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Archive for December, 2019

Actually it was Christmas eve day when a trail I haven’t walked in a while called to me. It was a bright, sunny and warm day with temps nearing the mid-40s F. Days like this don’t come often in a New Hampshire December so I hated to waste it. I hadn’t been the only one to think so; the thin snow on the trail showed many footprints.

There were icy spots on the trail but I had my micro spikes on so I stayed upright. It’s a good idea to have them if you hike popular trails because the compacted snow quickly turns to ice.

There is pond here that’s a popular ice skating spot for local children. In fact I skated here as a boy. The town usually plows the snow off it but over the past few winters it has taken the ice longer to thicken up. I don’t think it was plowed at all last winter because it was too warm for good ice. Plow trucks have ended up at the bottom of the pond in the past so they make sure it’s good and firm before plowing it these days. But kids will be kids and you can see where they have shoveled to make a small skating area.

They pay no attention to the signs. Someday they might wish they had, but I hope not. This sign is on a dam and I’ve seen the pond when it had to be drained to work on the dam a few years ago, and I was shocked at how shallow it was. If a pickup truck went in at the deepest point the water would probably reach to the bottom of the windows.

Spidery cracks in the ice showed that it was still quite thin in places.

When a thin layer of ice on a pond gets snowed on quite often the snow is heavy enough to make the ice sink a bit, and this forces water up through holes in the ice. The water turns the snow to slush, which then freezes into the spidery patterns seen here. For years I wondered if someone had thrown a rock and broken a hole in the ice but this comes from below, not above.

Another thing I wondered about for years was what tree produced such zig zaggy twigs. When I finally realized it was witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) I felt pretty foolish, because all I would have had to do was look the plant over more carefully and I would have seen its seed pods and cup like bracts, which would have been an immediate give away. The seed pods especially are unmistakable in the winter. Inside each pod are two shiny black seeds that were much loved by certain Native American tribes. They are said to taste like pistachio nuts but I’ve never tried them. Natives also steamed witch hazel branches over hot stones in their sweat lodges to sooth aching muscles and used its Y shaped branches for dowsing. In fact the Mohegan tribe is said to have shown early settlers how to find water using witch hazel branches, and also how to use the plant medicinally. A tea made from witch hazel tightens muscles and stops bleeding and the plant is one of only a handful of medicinal plants still approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s amazing that it is still being used medicinally after what is quite probably thousands of years. 

Two things we have lots of here in New Hampshire are trees and stones and you can find plenty of both along this trail. Some look like they were just left here by glaciers.

A vein of quartz in a stone points the way. Quartz can fill an already present crack in a cooling stone as a hot, liquid brine and some of the resulting veins can be very large. In Frankfurt, Germany there is a hydrothermal vein system that is nearly 4 miles long and almost over 200 feet wide. 

This little fern growing in a crack in a boulder never gets any bigger than what is seen here but it comes back every year to try again. It’s very persistent.

When water finds its way into a crack in a stone and freezes, the pressure from the ice can split the stone, and that’s what happened here. What is unusual about this scene is how a tree seed found its way onto the ground at the bottom of the crack and grew there. I’m guessing that the ever growing tree trunk is pushing the crack in the stone open even more each year. I’ve seen boulders as big as trucks split in the same way, cleaved perfectly by ice.

Stones aren’t the only things in the forest that crack; trees also crack. Straight, vertical cracks in tree bark like that shown above are called frost cracks because they happen in frigid weather when bark repeatedly freezes and thaws. Sunlight warms the bark during the day and then at night when the temperature drops quickly the bark cools and shrinks much quicker than the inner wood, and this causes stress and pressure build up. The unequal shrinkage and contraction between wood and bark can cause the bark to split, sometimes violently and as loudly as a rifle shot. It’s a relatively common sound in the woods at night, but it’s always startling. This frost crack is rare because it is in the bark of a white pine, which has thick bark.

Most frost cracks usually appear on thin barked trees and heal relatively quickly. This photo shows a healed frost crack in an oak.

Here is a scar in the bark of an eastern hemlock that I can’t explain. I’ve shown it off and on in blog posts over the years and many readers have had a shot at guessing the cause but none of us has truly been satisfied with their guess. By far the most popular guess is that lightning made the scar, but the lightning strikes that I’ve seen in tree bark have run as straight as a frost crack. They have also run the length of the tree, while this one comes up out of the ground and runs maybe 4 or 5 feet up the tree.

The zig zag crack is quite deep so I think it has been there for a few years. I’ve seen only one other photo of a similar scar and that also came with no explanation.

Sunlight on a hemlock branch warmed my spirits as much as it did the branch.

When a tree dies it often will shed its bark before it falls if it falls naturally, and the serpentine opening that shows in this tree’s bark is the beginning of the process. I see trees all the time that have all their bark lying in a heap at their base.

Sometimes I see trees that have broken off and fallen and their trunks are completely hollow. I often wonder how many of the trees that surround me in the woods are standing with hollow trunks. That isn’t a real comforting thought especially on a windy day, but I think the wound “window” in this tree shows how it happens. The weathered gray heart of the tree died first and the outer bark lived long enough to start healing the wound. If the tree had lived it would have most likely just been another standing hollow tree, but it finally died and I think the channels showing bark beetle damage all around the wound tell the story of how. Bark beetles don’t usually attack healthy trees but if the tree is alive when they move in it is doomed.

