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Since I wasn’t able to get down the steep hill to see the falls at Beaver Brook Natural Area that I wrote about in my last post I decided to visit another waterfall that’s easier to get to. Slightly easier anyway; the first problem was how to get across this smallish stream so I could get to the falls on Merriam Brook. It can be done. You don’t have to jump it but it’s wise to be sure the stones you will walk on aren’t covered with ice.

One of the first things you see here are a lot of boulders that don’t look natural, and that’s because they were dumped here a long time ago when the road was built.

The reason I know that is because of the holes through some of the boulders. These not quite round holes were most likely drilled by hand with a star drill and sledge hammer, then packed with a fuse and black powder to shatter the ledges that were being removed.  They are about an inch and a half across.

I made it to the spot where you first see the falls and found ice water. Ice and water were no surprise since it was only 19 degrees. There is a heavy canopy of evergreen hemlock branches overhead so there isn’t much sunlight reaching the forest floor, and that helps keep it cool here. It also means that it is dark here and that makes photography a challenge. I had to have the ISO of my camera up to 1600 for many of these shots, which is something I rarely have to do.

With ice covering the calmer sections of the brook its roar was muted somewhat. I was glad that I didn’t have to carry on a conversation on its banks though, because it still had plenty to say. There are 3 falls here, the lower, middle and upper.

Everywhere you look there are fallen trees that have been tossed around like matchsticks. There have been some terrible floods here in recent years that have washed away parts of roads and damaged houses. This spot is where the brook takes a sharp left turn. It’s unusual to see a stream or brook take a 90 degree turn like it does.

The middle falls weren’t frozen solid but there was a lot of ice. It was a very cold spot even though I was dressed for it, so I hung around only long enough for a couple of photos.

Icy fingers hung from every branch and twig near the water.

Ice crystal lace covered the still pools.

After the middle falls comes the worse part of the climb. It isn’t that far to climb but it is steep and all the oak leaves make it slippery. I’ve taken a couple of good spills here.

Worse yet is the ice that might be under the leaves. I’ve learned to pick my way carefully.

I’ve read that there was once a snowmobile bridge across the brook, made of steel cable and planks, so I’m assuming that the cable this tree has grown around was part of it. The bridge and all trace s of it except for this cable are gone, washed away in a raging flood in 2003.

This view looks back the way we just came. The brook doesn’t look very wide in this photo but it is.

The upper falls are in a large canyon that you have to pick your way into because of all the debris.

But it isn’t as hard as it looks if you walk slowly and look carefully. There are plenty of opportunities to get hurt up here though, so you have to keep your wits about you and be on your toes. This isn’t the place for day dreaming unless you want to just sit still while you do. It was a little cool for that on this day so I kept moving.

In places all the soil has been scoured off the stream bed from by flooding.

Whole trees have been torn out by the roots all along the embankments.

I could tell by the line of ice on this boulder that the water level in the brook had dropped.

This is where you get your first glimpse of the upper falls. I doubt that it falls anywhere near 40 feet but I can’t think of anything else that would give this place that name. So you have some idea of scale, that boulder in the middle of the photo is almost as big as a Volkswagen Beetle.

Polypody ferns grew on a ledge close enough to the falls to grow a coat of white ice. They are one of our toughest evergreen ferns and not only will they survive a coat of ice, they’ll thrive.

The upper falls seem almost anti-climactic and I’m always surprised that so much water comes from what seems like barely more than a dribble. I do know better though, because I’ve seen what this dribble has wrought and everything about the place says that no matter what, the water will have its way. It really is amazing to think that water could do all of this.

Water is the driving force in nature. ~Leonardo da Vinci

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We’ve seen some unusual below zero F. cold lately and when it gets cold like this my thoughts usually turn to a deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland that ice climbers call the icebox. The groundwater constantly seeping from thousands of cracks in the stone walls of the manmade canyon freezes into ice columns that can easily reach the size of trees. It can be very beautiful but since it is only November I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Though I doubted there would be much ice to see, last Saturday I made the drive to Westmoreland to find out.

There was some impressive ice to be seen but nothing like it will be in January.

There are a lot of minerals in the groundwater that seeps through the stone and they are the only thing I can think of that would color ice like this.

I’ve seen orange, green, blue, red, tan, brown and even black ice here.

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.

