Last Sunday I decided to give climbing a try in spite of the icy trails. I chose Hewe’s hill in Swanzey because snowbanks usually cover the parking area and it’s rare to be able to climb it in winter. This year our lack of snow meant the parking area was clear, so off I went. I was a little disheartened when I saw all of this ice in the field I had to cross to get to the trail.
The ice has been very bad on many trails this year so I really didn’t know what to expect, but thankfully this trail was ice free.
It had been windy and I found many things that had fallen out of the trees, including this bristly beard lichen (Usnea hirta.) Lichens don’t look like they’d be very nutritious but many are high in protein and many animals eat them. Reindeer and caribou, snub-nosed monkeys, mountain goats, black tailed deer, musk oxen, lemmings, voles, marmots, squirrels, camels, llamas, and even red crabs will all eat lichens. Many birds and some squirrels also line their nests with lichens to camouflage them. Usually when I find these lichens they are still attached to the branch they grew on but this one was loose, just lying on the leaves. They always remind me of sun bleached dinosaur bones.
An orange jelly fungus (Dacrymyces palmatus) had also fallen from its branch. This brain like fungus grows mostly on conifers like white pine and eastern hemlock and there are a lot of both trees in this forest. Though it is said to be tasteless this jelly fungus is supposed to be edible. I’m not sure I would eat it but it is eaten in China, where it is believed that jelly fungi improve circulation and breathing. Certain species of jelly fungi are also thought to have a blood thinning effect.
Yellow jelly fungi (Tremella mesenterica) grow on hardwoods like oak, but almost always on dead branches. This example grew on a live tree, which probably doesn’t bode well for the tree. The jelly fungus doesn’t harm the tree because it is parasitic on crust fungi in the genus Peniophora, but the crust fungi do harm the tree. This example was very dry and had lost much of its volume. Jelly fungi swell up after a rain and can add 60 percent or more to their volume. I usually see most jelly fungi in winter, though I’m not sure why.
Each spring some of our rocks either sink into the ground or the frost heaves the soil up around them. My theory says that the sun heats the stone and the warm stone melts the frozen soil beneath it, sinking in as it does so, but I don’t know this for certain. The size or weight of the stone doesn’t seem to matter. This one was about the size of my foot.
It isn’t often that I run into a tree that’s all puckered up for a kiss, but that’s what this eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) seemed to be doing. Actually it’s the tree’s wound cork that has grown over a scar. According to the book Bark, by Michael Wojtech, eastern hemlock is the only tree in the northeast that grows wound cork in annual increments, and because it does so it can be counted just like the tree’s growth rings. From what I’ve counted this scar took about 15 years to heal. It was about the same size as a large grapefruit.
This is another hemlock but instead of a scar it has what I believe might be the start of a burl, which is a rounded growth on a tree that contains clusters of knots made up of dormant buds. It is said that burls form on trees that have seen some type of stress, and though scientists aren’t 100 percent sure it is believed that they are caused by injury, a virus, or fungi. Once the tree grows and the burl grows along with it, it becomes more valuable. Larger burls can sell for many hundreds of dollars because its grain is beautiful and highly prized by cabinet makers and wood turners. I’ve seen hundreds of burls but they are always quite large. I’ve always wanted to see what one looked like when young.
It seemed a little strange to be seeing ice flowing over the ledges with no snow on the ground. In summer I’ve walked by this spot many times and had no idea that so much groundwater seeped over the ledges. On this day it looked like a water pipe had burst.
Those who have read this blog for any length of time will recognize Tippin Rock. For those who don’t, the rock is a 9 foot high, 18 foot long, 9 foot wide, 40 ton erratic that a glacier parked near the top of Hewe’s hill untold eons ago. Its name comes from how it can be tipped when pushed in the right place. A friend who was at a dedication ceremony in this place tells me that a group of schoolchildren once climbed up on it and had it rocking like a cradle. I’ve never been able to move it a whisker, but I’ve only tried on one climb.
Low clouds had turned the sky to milk. A blue sky with white puffy clouds would have made for a better view but since I don’t climb for the views I didn’t mind. This is a timeless, peaceful place where I rarely see anyone else so I come to sit in the quiet for a while, listening to the breeze whisper through the trees. The unbroken forest seems as vast as the sky from up here.
On his blog Mike Powell recently told of the reverence, awe, and peace that came over him as he watched the rising sun wash the forest in golden light one morning. I thought he described perfectly what often happens in nature in a way that I haven’t been able to. To his description I would add gratitude because it often fills me up, especially as I leave the forest. I always feel very thankful for having been able to see the things I’ve seen; so many others aren’t able to.
Once you think that you’ve reached the top of Hewe’s hill because of the views if you keep walking in the right direction you find that there is still more to climb, if you wish. I thought these stone outcrops would be covered in ice but there was very little to be seen.
These ice falls were the most noticeable but at only about ten feet across they weren’t anywhere near the size of some that I’ve seen.
I couldn’t come up here without stopping to say hello to my friends the toadskin lichens, which are one of the most beautiful in my opinion. They are also one of the rarest, at least in this area. They grow on the faces of rocks and in dry spells will turn an ashy gray / dark green color like those pictured. I know of only 2 or 3 hilltops that they grow on and I’ve only found them on hilltops, so if you want to see them you have to climb.
But isn’t finding a solar system on the face of a lichen worth a climb?
When wet the greenish color of the algae that is present comes through on the surface of toadskin lichens. Each lichen is attached to the rock at a single point that looks much like a belly button, and that makes it an umbilicate lichen. The warts are called pustules and on the back of the lichen there is a corresponding pit for every pustule. The black dots are its fruiting bodies (Apothecia.) A very similar lichen called rock tripe (Umbilicaria mammulata) can be seen surrounding the toadskin lichen in this photo. Rock tripe is like a toadskin without warts. When wet both lichens are very rubbery and pliable and feel a lot like your earlobe, only thinner.
On the way back down some beautifully colored turkey tails (Trametes versicolor) decorated a log. I’ve seen quite a few blue, purple, and orange turkey tails this winter and they are always a welcome sight. These examples felt like parchment.
The little smiley face that the trail blazer painted on this slab of wood says it all: Joy. That’s what you’ll find here, because that’s always what the reverence, peace, awe and gratitude found in nature add up to; a deep, abiding joy.
Touch the earth, love the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places. For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and the dawn seen over the ocean from the beach. ~Henry Beston
Thanks for stopping in.