Here was a tree scar that wouldn’t ever heal; someone had cut down a hemlock that was about 5 inches through and I wondered who would do such a thing and why. And then I remembered doing the same thing when I was a boy, and I thought about how I didn’t know then and still don’t know why I did it. This seemed like a good time to ponder such things but I wasn’t able to fill in any blanks. It is healthy I think, to occasionally question our actions. I hope whoever did this will one day ask themselves why, just as I did on this day.

The bark had fallen off an old black birch (Betula lenta) and the inner bark was like confetti. Black birch bark looks a lot like cherry bark when young but once they reach about 50 years old the bark begins to split and form scaly plates. These irregular plates start to fall off when the tree is about 80 years old,  so I would say this tree must be at least that old. The beautiful inner bark shown here will eventually become the outer bark and it will begin to fall off when the tree is about 150 years old. Black birches were once heavily harvested for their natural oil of wintergreen so it’s unusual to find such an old example. I gave it a pat on the bark and wished it well.  

I know this very popular trail has been here since the late 1800s but this tree hasn’t been here that long. Still, it took a lot of foot traffic to wear the bark off its roots like this. I always stop to look at roots like this. Some are so smooth they look as if they had been sanded and polished by a cabinetmaker. Many show wood of different colors and are beautiful.

You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters. ~St. Bernard

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I hope everyone has a very Merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year!

May you walk gently through the world and know its beauty all the days of your life. ~Apache Blessing

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Last Saturday it rained and Sunday the forecast was for 40 mile per hour wind gusts, so I decided to stay out of the woods and play instead along the banks of the Ashuelot river. I’ve seen a lot of blown down trees this year and it doesn’t take much to bring them down when the ground is saturated. And saturated it must be because all the snow has melted and the river is approaching bank-full.

Downstream from the bridge I stood on it was choppy.

I stopped trying to get a good wave photo in the dim light and admired an aster seed head instead.

The remnants of a bird’s nest hung from the branches of a small oak. I was surprised at the length of the fibers it was woven with. They must have been nearly a foot long. I saw an eastern phoebe nesting here in the past but I can’t say it that was a phoebe that built this nest.

Instead of being caused by an insect like many galls, alder (Alnus incana) tongue gall is caused by a fungus (Taphrina alni). The fungus chemically deforms parts of the ovarian tissue of the female cone-like catkins (strobiles) and causes long, tongue shaped galls known as languets to grow from them. These galls seem to like high humidity so are usually found on alders that grow near swamps, ponds, rivers and streams.  

Birds are gobbling the berries of the invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus) which isn’t a good thing, because this shrub doesn’t need any help in its mission to take over the understory. Since its introduction from Asia as an ornamental in 1860, Winged euonymus has spread as far south as the gulf coast, north into Canada, and as far west as Illinois. It creates such a dense shade nothing else can get a start, so our native plants won’t grow near it. Because of that burning bushes can create monocultures of hundreds or even thousands of plants, and that is what has happened along this stretch of river.

One of the curious things I saw on this walk was what I think was a hemispherical insect egg case attached to a tree.  It had a single hole in it where either the insect had escaped or a bird had pecked the larva out of it. It was hollow and had opened somehow and fallen away from the tree, and I could see that the inside was pure white.

I carefully closed the egg case (?) against the tree and this is what it looked like. The white spot is the hole in it showing the white inside. It was only about a half inch across and I don’t know what made it.

It was a mostly cloudy day but the sun was kind enough to come out long enough to illuminate a beautiful patch of snowy moss that was in front of me.

There is a trail here that follows a narrow spit of land that juts out into the river. I suppose you’d call it a peninsula. It’s wooded and though I told myself I had to stay out of the woods I couldn’t resist.

A little spruce tree reminded me that Christmas is near. It’s unusual to find a spruce growing here.

Barberry berries looked like tiny Christmas ornaments but barberry is extremely invasive so I’d rather not see it here. Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is native to Japan. In 1875 seeds imported from Russia were planted at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts. Birds helped it escape and now it has become a very invasive shrub that forms dense thickets and chokes out native plants. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, recently “barberry has been implicated in the spread of Lyme disease. Researchers have noted higher densities of adult deer ticks and white-footed deer mice under barberry than under native shrubs. Deer mice, the larval host, have higher levels of larval tick infestation and more of the adult ticks are infected with Lyme disease. When barberry is controlled, fewer mice and ticks are present and infection rates drop.”

Japanese barberry has inner bark that is bright yellow. It also has thorns that are a son of a gun to kneel on.

This is the first gall I’ve ever seen on a silky dogwood shrub. I haven’t been able to identify the insect that made it but it doesn’t matter because galls don’t usually harm the plants they grow on.

There are many witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) on the peninsula and I like to come out here in winter to see their beautiful brown leaves.

Beavers like witch hazels too, and treat them as we would a garden vegetable. Over the years, due to the cropping by the beavers, I’ve seen the witch hazels here grow into many stemmed shrubs. The beavers come and harvest a few; never all of them, and then leave them alone for a few years to grow back. Then they repeat the process, all up and down the river. It’s so good to have beavers here, because when I was a boy this river was so polluted few animals frequented it. Muskrats, I think were the largest animal using the river then. I can’t remember ever seeing a single sign of beavers.

Witch hazel seed pods explode with force and can throw the seeds as far as 30 feet. I’ve read that you can hear them pop when they open and even though I keep trying to be there at the right time to see and hear it happening, I never have been.

