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Archive for December, 2020

A cute little red squirrel ran up the backside of a pine tree and peeked around it to see what I was doing. I probably see one red squirrel for every hundred gray squirrels so they aren’t that common in this immediate area. They’re cute but if they get into your house they can and will cause a lot of damage. I worked for a lady once who had them in her attic and I spent all summer trapping and relocating them. They had chewed all the wiring, got into stored items, and made a mess in general. A big mess.

I’ve mentioned the storm that dropped 16 inches of snow in other posts but what I haven’t mentioned is the below zero cold that came after. Ponds and streams froze quickly, but as I write this it’s near 60 degrees F. and raining like it was June, so I’d guess tomorrow all the snow will be gone and all the rivers and streams will be at bank-full.

I saw ice doing strange things. I’m sure the wind had a lot to do with this teardrop shape on a standing shrub but I couldn’t quite figure out where the water had come from. Maybe it had simply trickled down the branch but if so why didn’t the wind blow it while it trickled? It seemed to have all collected in this one spot.

Though it’s hard to tell from this photo this is ice, frozen onto deck boards in very strange patterns. I can’t even guess why water would have pooled and frozen in this way, but it was pretty.

Just as I got to work one morning the sun was just kissing the clouds, and I had to stop and watch. I try not to let such things go unappreciated. If you let yourself pay attention to the beauty in this world more and more you’ll find yourself saying a silent thank you. Serenity, gratitude, joy; these are just some of the things that nature will fill you with.

Just to the right of that last shot the sun was also kissing the moon.

Quite often you’ll find a place where the ground looks like it has heaved up and around stones. The stone sits at the bottom of a hole that is usually shaped exactly like it is, so it also looks like the sun has heated the stone enough for it to melt down into the frozen soil. I’ve doubted for years that that is the answer though because the sun would heat the surrounding stones as well and they don’t always melt into the soil. As I walked in this area around the stone the soil sank about two inches with every step, so now I’m certain that frost had heaved up and lifted all the soil and smaller stones that surrounded the bigger one. Frozen soil is a lot more plastic than we realize.

I was happy to see some tiny bird’s nest fungi, which few people ever get to see. I think they were fluted bird’s nest fungi (Cyathus striatus) and this is a view of them from the side. They grow in a funnel or vase shape and have flutes around the rim of the body, which is hollow like a cup. They are so small not even a pea would fit inside them.

The “bird’s nest” is actually a splash cup called a peridium and when a drop of rain falls into it with enough force the “eggs” are splashed out. These eggs, which can be seen here, are really spore cases called peridioles. Once ejected from the splash cup the peridioles degrade over time to release the spores.

There is a much studied phenomenon called the Red Bark Phenomenon, and scientists have devoted much time studying trees with colored bark all over New England. It isn’t always red; it can be orange and yellow as well. It affects all kinds of trees, both conifers and deciduous, and many different species. I’ve seen it here and there on tree bark and after a lot of research a few years ago I found that it was caused by the algae Trentepohlia, which is a genus of filamentous chlorophyte green algae in the family Trentepohliaceae. It appears on tree trunks, stones and is even present in many lichens. So if you see a tree with red bark there isn’t anything wrong. It’s just algae looking for a place to perch. This example was on an eastern hemlock.

Eastern hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are numerous here and black capped chickadees flock here to eat the seeds from the hemlock cones like the one pictured above. 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 by them in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments. Native Americans also showed Europeans how to prevent scurvy by making tea from the tree’s needles.

Gray birch (Betula alba var. populifolia) flowers grow in long clusters known as catkins. They flower, which means the male flowers release pollen and the female flowers accept it, in April and May and then the female flowers ripen into seeds throughout the summer. Ripe female catkins like the one seen here are called strobiles and resemble small cones. Fruit (seeds) are blown about by the wind in late fall and winter. Unless that is, birds get to them. Many songbirds love them.

You can often find the snow under a gray birch littered with hundreds of tiny winged seeds, which are called nutlets. Seeds can persist for years in the soil and will grow if the soil is disturbed.

Other plentiful winter seeds for birds include those of asters, which I’m still seeing a lot of.

A beech leaf was caught by the sun and was beautiful enough to stop me in my tracks. Beech is a tree that lends great beauty to the forest all year long. Its orangey brown leaves will slowly lighten to a yellow so pale it is almost white, and then they will finally fall to make room for new leaves in spring.

The deep blue shadows on snow always remind 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, so she gave me a great gift. 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. In fact I have never been able to see a cardinal, even when someone pointed at one and said “It’s right there, can’t you see it?”

But blue still isn’t always blue to these colorblind eyes. I know that cold will turn the normally amber sap of the white pine tree blue but this looks kind of pinky / lavender to me. My color finding software tells me it is steel blue though, and it always wins the argument. Colors come in shades or hues and telling them apart can be quite confusing to the colorblind.

Here is something I’ve never seen before; pixie cup lichens (Cladonia pyxidata) growing on a tree. I know lichens can and will grow on just about anything but until now I’ve only seen this particular one on soil and very rotten wood; never on a live, growing tree. Lichens surprise me continuously. Pixie cups are squamulose lichens, and the tiny golf tee shapes arise from leafy growths called squamules. A squamule is a lobe of the body of the lichen (thallus), and  squamulose lichens have small, leafy lobes, which is the green growth seen here. But though pixie cup lichens are squamulose they have fruticose fruiting structures called podetia. The parts that look like tiny golf tees are its podetia. “Podetia” describes a stalk like growth which bears the apothecia, or fruiting bodies. 

This is the first time I’ve shown the seed pods of the beautiful native shrub known as rhodora (Rhododendron canadense). I’m going to have to watch and see when they open. Quite late, apparently.