This should give you an idea of the scale of the place. Though the ice might look impressive it is much less so than it will be in a couple of months. This climber said she was a beginner but she had climbed just about as far up as she could. The ledges in this spot I’d guess are about 50 feet high. Though it was cold at about 40 degrees this day I’ve read that the ideal conditions for climbing happen at between 20 and 35 degrees, because those temperatures produce the just right “plastic” ice; not cold enough to shatter and not warm enough to melt. Ice climbers swing sharp tools called picks into the ice and embed them in it so they can hang onto them as they climb, and I would guess that the last thing they want to see is shattering ice. Since the temperature in the canyon is always colder than the surrounding countryside it must have been just about perfect for plastic ice on this day.

This view looks back the way we came in. It can be very cold in here because the sunlight rarely seems to reach the canyon floor in winter. There is almost always a breeze blowing through the canyon as well, even when there is no breeze outside. It’s as if it makes its own wind.

The railroad engineers used a lot of the stone they blasted out of the canyon to build massive retaining walls along the parts of the trail outside of the canyon. They are some of the best examples of stone wall building that I know of and you won’t find a teaspoon of mortar in any of these walls. Note how the wall leans back into the hillside at about a 10 degree angle, as any good retaining wall should. I’d bet next week’s paycheck that a bed of crushed stone or gravel extends out at least two or three feet from the back of the wall into the hillside. This is for drainage so wet soil doesn’t freeze behind the wall and heave it apart. You want the back of the wall as dry as possible.

I like to see how the ice forms according to the conditions. This little grotto scene looked almost other worldly.

This ice looked like a necklace made of clear crystal, all formed by drip after drip of water.

In places the ice was rotten, and you can tell that by its matte gray, opaque “sick” look and the dull thud it makes when you tap it. Ice becomes rotten when air  and / or dirt get in between the grains of ice and it becomes honeycombed and loses its strength.

In some places where the sun reached the walls of the cut ice had been falling, and in fact I saw (and heard) some  fall while I was here.

I thought how, if I was a teenager once again, I’d find a way to slide down this giant ice slide.

I have a feeling that it’s going to be a good year for ice formations even though the forecast is for rain and above freezing temps this week.

Drainage ditches along the railbed have been doing their job of directing all of this water out of the canyon for around 150 years, but heavy rain overwhelmed them last summer and washed away parts of the railbed. It’s a hard thing to see this place being so severely damaged but there is only so much the snowmobile club volunteers can do, I suppose. One day instead of a railbed here it might be a stream.

In places the stone is stained by years of mineral seepage.

In other places the colors on the walls come from living things, like this algae, but I don’t think they color the ice because they don’t grow where a lot of ice accumulates. This is actually a green algae called Trentepohlia aurea but the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes green algae orange as well. It’s also very hairy, but I couldn’t get close enough to show you.

Colorful foam gathered on one of the drainage ditches in what I thought were beautiful swirling patterns. What caused it to appear and what colored it, I don’t know.

I didn’t have my high rubber boots with me on this trip so I couldn’t get close enough to the canyon walls to get close shots of the algae or the great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) seen here. This beautiful, reptilian liverwort gets its common name from its fresh, clean scent. It will only grow near water that is very clean and it grows here on the  canyon walls just above the drainage ditches. Groundwater constantly splashes them and keeps them wet in warm months. In winter they are often encased in ice, which has just started happening to the plants in this shot.

We’re having some wet heavy snows this month but the old lineman’s shack still somehow stands, even though people have been pulling it apart for as long as I’ve known about it. It just goes to show how the railroad built things to last. Their carpenters were as good as their stone masons. I hope it’s still standing a month from now when I come back to see how the ice has grown.

The splendor of Silence,—of snow-jeweled hills and of ice. ~Ingram crockett

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Actually stone walls can talk, but you have to speak their language to be able to decipher what they’re saying. Having built a few myself this one was relatively easy to understand. It told me that its builder didn’t have time for tight joint stone masonry and in any case most likely didn’t know how to build with stone anyway. He needed a field to plant crops in so he and his family could survive and these stones were in the way of the plow, so he tossed them in a long undulating pile, and that became what is now called a tossed or thrown wall, because the stones were literally just thrown on top of one another with no time or eye for intricacies.

The landowners on either side of the wall didn’t have time to patrol the wall and pull tree seedlings so many of them started growing down in the wall where their seeds fell. Some saplings were too close to stones to cut with an axe or saw so they grew to massive size, sometimes pushing the wall stones apart ever so slowly  to make room for the huge trunk. Now, over 250 years later they shade the wall and keep it from being covered in deep snow. Some, like the white pine shown above, still stand even after being struck by lightning. The old split in its bark runs from the top of the tree all the way down its trunk, following a root right down into the ground. I’ve found trees like this one soon after they were struck and the ground around them was covered with narrow strips of bark, blown right off the wood by the lightning bolt.

