As we struggle with the concept of stewardship within the Mohawk Towpath Byway corridor we can evaluate our effectiveness over the course of a life time. One hundred years ago we had just abandoned the enlarged Erie Canal which passed through what is now the Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve. We were proud of the new Barge Canal. Communities along the 1842 Enlarged Erie Canal were bypassed as commerce on the Barge Canal bustled.
So what has happened during the past century along the old Erie Canal? As we have relied more on fossil fuels what is now the Byway Corridor has regrown to forests in many places where there once were extensive agricultural lands in the rich floodplain soils. Trees have grown up along the canal berms and towpaths. As these trees mature they reach their leafy branches out over the canal to take advantage of the sunlight.
We humans want to continue using these towpaths and berms for recreational purposes. We want to fish the old canal and kayak, canoe, even ice skate. But these uses may be in conflict with the natural progression of reforestation. Canal side trees continue to reach for the sunlight yet we maintain trails on the towpath that restrict root growth that would hold the maturing tree in place. The tree with limited ability to support itself falls into the canal as a victim of a severe storm, blocking what little flow remains in the canal, and begins to capture sediment from annual flood waters.
Nature is trying to reclaim itself.
Let’s look at the geological features. Two centuries ago our imaginative forefathers used rudimentary tools to cut limestone blocks to build the early Erie Canal locks. A relatively soft limestone was ideal for this purpose and could be worked with chisels and hammers and dragged by mules and horses to boats that could bring them along the newly dug ditch where more manual workers and draft animals would work them into place.
Some of this softer limestone is currently weathering away so that early locks are now disappearing. Lock gates crafted meticulously of oak have long since rotted away along with iron straps that resemble huge hinges have oxidized leaving only the carved grooves to inlay them in the limestone. Even harder limestone carved with steam powered saws during the 1842 enlargement are weathering making it increasingly hard to visualize and interpret our history.
How do we define stewardship and historic preservation within the realm of these natural processes?
Oxford Dictionary: stew·ard·ship | ˈst(y)o͞oərdˌSHip | noun the job of supervising or taking care of something, such as an organization or property.