I thought I’d show the beautiful flowers of the rhodora because I don’t think most people ever see them. Even in this area it’s a shrub that many don’t know. The flowers appear just when the irises start to bloom and I often have to search for them because they aren’t common. Rhodora is a small, knee high, native rhododendron (actually an azalea) that loves swampy places. It is native to the northeastern U.S. and Canada and both its western and southern limits are reached in Pennsylvania. The flowers appear before the leaves, but only for a short time in spring. By mid-June they will have all vanished.

Sweet gale (Myrica gale) is also called bog rosemary. It likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams just like the rhodora we saw previously. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent. Though it is a native plant here it also grows native in Europe, where it is used as an ingredient in beer making in some countries. It is also used in an ointment used to treat sensitive skin and acne. Its buds are very pretty, but also very small.  They will open and flower in spring.

Is it too early to think of spring? It’s never too early in my opinion and it’s usually in the depths of winter that I start checking buds. These lilac buds were quite pretty, I thought. They are great examples of imbricate buds, which have scales that overlap like shingles. A gummy resin fills the spaces between the scales and makes the bud waterproof. If water got in and froze it would destroy the future flower or leaf embryo within, so buds go to great lengths to prevent that.

While I’ve been working on this post we’ve had just about every kind of weather imaginable. We had snow but of course since it’s so dark before and after work I really couldn’t show it to you. Then on Christmas eve through Christmas day we had temperatures near 60 degrees and 2 inches of rain fell. The shot above shows what the Ashuelot River looks like after 2 inches of rain and a 16 inch snow melt find their way into it. It will boil like this for a few days and then return to its placid self, but meanwhile it will have the wild, rugged beauty we see here. I love watching the waves.

Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself. ~L. Wolfe Gilbert

Thanks for coming by. I hope everyone will have a happy and healthy 2021.

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I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas. We had a white Christmas because 16 inches of snow fell, but the photos in this post were taken before that storm. Getting into the woods becomes more difficult after a deep snowfall, and the walk along the Ashuelot River shown in this post becomes especially so. That’s because snowmobiles don’t come here to pack down the snow, so you’re walking in a trail of thousands of other frozen footprints. It can be exhausting and that’s why I decided to come here before the storm. I was happy to see Ashuelot falls back to normal. The last time I came here the river had dried up enough so the huge granite blocks that this dam is made from were showing.

It was a cloudy day but warm enough to bring out a few of the last witch hazel blossoms we’ll see in 2020. This is our native fall blooming witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, not the vernal, spring blooming witch hazel. Seeing flowers in December always seems like a great gift and if I didn’t see a single thing more on this day I would have gone home happy.

There were black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) seed pods falling. I often see them all over the snow but as of this walk they were falling in the grass. It must have been a good year for these native trees; I see there were nine seeds in this pod. Multiply that by the thousands of seed pods that fall and you can see why this tree is so successful. Its wood is very rot resistance and fence posts made from it can last in the ground for 100 years or more.

Each time I walk here I think about the archeological dig that took place a few years ago that showed that the Abenaki people lived here along the river over 12,000 years ago. They fished, hunted and had their homes here. The area where Keene was, according to some, called “place between” or “collection of many waters” or “place between the waters.” Others say it meant “place where waters meet” but whatever they called it, it seems to have been all about the water and that makes perfect sense.

The Abenaki tribe called beavers “Tomakwa.” They ate beavers and would wait for a pond to freeze so they could walk across the ice to the beaver lodge, which they would then take apart. I was surprised to see that beavers had girdled this huge oak tree. The tree must have been 15 inches through and its life has now ended. Without its inner bark connecting its roots to the crown a tree cannot live.

In the still, shallow backwaters duckweed had frozen into the ice.

The ducks didn’t seem to mind that there was no duckweed to be had. They were tipping up in the shallower water along the river banks and bottom feeding.

Canada geese were doing the same. I saw a lot of geese and mallards here on this day.

There is always one Canada goose watching while the others do goose type things and on this day this one was the chosen guard goose. It was clear that my pretending to be a tree wasn’t fooling anybody. Still, the guard didn’t sound the alarm and my presence was tolerated. I was thankful for its indifference; I once lived where there was a rooster that attacked me every time it saw me, and it was a lot smaller than that goose.

Large puddles had formed in depressions, frozen over and then soaked into the ground, leaving the ice behind.

This ice was quite clear, meaning it had little oxygen in it. I’ve read that white puddle ice is white because of all the oxygen it contains.

Evergreen ferns lay splayed out on the forest floor. By now I’m sure they’re covered by snow but no matter; they’ll stay green until spring when new fiddleheads appear.

Not all the fronds were lying on the ground. Quite often fertile fronds will stand longer than the rest, and when I see one standing like this I always look at the underside.

Sure enough this standing frond was fertile, as its spore producing sori showed. I believe this was the evergreen wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia) which is also called the intermediate woodfern. According to what I’ve read this fern contains toxins that can paralyze some cold blooded animals and invertebrates. This would explain why it never appears to have been eaten.  

This fern, along with mosses and lichens, have decided to call a hole in a tree trunk home.

Imagine trying to wade through this tangled thicket. Take it from me; it can’t be done without tools.

That’s because the thicket is armed with very sharp thorns that have no problem ripping your clothes and skin. This thicket is made of the canes of the invasive multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora). Multiflora rose has beautiful, wonderfully fragrant small white (rarely pink) flowers that are about an inch across but unfortunately it is very invasive. It is from Japan and Korea and grows to huge proportions, arching up over shrubs and sometimes growing 20-30 feet up into trees. A large plant bearing hundreds of blossoms is a truly beautiful thing but its thorny thickets prevent all but the smallest animals from getting where they want to go. Its sale is banned in New Hampshire but since each plant can easily produce half a million seeds I think it’s here to stay.

Multiflora rose hips are bright red and about as big as a pea. A single plant can have many hundreds of them and birds love them, so the genie is out of the bottle and this plant is here to stay.

Just a fallen cinnamon fern leaf, but such beauty it held; like a gem that belonged in a jewel box. There is incredible beauty all around us all the time and I do hope you’ll let yourself stop for just a moment or two so you might see it. Just look anywhere at any time. Let the beauty speak to you. Let it take you out of yourself.