Bark beetles usually attack weak or dying trees but they can also kill healthy trees by girdling them.  Adults bore small holes in the bark and lay eggs in a cavity. Once the larvae emerge from the eggs they make tunnels in the inner bark. Once they stop feeding they will pupate at the end of these tunnels. The pupae then become young adults and fly off to find another tree. These beetles carry spores of various fungi which can grow on the outer sapwood and stop the upward flow of water to the crown. Bark Beetles include over 100 species. It is said that their work is like a fingerprint for the species. They can create such beautiful patterns in wood that it looks as if a calligrapher has taken up a chisel instead of a pen. When I think of things like this, created under the bark of a limb and never meant for me to see, that’s when I feel an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude, just for being alive and able to see beauty like this every day.

Bark beetles excavate egg galleries in fresh phloem, the inner bark which carries food from leaves to the roots of a tree. For a living tree this is a death sentence.  

The peninsula I was on gets narrower and narrower until it becomes just a point jutting out into the river, but on this day the water was so high I knew I’d never reach the end.

In fact the end of the peninsula was under water and this was a scary scene that I’ve never seen before. I’m guessing the peninsula is going to be a hundred or so yards shorter from now on.

On my way back up the trail I tripped over a pine branch and fell to my knees right on some Japanese barberry thorns. Once I stopped cursing my bad luck I saw that in fact I’d had good luck, because I saw a little pink, brain like jelly fungus that I’ve never seen before growing on the branch I had tripped over. Now I just have to see if I can identify it. So far I haven’t had much luck doing so. It’s very unusual, and cute too. It was a little over a quarter inch long.

There is no music like a little river’s . . . It takes the mind out-of-doors . . . and . . . it quiets a man down like saying his prayers. ~Robert Louis Stevenson

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I’ve seen some glorious sunrises lately. This one reminded me of the old “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” saying, which is based in fact. According to Wikipedia “If the morning skies are red, it is because clear skies over the horizon to the east permit the sun to light the undersides of moisture-bearing clouds.” The concept is over two thousand years old and is even referenced in the New Testament, so sailors have been paying attention to the skies for a very long time.  

I like looking for patterns in ice and I thought I saw the Statue of Liberty’s Crown in this puddle ice. The whiter the ice, the more air bubbles were trapped in it when it froze. That explains the color, but what explains the long, needle like crystals and the strange pinging noise it makes when it breaks? There might be answers to those questions out there, but I still haven’t been able to find them.

Winterberries (Ilex verticillata) are a native holly that love wet feet so I look for them in swamps and along streams.  Conditions must have been perfect for them this year because I’ve seen more berries on them than I ever have. Robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, Eastern bluebirds, and cedar waxwings all eat them so this year they’ll eat well.

Spindle berry is native to Europe but we have a native version called eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus,) and I think this plant is probably the native version. The photo above is of its interesting bright red fruit, which many birds eat. I watched a pair of blue jays eating the fruit just the other day, in fact. Though Native Americans used the bark, leaves and fruits medicinally  all parts of this plant are considered poisonous if eaten. Wahoo was their name for the shrub.

When young yellow hawkweed seedlings (Hieracium caespitosum) look like the above photo; very hairy. And when it gets cold the leaves will turn purple unless covered by snow. When covered the leaves will often stay green all winter and there are thousands of them in a meadow where I work. Hawkweeds were used in Europe to treat lung disorders, stomach pains, cramps, and convulsions. Native Americans used our native hawkweeds in chewing gum.

I know I showed Mount Monadnock in my last post but I’m showing it again because I just heard that a man had to be rescued from the summit recently. Unfortunately this has become a common occurrence that is expensive and dangerous for rescuers. It usually happens because people simply aren’t prepared for the weather conditions up there. They get wet, cold, and find themselves in serious trouble. People have died on that mountain, so if you plan on climbing it please do some research and stay safe. By the way, all the snow in this photo is gone now but it’s still mighty cold up there. For a current forecast visit https://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Mount-Monadnock/forecasts/965

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) grows long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. Virgin’s bower is our native wild clematis vine that blooms anytime from July through September. Botanically speaking these “seeds” are achenes, which are fruits with one seed. This is a common plant seen draped over shrubs and climbing into trees all along these tracks. What is uncommon is its pretty star shaped seed head. The hairy looking seeds give it another common name: Old Man’s Beard.

I think this is the worst tree wound I’ve ever seen. Though dead now the tree lived like this for many years. It showed me that the natural drive to live is very strong among all living things.

I saw a familiar black growth on a fallen beech limb (Fagus grandifolia) that I recognized as an unusual little fungus that I had seen before.

Annulohypoxylon cohaerens fungi like beech trees and that’s where I always find them. They start life brown and mature to the purplish black color seen in the photo, and always remind me of tiny blackberries. Each small rounded growth is about half the diameter of a pea and their lumpy appearance comes from the many nipple shaped pores from which the spores are released. The fruiting bodies seen here are described as “cushion like round or flask shaped masses of fungal tissue with nipple or pustule shaped pores.” It took me about three years to be able to identify this fungus, so you have to be persistent in nature study.

Another black fungus found on trees is the bootstrap fungus. It is caused by honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea), which are parasitic on live wood and send out long root like structures called rhizomorphs between the wood of a tree and its bark. When fresh the rhizomorphs are cream colored but darken to brown or black as they age. The fungus is also called armillaria root rot or shoestring root rot. It causes a white pulpy rot in the wood and kills many species of both soft and hardwood trees.

