Archive for February, 2012

I’ve been seeing a lot of interesting lichens lately and thought I might write about them, even though I really don’t know that much about identifying them. Maybe you’ll like just looking at them as I do, and won’t care if you know their identity. I do know that a type of lichen called rock tripe grows on rocks near water, so off I went to the nearest lake. As I slowly drove around the lake looking for likely spots where rock tripe would grow, I saw this. 

This boulder is 6 or 7 feet tall, as long as a pickup truck, and probably weighs ten times as much. I was going to call it a glacial erratic, but apparently such stones are considered erratic only when they “differ from the size and type of rock native to the area in which they rest.” This one is granite just like most of the stones in the area, so it doesn’t fit the definition.  Still, I imagine it has been sitting here since a glacier dropped it many thousands of years ago because it is too big to have been moved any other way.  I decided to look it over.

 It had rock tripe (Umbilicaria mammulata) on it all right-In fact half of it was covered with them.  These Lichens are edible and there are accounts of people lost in the wilderness surviving by eating them. It is said that even George Washington’s starving troops ate them at Valley Forge, and Native American Cree people thickened their fish stew with them. It is wise to use care when eating lichens though, because some (Letharia) and (Vulpicida) were used to poison wolves in Europe.Another lichen, (Parmelia molliuscula) has been known to poison sheep and cattle.

 I found that rock tripe lichens come in many colors. Colors vary within species due to light exposure, genetics, age, pigments present, and sometimes color even depends on whether the lichen is wet or dry. 

Rock tripe wasn’t the only thing growing on the boulder. Here yellowish lichens are surrounded by mosses.  When I see this picture I imagine looking down on a miniature landscape where mosses become trees. One way lichens can spread is by having the wind blow pieces of them around.  

Sometimes it is like looking down on a miniature rain forest. I had a model train set years ago when I was a boy and dyed lichens were my shrubs and trees.

 Laplanders harvest lichen to feed their reindeer, and in Libya they are fed to sheep. Bear sometimes feed on lichens just after they wake from their winter nap. Mountain goats, caribou, moose, deer, and squirrels also eat them.

 The colors and variety of lichens is amazing.  Some lichens can live for more than a thousand years and have been used to make dyes in yellow, brown, red, blue, purple, and other colors for over 3,500 years. Navajo rugs were woven with wool dyed with lichens and native plants. Lichens are also used to scent soaps and perfumes. Compounds found in lichens are also used in anti-viral and anti-bacterial medications, which might be why ancient Egyptians packed the body cavities of mummies with them. 

This is not a paint smear, but lichens that grew on the boulder in the shade of the trees at its left end in the photo.  I’ve heard of blue lichens, but these look purple to me. Or maybe pink? The ancient Romans used Roccella species from rocks around the Mediterranean to make purple dye for their togas. Later a longer lasting dye was made from snails. Purple has long been a symbol of royalty.

I Hope you enjoyed seeing a few of the lichens we have here in New Hampshire. Thanks for stopping by.


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I like to think that I’m as aware of my surroundings as the next person, but sometimes I’ll see something that makes me wonder if I haven’t been walking through life with my eyes completely closed.  That happened recently with the pale looking tree in the photo below.

 I’ve been driving by this tree literally for decades, but only recently saw it. From the road I thought it was the bleached out corpse of a tree that had died. I could tell that it wasn’t a birch, (which is what you would expect a white tree to be in New Hampshire) but I wasn’t sure what it was. One day my curiosity got the better of me and I stopped to explore the ghost tree. 

As I got closer I could see that its wound was even bigger than I first thought, but still couldn’t tell what it was until saw the bark close up.

 Only one tree I know of has bark like this; sycamore. Sycamore? But sycamores don’t grow in New Hampshire, do they? I began looking on the ground for seed heads. Sure enough, the ground was littered with them. I brought one home and took pictures.