The river was pretending to be a pond on this day; very calm and still. Liquid serenity, you could say.

At this point all of what we’ve seen is covered by snow and I’m sure the normally easy trail is a lot more difficult now, but that will pass and before I know it I’ll be out here looking for wildflowers again.

Have you learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.
~ Hermann Hesse

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I hope all of you will have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And a Happy Hanukkah too!

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

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Last weekend warm air moved over the cold snow and created a fog which was quite thick in places, including here in the man-made railroad canyon in Westmoreland. Ice climbers call it the icebox and there was plenty of ice to see on this day.

Once cold settles in here, which in places is as much as 50 feet below surface level, it usually stays for the winter. There is also a lot of groundwater trickling out of the rock walls, and that coupled with the cold creates ice columns which are often as big as tree trunks. So big that the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to train ice climbers.

There were some impressive Ice falls here on this day but I don’t know if they were ready to be climbed.

There are many signs to tell you what goes on here, like this metal tie off. Ice climbers call these “screws.”

I’ve included this shot from last year to give you a sense of scale of the place. It doesn’t take much ice to get them climbing but on this day they admitted that they were doing as much rock climbing as they were ice climbing. I don’t usually speak to these people out of fear of breaking their concentration. It could be the climber’s first climb and they need to be able to hear and concentrate on the instructions coming from below. Sometimes if I hear them say they need a rest I’ll speak to them but I never stay long. They’re a gutsy bunch. With my paralyzing fear of heights they’d have to pry me from that wall one finger at a time.

In places water quite literally pours from the rock walls. Until I came here I never knew how much ground water could be moving just below the surface.

Water pours and trickles from every crack in the stone, in winter and summer.

The ice falls can be very beautiful.

In places the groundwater sometimes doesn’t flow and even in winter the place reminds me of the Shangri-La James Hilton described in his book Lost Horizon. Being here is like walking back in time to an unspoiled place, even though it was actually created by man. It’s easy to lose yourself in the beauty of it and it’s common for me to have no idea how long I’ve spent here.

Of course all that water has to be taken out of the canyon somehow, so the railroad built drainage channels along each side of the trail. When they are maintained they still work as they were designed to 150 years ago.

As I always do I headed south out of the deep canyon to the southern part of the trail. On the way you pass an excellent example of how a retaining wall should be built; tilted back into the hillside at about 10 degrees. This adds a lot of strength to the wall. You can’t see it in this shot but what’s left of a signal box is on top of the wall about half way down.

And before long I saw this; the entire southern canyon was flooded. Trees and tree limbs fall regularly here and they often land in the drainage channels. With regular maintenance this isn’t a problem but if nobody removes the trees and branches leaves build up and plug the channels. That’s exactly what has happened and since the water had nowhere else to go it ran into the rail bed and washed it out in several places. I went along and pulled out what branches I could but this will take two strong backs with a chainsaw and a stone rake to do it properly. Coincidentally I met a man on a 4 wheeler who was trying to clean things up but he had no real tools and his ability was limited, but he did say that there are many committees and commissions that know about this problem, so hopefully it won’t be long before this is taken care of. This place is after all one of a kind. There is nothing like it that I know of anywhere else on this rail trail circuit.

I’ve noticed that the green alga (Trentepohlia aurea) that grows here and there on the walls seems to  be spreading, so the conditions must be right for it. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, hides the green chlorophyll. Someday, maybe after I retire, I’m going to come here regularly so I can better understand its life cycle. I know it produces spores but it’s something I’ve never seen happen. Since you have to walk through the drainage channel to get to it I don’t see it up close very often.

There was some colored ice already forming. I believe the color comes from various minerals in the groundwater. Due to the rise and fall of the water in the drainage channel the ice is always cut off in a very straight line as you can see here.

Every year this evergreen fern is encased in an icy prison, but every year it just shrugs it off.

A blackberry still had some color.

Here was more colored ice. Blue is the most dense but I didn’t see any of that. In fact much of the ice was rotten, which is what happens if it gets too warm. Rotten ice is soft and opaque and makes a dull thud when you strike it. New clear ice is quite hard and rings a bit when you strike it.

Here is one of the mineral seeps found along the trail. I believe it is iron, possibly oxidized by bacteria. Certain types of bacteria can take iron dissolved in groundwater and oxidize it. Oxidation prevents iron from dissolving in the water and produces either an orange colored slime as is seen here, or an oily sheen. I think this must play a large part in why there is so much colored ice found here.

Here was a bit more colored ice. Location seems to be random because it doesn’t always happen in the same place year after year.

The beautiful reptilian great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) like to grow in places where they are constantly splashed by or dripped on by very clean ground water. Though they like a lot of water they won’t stand being submerged in it and die back if the water level rises. Ice doesn’t seem to bother them because they are often totally encased it all winter in this place. This is the only place I know of to find them.

Since I wasn’t wearing my rubber boots I couldn’t get close to the liverworts but I wished I could smell them. If you squeeze a small piece and smell it you’ll immediately smell one of the cleanest scents found in nature that I know of. In general liverworts are a sign of very clean water, so that says a lot about the quality of the groundwater in this place. There are also small brook trout swimming in the drainage channels, and that’s another sign of very clean water.

Orange crust fungus (Stereum complicatum) is also called crowded parchment but no matter what you call it, it’s a beautiful fungus that can be seen from quite a distance. It loves moisture so this place brings out its best.

How appropriate I thought, to find one of the fungi that Ötzi, the 5000 year old “iceman” whose well preserved body was found in the Ötztal Alps in 1991 carried. From what I’ve read he carried two types of fungi; birch polypores (Piptoporus betulinus) and the one shown here, which is the tinder polypore (Fomes fomentarius.) There are lots of different theories of why he would have carried these two particular fungi but I don’t think anyone will ever know for certain. What is known is birch polypores have antiseptic properties and tinder fungi are good for starting fires, and both would have been valuable to someone who walked 5000 years ago.