Fungal spores can enter trees through wounds in the bark, like sapsucker holes for instance. Yellow bellied sapsuckers are in the woodpecker family but unlike other woodpeckers they feed on sap instead of insects. They drill a series of holes in a line across the bark and then move up or down and drill another series of holes before moving again, and the end result is usually a rectangular pattern of holes in the bark. They’ll return to these holes again and again to feed on the dripping sap. Many small animals, bats, birds and insects also drink from them, so these little birds help out a lot of their forest companions.

Many ash trees have black winter buds, like black ash for instance, but I know this one by its fruit and it is a native mountain ash. It grows in a very un-mountain like wet place and because of that I think it suffers. It seems a weak, sickly tree and I didn’t know that its buds also looked sickly until I took this photo. It does bear a limited amount of fruit though, so it’s obviously trying.

But none of that was the actual point of taking this photo; I took it so I could tell you that the best way to start learning to identify trees when they are leafless is to find a tree with prominent or unmistakable features (like buds) and start there. Once you’ve learned all you can from that tree choose another. Sooner or later you’ll notice similar patterns among tree species and that will make them even easier to identify.

Shrubs too, can teach. I can’t think of another shrub with chubby purple buds like those found on the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa.) In spring the outer purple bud scales will open and show the green inner bud and they will be very beautiful in their purple and green stripes. A bud scale is made up of modified leaves or stipules that cover and protect the bud in winter. Usually the number of bud scales surrounding a bud will help identify a tree or shrub.

A bud I most look forward to seeing open in the spring is the beech (Fagus grandifolia.) There are beautiful silvery downy edges on the new leaves that only last for a day or two, so I watch beech trees closely starting in May. Botanically beech buds are described as “narrow conical, highly imbricate, and sharply pointed.” An imbricate bud is a bud with numerous scales that overlap each other like shingles. In May they are one of the most beautiful things in the forest.

The inner bark on dead staghorn sumacs can be a beautiful bright, reddish orange color in the winter. I’ve read descriptions that say the inner (live) bark is “light green and sweet to chew on,” but no reference to its changing color when it dries, so it is a mystery to me. The plant is said to be rich in tannins and I do know that dyes in colors like salmon and plum can be made from various parts of the plant, including its bark.

I’ve seen various animals and even beautiful Hindu dancers in grape tendrils but in this one all I see is infinity, because it doesn’t seem to have a beginning or an end. A grape tendril is a flower stalk that has evolved into a grasping support to get the vine into the bright life giving sunshine at the tops of trees. They bend in the direction of touch so if the wind happens to blow them against a branch they will twist spirally around it. In a vineyard they usually point to the north.

I like the warm, rich brown of oak leaves in the winter. These were curled together in a hug, as if to keep each other warm.

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) seed pods covered the ground under an old tree and I was glad I wasn’t the one who had to rake them all up. When the seed pods are green the pulp on the inside is edible and very sweet, while the pulp of the very similar black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is toxic. One good way to tell the two trees apart is by the length of their seed pods; honey locust pods are much longer and may reach a foot in length, while black locust pods only grow to about 4-5 inches long. Honey locust seed pods look a lot like giant flat string beans about 9-12 inches long and often curled. Some of them look like polished mahogany and others can be purple. Beautiful white, fragrant flowers cover these trees in late spring. Locusts are legumes, in the pea family. Deer love the seed pods.

Honey locust thorns grow singly and can be 3 to 6 inches long. They will sometimes branch like the example in the photo. These thorns are big and as hard as iron. They can reach 6 inches in length and poke right out of the bark of the tree along its branches and sometimes even the main trunk. They are tough enough to puncture shoe soles and I always watch my step when I walk under one of these trees because thorns like these can cause a nasty wound. In the past the hard thorns of the younger trees were used as nails. Confederate soldiers once used them to pin their uniforms together and survivalists still use them as fish hooks, spear heads, nails, sewing needles and even small game traps. Native Americans used the wood to make bows, and medicines were made from various parts of the plant.

Go to the winter woods: listen there; look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest. ~ Fiona Macleod

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On the night of Sunday December 1st, just after I visited the deep cut rail trail in the last post, it started snowing. And then every day for all of that week we had at least some snow falling. In my yard I had about a foot of it but some towns in the region saw as much as three feet. I stopped one snowy morning to take the above photo of the road to work. Every living thing was snow covered, settling in for a long winter sleep.

The swamp off the side of the road still showed some water but just a shadow of what it actually holds.

In case you’re wondering, it costs $80,000 per hour to remove all of this snow from state roads. That doesn’t include the cost to each individual town to remove the snow from town roads. It takes a lot of time and effort to move a foot of snow, but move it we must.

I love how the water looks so dark against the snow. Like a black mirror.

We actually got more snow than this. It settles quickly so you really should measure it just after it falls, but this was 2 days later. Still a foot even after settling. I’d say we got 14-15 inches total.

The sky looked like someone had painted the sun into it as an afterthought. It gave light but no heat. We’ve seen 7 degrees below zero F. so far.

This is another shot taken during a snow storm. They say that it snowed for about 48 hours but it felt longer than that.

The slushy snow on Half Moon Pond in Hancock absorbed water from the pond and glowed a strange color that looked green to me, but I was told that it was kind of tan.  