 Up in the tree there were a few more. These give the tree one of its common names: Buttonwood

 There was no doubt that it was a sycamore. As if to confirm this, just down the road there was another one with bark that was even more mottled than the first. I think I have since found a third, but it is on private property and I haven’t been able to get close enough to it to confirm it. How I’ve lived in this state for over 50 years without seeing one before, I don’t know.

As it turns out, parts of New Hampshire and southern Maine are the north eastern limit for the American Sycamore (Platanusoccidentalis), which is the largest hardwood tree east of the Mississippi River. Or at least they can be-the ones that I found weren’t that big.

They are also called American Plane trees, and I’ve read that they are common in the flood plains of the Ashuelot River north of Surry Mountain Lake in Walpole, NH, along Great Brook, also in Walpole, and along the North River in Lee, NH. There are also quite large stands of American Hornbeam, or muscle wood in these same flood plains. One day soon I’ll be headed north to see them. I don’t know if they are rare in New Hampshire, but I’ve never seen one until recently and I don’t remember ever hearing the old timers speak of sycamores.

Anyone who would like to see these trees in Keene can find them on route 101 from Marlborough just after the small pond on the right that is a short distance before the Optical Ave. turnoff.

Since my son just graduated Air Force basic training yesterday and is now an Airman, I thought this post about the “camouflage tree” would be appropriate.




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Recently I wrote about the Ashuelot River and how it played a part in shaping my boyhood, but the river wasn’t my only influence-other parts of nature tugged at me as well. One of those was our local mountain, Mount Monadnock.

I grew up in its shadow, but I don’t remember feeling the mountain’s pull until my teen years. That’s when I decided that I would be the first person to catalogue all of the wildflowers that grew on its flanks. In the process of discovering that no one had ever bothered to do such a thing I also discovered Henry David Thoreau, who had climbed the mountain several times and mentioned quite a few of its plants in his notebooks. I read everything by Thoreau that I could lay my hands on and credit him with teaching me the difference between seeing and observing. He was also instrumental in my becoming more interested in all of nature, rather than in just two or three specific areas.

It was only after I finally walked and climbed the mountain that I saw why no one had ever attempted to catalog all of its wildflowers; it is so big that it would take three lifetimes to do so. Someone who wasn’t working all day might do it in less time, but it would still be quite a job.

The word Monadnock comes from the native Abenaki language and means “mountain that stands alone.” It is said to be the second most climbed mountain in the world after Mount Fuji in Japan, because people from all over come to climb it year round. 

Local people love the view of Mount Monadnock, which can be seen from several towns and is why the area is called “The Monadnock Region.” People who want to see a view of the mountain like that above out of their own windows will pay a high price to do so; land with a mountain view is scarce and is bought up as soon as it becomes available.

Competition over who will have the best view of the mountain has gone on for centuries. Settlers in the nearby town of Marlborough chose the view below for the town meeting house in 1770.

 Though the meetinghouse no longer stands here the land is still owned by the town and is open to visitors. 

 This is one of the views of the mountain that folks here in Keene are used to, and is the one I grew up with. Monadnock can be seen from all over town but is several miles away. This view has appeared in many paintings by many different artists and curiously, to me this photo looks more like a painting than a photograph. I’m playing with a new (used) Canon point and shoot and I’m really not sure what I did to make it come out this way.

Poets, artists, writers, photographers-all have flocked to Monadnock. There are poems, prose, operas, symphonies, and dances written about it. Some say it is the most painted and written about Mountain in America. 


 The hike to the summit is from two to four miles depending on the trail chosen. Getting to the top takes an average of 2 hours but just like anywhere else kids run all the way and people of age sit and rest here and there. On a clear day you can see all the way to Boston, but beautiful scenery can be found at just about any time.

In 1987, Mount Monadnock was designated a National Natural Landmark. To learn more about the mountain, click here.

Photo of the view from the summit is by the Sierra Club.

This is the 100th post since I started this blog on March 20, 2011. Almost a year of blogging! Thank you all for taking the time to read it.

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Last Sunday I decided to climb Tuft’s Mountain in Ashuelot, NH. Tuft’s mountain is in Pisgah (pronounced piz-gee) State Park, which is over 13,000 acres of very rough terrain in old growth forest. It was one of the coldest days of the year, with temperatures in the mid-20s and a biting wind that made it feel more like zero. It was sunny though, so when the wind wasn’t blowing it was bearable. What was unbearable was the ice on the trail.

It was easy to see that this was a wet area even though the wide trail was frozen gravel. On one side of the trail a small stream tumbled downhill and every now and then there was an angled cut across the trail to divert runoff into the stream. The problem was that the runoff had frozen so quickly over night that there were large sheets of very slick ice across the trail. This forced me into the forest to avoid it several times and after a half hour of this, I decided it was too dangerous to climb in such a steep, icy place.

On the way down I saw something I hadn’t noticed going up; the sun was glinting off what at first looked like quartz crystals along the side of the trail. When I got closer I could see that they weren’t quartz but ice crystals. Or, to be more accurate, ice needles. 

Ice needles are special things that aren’t seen too often because several things have to happen before they can form. First there has to be groundwater. Next, the air temperature has to fall below 32 degrees F right at the soil surface while the soil and groundwater remain thawed. Hydrostatic pressure forces the groundwater, sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because of more water freezing at its base. I’ve read that each thin needle is hexagonal in shape, and that needles have been found that were 16 inches long. The needles in these photos were 1-3 inches long I’d guess. 

Just down from the top of this photo you can see small pebbles on top of some of the ice needle bundles. This is because the needles start growing slightly below the soil surface and lift the soil as they lengthen. I’ve seen pictures where they have lifted quite large areas of soil, mosses and stones.

 The upper left corner of this photo shows ice needle bundles joined into larger flat, wide bundles and curled like ribbon, while the center of the photo shows the same curling with smaller ice columns that haven’t joined. The sun, which is the enemy of ice needles, can be seen slowly creeping into view.

I was wishing for a real camera with a macro lens and tripod rather than the cell phone camera I was trying to hold steady as I shivered.

 Ice needles are so fragile that just the slight touch of a fingertip destroys them, yet they have the power to lift large areas of soil and stones. You can see sand and gravel that have been lifted by some of the needles in this photo. You can also see that they are now almost in full sun which means they are near the end of their very short lives.

 When the sun shines brightly melting happens quickly, and that is why ice needles are so rarely seen; you have to be at the right place at the right time. If you are ever walking on a cold morning and the soil crunches underfoot, stop and look down-you are probably walking on ice needles.

To learn more about ice needles and other unusual ice forms click here.

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My recent trip back in time to my boyhood haunts along the Ashuelot River in Keene, New Hampshire reminded me how lucky I was to grow up on a river. A river can teach a boy a lot about both nature and himself.

I learned how to identify skunk cabbage, cattails, pond lilies and much more along the river. I built a raft and set out for the Atlantic, but never even made it to the town line. (That was how I learned to recognize a foolish idea.) I learned how to read the tracks of muskrat, raccoon and deer, and how to be as still as a stone when they came to the river’s edge.

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. ~ John Lubbock

My first kiss came to me on the river’s banks and somewhere, the date is recorded on the trunk of a maple. My grandmother explained puppy love to me then, but her time would have been better spent explaining why the first broken heart is so much more painful than all of those that follow.

One day I walked south down river-farther than I had explored before-and found that an old oak had fallen and made a natural bridge out to a small, shaded island covered with soft mosses and ferns. One end was pointed like a boat, so the island became an imaginary ship that would take me anywhere I wanted to go. I never told my friends about the island; it became the place I went when I needed some alone time.

 “Brooding” was what my grandmother said I did during the times I spent alone, but she mistook my occasional need of solitude and silence, when the low hum of a dragonfly’s wings could be heard from 10 yards off, for unhappiness. They were actually some of the happiest times I had known until one very wet spring when the high water washed away the oak tree bridge. I don’t think I have ever again experienced such a complete absence of humanity as I did on that island, and rare since has been the peace I found within that absence. Later on I learned that Henry David Thoreau once said “I have never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” He, I thought, was a man who understood.

Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything. ~Henry David Thoreau

 The old Boston and Maine Railroad crossed the river many times on its way south and long before my time these crossings were popular hangouts for men who liked to drink. My grandmother called them hobos, but people were drinking under those train trestles before the word hobo even came into being. I know that because they used to throw their bottles in the river-and then I came along a hundred or so years later and found them.


Digging antique bottles along a river bank is hard and sometimes dangerous work, but it can pay well. Since the river taught me that hard work earns money, off I went to earn more. Of course, work is habit forming-or at least the paycheck is-so there was no longer any time for lolling on its banks. The river and I grew apart.

But not entirely; though time has flowed past much like the water of the river, my recent return visit showed me that little had really changed-with either the river or myself. As I followed the trails along its banks I found that I still had the curiosity that used to spur me on to always want to see what was around the next bend. Before I realized it I had walked for miles. As I mentioned to fellow blogger Grampy at Goat Sass Farm, maybe the curiosity that rivers instill in us is what keeps us young even as we age. 

As a side note, I wrote this in part because of an inspiring comment that Grampy made about boyhood on my “A Walk in The Park Part 1” post.  I intended to thank him for inspiring me that day but meanwhile he was writing a post about his boyhood days and thanking me for inspiring him! It’s funny how these things work sometimes, and where and how we find inspiration. So to Grampy goes a belated thank you.

Be like a rock in the middle of a river, let all of the water flow around and past you.~ Zen Saying

The photos of the train trestle and covered bridge are from the Cheshire County Historical Society.

The photo of Tree Bridge is by the U.S. National Park Service.

The photographer and date of the boy on a raft are unknown.

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Note: This is part four of the story of a recent visit to Ashuelot Park in Keene, New Hampshire.

Every time I step into the woods I see strange things that boggle the mind and can’t be satisfactorily explained. (At least by me) My recent trip to Ashuelot Park proved this once again. Below are a few examples of what I think are fairly unusual sights.

 These two shrubs-one on the left and another on the right-have somehow become woven together at their tops and, judging by the size of the branches, have been growing this way for quite some time.  How this could have happened I’m not sure, because they grew about 4 or 5 feet apart. This has been done purposely in gardens since medieval times and is called pleaching. One reason trees are pleached is to create a living arbor to shade paths. Over time the trees often graft themselves together and grow as one. I can’t recall ever hearing of this happening naturally. These were well off the beaten path, but I suppose someone could have done this in the past.

This has to be one of the strangest things I’ve seen. Beavers have been gnawing at this cherry tree for so long that the wound is starting to heal over at the top. They keep the wound fresh but it isn’t deep and they haven’t girdled the tree to kill it, so they obviously have no intention of cutting it down. But why do they gnaw on it? Is it a tooth sharpening station? Do they come just to nibble off a piece of sweet cherry, as we would chew a stick of gum?

 I think it’s probably accurate to say that I’ve seen tens of thousands of maple trees in my lifetime, but I can’t remember ever seeing one with circular patterns like these in its bark. I can’t even guess what would cause this, or what use they are to the tree. If you know what causes this, I’d love to talk to you.

The maple in the previous photo may have circles in its bark, but at least it still has its bark. This oak had its bark slide right off and tangle around itself. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this happen either.

Witch’s broom isn’t that strange, but in my experience it is rare, or certainly uncommon on white pine (Pinus strobus) in this area. The best description I’ve seen of witch’s broom is “a dense mass of shoots growing from a single point, with the resulting structure resembling a broom or a bird’s nest.” The deformity has many different causes, including bud damage, infection, and parasites such as mistletoe. I had to boost the contrast a bit on this one so the broom would stand out from the background.

This is the final entry for the long walk that I recently took in a place that I spent a considerable amount of time in as a boy. I hope you enjoyed seeing it as much as I enjoyed showing it to you, even though the sun was shining a bit too brightly for the best photography. If you ever find yourself in Keene, New Hampshire, please stop in and see it for yourself.  Whether you have a few minutes or a full day, you’ll surely see something interesting.

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Note: This is part three of the story of a recent visit to Ashuelot Park in Keene, New Hampshire.

I can’t imagine what this town would be like without the Ashuelot flowing through it. So much of the wildlife seen in the area is here because of the river. 

There was plenty of evidence that woodpeckers live here.  This hole was about 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter and from what I’ve read, that means it was probably made by a downy, hairy, or red headed woodpecker.

This hole was much larger and rectangular, so it was probably originally made by a pileated woodpecker, although other pileated woodpecker holes I’ve seen have more rounded corners than what are seen here.  Since there were pieces of gray fur inside, it is most likely being used by another bird or animal now. Woodpeckers make new holes each year and many other birds and animals use the abandoned holes for nesting sites.

Here are the tell tale signs of a sapsucker, which is in the woodpecker family. The horizontal rows of holes cause “phloem” sap to dam up and accumulate in the plant tissue just above the wounds. The bird enlarges the holes over the course of several days and then adds another row above the first, eventually resulting in square or rectangular patterns of many holes. Sapsuckers have a kind of brushy tongue that they lick up the sap with.  The kind of sap that we tap maple trees for is “xylem” sap, which is much thinner and less sweet than phloem sap. Because phloem sap is so much thicker and stickier than the watery xylem sap that we make maple syrup from, scientists can’t figure out how these birds get it to flow so freely. Insects, bats, other birds, and many animals also drink sap from these holes.

You won’t find any woodpecker holes in this tree!  This is the easily recognizable undulating form of American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), also called “muscle wood” for obvious reasons. The wood of this tree is very heavy, dense and hard, and though some call it “iron wood,” that isn’t much help with identification because several other species are called the same thing. Blue Beech is another common name because the bark resembles that of the beech.  American hornbeam is a smallish understory tree that is usually found on flood plains and other areas that may be wet for part of the year.  It’s hard to find one of any great size because they have a short lifespan.

Beavers wouldn’t be gnawing on the tough wood of American hornbeam, but they didn’t have any trouble with this cherry. The blackening and fungal growth at the top of the stump shows that they took this tree down many years ago. It must be a popular spot with beavers though, because they are still cutting the new shoots at the base.

 Fresh water mussels are abundant in the river and make good snacks for raccoons, muskrats and other animals. Locally there is a recovery plan in place to save the dwarf wedge mussel (Alasmidonta heterodon ) which, though abundant 100 years ago, is now known in only 12 locations in New England. Far more common is the eastern elliptio, the shell of which I think appears in the above photo. Mussels are very important because they filter and clean the water.

I was hoping I’d also be able to show some signs of the black bear, deer, and moose that are seen in this area, but they haven’t left any calling cards lately, apparently.  I’ll keep my eyes open.

The fourth and final part of this walk in the park will be along shortly. Thanks for stopping by.

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Note: This is part two of the story of a recent visit to Ashuelot Park in Keene, New Hampshire.

Regular readers of this blog are probably starting to wonder if I haven’t got some kind of a strange fungi fetish, but it isn’t as if I go looking for them. We just seem to like the same places and when I visit an area there they are, waiting to have their picture taken. Ashuelot Park, which follows the Ashuelot River, was no exception; fungi were everywhere.   

I like the shapes, textures, and colors of winter fungi. I didn’t take the time to try to identify these bracket fungi sitting on a stump. Instead I just admired them and took pictures. 

These might be one of the most common sights in the winter woods, but the colors and shapes are very pleasing, in my opinion. If I had to guess, I’d say they were turkey tails (Trametes versicolor.) If I had taken the time to look for pores along their undersides I would have known for sure. If they have pores that are easily seen without magnification then they are most likely turkey tails, or at least in the Trametes family. It’s surprising that these still look so good after going through so much cold, wet winter weather. 

I would have thought that cold winter weather would leave most fungi looking like these dried up specimens. They looked as if they were made of paper and would blow away at any minute, but they felt quite leathery and were still firmly attached to the tree. Their undersides were very white and clean. 

These were quite high up on this tree and I couldn’t see their tops, so I’m not sure what they were. Whatever they were, they looked very fresh. Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus) maybe? Laetiporus sulphureus, a yellow-orangey shelf or bracket fungus, typically grows quite high up on hardwood trees and is a parasite that causes heart rot. Others in the Laetiporus family grow on other parts of the tree such as roots or cut, butt ends. Some only grow on conifers.

 The color of this one resembles witch’s butter but I think it’s actually a slime mold going through its jelly phase. It could also be Dacrymyces stillatus, or common jelly spot. Whatever it was the sun shining on it made it seem to be glowing, almost as if it were fluorescent.

Thanks for visiting. Part three of this trek through Ashuelot Park will be posted soon.

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I was recently admiring a park that my fellow blogger at From Moments to Memories has access to and writes about often. I commented on how lucky she was to have such a place and bemoaned the fact that we didn’t have any parks here in my part of New Hampshire.  

Then I sat back and wondered what on earth I was talking about-of course we have parks! Granted, ours aren’t as big or as beautiful as some, but they are parks nonetheless. One of the best known is Ashuelot Park, named for the Ashuelot River which flows through it. Ashuelot, pronounced ash-will-ot (ash-wee-lot to some) meant “a place between” to Native Americans, though I’m not fully sure why because it doesn’t seem to be “between” any other important geographical features.

Anyhow, I grew up on this river, and if you have ever read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain you have a good idea what my boyhood was like. I spent a considerable amount of time fishing at Ashuelot Park because of the dam, which was originally built to power local mills. Fish would congregate below the falls, making them much easier to catch.


The house I grew up in sat maybe 200 feet from the Ashuelot in another part of town. Rivers currents are always fastest and deepest on the outside of bends, and that’s where most of my neighborhood was unfortunate enough to be located. Each spring as the snow melted and the rains came we would watch the river rise to fill its banks and nibble away a little bit more of the real estate along them. Seeing the river widening ever so slowly each year caused an underlying anxiety among those of us who lived along it. Knowing that one day the river might widen enough to threaten our homes was always in the back of everyone’s mind, I think. A few years ago I watched as, over a period of many months, an old abandoned garage slowly began to tilt and finally slide into the ever widening river. It is still happening today in Ashuelot Park, as is evidenced by the stones laid out here and there along the bank to try to slow the inevitable.

A valiant effort, but slowly the old riverside trails are losing the fight and crumbling into the river. The maple tree below is one of the latest casualties.

 If I was 12 years old again and the angle wasn’t quite so steep, I might be out in the middle of this tree, dangling a line down into the river.


 The tree’s steep angle is deceiving from this vantage point. To a 12 year old boy walking out on it would be hard to resist-almost like a siren’s call. I can remember the river wetting me down in good shape more than once after I listened to that call.

Normally at this time of year the river would be frozen over, but with the mild winter we’ve had ice is hard to find. I can’t remember the river not freezing over before. I think this is the first year in my lifetime that it hasn’t.

I found a lot of interesting things here in one of my old boyhood playgrounds, but if I tried to fit them all into one post I think would be far too long. Instead this first part will be about just the river itself. The next installment should be along shortly.

 An old postcard view of the river.

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