This stream carries all the water from the drainage channels off into the woods to some unknown body of water. It could flow into Tenant swamp in Keene, which isn’t too far downhill from here. The “hills” you see on either side are actually made of much of the blasted stone that came from the deep cut canyons.

Off in the distance a bridge goes over the stream. It’s a narrow thing, possibly 8-10 feet wide, and I’ve always thought it must have been used as a way for ore carts to get all the stone away from the railbed, but now I wonder if it might have been used for one of those pump handle carts they used to use. Somehow men had to get into the canyon and move a lot of snow after every storm and I’ve wondered for years how they did it. There were plows fitted to the front of some locomotives but I think there still would have been a lot of cleaning up to do afterwards. The canyons are only about 4-6 feet wider than a train so there wouldn’t have been a lot of room for snow.

I think all the snow removal tools would have been kept in the old lineman’s shack, which may or may not make it through another winter. Ever so slowly it leans in on itself. Since we just got 16 inches of snow on the day I’m finishing this post I wonder if it isn’t just a pile of boards now.

One moment the world is as it is. The next, it is something entirely different. Something it has never been before. ~Anne Rice

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I thought I’d start this post about evergreens with something you probably don’t associate with the word, but in fact we do have a few ferns that stay green all winter and are considered evergreen. Some more common ones are the Eastern wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis), Intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia), Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), Polypody fern (Polypodium virginianum) and a few others. As this post will show, if you are willing to look closely you’ll find that there is quite a lot of green still out there in winter.

Clubmosses are one of our most noticeable evergreens in winter once it snows, but they aren’t mosses at all. They are vascular plants that don’t flower; they produce spores instead of seeds and are considered fern allies. Fossils have been found that show the lowly clubmosses once grew to 100 feet tall. But that was a very long time ago; the tree clubmoss (Lycopodium dendroideum) in the above photo is barely 3 inches high. It shows the upright yellow spore bearing strobili, sometimes called candles or clubs that give the plants their common names. The plant is also called ground-pine because of its resemblance to the pine tree. Clubmoss spores have been collected and dried to make flash powder for many years. They are high in fat content and when mixed with air become highly flammable. They’ve been used in fireworks and explosives for years, and also as camera flashes before flash bulbs were invented. These days they are still used in magic acts and chemistry classes. They also repel water, so if dip your finger in a glass of water that has spores floating on it, your finger will come out dry.

Fan shaped clubmoss (Diphasiastrum digitatum.) was once used as a Christmas decoration (and still is in some places.)  These forest floor evergreens were collected by the many thousands to make Christmas wreaths and they are still rarely seen here because of it. Clubmosses aren’t mosses at all but do produce spores and are called “fern allies,” which are vascular plants that don’t produce seeds. I think fan shaped clubmoss is the most elegant of any of the clubmosses and I’m always happy to see it, especially in winter. A single plant can take 20 years or more to grow from spore to maturity, so they should never be disturbed.

Something that is always a surprise to see in the woods here is a northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis.) I don’t know if it was a garden escapee or not but they don’t grow naturally here that I know of. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought the trees were sacred because of their many uses. They showed 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier how to cure scurvy with its leaves and he was so impressed that he named it Arborvitae, which is Latin for Tree of Life. He had trees with him when he returned to Europe, and that’s how Thuja occidentalis became the first North American tree to be introduced there.

Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) is native from Newfoundland west to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Iowa, but in this region I rarely see it. This plant was a small seedling barely 6 inches tall. Though all parts of the yew plant are poisonous several Native American tribes made tea from the needles to ease everything from numbness to scurvy.

New goldthread (Coptis groenlandicum) leaves are a bright, glossy lime green but darken as they age and by winter will often be very dark green. They’ll hold their color under the snow all winter and look similar to wild strawberries until late April or early May when new leaves and small white flowers will appear. Goldthread gets its common name from its thread like, bright yellow roots. Native Americans used goldthread medicinally and told the early settlers of its value in treating canker sores, which led to its also being nearly collected into oblivion like trailing arbutus and others. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other native plant. It has made a good comeback now and I see lots of it.

Usually when I do an evergreen post in winter I don’t show the flowers but that leaves me feeling like I’ve cheated you, so this time I’ll show you the flowers. All the flower photos were taken previously, of course. I like the tiny styles curved like long necked birds and the even smaller white tipped stamens on a goldthread blossom. The white, petal like sepals last only a short time and will fall off, leaving the tiny golden yellow club like petals behind. The ends of the petals are cup shaped and hold nectar, but it must be a very small insect that sips from that cup. 

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is also called mayflower because that’s often when its small white to pink, very fragrant flowers appear.  Its oval evergreen leaves are tough and leathery and hug the ground but though it looks like a groundcover botanically speaking it has a persistent woody stem, so it is classified as a shrub. This plant was once collected into near oblivion but these days it can be found at many nurseries so there is no longer any reason to dig it up. Since it’s very fussy unless it’s given the right amount of light, water, nutrients and soil type it won’t grow except where it chooses to anyway. That’s true of many of these native evergreens, in fact.

The reason trailing arbutus was collected so much was because of its small pink to white, very fragrant flowers. My grandmother loved this plant and she always wanted to show it to me but we could never find it back then. I see it now here and there.

Swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing plant with fruit like a black raspberry and its stems are every bit as prickly. It also looks a lot like a strawberry when it’s in bloom and because of its strawberry like leaves, which stay green under the snow all winter. This is a plant that can trip you up when hidden by snow.

Swamp dewberry’s flower is quite pretty but its fruit is said to be sour and that is the reason it isn’t cultivated. Native Americans had many medicinal uses for this plant, including treating coughs, fever and consumption. Swamp dewberry, as its name implies, is a good indicator of a wetland or moist soil that doesn’t dry out.

Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) grows in large colonies and is easy to find because of its shiny green leaves that shine winter and summer and last up to 4 years. Like other wintergreens it likes dry, sandy, undisturbed soil in pine forests. Pipsissewa was once used as a flavoring in candy and soft drinks, including root beer. Its name is fun to say. It’s a Native American Cree word meaning “It-breaks-into-small-pieces.” This is because it was used as a treatment for kidney stones and was thought to break them into pieces.

I think I actually gasped the first time I found this large colony of pipsissewa in bloom. I remember kneeling there admiring the rare and beautiful sight for quite some time. It is things like this that keep me wandering through the woods, never knowing what I might stumble across.

Pipsissewa flowers often show a blush of pink. Five petals and ten chubby anthers surrounding a plump center pistil make it prettier than most of our other native wintergreens. Pipsissewa and some other native wintergreens form a symbiotic relationship with the mycelium of certain fungi in the soil and are partially parasitic on them through a process called myco-heterotrophy. This means that, even though they photosynthesize, they supplement their diet with nutrients taken from fungi. That explains why they will only grow in certain places, much like native orchids.

The pretty little seedpods of pipsissewa persist through the winter and poke up out of the snow. They are woody and split open into 5 parts to release the tiny seeds. Each capsule is about a quarter inch across. They remind me of the seedpods of the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora,) in some ways.

Shinleaf (Pyrola elliptica,) another of our native wintergreens, gets its common name from the way Native Americans used it as a poultice to heal wounds; especially shin wounds, apparently. Like several other wintergreens it contains compounds similar to those in aspirin and a tea made from it was used for many of the same ailments.

Shinleaf’s nodding white, waxy flowers are fragrant and usually appear near the end of June or into July. I find them in sandy soiled forests under pines.

American wintergreen is probably the easiest of all the forest floor evergreens to identify because it is so common. It is also called teaberry, and that name comes from a pleasing tea that can be made from the leaves. The leaves contain compounds similar to those found in aspirin though, so anyone allergic to aspirin should leave them alone. Though it looks like a groundcover botanically speaking it has a persistent woody stem, so it is classified as a shrub. 

American wintergreen’s blossoms look a lot like tiny blueberry blossoms.

Squirrels, chipmunks, mice, grouse, partridges, bobwhites, turkeys, fox, deer and bears eat the berries. If you’re really lucky you might get to eat a small handful before the critters find them. They were one of the first wild fruits I ever ate and I still remember what they taste like; Clark’s Teaberry Gum.

Striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) loses its chlorophyll and turns deep purple in winter but as of this photo it hadn’t happened to this plant yet. This plant is relatively rare here and though I’m finding small numbers most of them flower but don’t set seed.  The Chimaphila part of the scientific name is from the Greek cheima (winter) and philein (to love,) so it loves winter and does not die from the cold.

The flowers of striped wintergreen stand out and help me locate the well camouflaged plants, so I begin looking for them in mid-July just as shinleaf is ending its bloom period.

The flower of striped wintergreen has 5 petals that are swept back, as if it had seen a strong wind. It also has 10 anthers but its style is very blunt. I’m hoping the small fly on the blossom was pollinating this plant.

Leatherleaf is a knee high shrub that gets its common name from its tough, leathery leaves, which are lighter and scaly on their undersides and turn purple in the winter. Florists use sprays of leatherleaf leaves as filler in bouquets. 

At a glance you might mistake leatherleaf  for a blueberry but this plant will grow in standing water and blooms earlier. Native Americans used the plant medicinally to treat fevers, headaches and inflammation but it is said that the leaves contain a toxin called andromedotoxin which is released when they’re heated so they’re probably best left alone.

Well, if nothing else I hope this post has expanded your idea of what an evergreen is. Though many of us think of trees like the young spruce in the above photo when we hear the word evergreen the list of plants that can be called evergreen is quite long and involves many species. We even have evergreen orchids.

It is only in winter that the pine and cypress are known to be evergreens. ~Confucius

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These days, at least where I work, you don’t actually rake leaves very often. We have leaf vacuums and leaf blowers that take care of what by the end of the season is a huge mountain of leaves. If I were to do it all with a rake I’d still be raking when the leaves started falling next year but there are always little corners and such where only a rake will do, and this post is about one of those. I had one little corner left to do to finish the season but when I started to rake I saw the plant shoots seen above, so I put down the rake and raked with my fingers, gently. I believe the shoots are from the Stella d’ Oro daylily (Hemerocallis) that grows here, but snowdrops grow here as well so they could be those. 

This seed pod is definitely from the daylily and it has been eaten by an unknown insect. Stella d’ Oro daylilies are popular because it was one of the first “ever blooming” day lilies. The dwarf plant has flowers that only last a day like any daylily but there are so many of them that it blooms for months and will often be the latest blooming daylily in a flower bed. This plant was developed in 1975 and is still seen all along city streets and in commercial parking lots.

Pulling the leaves away also revealed a tiny fern fiddlehead, no bigger in diameter than a pencil eraser. I believe it was a sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis). Several of them grow in this spot because it is shaded and damp.

The spore casings (sori) of the sensitive fern are unmistakable so you don’t need leaves to identify it. It’s leaves had long since gone because, as the early settlers who gave its common name noticed, it is extremely sensitive to frost. I’ve read that turkeys will peck at and eat the sori, and that is why sometimes you find the fern’s spores lying on the snow around the plant.

I found a tiny seedling under the leaves, hardly bigger than a pea. It might pay for its hurry to grow.

Beside where I was working false dandelions (Hypochaeris radicata) grew. This plant gets its name from its resemblance to the dandelion, but it would be hard to mistake one for the other. The flowers are about half the size of a true dandelion and they bob around on long, wiry stems. At a glance you might think you were seeing a hawkweed flower when you look at a false dandelion flower because they’re close to the same size. One look at the leaves however, will show you that you’re seeing something entirely different because they resemble those of the dandelion more than hawkweed foliage. Hawkweed and false dandelion also bloom at different times, which helps when trying to identify them.