You can see many interesting things if you look at our stone walls carefully, like this blacksmith made hitching ring where someone would have hitched up a horse. The odd thing about it is its location in the wall. It’s in an empty place where it doesn’t look like there would have much going on but 250 years ago it could have been a community information hub, for all I know. Most likely it was simply a shaded place for the horse to rest while the rider did whatever they had to do here.  I’m guessing it involved a lot of work.

My grandfather was the town Blacksmith in Westmoreland which is to the north west of here, so I’m always fascinated by iron work. The chain hook shown here is one of the best examples of 18th century blacksmithing I know of. I like it because it shows hand hammered marks and shows the fine workmanship and talent of the smith. He didn’t have to make such a utilitarian object as beautiful as a dragon’s tail, but he did.

This stone in this wall is only the second place I’ve found a beard lichen growing on stone. I’ve seen thousands of beard lichens but they were growing on wood 99% of the time. I think this one might be a bushy rock lichen (Ramalina intermedia.) Lichen communities grow in succession with many varieties of crustose lichens as pioneers. Foliose lichens come next as intermediary species and finally fruticose lichens like this one are considered climax species. What I don’t know is, how much time is between pioneer and climax? Climax communities of lichens are considered “old growth” communities.

As this stone shows stone walls absorb a lot of heat from the sun and release it slowly all night long until the sun shines again the following day.

Because it’s so warm near stone walls in the winter many plants like this mullein like to grow along them. In fact there is an amazing variety of plants growing on or near this wall.

There are many ferns growing along this old wall. Some are evergreen and others, like this one, are trying to be.

Many types of trees grow along the old wall including shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) which is named, not surprisingly, for its shaggy looking bark. These trees drop large amounts of hickory nuts each fall so I thought I’d find one and show it to you.

Unfortunately the squirrels had already found all the nuts and I didn’t see a single one.

I did see a lichen on the bark of the hickory that I’ve never seen before though, made up of a grayish body (Thallus) with tiny black fruiting bodies (Apothecia.) I think it might be the tiny button lichen (Amandinea punctata) which grows on wood and has a grayish, barely perceptible thallus and flat, disk shaped, black apothecia. Each black dot seen here is very small; about the size of a period made on paper with a pencil.

At the base of the hickory was a stone with a forest of pixie cup lichens (Cladonia asahinae) on it. The tiny little golf tee shaped parts are the fruiting bodies of this lichen. Spores produced in them will be splashed out of the cup by raindrops.  Pixie cups almost always produce large groups of fruiting bodies like these.

Shield lichens have become kind of a ho-hum lichen for me because I see thousands of them, but the way this one seems to overlap like shingles and the way it grows in concentric circles is different, and I’m not so sure it’s a shield lichen at all. I’m leaning towards the zoned dust lichen (Lepraria neglecta) but I’ll have to go back and have another look to be sure. It also resembles the shingled rock shield (Xanthoparmelia somloensis.) Like any other part of nature, stone walls have their own mysteries.

Another lichen that I don’t see often is what I believe is the rosy saucer lichen (Ochrolechia trochophora) seen here. Its rosy or orange apothecia are large and pad like and I’ve read that though it usually grows on wood it can grow on stone as well. It could also be a scattered rock posy lichen but I don’t think so.

Sometime I can be fooled into thinking I’m seeing lichens when I’m really seeing something else. In this case I’m not sure what the green “something else” was but possibly algae. Why it was here in this spot and nowhere else along the wall, I’m not sure.

Common speedwell was enjoying the warmth from the wall and looked as good as it does in early June but of course it wasn’t flowering. This European native is common here and has been used medicinally for centuries. Its leaves have also been used as a tea substitute.

I think a lot of us believe that winter is a very wet season and it can be when the snow melts, but when it is cold and there isn’t any melting going on it can be very dry, and this white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata) reminded me of that. When dry it pulls its tiny needle like leaves in close to the stem and if dry enough it looks like strands of string or clumps of worms, and this gives it another common name of medusa moss. It hadn’t reached that point when this photo was taken but it was quite dry, even with snow on it.