Finally the snow stopped but the strange colored ice was still there.

I saw some excellent examples of ice needles before it snowed and the crunch underfoot told me they were there before I saw them. They were some of the longest ice needles that I’ve seen. Many were 6-8 inches long.

When the air temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit right at the soil surface and the soil and groundwater remain thawed, hydrostatic pressure can force 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. From what I’ve seen the needles almost always freeze together and form ribbons like those seen in the above photo. I’d love to find a single one but so far, no luck with that.

Ice needles are very fragile, as you can imagine. They weigh next to nothing and just a warm breath or the swipe of a finger can destroy them. This is the same ice ribbon in the previous photo turned on edge.

The view out my back door was a little snowy.

Mount Monadnock over in Jaffrey looked cold. I’m betting that the snow was deep up there, but I’d also bet that people were still climbing it. Monadnock is the second most climbed mountain on earth after Mount Fuji in Japan and it is climbed year round. The wind blowing through this spot at Perkin’s Pond in Troy can quickly chill you right to the bone, so imagine what it must be like up there.

So far the Ashuelot River in Swanzey remains ice free.

But ice shelves are forming along the Ashuelot in Keene. These ice shelves can be very dangerous once they get snowed on because it can be hard to tell where the land stops and the river begins. I’ve found myself standing on one more than once. Luckily I haven’t gotten get wet.

I stood on a bridge over the river and saw last year’s cattails through the ice.

The shadows on the snow were deep blue one day and they reminded me of a special high school art teacher who taught me to see rather than just look. To me, probably due to colorblindness, winter shadows looked gray but she convinced me that they were and should be blue. The odd thing about all of that is how, once I began painting them blue I began seeing them in blue, and I have ever since. Colorblindness is a very strange thing and it doesn’t behave as many people think it does. I can see red and green separately for instance but when a red cardinal lands in a green tree it completely disappears. Stoplights however are always red, green and yellow.

Speaking of yellow the bright yellow blossoms of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) on a 25 degree f. day were a pleasure to see. Witch hazel is our latest blooming shrub, even blooming as late as January in a warm winter, so I wasn’t that surprised to see these blossoms in December. There were lots of them.

              

I’ve shown this trail many times in these winter posts but it has always been disturbed in the past, with the snow torn up by 4 wheelers or snowmobiles. This time except for a few deer tracks it was undisturbed and paved in golden sunlight. It was so beautiful I couldn’t bring myself to disturb it either, so I turned back and left.

By walking in a snowy forest you can really forget about this world, and every time you forget about this world you leave this world, and every time you leave this world you gain a very special wisdom that does not exist in this world. ~Mehmet Murat ildan

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I had seen ice here and there that seemed to be growing rather than melting, so that was my cue to go into the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland; a place ice climbers call the ice box. It’s actually a man-made canyon, hacked out of the bedrock some 150 years ago by the railroad. It’s a special place and I’ve never found another like it. There is always ground water seeping and dripping from the stone ledges and in the winter when it freezes the ice columns can grow huge like tree trunks. What you’ll see here is just the beginning.

In the warmer months you can hear water dripping here but you don’t realize how much there actually is until you see it as ice. There is an incredible amount of water here and it runs winter and summer.  

The giant ice columns are like a magnet for ice climbers and members of the New Hampshire branch of the Appalachian Mountain Club come here to train beginning climbers. I was surprised to see some of them here on this day since it is so early in the season. I told them so, and said I didn’t think the ice would be big enough to climb so early. They said it really wasn’t but they couldn’t wait. They also said they were having to use more “screws” than they had hoped, and this meant they were doing as much rock climbing as they were ice climbing.

Here is one of the “screws” they spoke of. These are studded here and there all over the 50 foot high walls of the canyon.

Much of the ice is colored here and I’ve always suspected that it was minerals in the water coloring it, but I can’t prove that.

There are many areas where the stone of the ledges is stained by minerals.

The railroad engineers used the stone from blasting to build massive retaining walls along parts of the rail bed. Drainage ditches run all along the base of the walls on both sides and still keep the rail bed dry after a century and a half. This view is south out of the larger canyon where the ice climbers climb.

The drainage ditches along the bases of the canyon walls were freezing here and there but for the most part they were open and impassible unless you wore knee high rubber boots.

As you move south you come to another canyon, where the walls aren’t quite as high but are still covered with ice. This section is where the ice is usually more colored, in blues, greens, tan, orange and even red.

The trail south was iced up from side to side and over quite a length. I didn’t think I’d need micro spikes so I didn’t bring them. And I slid but I didn’t fall.

Each year an evergreen fern is imprisoned by bars of ice in this spot, but it doesn’t seem to mind. In June it will be happy again.

There is a timelessness about this place, as if the mosses had been waiting patiently encased in ice, for millions of winters. And of course they have been, just not here. You sense that time means nothing here and you have to be aware of that because it can get very cold. If you’re anything like me you can become so absorbed by what you’re seeing you don’t feel the cold anymore, and that’s what happened on this day. By the time I left the place my coat was opened and my gloves were in my pockets. I didn’t know how cold I had been until I was warm again.