Once I had raked all the leaves I had to wander a bit and see what I could see. A blackberry grew nearby and it had leaves that started to show their purple / red fall color. At least that’s how I see them; my color finding software sees only gray, green and a bit of orange, which seems odd.

Mouse ear hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella) does well here and there are literally thousands of plants blooming in June and July. Their yellow flowers resemble those of false dandelion but that plant has longer, more wiry flower stems. The basal rosettes of leaves on this plant often turn very deep purple in the fall.

It isn’t hard to see where the name mouse ear came from.

I’m not sure what they’re finding to eat but there are large flocks of yellow shafted flickers here. I find their feathers all the time.

They’re very pretty feathers that you don’t often recognize when they’re still on the bird.

There is a small stream near where I was working so of course I had to explore it. That’s something I’ve never bothered to do in all the time I’ve worked here but on this day nature was calling to me louder than usual.

A gray birch had fallen and the rectangular tear in its bark reminded me of the rectangular hole in a cloud I had seen earlier in the week.

For the first time ever I saw a lichen growing on the bark of a white birch. Lichens normally don’t seem to like white birch but they will grow on the branches of gray birch. This was a beard lichen and it grew on the side of the tree towards the stream. Lichens like lots of humidity and I’d bet that it gets it here.

River grapes grew by the stream. I like to look at grape tendrils because they always seem to remind me of something. In this one I could see the strand-like hypha of a fungus. Two or more hypha are hyphae, and two or more hyphae are mycelium, and mycelium are like the “roots” of a fungus and the above ground parts are the “fruit.” Mycelia are always searching, either for food or for other mycelia. I might have seen all of this in this tendril because I happen to be reading one of the best books on fungi I’ve ever read. It’s called Entangled Life and is written by Merlin Sheldrake. If you know someone with a fungal fascination, they would love this book.

Most of the leaves I was raking were oak and thanks to decomposers like fungi and bacteria many were already on their way to becoming humus. I’ve often wondered what the forest would be like without the decomposers. I  think we’d be up to our eyeballs in sticks, logs, leaves and all the other litter that gathers on the forest floor.

I admired the color and intricacies of yarrow leaves.

I found a log by the stream that was covered by brocade moss (Hypnum imponens). This is a moss I don’t see that often. 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.

I saw the reddest alder catkins I’ve ever seen along the stream. They’re often purple, but not usually red in my experience.

Tongue gall licked at the female alder cones, which are called strobiles. These long, tongue like galls are caused by a fungus called Taphrina alni. The fungus chemically deforms part of the ovarian tissue of the developing strobile and causes long, strap shaped galls called languets to grow from them. These galls, like most galls, don’t seem to bring any harm to their host.  I wish I knew how they benefit from growing in such unusual forms.

Here was a leaf I didn’t recognize. It was big at about a foot long, and very wrinkled. I’d guess dock, simply because it grows nearby.

But then suddenly, there was no longer any reason to think about leaves. The day after I took the photos you’ve seen here it snowed, so the decision has been made; leaf raking season is over. At least for now. Now leaf removal will turn to snow removal, and before long I’ll be cutting grass again.

A fallen leaf is nothing more than a summer’s wave goodbye. ~Anonymous

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There is a rail trail in Swanzey that I drive by occasionally and I noticed this past summer that there was heavy equipment all along it. There were piles of what I first thought were pipes, but they turned out to be new power poles. I noticed that the heavy equipment was finally gone last week so I thought I’d go see what had gone on. In other words I was being nosey.

What had gone on was new power poles had been put in place and the growth under them had been removed. All the plants that once grew under them had been replaced by grass but luckily, along the side of the rail trail that the power company doesn’t have rights to, the plants were left alone. It is very common here to have high tension electric wires follow right along beside what once were railroad tracks. The railroads in turn, often followed rivers. I suppose materials to build railroads could have been floated down rivers and then, once electricity came along, the materials for power lines could have been shipped by rail. I don’t know this as fact but it would explain why rivers, railroads and power lines always seem to be side by side.

These new poles are made of steel and are very tall. They are also 12 sided, with the upper pole section slipping down over the lower section. They’re then bolted together. Lining those holes up to get the bolts in must be quite a chore when everything is dangling from a crane.

I would guess, since steel is an excellent conductor and wood is not, that the poles would have been much less hazardous if they had been made of wood as they have always been.

Many of the new poles are right there on the side of the rail trail, so how they expect that people will stay away from them is anyone’s guess. I’m sure children will be all over them. I was when I was a boy, but those were wooden poles. You can also see in this shot how, where the poles go into the ground they’re coated in some type of rubberized material, most likely to keep them from rusting. Since the coating was already scratched away in many places I have little faith that there will be no rusting going on.  

There is an old railroad bridge out here that once carried cars over the railroad tracks. I’ve driven over it many times myself.

The timbers are stout and still appear to be strong but the highway department has closed it to all but foot traffic.

They could have closed it because the road was put down over wood, as this view of the underside shows. All the paving of the road over the years was actually being supported by simple wooden boards. Of course when this bridge was built the traffic might have been chiefly made up of horse drawn wagons and model A Fords.

Though a brush cutter cleared the sides of the trail recently you’d never know it from this shot. You can see lots of the old wooden poles that hadn’t been replaced yet.

These old poles still look solid to me but I’m not a power company engineer. They could all be like hollow trees.

It was cold enough for there to be frost in the shade on this morning.

I saw that horses had used the trail.

Deer had used it as well.

There is lots of old farmland out here. I’d guess it is probably all used for hay fields now.

It was clear that this cattle gate hadn’t been used for a while.

An old stone boundary marker had been cut by hand and was shaped like the state of New Hampshire.

I saw a few American hazelnut (Corylus americana) catkins, and that made me think of spring.

The hazelnuts themselves had been bored into and the meat eaten, either by a bird or an insect. I’ve never seen this before. I have seen birds pecking at goldenrod galls though, so maybe that’s what has happened here.

