Last Saturday was the hottest day of the year so far, with plenty of tropical humidity as well. Puffy white clouds floated slowly through the sky and if you hadn’t known it was May you’d have sworn it was August. When I was a boy I used to love such days, when you could see the shadows of the clouds moving across the distant hills, so I decided to climb one of those hills to see those shadows again. Since it was so hot I decided on an easy climb and chose Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey. You start by crossing the meadow in the above photo. I saw that someone had been there before me; maybe another cloud lover.
Grasses were flowering. It’s too bad that so many miss them, because they can be very beautiful when they blossom.
Blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) wasn’t a surprise; meadows like this one is where it loves to grow. Despite its name this little beauty isn’t a grass at all; it’s in the iris family. Wild turkeys love its seeds.
I knew if I didn’t stop dawdling among the meadow flowers I’d never get to the top of the hill, so I set off up the trail.
But there were more flowers there to dawdle over. Pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule,) one of our most beautiful native orchids, bloomed alongside the trail. Native Americans called it moccasin flower, for obvious reasons. They used the plant medicinally as a nerve tonic and a pain reliever.
Further up the trail I found a woolly oak gall, created by the wool sower gall wasp (Callirhytis seminator.) It was a small example about the size of an acorn, but I’ve seen them as big as ping pong balls. The gall is caused by secretions from the grubs of the gall wasp, which will only build it on white oak and only in spring. There are small seed like structures inside the gall which contain the wasp larva, and that’s why these galls are also called oak seed galls.
Oak apple galls fall from the trees regularly at this time of year. Theses galls are caused by a gall wasp known as Biorhiza pallida laying an egg inside a leaf bud. Tissue swells around the egg and a gall is formed.
The gall wasp larva lives in the very center of the gall. Once they develop into an adult wasp they make a hole through the side of the gall and fly (or crawl) off to begin the cycle again. A web of spokes keeps the hollow sphere from deflating by connecting the inner hub to the outer shell.
When you see the 40 ton glacial erratic called Tippin rock you know the climb is just about done. This rock gets its name from the way it can be rocked or tipped when pushed in the right spot, but I’ve never found the spot. Anyhow, this wasn’t what I had come to see so I took a quick photo and moved on. The climbing might be over but the hiking to the scenic overlook isn’t.
I came hoping to see puffy white clouds casting shadows on the hills, and though I saw plenty of puffy white clouds I didn’t see any shadows. That’s because the clouds were off to the left and the sun was on the right. I find that usually when I go into the woods expecting to see a certain thing I don’t usually see it. Focusing on just one thing can make you miss a lot of what nature has to offer, so that’s why when I go into the woods I try to strip myself of all expectations and just enjoy whatever happens to be in my path. I saw many other interesting things so a lack of cloud shadows wasn’t disappointing. There will be other days with puffy white clouds.
Some of the puffy white clouds were becoming puffy dark gray clouds, and I wondered if we might see a thunderstorm. I hoped not since I was carrying three cameras (2 in pockets) with no way to protect them.
This view probably comes closest to what I was trying for, but it’s still not it.
This shot, taken earlier on the same day at a different location, is what started it all, and shows what I was hoping to see on the hilltop. I might have done better just staying in the low lands.
But if I hadn’t climbed I wouldn’t have gotten to see my old friends the toadskin lichens (Lasallia papulosa,) because they only grow on hilltops. Their warty projections are called pustules and if you look at the back of this lichen there will be a corresponding pit for every pustule. When wet the greenish color of the algae that is present comes through but when dry they can be very ashy gray. They are also very brittle when dry, like a potato chip.
Growing right alongside the toadskin lichens is rock tripe (Umbilicaria mammulata) which is kind of like a toadskin without the warts. It attaches to the rock in the same way and also gets brittle when dry. Though I imagine they must taste like old rubber, these lichens were a source of emergency food for Native Americans and saved the lives of many an early settler. Even George Washington’s troops are said to have eaten rock tripe to survive the brutal winter at Valley Forge in 1777.
In this photo the green rock tripe lichens are smaller than the gray toadskin lichens and that’s unusual, but it’s because the rock tripe lichens in this photo are babies. I’ve seen rock tripe lichens as big as my hand but have only seen toad skins about 2 inches across, which is what I’d say the biggest examples in this photo were.
Each lichen, both rock tripe and toad skin, is attached to the rock at a single point that looks much like a belly button, and that makes them umbilicate lichens. I hope everyone reading this will make lichens one of the things they look for when outdoors. They’re fascinating, beautiful things that grow virtually everywhere; even in cities if the air is clean. Cemeteries are a good place to look for those that grow on stone.
Mr. Smiley face was happy as always because that’s what happens when you spend all of your free time outside. You become filled with more joy than you ever thought possible.
Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. ~John Lubbock
Thanks for coming by.