Stone walls will give many gifts to those who walk slowly along their length and look closely. One of the greatest gifts they give me is green leaves in winter, even when there is snow on the ground.

Stones are all about time—time to find them, to move them, to place them, and time, occasionally, to chisel and shape them. And above all, time to see them, experience them, and fall under their spell. ~Charles McRaven

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We’ve had our first snow and, from the time between when I took some of these photos and started putting together this post, we had our second and third snows. To have this much snow in November with leaves still on many of the trees and shrubs is rare, so I had to go out and see it.

But snow isn’t all we’ve seen. The frost on the windows speaks of full blown winter, even though winter is still weeks away.

These snows have been of the sticky kind and snow covered every branch and leaf.

Beech leaves will stay on the tree through winter and they do collect snow, but though the extra weight seems to bend their branches down I’ve seen very few very few actually fall off.

Oak leaves form the waxy, corky cells called the abscission layer at their base later than many other trees so seeing leaves on oak trees in the winter is no great surprise, but I know this tree well and it has usually shed all of its leaves before it snows.  In fact most oak trees still have most of their leaves and this can be problematic, because the snow load on those leaves can lead to power outages from all the falling branches. Unlike beech trees oak trees lose branches regularly year round, and I’ve seen limbs as big as my leg fall on calm summer days, so it doesn’t take much snow to bring them down.

An odd thing that I noticed was how many oak leaves fell after the storm. Everywhere you looked the snow was covered with oak leaves.

The dark color of oak leaves means they absorb sunshine, which warms them and lets them melt their way through the snow. Oak leaves also repel water and you and see it in the many water droplets on the surface of this leaf.

There were many oak leaves that were still in the process of changing into their fall colors when the snow fell, like the beautiful leaves on this small red oak.

The hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) in my back yard were heavy with snow but like most evergreens they have a lot of flex in their branches so they can take quite a snow load. In fact they keep much of the snow from falling on the ground under them, so there is often several inches less snow on the ground in a hemlock grove. In a snowy winter deer will go there and so will I, because the walking is much easier.

When the sun fell through the forest in such a way that the still colorful shrubs were highlighted it was a very beautiful scene and I had to stop and just absorb it. It is things like this that truly are good for the soul I think. I’ve discovered that being able to find joy in the simplest things means that joy is never far away.

The small pond in my neighborhood has already frozen over but on this day it was really more slush than solid ice. After -2 degrees F on Thanksgiving night though, I’m sure it must be solid now.

There is a muskrat in this pond that eats an incredible amount of cattail roots (Typha latifolia,) and I know that from seeing not only the muskrat but all of the cutoff cattail stems floating on the surface of the pond. Native Americans used to roast these roots and make flour from them. They contain more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice. In fact Natives used all parts of the plant, eating the new shoots in spring, weaving mats and baskets from the leaves, and even using the pollen in bread.

I thought I’d get an old cliché shot of white snow on red winterberries but by the time I got there the wind had blown all the snow off them. They’re still pretty though, nevertheless. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native holly that likes a lot of water. Birds love the bright red berries and it is an excellent choice for a landscape plant to attract them, especially if your yard has wet spots.

Here is another view of colorful understory shrubs in a snowy forest. It’s so very beautiful and it doesn’t happen often, so I was thankful that I could see such scenes on this day.

Mount Monadnock is always at its most beautiful when it is snow covered, in my opinion.  Scenes like this remind me of the shoulder deep snow I found up there when I climbed it one April day; snow so deep I had to crawl over it to reach the summit. Henry David Thoreau wrote that felt the presence of “a vast, titanic power” when he saw Mount Monadnock. He climbed Monadnock many times but finally realized “Those who climb Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. I came not to look off from it, but to look at it. The view of the pinnacle itself from the plateau below surpasses any view which you get from the summit.” I agree, and that’s one reason I don’t climb it.

And then it snowed again, and again…

…until it seemed that every living thing must be coated with it, and it reminded me of one of my favorite winter quotes by William Sharp: There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.

This grove of witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) was certainly clad with radiance.

And they also had hundreds of flowers blossoming in the snow. I’ve known for a long time that these flowers were tough, but this is the first time I’ve seen this. I think they were taken by surprise because it had been in the low 40s F before it snowed, and that’s plenty warm enough for witch hazel blossoms.