I was surprised to see a young goldenrod plant looking like it thought spring was here.

Most goldenrods looked like this; long gone to seed. These tall plants that stand up above the snow are an important source of food for the birds in the winter after snow covers all the seeds on the ground. There were several chickadees scolding me as I took this photo so I wondered if they were eating the seeds already.

Last time I was out here I found a well-constructed hideout some kids had made. They would have to crawl on their stomachs to get through that small hole but that wouldn’t have bothered me when I was a boy. I thought, since all the growth along the sides of the trail had been cut, that it would have been destroyed but no, the mowers went around it and left it alone. I’m guessing whoever was driving the tractor once had a hideout too.

The last time I walked a rail trail a flock of robins was busy eating all the staghorn sumac berries but out here the fruit was untouched. It’ll be good winter food.

I saw some escaping pumpkins. I’m guessing that they wanted to get into the drainage channel. From there they could get to a stream and from there to the river and from there to the Atlantic. Once in the ocean well, the world is your oyster.

Everything is light, everything is warmth, everything is electricity, everything is a magnetic field, everything is you.~ Md Anisuzzaman

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There is a power that comes when you’re in nature; sometimes it can come from gazing into the unrippled surface of a pond. Sometimes it comes when you sit with your back against an old tree. It is a kind of internal power that comes from the stillness, but sometimes I’d rather feel a different kind of power; an external power. Sometimes I want to just take life by the horns and hang on for what may be a wild ride, and I can find that here at forty foot falls.

Wet oak leaves and acorns can be almost as slippery as ice and I have fallen here a few times, but with your full attention and a bit of planning it can be done without mishap. I also go a bit slower these days. I always wear a bright orange hat and vest here because there are deer in these woods, and there are also deer hunters in these woods. The night after I came here I dreamed that I saw a beautiful white tail buck with a huge rack of antlers just standing at the edge of the woods. I also dreamed that I didn’t have a camera with me, which is usually the case when I see such things.

I saw what I think were more late fall oyster mushrooms (Panellus serotinus) on a log.

The gills looked right.

I made it up to what I call the middle falls easily enough. This is a good place to rest a bit, but don’t expect quiet. Though there wasn’t as much water as I’ve seen in the past the roar was the same.

I usually wait until this time of year after the leaves fall to visit here because this forest is very dark. I thought I’d have enough light for photos on this day but clouds rolled in and it was still quite dark. If the light appears different in one photo to the next that’s why.

I’ve known for a long time that what we call beech bark blister disease is caused by both an insect and a fungus but I had never seen it until now. The white cottony substance seen on this tree is the insect called beech scale (Cryptococcus fagisuga). According to Wikipedia science doesn’t fully understand how it works but it is known that excessive feeding by this insect causes two different fungi, Neonectria faginata and Neonectria ditissima, to produce annual cankers or blisters on the bark of the tree. The continuous formation of lesions around the tree eventually girdles it, resulting in canopy death. I would say in this instance we could call this excessive feeding by the scale. I’ve read in the past that each insect pierces the bark to feed, and that tiny hole is enough to let fungal spores in.

Here are the cankers or lesions, also called blisters. Some trees are covered with them as high up as you can see and I see dead beeches just about wherever I go. It’s really too bad because beech is one of our most beautiful trees.

A few years ago there was a terrible flood that came through here and washed away roads and structures, and one of the things it washed away was a bridge, and I believe this steel cable was part of that bridge.

In any event the cable is here and is easy to get tangled up in, so I always watch for it. On this day I used it to help pull myself up the hill.

Soon it will have become part of several trees. A woodcutter’s nightmare.

Once you’ve made it up the hill you get a first glimpse of what I call the canyon.

It’s a tumbled, jumbled place with huge boulders tossed here and there, and trees torn up by their roots. The power of water is incredible, and it shows here.

But it’s also a beautiful place; well worth the effort it takes to get here. I’ve used this view as the opening shot in posts I’ve done on mosses a couple of times.

It’s a beautiful, green place. You can see how vibrant and full of life the mosses are.

And you want to touch them; to pet them, almost. Broom moss (Dicranum scoparium) gets its common name from the way the leaves all point in the same general direction, making it look as if it had been swept by a broom. It’s a fairly common moss that grows in large tufts or mats on logs and tree bases, soil or stone.

The water, or the objects in the water, have stripped the bark off several trees.

Whatever sat on that tree for years and bent it like that has been washed away. Only the memory of it remains.

I made it all the way to the upper falls without a problem this time. The upper falls are a bit anticlimactic; it’s hard to believe all the water and destruction we’ve seen comes from what appears to be a trickle, but I wouldn’t want to be standing here after two days of heavy rain. One odd thing I noticed that I never have before is how everything, the boulder faces and even the waterfall itself, is tilted at about 10 degrees off vertical.

Now we go back down, and going back down this hill is harder than most. Some of it is so steep I have to sit down and slide on the leaves. Not very dignified perhaps, but it beats breaking a leg.

As I was driving off I saw a bright spot in the woods. At first I thought these fungi must be chicken of the woods but they couldn’t be because they had gills and chicken of the woods is a polypore with pores, so it was off to the mushroom books. I’m fairly sure now that they were the mock oyster or orange oyster (Phyllotopsis nidulans) mushrooms. They can be very hairy or fuzzy at first but smoother later. These were more like velvet. They are supposed to be very stinky but I got quite close and smelled nothing unusual. They can be found clustered on both hardwood and conifer logs from fall to late winter. They are said to cause a white, stringy rot in the log. They’re quite pretty and this is the first time I’ve seen them.

Leisure is a form of silence, not noiselessness. It is the silence of contemplation such as occurs when we let our minds rest on a rosebud, a child at play, a Divine mystery, or a waterfall. ~Fulton J. Sheen

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I don’t have any snow to show you this time but we’ve had cold, as the frosty branches of all these dogwoods show. They looked like they had been painted into the landscape on this cold morning.

Long shards of ice appeared on still waters. It always happens in stillness first; rushing water takes a little longer to freeze.