In a place or two the stone is orange and though you might think it’s more mineral staining it’s actually algae growth. The green alga (Trentepohlia aurea) that grows here and there on the walls seems to reach its peak orange color in winter, but I don’t know if that coincides with spore production or not. In fact I’m not sure if I’d know when it was producing spores because it always looks the same to me.  But it does produce spores; a blood red rain fell in parts of Spain in 2014 and it was caused by similar algae named Haematococcus pluvialis. The same thing happened in Texas in 2013, in Sri Lanka in 2012, and in India in 2001, each event seemingly caused by different algae. Yellow, green, and black rain has also been reported.

Great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) grow here by the hundreds of thousands and for part of the year they’re completely encased in ice. They shrug it off as if it never happened.

It’s hard to imagine these icicles as big as tree trunks but if the cold weather continues they’ll slowly grow together and become huge; the biggest ice columns I’ve ever seen.

Here was some orange ice. Most likely stained by iron oxide in the stone.

If it’s strange ice formations you’re looking for this is the place to find them. These examples grew on leaves in one of the drainage channels. Wherever water drips or splashes in cold air ice grows into sometimes fantastic shapes.

And sometimes it’s just plain icicles.

I finally made it to the old lineman’s shack, which is my turn around point. I had to wonder if this old building would make it through another winter. I’ve watched it slowly disintegrate over the years and now its ridgepole has snapped. Since the roof rafters are fastened to the ridgepole, when it breaks the roof comes down and then the walls follow. I hope it’s here in the spring but it’s a dicey looking business.

The graffiti inside the old shack always reminds me of my father. He would have been 18 in 1925 and he lived near here then, and I always wonder if he came to see the ice like I do. None of the initials match his but he could have easily walked these tracks through here. Trains would have been running then. That it has stood so long says a lot for the railroad workers who built it.

If you know where and more importantly when to look, you can find an old trestle in the woods near the lineman’s shack after the leaves have fallen. It isn’t anywhere near big enough for a train to have rolled on so I’m guessing it was for ore carts used to dispose of any excess stone. Quite often you can find piles of broken up granite in the woods by railroad tracks. They used most of it to fill in hollows and valleys to make a level railbed but in some instances it looks like they couldn’t use it all. Farmers often took stones from these stray piles and built walls out of them. They have the hand of man all over them and can be easily spotted as very different from walls built with native, undamaged stones.

I usually learn something when I come here and this time I learned that the old lineman’s shack was built on railroad ties, which is probably one reason it has lasted so long. But even railroad ties rot away eventually and the earth’s warm breath wafted through a knothole in one of them. Where the warm met the cold hoar frost grew.

In the winter, the world gets sharp. Beautiful things happen. ~Peter Fiore

Thanks for coming by.

 

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I thought I’d go and see Brickyard Brook over in Richmond, New Hampshire last week because I hadn’t been there in a while. When I was here last I saw a very curious thing; the brook had plugged itself up and had changed course. More accurately it had always been split in two with a weak half and a strong half, and the strong half got plugged up so the weak half then became the strong half, and the original strong half is now all but dried up. I hope you can follow that. I saw it for myself and even I can barely follow it. But it was all very strange.

There is a trail of sorts that is blazed but you don’t need it. All you need to do is follow the brook.

I’m seeing lots of blowdowns this year and here was another. We’ve had some ferocious windstorms.

Here is the brook further up, still running strong.

And then all of the sudden, no more brook. It’s running a few yards off to the left now but you can’t see it in this photo. Just upstream from here there is a quite large pile of fallen trees and stones all in a tangled heap, and that’s what plugged up the original water course. The brook used to roar right through here when I first started coming here and there was a big stone you could lie on to take photos of the brook. The stone is still there but the brook isn’t.

If you moved a few small fallen saplings you could set a tent up over there and wake each morning to the happy sounds of the giggling, chuckling brook. To me that would be paradise right here on earth. I must have been a hermit in a previous life because for me a hermit’s life yearns inside of me, and when I see a place like this I dream of how wonderful it could be.  

I’ve seen purple cones on many species of conifer but this was the first one I had ever seen on an eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis.) The scales on the cones were still closed tightly but soon they will open and the seeds will become winter food for black capped chickadees and other small birds. The 1/2 inch long cones are among the smallest of all the trees in the pine family but the trees usually produce so many of them that the ground is completely covered in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments. Native Americans used the inner bark (cambium) as a base for breads and soups or mixed it with dried fruit and animal fat to use in pemmican. They also made tea from hemlock needles, which have a high vitamin C content, and this saved many a white settler from scurvy.

Tinder fungi (Fomes fomentarius) were also wearing purple, and this was the first time I had ever seen that as well. They were growing on a dead beech tree. The spores from this fungus enter the tree through damaged bark and cause rot inside. It usually grows on hardwoods but can occasionally grow on conifers as well. This bracket fungus produces spores at all times of year but through spring and summer studies have shown that as many as 800 million can be produced in a single hour. Its common name comes from its usefulness as tinder for starting fires. The 5000 year old “iceman” found preserved in ice and snow in the Italian Alps carried pieces of this fungus with him. It is also useful medicinally and is known to stop bleeding, so he might have used it both ways.

A young eastern hemlock had broken off about shin high at some point in the past. I knew it was an eastern hemlock because of its bark and because the way the stump was rotting away.

In the book Forest Forensics, Tom Wessels describes white pine (Pinus strobus) and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) stumps as “decaying from the outside in toward the center.” He also says that it takes 50 years for the wood to completely decay.  Hemlock has a very rot resistant bark that is usually still in place even when the wood has completely decayed, so the stump looks like a tube.