It is in the deep quiet of a winter morning just before sunup when I really feel the beauty of this season. The birds are silent at that time of day and if I’m lucky so are my thoughts, and it is at those times when a great sense of peace can come over me. It’s the same peace that comes on the top of a mountain, or when I sit beside a river, or when I’m in a forest and sit with my back against a tree. It’s a peace that is always there but one that you can’t just order up like a meal at a diner. You can search for it as long as you like but it is only when you stop searching and are still that it will find you. It is restorative; healing even, and I do hope it will find all of you as well.

The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another quite different, and if this is not enchantment then where is it to be found? ~ J. B. Priestley

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For a few years now I’ve thought that if anyone came to my door wanting to see a plant that I’ve shown on this blog I’d be able to lead them right to it. I don’t think my memory is any better than anyone else’s but I do believe that I remember where most of the special or unusual things I feature here grow because I visit them as often as I can. But I don’t know that for sure, and I sometimes wonder if I really could lead you to a sweet gum tree, (which isn’t even supposed to grow here) so last Sunday I decided to test myself. Somewhere along this rail trail is a red maple tree with a beautiful lichen on it. It’s grayish white and has blue fruiting bodies (Ascomata) and after my last post about lichens I wanted to see it again, so off I went.

This was a blue day because everywhere I looked I saw blue, like the beautiful blue of the sky’s reflection in the flooded area beside the trail.

There are lots of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana) growing along this trail and their catkins had me longing for spring, when the tiny scarlet threads of the female flowers will appear. They’re a sure sign that spring is upon us, but I won’t be seeing them for a while.

Here was more blue; the beautiful blue of first year black raspberry canes (Rubus occidentalis.) When I was a boy I used to pick and eat handfuls of them along the tracks that used to be here.

The blue color is caused by the way light is reflected off the powdery, waxy white crystals that cover the canes. The crystals are there to protect the young canes from moisture loss and sunburn and many other plants including blueberries, plums, grapes and blue stemmed goldenrod also use the same strategy. The color in this instance was much like that of a blue jay.

There are also wild grapes growing along the trail and most of them were fermenting up in the trees, so the smell of grape jelly was heavy in the wind.

I saw a squirrel up ahead working furiously at something and as I got closer it ran off with a corn cob in its mouth. When I looked at the place it had been I found a pile of corn. It had been stripping the kernels from the cob, and I wondered why it didn’t do it in its nest.

In fact this trail is overrun with squirrels and I’ve never seen so many squirrel nests in one place. The trees were full of them and I’d bet that I must have seen 30 or 40 on this walk. Nests start with a woven twig floor and then damp leaves and moss are packed on top. A spherical framework is woven around the floor and leaves, moss and twigs are stuffed into it until a hollow shell of about 6-8 inches across has been formed. Gray squirrels can have nests that are up to two feet wide and though they look like they’re open to the sky from below, they aren’t.

Some of the trail sides were covered by newly fallen maple leaves and I’m sure the squirrels are using them for nest building. I’ve watched them build nests before and have seen them gather up a bunch of leaves, tuck them up under their chin and hold them there with one front paw, and then run up the tree with the other three paws. They will also carry leaves in their mouth but they can’t seem to carry as many that way.

In spite of the drought last spring the corn grew well this year. I lived very near here when I was a boy and back then the Boston and Maine Railroad ran through here twice each day. There were extensive corn fields all along the railroad tracks in those days, and not much else. These days there are shopping malls nearby and the college has grown more than anyone thought it would. I used to sit out here all day and not see a soul but these days the trail is like a city sidewalk. College students, joggers, walkers, bicyclists and snowmobilers all use it regularly.

The farmer was harvesting his corn while I was there. This is silage for cows, what we used to call “cow corn,” so the entire plant except for the roots is chopped up and blown into 10 wheel dump trucks to be taken off to the farm. The stubble that is left will get tilled under in the spring and then the field will be planted again. These fields aren’t watered so it all depends on weather.

The farmer wasn’t the only one harvesting the corn. His crop must support hundreds of squirrels, and that explains why there are countless squirrel nests here even though there are no oak trees for acorns and very few pine trees for pine seeds.

There is a good view of Mount Monadnock from here, and on this day it was very blue. Since it was easy to see all over town this is the view I grew up with and it comes to mind whenever anyone mentions the mountain. It was from right here when I was probably 14 or so that I hatched a plan to identify and catalog all the wildflowers on the mountain. Henry David Thoreau started doing just that in the 1800s but never finished. I thought I will finish what Henry started, but when I finally got to the mountain I saw how foolish the plan was because this mountain is huge, and it might take ten lifetimes to do what I thought would be a lark. It’s no wonder that Henry never finished.