Puddle ice has fascinated me since I was just a young boy. Ripples frozen in time. I know now that the whiter it is the more oxygen it has in it, but back then all I knew was white ice was higher pitched when you broke it. And I broke it as often as I could by riding my bike through it in early spring. All the snow had gone but there was still puddle ice in the morning.

When it warmed up again mists rolled from the hills to the valleys below, and hilltops looked like islands floating on the clouds. How beautiful it was, but fleeting; only minutes later the scene had evaporated and the hills were just hills once again.

And how beautiful the sunrises have been. I had to stop on my way to work on this day and watch as a bright red finger of light pointed to the sky.

More warmth came and it was welcome. This little stream in the woods has been frozen solid in November not that long ago.

Rains came and went and though this stream looks like it has about all it can take they say we’re still about nine inches shy of average rainfall. Since one inch of rain equals about one foot of snow we’re hoping that nature doesn’t seek to balance it all out this winter.  

Many plants turn their leaves purple in cold weather and American wintergreen  (Gaultheria procumbens) is often one of the first to do so. These leaves also shine like mirrors in the sun and when you drive along on a sunny day then light up the roadsides when they’re in large colonies. Some may know this plant as checkerberry or teaberry.

Some poplars also turn a beautiful, deep purple before they fall.

For about ten years now I’ve wondered what plant the long white seeds with teardrop shaped ends were from and now, thanks to birds pecking them out of this cattail (Typha latifolia), I know. I’ve found those seeds draped over everything from lichens to rosebushes, so the wind must really move them around. If there is one thing nature teaches it is patience, and if you’re patient enough the answers will come.

I still see a few oak leaves with color, especially on young trees.

But most look like this; a very pretty brown. They always look like they’re hugging each other for warmth when it gets colder.

I never knew the leaves of Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) were so colorful until I saw these. Robin’s plantain is the earliest of the fleabanes to bloom in this area and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again in spring.

I think everyone knows that ginkgoes are “fossil trees”, having been around for over 200 million years. But what never clicked for me is the fact that all of the dinosaurs and birds that dispersed the tree’s seeds died off millions of years ago. Before a few thousand years ago nobody knows how the seeds were dispersed but it is believed that only man (and maybe squirrels) have been the sole dispersers of its seeds since. These are tough trees; they were the first trees to begin growing again after the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. They have been cultivated in China for both food and medicine for at least 1000 years and more recently they have been proven to be about as effective as the leading Alzheimer’s medication at slowing memory deterioration, with fewer side effects.

Is nature is perfect? That simple question could generate a lot of philosophical discussion. I think that people are entitled to believe what they will and I would not argue for or against, but I might take this wasp nest out of my pocket and put it on the table and ask that people look at that one chamber just barely to the left of, and slightly lower than center. Nature simply is, and whether or not we accept it as it is makes no difference.

Pileated woodpeckers are our biggest woodpeckers and they are great at finding trees full of insects. They are determined to get at them too; often determined enough to cut a tree right in half, in fact.

Here is one they cut in half that hasn’t fallen yet.

I often see beautiful grain patterns like this on tree roots that have been worn smooth by years of foot traffic but this beautiful grain was on a fallen tree. The only way I can think of for it to have happened is by it rubbing against another tree in the wind and wearing its bark away. I have a collection of oddities I’ve found in nature, many of them beautiful, and I was wishing I could have added this to it.

I see this very rarely but when I do it always appears on saturated logs right after a heavy rain. I’ve never been able to find out what it is, so if you know I’d love to hear from you.

Lemon drop fungi (Bisporella citrina) always have stems of a sort, but they’re usually so short that they appear stemless. That’s what is so unusual about these examples; they clearly wanted to be tall. Lemon drops are sac fungi with stalked fruit bodies. The term “sac fungi” comes from microscopic sexual structures which resemble wineskins. There are over 64,000 different sac fungi, including cup and “ear” fungi, jelly babies, and morel mushrooms. Lemon drops start life as a tiny yellow disc and look as if they lie flat on the log, but each disc hovers just above the surface on a short stalk. As they age each disc will become cup shaped. The “citrina” part of the scientific name comes from the Latin citrin, and means “lemon yellow.” The smaller ones in the above photo are barely as large as a period made by a pencil on paper. They always look to me like tiny beads of sunshine that have been sprinkled over logs and stumps.

I found that someone (or something) had kicked over a small purple mushroom beside a trail. It was about the size of the button mushrooms you find at grocery stores and it was the first light purple mushroom I’ve ever seen; a very different shade than the darker purple corts that are so common.

It was a very pretty thing. Slightly darker on its underside and sticky enough to have leaves stuck to it. I think it might be one called the amethyst deceiver (Laccaria amethystina) though with that odd color I’m not sure how it would deceive anyone. I’m colorblind but even I can tell it’s very different. It might also be a wood blewit (Clitocybe nuda). But only a spore print would tell for sure because the amethyst deceiver, which tastes like an old cork, has white spores and the wood blewit, a choice edible, has brown spores. This is why you don’t go eating mushrooms when you don’t know for sure what they are. There are purple mushrooms that are deadly.

I know that tussock moth cocoons are very hairy but they’re usually pouch like and lighter colored than the one pictured here that I found on a tree. They are also much smaller than this one, which was as big around as my finger and about two inches long.

I have no idea what insect made this or even if it was alive. It was on an oak tree.

After that last word heavy lichen post I’ve tried to keep this one simple, for all our sakes. I hope you’ve enjoyed just seeing a few beautiful and interesting things without having to think too much about them. I know I’ve enjoyed the lightness of not having to have my nose in a book for hours on end. Like nature itself, it’s all about finding balance.

The serenity produced by the contemplation and philosophy of nature is the only remedy for prejudice, superstition, and inordinate self-importance, teaching us that we are all a part of Nature herself, strengthening the bond of sympathy which should exist between ourselves and our brother man. ~Luther Burbank

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