I could tell by the way the moss was worn off this log that I wasn’t the only one who had walked here. I usually step over logs rather than up on them because it’s easier on the knees. If you’re walking miles through the woods and step up on every log you see you’ll know why you shouldn’t have the next day.

Here was another tree down across the trail but it was easy to step over.

Your reward for this hike is a small waterfall that empties into a good size pool. The pool looked to be about 4-5 feet deep and on a hot August day would be very inviting. My father would have loved this place because he loved fishing for brook trout. He took me with him a few times when I was a young boy but I was more interested in exploring the forest than fishing so that didn’t last long. It’s hard to catch fish while you’re trying to catch your wayward son, I would imagine. 

I read once that you should always slow down your camera when photographing water to “show its movement.” Now, I’m betting that everyone reading this blog knows that the water in a brook is moving but just in case, I slowed down the camera so we could be sure that the water was indeed moving.

I saw an oak apple gall on the underside of an oak leaf and it looked like a bird had gotten the wasp larva within. These galls form out of leaf tissue when a gall wasp injects chemicals into it. It grows into a spherical shape like that seen in this photo, and a wasp larva grows at its center. 

The fronds of the evergreen wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia) stay green throughout winter, but their weak stems usually see them lying flat like these were so they’re often covered by snow. This example grew on top of a boulder, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen.

Looking for two rows of spore cases (sori) growing on the underside of the sub-leaflets and the large brown scales on the bases of its stalks are good ways to identify the evergreen wood fern. This fern contains toxic substances that can paralyze some reptiles and mammals, so it isn’t often eaten. 

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) plants are loaded with berries this year, so our wild turkeys will eat well.

Heart leaf foam flowers (Tiarella cordifolia) grow here by the hundreds. They’re one of our prettiest late spring flowers and I always find them near water or growing in wet ground along rail trails. They’re easy to spot because of their hairy, maple-like leaves and foot high flower stalks, and a colony as big as the ones found here are a beautiful sight. Native plants have leaves that are bright green at first and then turn a darker green, sometimes mottled with maroon or brown. Many hybrids have been created and foam flowers are now popular in garden centers and are grown in gardens as much for their striking foliage as the flowers. They are an excellent, maintenance free choice for shady gardens that get only morning sun.

A hairy, maple like leaf that grows close to the ground, usually in large colonies, is a sure sign that you’ve found foamflowers. The hard part is remembering where you saw them when spring comes around.

Believe it or not there is a house at the top of that hill to the right, so this gorge is as far as I’ve ever followed the brook. The walls of the gorge are steep so I’d have to go to the top of the hill and follow the brook through that family’s yard. What a lucky family; imagine having all of this in your back yard.

The woods were made for the hunters of dreams,
The brooks for the fishers of song;
To the hunters who hunt for the gunless game
The streams and the woods belong.
~ Sam Walter Foss

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It’s a shame how some people think winter is a ‘dead time’ when there is nothing to see outside. I challenge anyone to find a scene more alive than this one at any time of year, or more beautiful. This, to me, is a little slice of paradise. But it is also a place of mystery; on this little hill grow possibly hundreds of species of mosses and I can’t know them all, but I can know a few and each year I try to learn at least one more new one. I hope you’re interested enough to meet the ones I do know.

One of my favorite mosses is the delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum) because though it turns lime green in cold weather colorblindness makes it look bright orange to me, and what could be better than orange moss? It grows in my lawn so it’s very easy to find. It’s very pretty, especially in the fall, and I wouldn’t really mind if the lawn went away and the moss took over.

Many mosses will grow on wood, stone or soil and delicate fern moss is one of them. It’s is a beautiful little thing that isn’t as delicate as its name implies, but it certainly is fern like. The leaves of this moss are often dull rather than shiny. It is fairly common and easy to find because it often forms very large mats. Orchid growers use this moss in orchid cultivation.

Brocade Moss (Hypnum imponens) is very shiny and sometimes has an orange brown color. It often forms very large mats as it did here, covering this entire log.

Brocade moss gets its common name from the way it looks as if it has been embroidered on whatever it happens to be growing on.  It is easily confused with knight’s plume moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis,) but the spore capsules on knights plume moss are elbow macaroni shaped and horizontal, while those of brocade moss are cylindrical and stand vertically.

The name medusa moss (Hedwigia ciliata) comes from the way this moss looks like a bunch of tangled worms when it dries out. It is also called white tipped moss, because its branch tips are often bright white as they are in this photo. This moss is fairly common and I find it mostly growing on stones in sunny spots. It always seems to be very happy and healthy.

White cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) can appear silvery, white, bluish green or grayish green but it always forms a thick cushion and stands out from the mosses that might surround it. It likes plenty of water and shade and grows on rotting logs or on stone when there is enough soil. It is probably the easiest of all the mosses to identify.

Apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) doesn’t look like very many other mosses so it’s relatively easy to identify. Its reproduction begins in the late fall and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. When the warm rains of spring arrive the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes that always look like pearls to me, but someone thought they looked like apples and the name stuck.

Big red stem moss (Pleurozium schreberi) is a very common moss that I often see growing in very large mats, sometimes even overrunning other mosses. In fact I’ve never seen a moss grow as fast as this one. It should be obvious how big red stem comes by its common name but I don’t see any red. I’ve looked through two moss books and countless photos on line though, and all examples of big red stem look like this example. That makes me wonder if its stem isn’t red for part of the time. Mosses do change color.