We’re almost there. That big thing in the center of the photo is a bridge.

And the bridge goes over a very busy highway, built so Keene State College students and others could cross safely. If you’re interested I wrote about it in a post I did last year called “Bridging a Dangerous Crossing.” When I was a boy the highway was just a road so I don’t think it was quite so busy as it is now, but over the past few years you often had to stand and wait for a while before being able to cross.

When I see the bridge I know I’m very close to the maple tree with the beautiful lichen on it, but on this day I got distracted by these married maples. A tree “marriage” happens when two trees of the same species rub together in the wind. When the outer bark is rubbed off the inner cambium layer of the trees can become naturally grafted together and they will be married from then on. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. I see it happening more all the time.

I knew when I was near the bridge that the tree with the lichen on it would be on the left side of the trail, just a few yards from the bridge. It was a maple but they were all maples and all about the same size, so I had to look at each tree. Actually I had to inspect each tree with my camera because the lichen I was looking for is only about as big as a dime. If you look at all the white spots on the married trees in the previous photo you’ll see what I was up against; those are all lichens.

But after about half an hour of searching I found the frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia) I was looking for, so my memory hadn’t completely failed me. Why did I want to find a dime size white spot on a tree? Because it’s a beautiful thing and this is the only example of it I’ve ever seen. The only other lichen I know of with blue fruiting bodies is the smoky eye boulder lichen and that one has blue apothecia only in a certain light. The spherical fruiting bodies on this lichen, called ascomata, are blue in any light and they don’t change color when they dry out. They are also very small; each blue dot is hardly bigger than a period made by a pencil on a piece of paper, so lichen hunters need to carry a good loupe or a camera that is macro capable.

As I walked back down the trail I wondered how and when all the grass grew along the sides of this rail bed. It wasn’t here when I used to come here as a boy. Back then all you saw here were sharp black clinkers, which were basically boiler slag and ash. They were the ballast that the tracks were laid in and it must have been an awful lot of work to get rid of them, but I do like the result. Those clinkers were hard things to take a fall on, which I seem to remember doing quite regularly as a boy.

As I was walking back this birch tree caught my eye. I like to look at the inner bark of trees because sometimes it can be quite beautiful. The inner bark of staghorn sumac can be bright red for instance, after it has peeled and been exposed to light and air. This birch had a deep wound, right down to the wood, and the peeling bark was thick. I thought I saw color there so I had to have a look.

I never expected to see anything like this on the inner bark of a gray birch. The only thing I could think of is the tree’s sap might have turned blue in the cold, because the blue bits weren’t lichens. I can’t think of anything else that could explain so much color. White pine tree sap turns a beautiful blue when it gets cold and on this day it was in the 30s F. with a biting wind. Whatever caused it, it was beautiful and I was happy to see it. As I said it was a blue day and, since blue is my favorite color, I wasn’t at all blue.

There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story. ~Linda Hogan

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Last Sunday was a beautiful day for a change, with bright sunshine and relatively warm temperatures for November, so I thought I’d hike a rail trail I know of up in Westmoreland. This is the one I travel in May when I want to see the wild columbines in bloom, but I don’t know if I’ve ever come out here in the fall. That’s a shame; I’ve missed a lot of beauty.

I was a little dismayed but not surprised to see water on the trail. We’ve had a deluge of rain over the past few months and there is water everywhere. Usually though, you don’t find it on rail trails because the railroad built drainage ditches along the sides of the rail bed. They never would have put up with seeing this much water here. It’s possible the drainage ditches have failed because of fallen debris in them, but I don’t know for sure.

The forest that the rail trail goes through is mostly hardwoods like beech, oak and maple with few evergreens.

It’s hard to tell from this photo but these ledges are way up on the top of the hillside we saw in that previous shot. With all that stone warmed by the sun it looks like a great place for animals to den up.

Speaking of animals, this is a known bear area. I’m not sure if these marks were done by a bear but they were as big as my hand and they were on several trees.

The glimpses of sunlit beeches were enough to make me just stop and admire them for a while. Beeches are such beautiful trees, from bud break in spring until their leaves finally fall the following spring, they are year round friends.

There is an unusual box culvert out here that had a lot of water running through it due to heavy rain the previous day. I’ve been out here many times but this is the first time I’ve seen this much water here; usually there isn’t any. The box culvert is unusual because its joints are mortared. Almost every other one I’ve seen was laid up dry with no mortar.  The mortar could have been used in a repair years after it was built though, which is what I suspect. You don’t find much mortar in railroad stonework.

