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How Maine Got Its Desert

40-acre phenomenon is Ice Age leftover
By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 1, 2014 6:29 AM CDT
How Maine Got Its Desert
The Desert of Maine.   (Wikimedia Commons)

If you're ever in Maine, it might not hurt to bring a camel. Sure, the state has its forests and coastline, but it's also home to a 47-acre desert. Well, not technically a desert, thanks to the amount of precipitation it gets. Still, "walking to the middle of this silent expanse, you’ll find it difficult to believe you are anywhere in the eastern United States," wrote Maura Casey in a 2006 New York Times piece. How is this possible in the New England climate? It started with the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago, Smithsonian magazine explains.

Growing glaciers ground the rocks beneath them into sand-like silt. Eventually, topsoil covered the ground and forests grew—but the silt remained underground. A farmer named William Tuttle bought land near Freeport in 1797 and started a farm. But his descendants made a big mistake: They didn't rotate their crops correctly. Meanwhile, grazing sheep caused erosion. The result? The silt became visible again, growing from a small patch to more than 40 acres. Whole buildings were destroyed by the expanding desert, Natasha Geiling writes. Tuttle's descendants left in the early 20th century, and the place was purchased by one Henry Goldrup, who turned it into a tourist spot you can still visit. (Meanwhile, in the real desert, what causes mysterious "fairy circles"?)

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