Tree skirt moss (Anomodon attenuates) does just what its name sounds like it would; it grows at the base of trees and makes them look like they’re wearing green stockings. It can also grow on soil or stone and can form extensive mats. Tree skirt moss looks like it’s made up of tiny braided ropes when it’s dry. It is normally deep green but sometimes dryness can affect its color and shape. After a rain each tiny leaflet will pull away from the stem, giving the moss a slightly fluffy appearance.

Juniper haircap moss plants (Polytrichum juniperinum) look like tiny green starbursts. This moss grows on soil and is also very common in this area. I see them just about everywhere I go. Wet or dry, they always seem to look the same, even though many mosses change their appearance when they dry out.

When young the female spore capsule (Sporangium) of juniper haircap moss is covered by a cap called a calyptra which protects it. You can’t see it in this photo because it has fallen off already but it is very hairy and this is what gives this moss part of its common name. Eventually as the capsule ages it moves from vertical to a more horizontal position and the calyptra falls off. The spore capsule continues to ripen after the calyptra comes off and when the time is right the beaked end cap or lid called the operculum will fall off and release the spores to the wind. As it ages the spore capsule changes from round to four cornered but not quite square, as seen here.

If your camera can do this, you’d better hang onto it because it’s a good one. I’ve gotten a useable shot of the end of a juniper haircap moss spore capsule exactly twice over too many tries to count. This photo shows it is still covered by a thin lid of tissue. What looks like notches around its perimeter are slots that fit over specialized teeth called peristome teeth at the mouth of the capsule. These teeth move with changes in humidity and spread in dry conditions to release the spores, which are taken by the wind. The spore capsule’s diameter at this stage is less than the diameter of a piece of uncooked spaghetti. I wish I had a microscope so I could get even closer.

Rose moss (Rhodobryum roseum,) grows on stone and is another of my favorites. This pretty little leafy moss likes limestone so when you see it you know you’re in an area where you might find other lime loving plants, like many of our native orchids. It forms dense mats and gets its common name from the aspirin size rosettes of leaves that terminate each stalk. They look like tiny flowers. This is the only example of rose moss that I’ve ever seen and I think it’s probably quite old.

Blackish male organs produce sperm which will be splashed out of the center of the rose moss rosettes by rain drops, and when they land on female structures that produces egg cells, called archegonium, a drooping, pear shaped spore capsule (sporophytes) will grow. Rose moss also reproduces by horizontal underground stems so spore capsules are rare. This is why new clumps of this moss are so hard to find.

Another leafy moss which I have to hunt high and low for is the Appalachian penny moss (Rhizomnium appalachianum) but it’s worth it because it’s so pretty and unusual. Though some mosses like this one can resemble vascular plants, mosses have no xylem and phloem, or vascular tissue. This is why mosses are classified as Bryophytes; plants that have no roots, leaves, or stem. They also have no flowers or seeds and reproduce through spores. Since mosses have no roots they need to grow in areas with adequate moisture. This one grows in soil that was dripping wet.

This moss is easily confused with red penny moss (Rhizomnium punctatum) so you have to look at the stems. Only the stems of Appalachian penny moss will be hairy over their entire length as seen here.

Stair-step moss (Hylocomium splendens) is a very beautiful moss that grows on stones and looks quite fragile, but I’ve seen it with icicles hanging from it so I can say with certainty that it’s a lot tougher than it looks. That is most likely why it grows as far north as the arctic tundra. It seems fairly rare here; this is the only example that I’ve seen, and it doesn’t seem to be spreading.

When dry stair step moss has a slight satiny sheen to it, and that’s probably how it came by its other common name of glittering wood-moss. The name stair step moss comes from the way the new growth “steps up” off the midrib of the previous year’s branch.  Each year a new branch grows from the old and this growth habit allows stair step moss to grow up and over other mosses. It is said that you can tell the age of the moss by counting these steps.

Any moss post I do usually has at least one unknown but I often delete them before you see them. I left this one in because I like its happy, curly appearance. Though it fills this photo it is the tiniest moss in this post at about 1/2 an inch across. It grew on tree bark.

I like to visit my friends the tree mosses (Climacium dendroides) every now and then but it’s getting harder to get to them. What was once a streamside trail has become a brushy maze that I had to weave my way through. They are cheery mosses that look like little palm trees, and they always glow with a beautiful inner light, so they’re worth the effort. By this stream is the only spot I’ve ever found them so they aren’t common here, but I was happy to see that they’ve spread quite well where they grow. They must not mind being under water for a time because their stream floods once or twice a year.

You’ll notice that many of the mosses shown here like rose moss and tree moss are hard to confuse with other mosses, but some like that little unknown moss could be any one of three or four different mosses. They can be very difficult to identify but I try to do it because I’m a nature nut. You don’t have to be a nature nut though; you can enjoy the beauty of these beings without knowing a single one of their names. When you see a scene like the one above you can simply go and sit with them for a bit, and just admire them. They’re a fascinating and important part of nature.

Moss grows where nothing else can grow. It grows on bricks. It grows on tree bark and roofing slate. It grows in the Arctic Circle and in the balmiest tropics; it also grows on the fur of sloths, on the backs of snails, on decaying human bones. It is a resurrection engine. A single clump of mosses can lie dormant and dry for forty years at a stretch, and then vault back again into life with a mere soaking of water. ~Elizabeth Gilbert

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