Home of the voles.

Cooneymus Road, Block Island

Rodman's Hollow, criss-crossed with walking trails, is a large depression on the southern end of Block Island. When you're tired of the hustle and bustle of Old Harbor, it's a great place to get away from it all.

Named for the family that purchased the land in 1684, Rodman's Hollow was formed at the end of the last period of glaciation in New England, around 22,000 years ago, when glacial meltwater eroded the southern end of the island (which itself had been formed by successive glacial deposits) and flowed over seventy miles to the sea. With much of the world's water locked up in ice, sea levels were correspondingly lower, and Block Island was much larger. There are three large kettleholes within the Hollow, created when huge ice chunks that were mixed in with the glacial deposits melted.

Unlike most of the other 350 smaller depressions on the island, which have clay bottoms and hold water (otherwise known as "ponds"), the bottom of Rodman's Hollow is porous. It's theorized that the ice chunks that created the kettleholes may have been embedded so deep in the glacial drift that they projected into the sandy sediments below, allowing fluids an easy escape route. We've heard it said there is some part of Rodman's Hollow that is actually two feet below sea level, but it's not true. The bottom of the deepest of the kettleholes is about twenty feet above present sea level.

Other than its beauty and the interest it holds for geologists, Rodman's Hollow has another claim to fame: It's the sole habitat of the small-mouth Block Island Meadow Vole.

The Block Island Meadow Vole (hereafter referred to as the BIMV) was first discovered in 1908 by a naturalist named Outram Bangs (1862-1932), who recognized it as a member of the Microtus genus (specifically Microtus pennsylvanicus provectus), a genus that includes more than forty species of rodents. The other species are found in various spots in North America, northern Europe, and northern Asia. In most places they're considered pests. On Block Island, they're protected.

The Block Island variety was once like its cousins on the mainland, but eons of isolation and inbreeding caused it to evolve down a slightly different path. The characteristics that set the BIMV apart are an "extraordinary" profile, stubby tail, gray belly, and brown and black body. It's also somewhat larger than an ordinary vole. An uber-vole, if you will.

The BIMV lives in thickets and, oddly enough, meadow grasses. It chows down on grasses and weeds, especially goldenrod (of which you will see quite a lot in the Hollow in season), and it must eat its own weight every twenty-four hours. Think about that—it means they produce a similar amount of vole poop each and every day.

The vole's principal enemy is the marsh hawk or Northern Harrier, which, since the BIMV is very prolific, probably just waits around for meals to be produced. BIMV females are able to breed at only twenty-five days of age, and they can produce as many as one hundred little baby voles a year—making the Hollow a veritable fast-food paradise for marsh hawks and barn owls.

The BIMVs are lucky to have the Hollow—and so are we—because residential development of the land was a very real possibility in the early 1970s. Vacationers discovered the island in the 1960s, and liking what they found there, they came back to build houses. In 1971 alone, fifty new houses were constructed on land that had previously been farm land or open space. In 1972, islanders, led by Captain John Robinson "Rob" Lewis, formed the Block Island Conservancy, the purpose of which was to preserve open space and save the rural character of Block Island from developers. They thought that, at best, they might be able to save part of the Hollow for future generations, but momentum grew. Hundreds of islanders donated money, and some donated land or sold it to the Conservancy for substantially less than market value. In the end, all of Rodman's Hollow was saved. Thirty years later, the Block Island Conservancy has saved an incredible thirty-eight percent of the 6,600-acre island from development and continues to work to protect open space.

When you venture into Rodman's Hollow it's unlikely you'll actually see a BIMV, but given enough time and a good eye, you can probably locate some of their trails. As they eat their way through the grasses, they create pathways or tunnels. According to an article about regular old meadow voles, "Meadow Voles on the Farm" by Dave Taylor (on the defunct lifestories.com), an average acre of grassland may contain as many as 4.6 miles of vole tunnels. Find one and you can "unzip" the grass and follow the tunnel to find "communal restrooms, nests, burrows and the voles themselves."

But perhaps you have no interest in looking for little animals which, if you found them in your house, you would probably attempt to exterminate with traps and poison. That's okay, because even without a BIMV sighting, Rodman's Hollow is a delight for the senses. The dirt roads and paths wind around and over numerous hillocks running down to the Atlantic Ocean, at times following the ancient meltwater channel, and in some spots the view is tremendous. There are very few houses, and once you've descended below the level of Cooneymus Road the traffic noises disappear completely. Although it's less than a mile from the road to the sea, the forty-seven acres of the Hollow feel so isolated that you may imagine you've gone back in time. We know that sounds like the same old crap you read in all the tourist brochures, but we're serious. Really, we recommend you leave your cell phone and beeper back at the hotel, pack a lunch and a good book, and spend a leisurely afternoon exploring Rodman's Hollow.

But watch out for the vole poop.

Information

Cost: free

Time required: plan to spend anywhere from fifteen minutes to a full day, depending on your tolerance for blessed peace and quiet

Hours: open year round, dawn to dusk

Finding it: travel south from Old Harbor on Spring Street, which will become the Mohegan Trail; take a right at the "painted rock" onto Lakeside Drive; take a left at the next intersection onto Cooneymus Road; in a little over half a mile you'll come to the Rodman's Hollow sign on your left; on foot, take any of the dirt paths down into the hollow.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to police roadblocks or rave-hat-wearing toxic waste. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited May 14, 2002

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