I saw some nicely colored turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) decorating a log. There were hundreds of them. I think my favorites are the ones with blue or purple colors in them.

Of course there were stone walls; there are always stone walls in New Hampshire. Property owners almost always built them along railroads to mark the place where their land ended and railroad right of ways began. The walls here are unusual because they were built largely of railroad cast off stone that had been blasted out of the ledges. If the railroad didn’t use it to build with they often simply dumped it in large piles throughout the woods and landowners picked from them. You can tell by the way there is hardly a round corner to be found in a wall.  The stones have square and angular corners and flat faces, though the section in this photo does have more rounded fieldstones than most of the wall did.

If you look closely you can see the hand of man in the stones. These finger size grooves were made by hand with a star drill or possibly a steam drill. You drilled your holes and then tapped small tools called feathers and wedges into them. The pressure exerted by the wedges would break the stone, leaving a flat face with finger shaped grooves. It was a huge amount of work but once the stone was cut the stone masons used it to build culverts, bridges, tunnels, walls and anything else they needed to get the tracks down and moving forward.

And they’re still building walls out here. They recently logged this land and the loggers built a road to where they had to be. The stones are used as a retaining wall to hold the road up and they’re big. They also have that “new” clean look that tells you they haven’t been there long.

We’re almost there. What looks like a dark tunnel up ahead isn’t a tunnel and it isn’t that dark, and that’s where we’re going.

I saw quite a few maple seedlings still hanging on to their colorful leaves.

I think the seedlings were red maples (Acer rubrum) and I think that because larger maples showed target canker which, if I understand what I’ve read correctly, only attacks red maples. It is caused by a fungus which kills the tree’s healthy bark and the patterns of platy bark seen in this photo are the tree’s response to the fungus. It grows new bark each year in the circular patterns seen here to contain the fungus. Usually the fungus will not kill the tree.

More signs of the railroad; a tie plate with a bent spike still in it was beside the trail. You can find a lot of railroad artifacts by walking rail trails.

And here we are at the ledges where the columbines grow, looking back the way we just came. The stone here is very dark but I have a feeling these ledges have limestone in them because of the lime loving plants that live here.

There isn’t much soil on the stones but there is enough to grow columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) and in some cases even trees. I was wishing I could have seen some of the beautiful red and yellow flowers but I’ll have to wait until next May for that.

I did see some asters scattered along the trail, and though I don’t know their name they were a welcome sight. Any flower is welcome in November.

I wasn’t expecting to find columbines blooming out here but I was hoping to find blue cohosh berries (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and there they were. I found this plant when I came out here in May to get photos of the columbines and a chance to see the beautiful blue “berries” is what brought me back on this day. The berries are actually brown seeds with a fleshy blue coating that protects them, and the seeds are what are considered the plant’s true fruit, so the plant is a bit unusual. Now that I’ve seen the foliage, flowers and fruit I need to come here in the spring, in April I’d guess, to see the beautiful dark blue spring shoots. They look like tiny blue hands reaching out of the soil.

Blue cohosh fruit is actually darkly colored like a blueberry and like a blueberry the “bloom” made up of waxy white crystals that cover the berries reflect the light in a way that makes them appear lighter colored. Some describe them as “blueberries dipped in confectioner’s sugar.” This plant is very rare in this area so I’m hoping these fruits will grow new plants, but deer love eating the plant so the odds are against it. I should mention that, though Native Americans used the roots of the plant medicinally and herbalists still use it today, science says that it has “poisonous properties” and the “berries” can make you quite sick.

Here is a photo of a blue cohosh flower that I took on May 12th of this year, so it’s an early bloomer. Each of the yellow green striped sepals of the flower contains a nectar gland to attract insects.  6 yellow stamens form a ring around the center ovary and the true petals are the shiny green parts that ring the center between the sepals and the stamens. The word cohosh is believed to be Native Algonquin name used for several different plants with different color fruit so in this case the blue refers to the fruit color, even though all parts of the plant including the leaves and stems have a bluish cast to them in the spring.

The trail went on, north to Walpole before crossing into Vermont, but I did not. I turned around, happy that I had now seen such a rare plant in three stages of growth. This is only the second time I’ve seen it and the first time all I saw were the blue fruits, so the hike was well worth the effort. I’m really anxious to see the dark blue shoots in spring, and that probably means that winter will pass slowly. But then I suppose that it always does.

If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things in nature have a message you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive. ~Eleanora Duse

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As I write this 3 straight days of November rains have finally stopped but now there’s a howling wind blowing, so I expect the landscape will look very different tomorrow, possibly with more leaves on the ground than in the trees. Will this be the last fall foliage post? It could be, but the oaks and beeches are still in full color and I even saw a few maples that were still hanging on, so maybe not.

Here’s what the maples and birches looked like one recent sunny day.

Oaks have an amazing color range but their colors don’t shout it out quite like the maples.

When you’re in the woods and a beech tree gets between you and the sun it can be amazingly beautiful. They seem to glow under their own power. Luminous is the word, I think.

Many birches and especially gray birches like those shown here are still hanging on to their leaves. Or at least they were before this wind. The weather people say there are 60 mph gusts blowing in parts of New England.

This is a good post to compare foliage colors on cloudy and sunny days. It was drizzling when I took this photo of young maples. I think the color is often more intense on cloudy days. Perhaps it’s the gray background.

But there’s a lot to be said for sunshine too, as this road leading to my workplace shows.

The colors of the oaks along the Ashuelot River in Swanzey looked a little dull on a rainy day, I thought. In fact everything is on the dull side in this photo.

We’ve had large amounts of rainfall since July; 11 inches above average in fact, and the Ashuelot River was flooding in places on this day.

No matter where you go the woods are flooded by large puddles like this one. The ground is completely saturated and the two or three inches of rain falling each week simply has nowhere to go. We need a dry week or two to dry things out but it doesn’t look like that’s in the cards. Many are also hoping for a drier winter. If all this rain was snow we’d all be doing some serious shoveling.

The invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) along the river seemed to glow on a recent rainy day. Before they drop their leaves they will become a soft pastel pink to almost white. Right now they’re in their loud orange / red / yellow stage. It’s too bad they’re so invasive because they really are beautiful, but as you can see they dominate the understory and create so much shade nothing else can grow.

Here is a closer look at a burning bush. I’ve seen thousands of these shrubs along the river drop their leaves overnight when the weather is cold enough and I’m hoping that doesn’t happen this year so I can show them to you in their pastel pink stage. It really is a beautiful sight.

You can find color in unexpected places. This is the first time I’ve noticed how yellow the foliage of slender fragrant goldenrod (Solidago tenuifolia) becomes.

I pay attention to lake sedge (Carex lacustris) in the fall because I like the way it seems to flow like the waves of the pond and lake shores it grows on. It is really the wind and its own weak stems that make it bend so, but I think it makes a pretty display. Lake sedge is native to Canada and the northern U.S. and can at times be found growing in water. Waterfowl and songbirds eat its seeds.

The blue of this monkshood (Aconitum napellus) I saw growing at a local bank was a complete surprise. I went looking for this plant at a local children’s butterfly garden earlier and found that it had finally been removed. That’s a good thing, because monkshood is one of the most poisonous plants known. People have died from its sap simply being absorbed through their skin, and in ancient Rome you could be put to death if you were found growing it. That was because to the Romans the only reason you would grow such a thing was to poison your enemies.

Toxic or not monkshood has a beautiful flower. Another name for it is winter aconite because it blooms so late. If you look at the side view of a flower you can see how it resembles the hoods that medieval monks wore, and that’s how it comes by its common name. I’m not sure which insects would pollinate it this late in the season, but there must be some that do.

You might think that this was a big yellow tree but you’d be wrong because it’s actually a big green tree; a white cedar that is covered by invasive Oriental bittersweet vines (Celastrus orbiculatus.) These twining, wire like vines want all the sunshine they can get and they will climb anything to get it. Trees, telephone poles, and even houses aren’t safe from it, and it will most likely pull this tree down eventually. Not only does it block all the light from the host tree, it also wraps around the tree’s trunk and slowly strangles it.

Oriental bittersweet berries are big, plump and showy and birds love them, and that’s why man will never defeat this invader. Even its seeds germinate faster than those of our native American bittersweet.

The hillsides that surround Keene are still showing quite a bit of color thanks to the big old oaks. There could be some beech and maples here and there as well.

We’ve had a beautiful fall season this year and it might not be over yet, but even if it is there is still plenty of color to be seen. I hope you are able see beauty like this wherever you may live.

How beautiful leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days. ~John Burroughs

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