Regular readers of this blog will recognize this rail trail “deep cut” in Westmoreland, New Hampshire and might be getting a little tired of hearing about it, but I never get tired of visiting this place because there is nothing else like it in this area. Blasted out of solid rock when the railroad was built in the early 1800s, these cliff faces are now home to many unusual plants, including liverworts, mosses, lichens, and ferns. It’s a perfect place to be on a hot day because the temperature is always about 10 degrees cooler but because of the height of the cliff walls it can be quite dark, especially in the late afternoon and on cloudy days, so it took 3 trips to get the photos that follow.
In the book Lost Horizon author James Hilton describes the fictional valley of Shangri-La as a hidden, earthly paradise and that’s what I’m reminded of every time I come here. In sunnier spots plants of every description, many that I’ve never seen anywhere else, grow on nearly every vertical and horizontal surface of these cliff faces and have grown virtually untouched for close to 150 years.
The reason the plants are able to grow here untouched is because of the wide drainage ditches that line both sides of the old rail bed. Only a serious plant nut would go out and buy rubber boots so they could wade through these ditches to get a closer look at the plants that grow on the ledges, and that description fits me. As I look at this photo and see all of the stones that have fallen from the rocks face I think that a hard hat might also be a good investment.
Liverworts grow here by the thousands, so thick in some places that you can hardly see the stone beneath them. So far I’ve identified three species but I think there are probably more.
My favorite liverwort found here is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum.) Its scent is strongly aromatic and very clean; almost like an air freshener, and once you’ve smelled it you never forget it. I keep hoping I’ll see this liverwort in the fruiting stage but even though I’ve checked each month since last winter I haven’t seen any of its umbrella shaped fruiting bodies yet. It’s such a beautiful and interesting plant that I find myself staring at even its photo.
Mosses of all kinds grow here but on this trip this one drew my attention more than any other because of its bright, lime green fuzziness. It lives under a constant drip of water as you can see by the surrounding stone. After much searching through books and online, the closest I can come is threadbare moss (Anomodon tristis,) but it is said to grow on tree trunks, not wet stone. It’s quite small; all that is shown in the photo couldn’t have been more than 8 inches long and 4 or 5 wide.
This is a closer look at the moss in the previous photo. It stays very wet in this spot. If you have seen it before or happen to know what it is I’d like to hear from you.
One of the most unusual things that grow here is a green algae called Trentepohlia aurea. Even though it is called green algae it is bright yellow-orange because of a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, and which hides the green chlorophyll. This is the only place that I’ve ever found this algae growing.
This is an extreme close-up of the green algae in the previous photo. It is surprisingly hairy and is described as a “filamentous green chlorophyte algae.”
I’ve seen trees growing out of these stone cliff faces so I wasn’t too surprised to find white wood asters (Eurybia divaricatus or Aster divaricatus) doing the same. It really is amazing how such a huge variety of plants can grow where there is so little soil.
I didn’t know that thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) grew here until I saw these seed heads. Because they look like thimbles they give the plant its common name. They are also very difficult to get a sharp photo of, for reasons I don’t fully understand.
A place so filled with nooks and crannies is sure to have spiders and I’ve seen many here. This one built its web across the mouth of a small cave. I think it’s an orb weaver.
I also didn’t know that white turtleheads (Chelone glabra) grew here but they do, and in surprising numbers. The sight of so many of them that I could easily walk up to made me kind of sorry to have crawled into that swamp in Keene to get photos of them for a previous post.
I was very surprised to see this tall meadow rue in full bloom. It usually blooms around July 4th in this area and I’ve never seen it re-bloom until now. More proof that magic happens in this place.
And speaking of magic; I was walking slowly down the trail as I always do, eyeing the cliff walls for things of interest, when I had the feeling that I should look down. When I did I saw that I was about 5 feet away from the barred owl pictured above. I’ve never seen an owl up close and was so flabbergasted that I forgot that I even had a camera for a while. There we were for however long it was, looking into each other’s eyes, and it might sound strange but I had the feeling that somehow I knew this bird. In fact I knew that it would let me take as many photos as I wanted, so once I found myself I fumbled with trying to put my camera on the monopod that I always carry. The owl sat perfectly still and watched me the entire time. I could sense that it was not going to fly away while we stared at each other, so after taking 5 or 6 shots I turned to leave. When I looked back seconds later it was gone, without even a whisper of wings. Looking into those dark brown eyes is something that I won’t soon forget.
There is unfortunately another part of this story that I’d like to forget. I went back the next day to retake some of these photos because it had been cloudy that afternoon and they hadn’t come out very well, and as I walked along I saw a dead barred owl in one of the drainage ditches. It is thought that barred owls mate for life, so the one in the photo might have been sitting by its dead mate or it might have been the one in the ditch. It’s something that I’ll never know for sure but I do know that I had a lump in my throat as I walked down that trail.
There are sacred moments in life when we experience in rational and very direct ways that separation, the boundary between ourselves and other people and between ourselves and nature, is illusion. ~Charlene Spretnak
Thanks for stopping in.