the pond and a large portion of wooded area.
In 1969 the 1.5-acre Ryan parcel, which is the westernmost section of the land, was deeded to the town as a gift. In 1970 the 14-acre Metivier parcel, which forms the southeastern corner of the current Towle Land, was purchased from Ralph and Gertrude Metivier. This was followed by the 1971 purchases of the 3.3-acre Clark/Foss parcel which is adjacent to the Metivier parcel and the 10.3-acre Carr/Warren parcel which provides frontage on Bingham Road, resulting in a total of approximately 112 acres.
Carlisle received substantial federal and state assistance in the purchase of the Towle parcels. As a result of this assistance, the net cost to the Town was approximately $56,592 with an average cost of approximately $506 per acre.
Terrain and wildlife
By far, the best known and most accessible feature of the Towle Land is the 20 to 25-acre Towle Field. The field and its margins are prime habitat for birds and other wildlife. A small pond, located immediately east of the Towle Field was formed by damming a spring-fed stream. The dam is a dry stone wall that ranges from nine to 11 feet in width.
Forest covers about two-thirds of the property. The wooded areas are hilly, with interesting rock outcroppings and areas of wetlands and flowing streams. Many native New England trees, including white pines, maples, oaks and dogwoods, grow in the forest. According to the Conservation Commission report in the 1979 Carlisle Town Report, a Chelmsford Boy Scout troop planted about 25 sugar maples around the perimeter of Towle Field. Wildflowers are also abundant, including May Apple, Cardinal Flower, Ragged Fringed Orchid and Blue-eyed grass. During two Biodiversity Days studies in 2001 and 2002, 50 varieties of wildflowers were recorded.
As in many rural New England landscapes, stone walls are a prominent feature of the landscape. Stone walls line a large portion of the northern boundary along Westford Street, about half of the western boundary, a small portion of the eastern boundary, and about half of the southern boundary.
Today the Towle Land is used
primarily for passive recreation. Its extensive trail system provides access for hikers, cross-country skiers, bird watchers and others who wish to observe or study nature. The trails follow the perimeter of the field from the parking lot/pond area and provide inner and outer loops through the wooded area. The outer loop passes through the woods near several streams. This trail is fairly level and is often surrounded by ferns and wetland vegetation. The inner loop brings the hiker through a more hilly area where a variety of rock outcroppings can be found. A short trail to the turtle rock can be reached from the inner loop trail. A newly cleared trail allows visitors to reach the cow tunnel from the field by turning right after entering the field from the parking lot trail. Another trail spur leads south to the Bingham Road entrance. The trails are maintained and signs are provided by the Carlisle Trails Committee. There are several wooden bridges on the trail system to assist walkers in crossing the intermittent streams and wet areas. During the summer months the fields can become overgrown with poison ivy so it is best to stay on the trails and monitor children and pets.
In addition to hiking, the Towle Land has long been a popular cross-country skiing site. For several years from 1972 through the early 1990s, the Bill Koch Ski League provided cross-country ski lessons and sponsored races. The cross-country course was highly praised by Bill Koch, one of America’s most successful Nordic racers. Although the Ski League is still listed in the Conservation Commission’s Rules and Regulations as an allowed “use” for the Towle Land, the lack of reliable snow cover in recent years has essentially precluded any formal programs.
Towle Field draws many bird watchers. Approximately 20 bluebird houses have been placed around the edges of the field. The open field also attracts grassland birds, particularly bobolinks, which seem to be in decline in the region. A Tufts University graduate student is currently studying habitat use by bobolinks on Towle Field.
Carlisle resident Ken Harte has led bird walks on the Towle Land for over three decades and has recorded a total of 132 different species on the property. For many years the Towle Land has been used as a monitoring site for the Concord Christmas Count, an annual bird census conducted in late December or early January.
and invasive species
In the earlier years, Towle Field was hayed by farmers who were allowed to keep the hay in exchange, but this became impractical as the quality of hay declined. More recently, the Towle Field has been maintained by mowing and by sheep grazing. According to the LSC baseline assessment, the primary objectives of the mowing have been to preserve the fields not only for the vistas and special wildlife habitat it affords, but also for possible future agricultural use.
Currently, in order to maintain the field as a nesting habitat for birds – particularly the bobolink – use of the field for large-scale agriculture seems unlikely. The emergence of poison ivy by June of each year also significantly restricts many field uses for the remainder of the growing season. Towle Field is now mowed at the end of the summer so as not to disturb nesting bobolinks.
Over the past few years, the invasive European buckthorn has spread throughout the fields. The struggle against poison ivy and invasive species is continual. Small gains have been made over the years in reclaiming and maintaining the edges of the field against reforestation. This has required aggressive mowing and some small tree cutting. ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito