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Archive for the ‘Things I’ve Seen’ Category

This post is a kind of hodge podge of things I saw last summer when I was taking a break from blogging and things I’ve seen recently. If there is any continuity at all, any thread that runs through it, it is I hope how the beauty of this world can be found everywhere you look. The photo you see above happened just last week as I was going into a store to do some grocery shopping. I wasn’t surprised to see many people just walking right by without seeing it. We live in a paradise that is absolutely filled with beauty all the time, night and day, and we should give ourselves time to at least notice it. How long does it take to appreciate the beauty of the frost crystals on your car windows before starting the car in the morning, or to simply look up at the sky now and then?

This shadow of a staghorn sumac reminded me of the palm trees I saw when I lived in Florida. The first time I crossed over from Georgia into Jacksonville, Florida it was about two in the morning, and the palm trees that lined the center of the divided road, lit up as they were by streetlights, seemed like the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I felt as if I were driving into a postcard. I felt electric, and more alive than I had ever been.

Here is another kind of shadow. The town put in a new sidewalk last summer and last fall of course the falling leaves landed on it. This leaf, from a maple, leached out its tannins and left its silhouette on the newly poured concrete. Maple leaves are one of the species used for botanical or “eco-printing,” which is where leaf and bark shapes and colors are transferred or bled onto fabric or paper.

When the town put in the new sidewalk they tore up lawns all up and down the street, so to finish the job they brought soil in from somewhere, and what you see above is what sprouted from that soil on the corner of the street; a forest of what are commonly known as weeds, like lamb’s quarters.

One of the plants that sprouted from the soil that was brought in was jimson weed. When I first saw it its big, beautiful white and purple flowers were just about to open. Jimson weed is considered poisonous to both humans and livestock so I was surprised to see it growing here, on the lawn of a children’s daycare center. This hallucinogenic plant in the nightshade family is also called loco weed and was used by Native Americans on spiritual quests. The original common name was “Jamestown weed” which was given to it after English soldiers in the Jamestown colony began to behave oddly after eating leaves of the plant. It is said that they “behaved like animals for several days.” This plant is considered exceedingly dangerous due to poisonings and deaths by people trying to get high. I was going to say something about it but the daycare wasn’t due to open until school started, so there was nobody to say anything to.

Another plant that grew from the foreign soil was wild mustard, which I never used to see much but now see fairly regularly. Because of the plants that grew from it I have a feeling that this soil must have come from old pasture land. There is old pasture south of here and I’ve seen these same plants growing there. In any event, I went back a few days later to see the beautiful Datura flowers and everything had been mowed down to something resembling lawn. I was a bit disappointed because Datura blossoms are very beautiful.

I went to a pond that I had been to a hundred times last summer and found this small, foot tall fern that I had never seen growing in the water right at the shoreline. The rounded over edges of the sub-leaflets didn’t look familiar but they, along with the way the leaflets twisted along the stem helped identify it.

I turned one of the fronds over and saw something I had never seen. The curled over edges of the sub-leaflets formed cups filled with what looked like blackberry jelly, but of course these were the fern’s spore cases (sori) and there must have been many hundreds of them. With all the hints it gave me it was easy to identify it as the marsh fern (Thelypteris palustris pubescens.) It has fertile and sterile leaves but the fertile ones tend to be smaller, according to what I’ve read. It likes wet feet and full sun. This isn’t a very good shot of the spore cases so I hope to return this coming summer and try again.

According to the book Identifying Ferns the Easy Way, A Pocket Guide to Common Ferns of the Northeast, by Lynn Levine, the caterpillars of the marsh fern moth feed on the leaves of this fern and it is the only known host plant of what is an uncommon moth.

And speaking of uncommon moths, here is a large maple spanworm moth (Prochoerodes linolea.) I found it relaxing on the siding of the local post office and was amazed by its resemblance to tree bark. I’d guess that I’ve probably walked right by them thousands of times in the woods but here on this bright white wall it was easy to see. Life is such a beautiful and amazing thing. Emily Dickinson said it best: To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.  

I’ve known tansy for a very long time but for years if I wanted to see it, I had to visit a garden. Only over the last few years have I found it in the wild, so as an invasive plant it has failed miserably in this area, even though it has excelled elsewhere. In colonial times tansy was used as both a flavoring in tea, cakes and puddings and an insect repellant, used especially for bedbugs. It was also used to make green dyes and was thought valuable enough to be brought over on a three-month voyage. It is also toxic, so though I don’t have a problem with using it to repel insects I doubt I’ll ever flavor anything with it.

I didn’t see large numbers of monarch butterflies this year but I saw a few, and I found a patch of Joe Pye weed that they and spangled fritillary butterflies seem to prefer over all the other flowers in the area. I would revisit this spot every few days and each time these flowers had several butterflies and bumblebees visiting.  You have to look closely to see them but there are many bumblebees in this shot.

What was it, I’ve wondered, about these particular plants that made them so attractive to so many insects?

I also saw a monarch butterfly caterpillar on a milkweed plant last summer. I don’t see very many of them so it was a surprise.

The unusual berries of the white baneberry plant (Actaea pachypoda) called doll’s eyes, have over the past two or three years turned black and shriveled up for reasons I can’t fathom, but last summer they were nearly pristine when I found them. The remains of the flower’s black stigma against the porcelain white fruit is striking, and I can’t think of another plant with fruit quite like these. The hot pink pedicels are pretty as well. These plants are toxic but luckily the berries are so bitter one bite would be enough to make anyone spit them out. Finding baneberry in the woods tells the story of rich, well drained loamy soil and a reliable source of moisture, because those are the things that it needs to grow. I almost always find them at the base of hillsides.

I saw very few mushrooms last summer because it was so dry, but I did see a few Indian pipes, which is odd since they’re parasitic on certain fungi.

Here is a rarely seen (by many) look into the inside of an Indian pipe flower. At the tips of the 10 stamens surrounding the center stigma are the anthers, colored yellow, which contain pollen. The anthers are open and shedding pollen at this stage. In the center of the flower is the pollen-collecting stigma, which looks like a funnel between the yellowish stamens. Each flower will stand straight up when it is ready to be pollinated, and once pollinated will eventually become a hard brown seed capsule. You can find them sticking up out of the snow, usually in groups, at this time of year and they are always fun to look at.

If you walk in certain places at certain times, you might see things that you will only see once in a great while, if at all. People often ask me how I do this; how I see what I see. The answer is to simply be there. I spend as much free time outdoors as possible. I also walk very slowly and pay close attention. Many times, I just stumble onto the greater part of what you see here on this blog. If I had been just a few minutes earlier or later I might have missed the sunlight highlighting the hairs on this staghorn sumac. That would have been too bad because it shows how the plant got its name, with its velvety softness just like that of a deer’s antler.

With other things found in nature, you can often do some planning ahead. For instance, if you know that the “bloom” on black raspberry canes is made of a kind of natural wax, and if you know that it “melts away” in warm summer weather, you know that your best chance of seeing it is in the cooler months. You will also find this same beautiful blue, which is a result of the way sunlight is reflected by the wax crystals, on blueberries, plums, lichens, and many other things.

This photo of American hazelnut catkins might not seem like much but it is special to me because it was taken with a cell phone. Since I’ve struggled with getting a shot of these little things even with a macro camera in the past, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the phone camera got it. The depth of field could have been better but all in all I was happy with it. You can see how the triangular bud scales spiral up the catkin. When the catkin swells and the bud scales begin to open in spring the tiny, beautiful golden flowers will do the same. They are among the earliest spring flowers and I look forward to seeing them each year. It won’t be long now.

Many will most likely think big deal, it’s just an old leaf, but if you had lived through 60+ New Hampshire winters like I have you would know that any splotch of color is beautiful in the often stark black and white world of January. Any color anywhere will stop you in your tracks and you’ll be thankful that it was there for you to find.

How does a child see the world? What is childlike wonder? Everything a young child sees is fresh and new; they’ve never seen it before so they have no history; no file cabinet full of memories to search through and compare what they see now to what they saw then. A child sees a branch or a rock and becomes enraptured by it because it is fresh and new. They see what is right now, as it is. We adults on the other hand, compare what we see to what we’ve seen before and instantly decide that it’s better or worse than the one we saw previously. Once we do that all the freshness, the newness, and the wonder is gone, and what we see becomes old. Children see as much with their hearts as with their eyes and if you follow their lead great beauty will appear, seemingly out of nowhere. The more beauty you see the more you will see, and before long you will have to say, as I did, “My gosh, everything is so very beautiful. Just look at it!”

If we have relegated vision solely to a function of the eyes, we are blind indeed.
~Craig D. Lounsbrough

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Toward the end of November I decided to take a walk up the old abandoned road that leads through the Beaver Brook natural area in Keene. I hadn’t been there in a while and since I had just tangled with Covid I thought the slight gradient of the old road would let me gently test my lungs and make sure they were still working as they should. Surprisingly I didn’t get winded at all; good news I thought, considering all I had heard about Covid.

I saw many beautiful things there that day but I would have been happy just seeing the mosses. They always seem so much greener and more vibrant in colder weather.

The brook was rushing along, not quite as high as I had imagined it would be but still with a bit of a roar to it. It has many voices, this little brook. In summer it becomes tame and moves slowly, giggling and chuckling shyly as it spills over the rocks in its bed. In winter it often becomes nearly mute, its voice muffled by a covering of thick ice. It can still be heard, but as if from a distance. In spring and fall, due to snow melt or excessive rain it swells up and shouts, sometimes with a deafening roar. Only one thing about it never changes, and that is its beauty.

There are a few pretty views along the brook and this is one of my favorites. I hadn’t gone there that day with a blog post in mind but I had a cell phone camera and the small Olympus I use for macro photos and in the end, I was glad I had brought them.

Of course, I had to stop and see my old friend the smoky eye boulder lichen that lives here because it is a beautiful thing. Both the way the light falls on it and the color of the thallus or body of the lichen make it stand out from other examples I’ve seen. Why it has this golden, orangey brown color I don’t know, and I also don’t know why the fruiting bodies always seem so blue or lavender when they are usually gray. It has to be the special way the light falls on it in this particular spot. Seeing it again is always like finding a jewel.

The squiggly black apothecia have appeared on the script lichens, as they always seem to do in the cold weather. If you look at them extremely closely, they look like the body of the lichen has been torn or cut open, and they erupt from it rather than sitting on it. But whatever happens when they appear, they leave no trace when they disappear. If you come here in warmer months all you will find are the white / gray body of these lichens, like spots on the tree’s bark.

I stopped at what I call the boulder fall. I’ve found mosses here that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

And one of those mosses is the pretty little rose moss. This moss likes limestone and since this area isn’t rich in limestone it always leaves me guessing. Somehow two or three of the boulders must have at least some limestone in them. I first found this moss on just one stone years ago and now it is on at least three of them, so it must be happy here.

Another rare moss that grows here is the glittering wood moss, also called stair step moss because of the way new growth comes up out of the midrib of the previous year’s growth. It looks delicate but I’ve seen it encased in ice in winter and still looking fine in spring. Not surprising since it can withstand conditions in the Arctic tundra. It sparkles in the light so “glittering” is a good description.

For years I’ve thought that snow load was what made our evergreen ferns splay out on the ground but this year we have no snow and they are still hugging the ground, so that theory has to be let go of. I recently read this on Westborough Massachusetts Community Land Trust page: “When the green fronds are on the ground, warmth from the earth keeps them warmer than they would be if they stood up in the wind and cold air. The fern’s stems weaken near the ground in autumn, helping the fronds to fall over.” That does make sense but I wonder where that information originally came from. I believe the fern in the photo is a marginal wood fern, but I didn’t check for spore cases.

A big old red maple tree had fallen and someone had come along and cut off all its branches. This tree had target canker but that doesn’t kill trees, as far as I know.

Target canker won’t kill a tree but it can certainly keep one busy by causing its bark to grow in circular patterns of new, thin bark plates, which helps protect it from the canker. According to Cornell university: “A fungus invades healthy bark, killing it. During the following growing season, the tree responds with a new layer of bark and undifferentiated wood (callus) to contain the pathogen. However, in the next dormant season the pathogen breaches that barrier and kills additional bark. Over the years, this seasonal alternation of pathogen invasion and host defense response leads to development of a ‘canker’ with concentric ridges of callus tissue—a ‘target canker.’” You can see the pattern of new, thin bark plates the tree grew each year in this photo. I count at least ten, so that means this tree fought off the invader for at least ten years. There are some things which once seen can never be forgotten, and target canker is one of those.

I saw what I think was a white cheese polypore on a fallen branch. It grows on hardwood logs and causes white rot, and gets its common name from its scientific one (Tyromyces chioneus). Tyromyces means “with a cheesy consistency,” and chioneus means “snow white.” These mushrooms are big enough to be seen from a distance and when they are fresh, they have a pleasing fragrance that some think is like cheesecake. Mushroom Expert. com says it is “just about the most boring mushroom going,” but it is a winter mushroom and I’m always happy to see mushrooms in winter. There is also a blue cheese polypore and a green cheese polypore.

From boring to beautiful; this must be the most colorful display of turkey tail fungi that I’ve seen. It was beautiful, with its many different colors all in the same growth. No matter how many times I come here I always see something I’ve never seen before, and that is why it pays to revisit the same places again and again.

I was surprised to find a little ice on the ledges. It has been cold some nights but all in all this has been a very mild winter so far. I doubt there is any ice to speak of in the deep cut rail trail where ice climbers usually practice.

This is one of my favorite reasons to visit Beaver Brook; to see what I call the “disappearing waterfall,” because it only appears when we’ve had enough rain to get it going. It’s a beautiful thing and in the spring, I’ve seen people standing in line waiting to get to the spot where you can get the best photo of it.

I saw two splotches of color on the end of a log and I thought I recognized them.

As I thought, they were wrinkled crust fungi (Phlebia radiata) but they weren’t quite as colorful as others I had seen. I suspected they were young examples which might change as they aged, so I decided to return in a week to see if they had. These winter fungi are rare in my experience and well worth a second look.

This photo of a wrinkled crust fungus I took years ago shows what I was hoping to find upon my return but no, the fungi in the previous photos hadn’t changed at all. A quick online search showed that they can be very beautiful like this example or rather plain like the previous example. Like many things in nature, finding them is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time and paying attention. Unlike some fungi it’s hard to predict where or when they’ll choose to grow, though they do seem to like cold weather.

And speaking of being in the right place at the right time; as I was leaving Beaver Brook after my second look at the wrinkled crust fungi the afternoon sun decided to shine right up the brook. It was something I had never seen happen before and it seemed like a final, beautiful exclamation point to mark the end of my journey through a place filled with beauty.

Look at places no one looks at, so you can see the things no one sees.
~
Mehmet Murat ildan

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We’re having another one of those strange, almost snowless winters so far this season but even though it hasn’t been snowy it has been cold enough for ice to form, so in early December I decided to visit a stream near my neighborhood. Last year I found beautiful lacy ice all along it but this time as you can see, there was no ice.

There was frost on the lawns, so I thought for sure there would be ice on the stream.

A little neighborhood pond had a thin film of ice on it.

But there was little to no ice to be found here at the stream. No matter; there are always interesting things to see, like this pronounced meander in the stream. When I first started coming here it was nothing like this but over the years flooding has dumped a lot of sand and gravel in a pile over there on the left, forcing the stream to move more and more to the right. As it moves it washes soil away from tree roots and many trees have fallen.

I stopped to admire some beech leaves. The beech is a tree that gives beauty to the forest all year long.

I also saw some colorful turkey tail fungi on a stump. Part of their scientific name is versicolor, and it’s a good one. I’ve seen these come in pink, orange, blue, purple, and everything in between. They’re one of the most colorful fungi I know of and winter is a good time to find them. As far as I know no one has ever discovered what causes their many variations in color.

I looked back to where I had come from and saw how the stream meander is slowly cutting into the hillside and washing it away; a mountain slowly turning to sand. I thought the low sun falling on the green plants was a beautiful scene. It showed how, around every corner, there is the very real possibility of finding staggering beauty of the kind we’ve never seen. We need to learn to stop and let the beauty of life seep into us until it fills every part of our being; until the word Hallelujah comes to us naturally, without a thought.

One of the things I come here to see are the tree mosses. When I first started coming here there was a group of maybe ten plants right at the water line but now, they have grown away from the stream and there are hundreds of them. They must like wet ground because this place floods regularly and they often spend part of their life underwater. They’re beautiful little things and I’d like to see them in more places but so far this is the only place I’ve ever found them.

This unknown creature grew on a tree and though I was sure I had seen it before I couldn’t remember its name. It looks almost like a crustose lichen with an area of something else growing through it but I can’t imagine what that something else would be. In the end I decided it didn’t matter. Memories are like dogs that come when you call them but otherwise lie silent and still. Sometimes they don’t come at all, and seem so far off I can’t tell if they are even there anymore. The effort it takes to recall them doesn’t seem worth whatever limited value they may have. They are like things stored in the attic; not worth climbing the stairs to see, but seemingly still too precious to throw away. They sit gathering dust but one day they will have to go, so why bother adding to the pile by gathering up more of them? Let each day start fresh and shining brightly, unobscured by the film of dust that is yesterday.

This is a two-part post; what you’ve seen so far happened one day and what you will see from here on happened on another. Luckily the sun was shining brightly on both days. I would have loved to have been able to see it the way this NASA photo shows it.

On the second day I went to the stream, about three weeks later, there was ice. Strangely though, at nearly 40 degrees F. this day was warmer than the first.

Last winter when I came here, I found beautiful, lacy ice covering the surface of the stream but this year I saw mostly splash ice. Splash ice forms when running water splashes droplets up on cold surfaces, where they freeze almost immediately. It can be beautiful; all of what we see here is splash ice.

Ice curtains along the banks showed how the water level had dropped, with ribbons of ice forming at each different level.

This view is looking down on ice similar to that in the previous photos.

This ice sculpture grew on a twig that hung out over the stream.

This very thin, clear pane of ice had water droplets hanging from its underside.

This ice reminded me of the bullseye glass windowpanes you can still see in very old houses. Before modern glass making came along glass windowpanes were blown from a gob of molten glass that was spun at the end of the blowpipe until it formed a large disc. Rectangular windowpanes were cut from the disc with the outer, thinner, clearer panes sold to the wealthy and the inner, thick, wavy panes with the pontil mark bullseye in the center sold to the poor. You couldn’t see anything out of them but they did let in light and that was what was important. I can’t even guess how this ice would have formed to look just like them.

Neither can I explain why this bit of dead grass had a ray of sunlight falling on it.

I’ve heard that very white ice is white because it has a lot of oxygen in it, so maybe all the bubbles in this piece go along with that theory. It must have gotten very cold very quickly to freeze bubbles in place.

The only thing you can expect from ice is the unexpected, because no two pieces will ever be alike. Ice helps teach us that we should go into nature with no expectations and just enjoy what we see.

On the way home this scene looked more like March than December. Now into January without plowable snow in my yard, it looks to be another unusual winter. I hope you enjoyed coming along through the snowless woods. In a normal winter we wouldn’t have been able to go without snowshoes.

The wise man knows that it is better to sit on the banks of a remote mountain stream than to be emperor of the whole world. ~ Zhuangzi (c. 369 BC – c. 286 BC)

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Last Sunday afternoon, on the 12th, light snow started to fall in the afternoon. It snowed for most of the night but as these photos show, it didn’t amout to much. Depending on where you were an inch to three inches accumulated; what we call a nuisance snow. The above photo shows the Ashuelot River in Swanzey Monday morning. The water was higher than it has been all summer.

As usual the snow stayed on the evergreens. White pine trees have very flexible branches so they can hold a lot of snow but every now and then you’ll hear a loud cracking in the woods when older branches break off. It’s a good idea to not be under snow laden, older pine trees for long. Branches usually fall with their broken end down and I’ve seen them punch holes through roofs.

There’s a lot of splashing going on at the river and fingers of ice had formed on every twig on this shrub. If it was a shrub. There are many here, such as alder, buttonbush and dogwood so it probably was, but I was paying more attention to the ice than what it grew on.

Ice baubles form by water splashing over and over in the same spot. Eash splash of water adds thickness to the ice, just like a candle being dipped again and again in wax. Thanks to gravity they grow vertically, so seeing these at an angle told me that they grew too heavy and the twig they were on could no longer support them. It bent, and this threw the baubles off vertical. I’d like to see how they grow from this point on. They’ll look very different than a standard ice bauble, I would think.

I haven’t yet figured out what makes some flattened while others are more round but it really doesn’t matter. They’re all beautiful, especially when sunlight shines through them. It’s like seeing a thousand prisms all along the shoreline.

Sometimes the surroundings reflect in the ice baubles. I think the reflection of the river must have been what caused the blue in the one on the left.

The waves on the river weren’t huge on this day but they were curling nicely and they were beautiful, as always. If you come here at the right time of day, in the morning at around 11:00, the sun shines from the left of this spot and if it strikes a wave just right it can illuminate its interior, as can be seen here. There is a lot going on inside a wave, which is something I never thought much about until I came here and started trying to catch all their different poses.

They grow and fall and crash again and again and the resulting roar emphasizes the awesome power and beauty of the river. There are also deep rumbles and booms that you can feel more than hear, as if large boulders were rolling down the riverbed. This is not the place to try to hold a conversation. It is a place to just stand and be amazed by all that is happening.

I stumbled onto an interesting article recently that showed that chimpanzees can also be in awe of water. Primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall noticed how, when solitary chimps come to a waterfall, they will often walk into the water and sway back and forth rhythmically, from one foot to the other. There is even a photo of a chimp sitting on a stone in the river, staring up at a waterfall as if in a trance. This might not seem very remarkable until you realize that chimpanzees can’t swim and are naturally afraid of water. Something about the waterfall makes them forget themselves, and some believe it is the roar. I think there is more to it than just sound.

It’s much quieter here in the woods on the road to Swanzey Lake than at the river. This is a class 6 road, meaning it gets no maintenance during winter, so this might be the last time I can get out here until spring.

I thought if I came out here I would see the snow falling from the trees but it was dead still, without even a hint of a breeze, so most of the snow stayed on the trees. You can just see, at the end of the road in this shot, a bit of what I call snow smoke, which happens when the wind blows. Being in a place like this with the snow blowing from the trees can sometimes be like being in a blizzard.

Snow smoke was happening here but the sun was so bright the camera couldn’t really catch it well. It did catch the beauty of the beech leaves though.

I love to see dark water in winter. It looks like a polished black mirror against the white snow and it always makes me want to just sit and admire it.

In this view, just behind where the tree has fallen across the stream, you can see a beaver dam. Beyond it the beaver pond had frozen over. This was the first body of water I had seen with ice on it this season, but since it’s on or surrounded by private property I couldn’t get close to it. There will be plenty of other ice to see though, I’m sure. And more snow as well; it’s snowing lightly right now.

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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It had been about six years since I followed an old class 6 road in Swanzey and something brought it to mind the other day, so I thought I’d give it a go. I remembered it being very shaded and since it was a hot, humid day shade was called for. Here in New Hampshire a class 6 designation means that a road isn’t maintained by either the state or the town so traveling it could be rough going. Though they are public ways they are roads that are more or less forgotten except by hikers and snowmobilers. This one dates from the mid-1800s and if you walked it for maybe 2 days, you would eventually come out on the road to Chesterfield, which is now route 9.

The road follows along a brook which is named California Brook, for reasons I’ve never been able to uncover. It has its start in the town of Chesterfield and runs southeast to the Ashuelot River in Swanzey. There were at least two mills on the brook in the early 1800s, and it was said to be the only waterway in Swanzey where beavers could be found in the 1700s. They’re still here, almost 300 years later.

The forest is made up of young trees, mostly hemlock but some maple and birch as well.

Stone walls tell the story of why the forest is young. This land was all cleared at one time and I’ve read that at least three families lived out here. Most likely in the 1800s. It might have been sheep pasture, which was a common use for this stone filled land.

But the road was very different than it was the last time I was out here, and I wondered who would go to all of the expense of making an old abandoned road useable.

The road had been hardened with 1-inch crushed stone, which is terrible stuff to walk on if it hasn’t been compacted. This hadn’t been compacted so in places it was almost like walking on marbles.

Even the old rotted bridge had been replaced. There is only one reason someone would go to all this trouble and expense to get out here.

And the reason is logging, just as I suspected. It looked like they were taking the softwood and leaving the hardwood to grow. In any event, it certainly wasn’t the first time this land had been logged off and I couldn’t worry about what was being done on someone else’s land.

Colonies of heal all (Prunella lanceolata) grew on both sides of the road and I was happy to see them. They are also called self-heal and have been used medicinally since ancient times. They are said to cure everything from sore throats to heart disease, and that’s how the plant got its common name. In fact the plants were once thought to be a holy herb sent by God to cure man’s ills. Native Americans drank a tea made from the plant before a hunt because they believed that it helped their eyesight.

Maybe happiness is a large part of the cure that heal all brings to man. Seeing them certainly brightens my day. Their happy faces and wide-open mouths always seem to be cheering life on. I can almost hear them shouting yay! As I’ve said before, I think all flowers are happy simply because they’re alive; they exist. All of nature is in a state of ecstasy because it simply is. We could learn a lot from its example.

Hobblebushes have set fruit. The berries will go from green to bright red and then deep, purple black as they grow and ripen. They won’t last long once ripe.

I saw a big, soccer ball size burl on a red maple. It would have been the perfect size to make a bowl out of. They’re valuable to woodworkers because just about anything made from burl is beautiful and commands top dollar. A burl is an abnormal growth on a tree that grows faster than the surrounding tissue. Scientists don’t fully understand why it happens but burls are thought to grow on trees that have been weakened by stress or damage. Once the tree’s defenses have been weakened insects and/or fungi can attack and cause the abnormal growth. That’s the theory, anyhow.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) grew all along the roadside in large numbers. This one still had a raindrop on it.

Coltsfoot also grew in great numbers out here and if I can remember that, next spring I’ll come back and find some of the earliest blooming flowers.

My find of the day was this many headed slime mold (Physarum polycephalum) I saw growing on a log beside the road. It was in its plasmodium stage and was quite big.  When slime molds are in this state, they are usually moving-very slowly. Slime molds are super sensitive to drying out so they usually move at night but they can be found on cloudy, humid days as well. It was a hot and humid day and this particular spot was very shaded, so it was just right for slime mold activity.

Through a process called cytoplasmic streaming slime molds can reach speeds of up to 1.35 mm per second, which is the fastest rate recorded for any micro-organism. Scarcity of food is what drives them on, always searching for bacteria and yeasts to feed on. As this photo shows, slime mold plasmodium is a mass of glistening vein-like material (actually a single-celled amoeba) that creeps across dead leaves, wood, or soil. They are fascinating beings that behave like a flock of birds or a school of fish, and science just can’t seem to figure them out.

I was hoping that I might also see some fungi out here but all I saw were these tinder polypores (Fomes fomentarius) on a very dead beech. They do like beech trees. I see them more on beech than any other tree. This one was so old its bark was flaking off but the fungi were still able to get what they were after from it. Since woodpeckers had been at it too, I’m sure it was full of insects. Most likely carpenter ants. Tinder polypores produce huge amounts of spores; measurements in the field have shown that they release as many as 800 million spores per hour in the spring and summer.

The first time I came out here I saw the biggest beaver dam I’ve ever seen. It was high enough to be over my head in height, but the last time I came out here it was gone. I thought that if the dam had let go there had certainly been some serious flooding somewhere, but I’ve never seen any signs of it.  Anyhow, here was another beaver pond. I couldn’t see the dam but they’re at it again.

I should say that I’m not happy with many of the photos that I took with my new cell phone. I went into a phone store hoping they could fix a small issue I was having with an app on my Google Pixel 4A phone and the person behind the counter noticed that I had a 3G sim card in the phone. “You really should have a 5G sim card,” he said. “This is a 5G phone.” To make a long story short the 5G sim card he put in apparently destroyed the Pixel’s ability to connect to the internet, so they had to give me a new phone of “equal or greater value.” Well, the Samsung Galaxy S21 FE they gave me as a replacement is indeed of greater value because it cost $200.00 more than I paid for the Pixel, but the Samsung’s camera can’t touch the Pixel’s camera, and for that reason it has little value to me. In my opinion it’s okay for making phone calls, but not much else.

There are ditches alongside the road and since it had rained that morning they had water in them, and they also had northern water horehound (Lycopus uniflorus) growing beside them. This plant is in the mint family and has a square stem as so many of the plants in that family do. Soon the plants will have tiny white flowers blooming where the leaves meet the stem. The foliage is said to be very bitter and possibly toxic, but Native Americans used the tuberous roots for food. I don’t know what birds or animals eat the seeds, but muskrats love the roots. Another name for the plant is northern bugleweed and I almost always find it near water.

I saw lots of mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and I ran my hands through it hoping for lucid mugwort dreams, but I can’t remember anything special. Mugwort is supposed to make dreams much more vivid and also increases the chances that the dreamer will rmember their dreams. A year or two ago I ran my hands through it a few times and really did have some wild dreams, so there must be something to it. The plant has mild hallucinogenic properties and is considered a “magic herb.” It has been used by man for thousands of years; the earliest writings regarding it are from 3 BC. in China. It is also one of the herbs recorded in the Anglo-Saxon nine herbs charm from the tenth century and by all accounts was and still is considered a very important plant. If you enjoy reading about plants mugwort lore could easily fill an entire book. When you have a spare hour or two just Google “mugwort.”

Purple flowering raspberry (Rubus odoratus) grew in the shadiest places because the big, hand size, light gathering leaves lets it do so. Its common name comes from its fruit, which looks like a raspberry but is about as big as the tip of your thumb. I tasted one once and tasted nothing but there are people who say they’re delicious.

I was happy to see this cave at the side of a still pool in the stream again. From a distance it looks big enough to walk into by ducking a little, but not small enough to have to crawl into. Every time I see it, it calls loudly to the hermit in me, but it also looks big enough to easily hold a bear or two so I haven’t ever dared go near it while out here alone. Maybe if someone was with me to get me back if anything happened, or maybe if I had a rifle and a strong flashlight, but not alone. It’s too bad; I wouldn’t mind spending some time here. It’s an idyllic spot with the stream running just outside the entrance and a mossy bank to lounge on, and a cave to stay dry in. Inside myself I know living here for a while wouldn’t be a hard choice to make but this is known bear country, so I suppose you would always wonder what was going to come through that entrance, and that might be a hard way to live. I’ll just have to live it in a dream, I guess. Maybe a mugwort dream.

I was surprised to see that branch still sticking out of the tree on the right. It has been that way for many years, but when I first came out here the branch was still attached to the tree on the left. I think the tree with the wound grew up through the branches of the tree on the left and the wind made the wounded tree rub against the other’s branch. Over time the tree grew and its wound got deeper until now it has partially healed over the offending branch. When I first saw it, I thought that one day it would heal over completely but now I doubt it. It’s an unusual thing to see and this is the only time I’ve seen it happen.

I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected to everything. ~Alan watts

Thanks for stopping in. I hope everyone has a happy 4th!

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I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog lately that I’ve been doing a lot of walking, so I thought I’d show you some of the things I see on these walks. If I choose to go this way, I can see a pond full of water plants like burr reed and yellow pond lilies. The big circular plant colonies are all yellow pond lilies, and they appear to be trying to take over the pond.

I’ve seen lots of hemlock varnish shelf fungi (Ganoderma tsugae) on an old hemlock stump and the pile of logs beside it. For the first time I’ve had a chance to see these mushrooms grow day by day and I can now understand that they grow quite fast. This one went from looking like a piece of dough to what we see here in less than two weeks. It’s about the size of a salad plate; less diameter than a dinner plate but more than a saucer. It is considered the most important of all the herbs and substances used in Chinese Herbal Medicine, including ginseng. In China it is called the Reishi mushroom, and scientists around the world are researching its anti-cancer potential.

Swamp candles (Lysimachia terrestris) burned brightly in roadside ditches. This is our first yellow loosestrife to bloom each year and I sometimes see them in great numbers. They like wet places and often grow right where the water meets the shore. In fact my knees were getting wet so this isn’t a very good shot.

Soft or common rush (Juncus effusus) also grew in a ditch alongside the road. Ditches are always a good place to find a variety of plants that like wet feet, like rushes and sedges. Soft rush can form large clumps and are easy to grow. They’re interesting if placed here and there around garden ponds.

Sedge stems are triangular and have edges but soft rush stems are smooth and cylindrical, with a light pith inside. They feel soft if you pinch them, not sharp. The flower head, shown in the above photo, looks like it grows from one side of the stem but the stem actually ends at the flowers. Anything appearing above the flowers is a bract, not part of the stem. The flowers are tiny and not showy, but overall the plant is pleasing to the eye.

Gray’s sedge (Carex grayi) always reminds me of the spiky mace weapons that knights used in the Middle Ages. A botanist would say this about that: each spikelet consists of a globoid cluster of perigynia that radiate in all directions. A perigynium is a fleshy cup or tube, which in this case comes to a point or beak. Coming out of each beak are the flowers, which are what look like threads in this photo. They start out white and brown as they age. Gray’s sedge is named after Asa Gray, who wrote Grays Manual of Botany in 1848. I read my copy about 50 years ago and have used it many times since that initial reading. If you have trouble sleeping at night just read Asa’s manual for a half our or so before bedtime. You’ll sleep like a stone.

Porcupine sedge (Carex hystericina) had recently flowered and I knew that because the tiny threads at the ends of the perigynia were still white. This common sedge is also called bottlebrush sedge. Waterfowl and other birds love its seeds.

Curly dock (Rumex crispus) has flowered and is now producing its tiny winged seeds, which look a bit like stalks full of flakes.

If you look closely, you will see that each flake, which is more like a wing, has a tiny seed on it. It looks like a seed pearl at this stage but as they ripen and age the seed and its wing will turn brownish. Finally they will fall from the plant and the wind will catch the tiny wings and blow them to new places to grow. They will often persist through winter and fall the following spring. Since March is the windiest month, it is a sensible strategy for a plant that depends on the wind to get around.

Marsh fern (Thelypteris palustris) is another ditch loving plant that likes full sun and wet feet. This one had a fern ball on its tip. Fern balls appear at the tip of a fern frond and look like what the photo shows. Inside the ball is a caterpillar, which has pulled the tip of the fern into a ball shape and tied it up with silk. Once inside the shelter they feed on the fern leaflets and live completely in the fern ball until they are ready to become a moth. Emily Dickinson once wrote “To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else,” and I wonder if she didn’t see a fern ball just before she wrote it.  

Native Americans called blueberries star berries, and now you know why; the blossom end of each berry forms a five-pointed star. They used blueberries, and also the plant’s leaves and roots, medicinally as well as for food. They cultivated the bushes and made a pudding out of corn meal and water and added the blueberries to it. They then baked it, and it saved the life of many a European settler, as did their pemmican.

I see several native catalpa trees (Catalpa speciosa) on my walks and right now they’re in full bloom and very beautiful. It’s like looking at a tree full of orchids.

Catalpa flowers are big; your index finger will fit right in there. The trees they grow on are also very big and a mistake I see people make over and over again is planting them too close to their house. Catalpa, for all its beauty, is also a messy tree. First the spent flowers fall by the thousands in early summer, and then in fall the giant heart shaped leaves turn yellow and fall. In the spring the seedpods come down. These are like two-foot-long string beans and they make quite a mess. It is a tree that creates a lot of work if planted where everything that falls from it has to be raked up but in spite of all of this if someone asked me if they should plant a catalpa I’d say absolutely, just keep it away from the house. Plant it at the edge of the property, or by a pond if you have one.

I saw a bittersweet nightshade plant (Solanum dulcamara) coming up out of the center of a yew, and it was loaded with its pretty blue and yellow flowers. It might be pretty but it’s a real stinker, and if you break the stems, you’ll smell something unusual. It produces solanine which is a narcotic, and all parts of the plant are considered toxic, so that might account for the smell. The plant climbs up and over other plants and shrubs and often blossoms for most of the summer. It’s originally from Europe and Asia and is in the potato family, just like tomatoes. The fruit is a red berry, which in the fall looks like a soft and juicy, bright red, tiny Roma tomato. I wouldn’t eat one though.

I like the flowers when they’re fully open like this one but you have to be quick to catch them this way because the petals recurve quickly. You can see that most of them have done so in the previous photo. Cranberry flowers do the same thing.

A button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) was budding up and preparing to flower. It will have a perfectly spherical flower head that looks a lot like a pincushion before it is through. I’ve seen lots of button bush flowers but apparently, I’ve never paid any attention to the buds. These reminded me of the game Jacks that we used to play long ago.

English plantain (Plantago lanceolata) flowers open in rings as they circle their way up the flower stalk, starting at the bottom and working towards the top. Though an invasive from Europe and Asia English plantain prefers growing in soil that has been disturbed, so it isn’t often seen in natural areas where there is little activity. I see it in lawns more than anywhere else but I see more of it each year.

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) has just started blooming. This now common plant wasn’t always common in this area. When I was a boy, I had a transistor radio and at night I used to fall asleep listening to it. One of the songs I could count on hearing every night was Polk Salad Annie by Tony Joe White. It was about a poor southern girl who had only pokeweed to eat because her mother was on a chain gang and her grandmother was eaten by an alligator. Her father and brothers were lazy, so all they had were the poke greens. Of course all of us school kids talked about both the song and the plant, but when we asked our parents what pokeweed was, they didn’t know. They just said it must be a southern plant, but no more; now it’s an everywhere plant, and it is big and noticeable.

Pokeweed flowers are about 1/4 inch wide and have 5 petal-like, rounded sepals. In the center of the flower are green carpels that come together and will form the purple black berry. Native Americans called the plant pocon and used the juice from the berries to decorate their horses. People still use it to dye wool today. If you’d like to hear the song about Polk Salad Annie that I used to hear in 1969, just click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCSsVvlj6YA

Pokeweed is toxic unless you get the early spring shoots and I’ve read that it can make you kind of crazy if you eat too much of it, so that might account for all the grunting and oohing you hear from Tony Joe White.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is having an amazing year and the plants are huge. It starts blooming usually in June and then takes a rest in the heat of summer before re-blooming when it cools off again. This plant was once so highly valued that it was traded among all the people of the earth, but now we hardly give it a glance. It is mentioned in the Chinese I Ching, which is said to pre date recorded history, and it was found in an excavation of a Neanderthal grave site. It was a valuable healing herb, one of the nine “holy herbs,” and its value was most likely due to its ability to staunch the flow of blood. The Achillea part of the scientific name comes from the Greek god Achilles, whose soldiers it is said, used the plant to treat their wounds. Because of its being so freely traded it is one of just a few plants that now grow on every continent except Antarctica. I see it everywhere I go.

Poplar seeds fall from the female trees and often find each other in the wind, and then roll into a ball of what looks like cotton. This is the reason the trees are also called cottonwoods. A tree 100 feet high and five feet across can grow from a seed just 5/32 of an inch long. For a certain amount of time in spring the air is filled with them.

Back when I was a boy everyone said that when the wind blew hard enough to show the bottoms of the leaves on trees like silver maple, it meant that it was going to rain. I have since learned that what it really means is that the wind is blowing, and nothing more. The strong wind might be caused by a front passing through, but that doesn’t always mean rain. On this day all the leaves were showing silver but we didn’t see a drop fall.

I like to watch grasses flower and turn purple, and one of the most purple of them all is Timothy, named after farmer Timothy Hanson, who began to cultivate and promote it in 1720. Each tiny flower on Timothy grass has three purple stamens and 2 wispy white stigmas. I spent a lot of time when I was a boy chewing on a piece of this grass hanging while I walked the railroad tracks and as I’ve mentioned before, it is the grass I think of when I hear the opening line of the song Ventura Highway by the band America, which starts Chewing on a piece of grass, walking down the road… I just listened to it and it still sounds as good as it did in 1972. It reminds me of simpler times.

These are the leaves of staghorn sumac, which I see just about everywhere I walk and which in spring remind me of bamboo. Later on they’ll remind me of palm trees. If I’m lucky I’ll see them wearing bright red in the fall.

I hope you enjoyed this walk, just one of several that I do. There is nothing easier than walking; you don’t even have to choose where to go because the paths are just there and going right or left really doesn’t matter. I’ve always been more of a walker than a driver but until now I never really paid attention to the health benefits. I’m losing weight, my legs and knees feel better and I can breathe much easier than I could just a few months ago. I don’t think of distance or destination or anything else. I just walk until I’m ready to stop. If you’re healthy and interested open your door and start walking, and just see what you see. Give yourself the time and freedom to wander. You might be surprised by what you find.

The only way to understand a land is to walk it. The only way to drink in its real meaning is to keep it firmly beneath one’s feet. Only the walker can form the wider view. ~Sinclair McKay

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June is when the big female snapping turtles come up out of the ponds and swamps to find some warm sand to lay their eggs in. This one had just done so and still had wet mud clinging to her when I saw her on one of my walks. Egg laying seems to be quite a project for the big reptiles but every year many thousands of eggs are lain, so they always find a way.

Seeing this garter snake might have stopped the snapper in its tracks, because they are omnivores and eat snakes, frogs, fish, crayfish, insects, plants, birds, small mammals, and even other turtles. It was on another walk that I saw this snake and what was really odd about it was how it was out in the open in daylight. They often come out to the edge of the woods to sun themselves during the day but are always within easy reach of cover, and will slither off quickly if you approach them. This one had no cover at all, not even high grass.

I kept trying to get a shot of the snake with its forked tongue out, but I missed every time. Garter snakes are timid and nonpoisonous, so they are nothing to worry about. Still, if my grandmother had been there, she would have been up a tree. Garter snakes eat crickets, grasshoppers, small fish, and earthworms. They do have teeth, but they’re no real danger to humans. I’ve read that the saliva of some garter snake species contains a mild neurotoxin that causes paralysis, making small prey easier to swallow.

While I was taking photos an 85 year old lady stopped and rolled down her car window and told me how she was deathly afraid of snakes but, she said, when she was just a girl she once let them drape a boa constrictor over her shoulders at a circus for a free candy bar. I told her she and my grandmother would have gotten along quite well.

That garter snake probably would have like to have met Mr. bullfrog, but I doubt it could have swallowed him. This was a big frog, but I never would have seen it if it hadn’t croaked loudly after a neighboring frog did the same. They do talk to each other. One will start it off and then they’ll all start croaking, one right after the other. It can be quite loud.

On the same day I saw the frog in the previous shot I saw a bullfrog jump right out of the water and snatch something out of the air before landing with a splash, and I think it might have been a cousin of this spangled skimmer dragonfly. The “spangles” are the black and white markings on its wings, otherwise it closely resembles the slaty skimmer, which is what I thought it was at first. It was quite far away when I took this shot. I also saw lots of pretty twelve spotted skimmers on this day but I couldn’t get a shot of any of them.

I saw 3 or 4 eastern swallowtail butterflies probing the damp sand at the edge of a dirt road recently. They’re pretty things and at about the same size as a monarch butterfly, big enough to see easily. They often show up just before the mountain laurels bloom and I see them hanging from the laurel flowers almost every year.

Usually I have to wait for butterflies to fold their wings but this time I had to wait for this one to unfold them. I was hoping it would have more blue/purple on its wings than it did.

I hike in the woods but I walk on roads, and on one of those walks a hawk flew out of the woods, swooped down right over my head, and landed on a wire ahead of me. I thought as soon as I got too near it would fly off but no, I walked over and stood right under it and it didn’t move. I don’t carry my “big” camera with me when I walk because I walk fast and its constantly bumping into my chest bothers me, so I had to get this shot with my small macro camera. That’s why it isn’t a very good shot, but it does show a hawk. I’m not very good with birds but it might be a cooper’s hawk. If you know what it is for sure I’d love to hear its name because I think it lives here and I’m fairly sure I’ve seen it before.

In this shot I took of the evening sky with my phone camera there was a bird flying up there to the right that I never saw until I looked at the photo. I wondered if it could be a hawk, but the detail isn’t fine enough to tell. It’s just a silhouette.

I saw a familiar sight on an oak branch on a recent walk. Wooly oak galls are usually about the size of a ping pong ball when I find them, but have a kind of felt feel, like a tennis ball. The gall is caused by secretions from the grubs of the wool sower gall wasp (Callirhytis seminator) and they only appear in spring.

There are small seed like structures inside the gall which contain the wasp larva, and that’s why these galls are also called oak seed galls. What I want to point out about these galls though, is how books will tell you that they will only grow on white oak trees, and that isn’t true. Though they almost always do grow on white oaks I’ve also seen them on red oaks, so don’t be fooled by the galls like I have been; check the leaves. One thing I’ve learned from studying nature is the words always and never do not apply.

White pine (Pinus strobus) pollen cones have come and have opened, and have released their yellow-green pollen to the wind. It settles on everything, and if you leave your windows open you find that it even comes into the house. My car is covered with it but luckily it is like dust and just blows away.

This year I went looking for red pine pollen cones (Pinus resinosa) and the ones I found before they had opened were very beautiful, but they were also in someone’s yard so I didn’t get a shot of them. Then I remembered where there were others that I could get close to and here they are in this photo, but they had already opened. They are much bigger than white pine pollen cones.

Pollen cones are the male flowers of the tree and this photo shows the female flowers. When the male pollen finds them, if all goes according to plan they will be fertilized and will become the seed-bearing pine cones that I think we’re all familiar with. Some flowers on coniferous trees are very small; so small that sometimes all I can see is a hint of color, so you have to look closely to find them.

The Ashuelot River gets lower and lower and still no beneficial rain comes to refill it. I’m starting to get the feeling that it may not be a good year for mushrooms, but I hope I’m wrong.

Another name for royal fern (Osmunda spectabilis) is “flowering fern,” because someone once thought that the fertile, fruiting fronds looked like bunches of flowers. You can see them here on the fern in the photo but though they are often purple they don’t look much like flowers to me. Royal fern is the only fern that grows on every temperate continent except Australia, which makes it one of the most widespread of all living species.

Here is a closer look at the spore capsules of the royal fern. They aren’t something that many people get to see.

For the first time, this year I was able to find and get a shot of a royal fern fiddlehead. Even at this stage it’s a beautiful fern. In the fall, at the other end of its life, it will turn first bright yellow and then will become a kind of beautiful burnt orange color.

Three bracken fern fronds (Pteridium aquilinum) appear at the end of a long stem and flatten out horizontally, parallel to the ground. They also overlap and shade the ground under them. These growth habits and their ability to release chemicals that inhibit the growth of many other plants means that almost nothing will grow under a colony of bracken fern. They will not tolerate acid rain, so if you don’t see them growing where you live you might want to check the local air pollution statistics.

Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is not a fern that I see a lot of. It likes damp ground and shade but even beyond that it seems to be very choosy about where it grows. It’s a very beautiful fern that I wish I’d see more of.

Ostrich fern fronds are narrower at the tip and base and wider in the center. The leaf stalk of an ostrich fern is deeply grooved, much more pronounced than others. Sensitive, interrupted fern and cinnamon fern have grooved leaf stalks but their grooves are much shallower. If you like to eat fern fiddleheads in spring you should get to know ostrich fern by that groove.

In some plants the same pigments that color leaves in the fall when they stop photosynthesizing also color their leaves in the spring before the leaves have started photosynthesizing. Once they start producing more chlorophyll, they’ll quickly turn green. This coloring of new spring leaves is a form of protection from the weather that some plants and even trees use. Heavy cloud cover, cold snaps, and even too much sunlight can cause some leaves to slow down their greening process in spring, but plants like the Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium) seen in this photo do it almost every year, I’ve noticed.

Another plant with purple leaves in spring, every spring in my experience, is the native clematis called virgin’s bower or traveler’s joy (Clematis virginiana). It won’t be long before its small white flowers decorate the roadside shrubs as it climbs over them to reach optimum sunlight but by that time all of its leaves will have turned green. An extract made from the plant is hallucinogenic (and dangerous) and was used by Native Americans to induce dreams. Mixed with other plants like milkweed, it was also used medicinally. It is a very toxic plant that can cause painful sores in the mouth if eaten.

There are many grasses starting to flower now and I hope you’ll go out and see them. Never mind your hay fever; I have allergies too. Nature doesn’t mind being sneezed at. Take a pill, grab some tissues and become one of those who sees the beauty that most never see. Even if you have to see it through watery eyes now and then, it’s still beautiful.

A native smooth carrion flower vine (Smilax herbacea) grew beside a trail and it seemed as if it just flung itself into existence and went wild, with leaves and tendrils and great arching stems everywhere. I thought it was a beautiful thing, and it stopped me right in my tracks. No matter what is going on in life, no matter where you are, there is always beauty to be seen. You don’t even have to search for it; it is just there, like a dandelion blooming in a crack in the sidewalk as you hurry along, or a white cloud floating across a blue sky reflected in the glass of your car window. It is there I think, to remind us to just slow down a little and appreciate life more; to take the time to enjoy this beautiful paradise that we find ourselves in.

If you Love all Life you observe, you will observe all Life with Love.  ~Donald L. Hicks

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What I would have to call my favorite rail trail was calling to me and had been for a week or two, but I had resisted its pull until this day. Like getting a song out of your head by playing it, I had to walk this trail to stop it from calling, so here we are. Since I love jungles, I was happy to see that the area had almost become one. I hadn’t been here since last February and of course I didn’t see how overgrown it had become then.

The first thing I noticed was orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) flowering along the side of the trail. Orchard grass is a pretty little grass. In my opinion a kind of architectural grass, if there could be such a thing. It was introduced into this country over two hundred years ago as a forage crop and of course it immediately escaped and is now everywhere I go. That’s fine with me because it’s very pretty when it flowers, as can be seen in the photo.

I followed the railroad tracks that were here when I was a boy every chance I had and one of my favorite things to do as I walked along in summer was to eat the raspberries that grew here. Last summer when I came here I didn’t see any, but there were plenty on this day. Not ripe yet but they’re coming along.

Blackberries are also waiting in the wings.

My biggest surprise on this day was finding ragged robin flowers (Lychnis flos-cuculi) growing along the trail. I’ve never seen them in any other place than in Hancock where I used to work, and I searched for many years before I found them there.

It’s a very unusual flower that is hard to find and amazingly, here it was right where I first flowered. I hope to one day see many of them here. It is said to prefer disturbed habitats like meadows and fields.

Multiflora roses (Rosa multiflora) have just started blooming and the pollen eaters aren’t wasting any time. Though this small flowered rose from China is very invasive it is also highly fragrant and I’ve always loved smelling it as I walk along. Birds plant it everywhere and I’ve met people who fertilized it, not knowing what it was or where it came from, but thankful for its wonderful scent. I’ve seen it climb 30 feet up into trees without any fertilizer, so personally I’d just let it be.

This is where as a boy I discovered that the best walks are unplanned. They are those with no purpose, when you have nothing to gain and no destination in mind. You just surrender yourself to the unknown and wander the countryside, and over and over again you stop, you see, you wonder, you learn. This is where I discovered the value of empty space and silence, and first found the solitude that was to become a life long friend. My grandmother worried about my being alone out here and thought I was “brooding,” as she put it. She thought I was deeply unhappy because I didn’t have a mother, but had I been older I would have asked her, how can you miss what you’ve never known? I was too young and didn’t have the words to explain to her that what I really felt out here was pure unencumbered bliss.

I tell these stories hoping that they will resonate with the parents and grandparents out there. Let your children and grandchildren run free in nature. Let them wander and wonder. Or, if you can’t bear to cut them loose, go with them. If you can’t bear that send them off to a nature camp. Nature will become their teacher, and they will be all the better for it. Just be prepared to find them books on botany, biology, entomology, nature study, etc., etc, because their heads will be full of questions. They’ll want to know everything; not about the latest video game but about life and their place in it.

I went down the embankment to see what was once a cornfield, but what is now forest. Nothing but silver and red maples, and sensitive ferns. All of it has sprung up over the last 50 years or so, which means that I’m older than everything in this photo. The way the flooding of the river and Ash Brook happens now I doubt this will ever be farmland again.

I was surprised to find bloodroot plants (Sanguinaria canadensis) out here because I’ve never seen them here before. Next May I’ll have to come back and see their flowers.

I could tell that the plants had bloomed because they had seedpods on them. They also had poison ivy growing all around them and I knelt right in it. As of this writing my knees aren’t itching but since I end up with a poison ivy rash every year I won’t be surprised if they do.

Something seemed to be ravaging the new buds on American hazelnuts (Corylus americana), which will mean no nuts this year on this bush.

I can’t blame this tiny creature for the damaged hazelnut buds but it was the only insect I found on the plant. After a bit of searching I have been able to identify it as the larva of an Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) so it was not eating the hazelnut buds. It will actually eat the aphids that do harm to so many plants.

River grapes (Vitis riparia) were flowering in high numbers and I was happy to see them. I hope the grapes will draw the Baltimore orioles back to the area. There used to be lots of them when I was young but I never see them out here anymore. Grape flowers are among the smallest I see but when thousands of them bloom together their wonderful fragrance can be smelled from quite a distance. I’m sure many have smelled them and not known what they were smelling. The vines climb high into the treetops by using tendrils, and you can just see one over on the left, looking for something to cling to.

Other plants have different strategies when it comes to climbing. Native climbing false buckwheat (Fallopia scandens) does it by sending long shoots straight up, hoping to find something to twine itself around. This one missed the mark by a few feet but it will just fall over after a bit and grab on to whatever it can. Eventually it will get to where the most sunlight is. This plant is also called climbing bindweed and there are invasives that resemble it.

A bicycle built for two had ridden over the trestle just before I reached it. I saw lots of people on bikes out here on this day including an old friend I hadn’t seen in many years. I was glad to see so many people using the trail. That means it will stay open and will be cared for.

I went down beside the trestle, which is something I used to do regularly years ago, just to explore. The banks seem to have narrowed quite a lot between the stream and the abutments since those days but I suppose it’s in the nature of a stream to want to widen over the years. I wanted to go under the trestle but I didn’t trust the mud there. When conditions are right you can sink into it quickly. I saw animal tracks but no human ones, so I stayed away.

I tried to get a good shot of the entire trestle but low hanging silver maple limbs were in the way. Since when I was a boy I had to cross another trestle near my house to get to this one, this will always be the second trestle to me. Its sides are much lower than the first trestle for some reason, maybe only as high as the bottom of a rail car. For that reason I also think of it as the small trestle. When I was a boy, I could and often did sit out here all day long and not see another person. The brook meets the Ashuelot river just around that bend and there is a high sand bluff where bank swallows used to nest, and I would sit and watch them for hours, wondering how a bird could dig a hole.

Ash Brook was calm and shallow and behaving nicely on this day but I wasn’t fooled by its calm demeanor. I’ve seen it rage and swell up and pour over its banks too many times. This was a good place to learn about the true power of nature.  

As you get closer to the brook the trees get bigger because this land was never cleared like the land from a few photos ago was. It wasn’t cleared for planting because it has always flooded, but never like it has lately. You can see where the waterline shows on some of the tree trunks from the flooding last February. The water here would have been up to my chest in this spot, I’d guess, which is deeper than I’ve ever seen it. I remember standing on the embankment listening to the hissing, creaking and cracking ice. Of course deeper water means it spreads further over the land, and that’s why there is no corn grown anywhere near here now. It takes too long for the soil to dry out so planting can begin.  

The undergrowth in the photos of the forest is made up almost entirely of sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis). Many thousands of them grow here, for as far as the eye can see. They, like the trees, don’t mind wet ground and in fact they are a good wetland indicator. Their rhizomes branch and creep and as this photo shows, this fern can form large colonies. I know this fern is toxic to cattle and horses but I don’t know if it is toxic to wildlife. I do know that Deer and muskrats won’t eat it. The only animal I’ve ever seen have anything to do with it was a beaver that was swimming down the river with a huge bundle of fronds in its mouth one day. I supposed it would use them for soft bedding rather than food.

Though there were so many ferns you couldn’t see the ground, more were still coming. I’ve heard that you can eat the spring fiddleheads but I certainly wouldn’t.

Can you see the wind when you look at this nodding sedge (Carex gynandra)? See how the hanging seed spikes aren’t hanging perfectly vertical? The breeze came from the right and the camera had to stop the motion.

On the way back I saw lots of stitchwort blossoms (Stellaria graminea) that I hadn’t seen on the way out. They’re pretty little things and I’m always happy to see them, even if they are a weed.

I also saw plenty of fuzzy staghorn sumac buds (Rhus typhina). Soon they will be tiny green fuzzy flowers that will become first pink and then red, fuzzy berries. This was the first time I’ve noticed that the buds spiral up the stem. The spiral is nature’s way of packing the most flower buds into the least amount of space, but that’s only one example of how nature uses spirals. I see them everywhere all the time, in everything from trees to snail shells to coiled snakes. It’s just another one of those many things in nature that makes you wonder and seek answers.

Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the stars and the mountains above. Let them look at the waters and the trees and flowers on Earth. Then they will begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.  ~David Polis

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Last Sunday the thought hit me that I hadn’t seen any of our native blue flag irises, so I sat and tried to remember where I had found them in the past. There were a few places that came to mind but Goose Pond in Keene sounded like the most fun of all on what was supposed to be a hot day. This photo shows the trail that leads from the road to the pond.

You have to cross a stream, which is one of many you cross if you walk all the way around the pond. I hoped to see some salamanders in this spot but they were all hiding, apparently.

False Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) was the first flower I saw, but I’m seeing lots of them this year, everywhere I go. I keep hoping I’ll find star-flowered Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum stellatum) but I haven’t had any luck. I found it once years ago but I can’t remember where, so I can’t go back and try again.

And here was Goose Pond. I know I just visited a pond but Goose Pond is very different than Willard Pond. For one thing, this pond was made by damming streams. Goose Pond was called Crystal Lake by some in the 1860s, and was also known as Sylvan Lake in the 1900s. Keene had a major fire in 1865 and the town well and cisterns failed to provide enough water to put it out, so dams were built to enlarge the pond to 42 acres. The city stopped using the pond as a water supply in the 1930s and in 1984 designated the forest as a wilderness park. Surrounding the beautiful pond is a vast 1,044-acre tract of forest (up from 500 acres) that has been left nearly untouched since the mid-1800s. It’s a wilderness area, and it’s just 2.6 miles from downtown Keene.

Trails here are wide enough for two to pass but there are lots of roots and stones, and of course mud. The 2.1 mile long loop trail hugs the pond for the most part but there are one or two places where you can lose sight of it, so you have to watch the white blazes on the trees. They have faded over the years and need to be repainted, so in places you have to be alert. I’ve met a few people out here who had gotten turned around and didn’t know where they were but all you need to remember is if the pond is on your right when you start the trail it should be on your right when you finish, if you’re going all the way around. That and the fact that all streams you will cross run downhill to the pond is really all you need to know. I always feel sorry for them though, because I was lost in the woods once and it’s a scary place to be. As soon as you panic you lose all common sense, so you really have to stay calm.

Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) grows abundantly out here. There are more plants here than I’ve ever seen anywhere else. I like the way their whorls of leaves grow in tiers. This one had a fly friend visiting that I never saw when I was taking the photo.

I don’t like trying to get a shot of Indian cucumber root flowers because it’s always an involved process. These plants grow in shade that is sometimes dense so you spend a lot of time fiddling with camera settings. Then when I get home I often find that what looked good on the camera screen is not good. This is the best of a bad lot from that day but at least you can tell what is going on. The flowers usually nod under the leaves and have 6 yellowish-green recurved tepals, 6 reddish stamens topped by greenish anthers, and 3 reddish-purple to brown, curved styles. These large styles are sometimes bright red-brown like those shown but I think they darken as they age. Each flower will become a shiny, inedible dark purplish-black berry. Also quite often in the fall the top tier of leaves will have a beautiful bright scarlet splotch on them. Nobody seems to know why.

Here was a hemlock tree full of hemlock varnish shelf fungi (Ganoderma tsugae) basking in the sun. Though some plants and most fungi grow in shade nothing I know of can grow totally in the dark, so everything gets its moment in the sun. Even if it is just a ray of cool morning sunlight landing on a slime mold for a half hour, everything gets at least some sunlight, or at the very least bright reflected light.

When mature this mushroom will look like a plate size, red shelf fungus that has been lacquered, but at this stage it looks like a gob of dough that someone stuck to the tree and spilled red paint on.  

Here was the first of two wooden bridges. You’ll see that these bridges are chained to trees to keep them from washing away if the streams flood. I’ve heard couples wondering out loud if the chains were there to stop people from stealing them but no, it would take quite a few people to move a bridge this size.

The view from the bridge.

There are quite a few royal ferns (Osmunda spectabilis) growing in and along the stream. I always make a point of showing this pretty fern because I’ve met people who didn’t know it was a fern. Royal ferns are thought to be one of the oldest living things, with fossil records of the Osmundaceae family dating back over 300 million years. Individual plants are believed to be able to live for over 100 years.

There are stone walls everywhere out here and that is no surprise. If I ever walk through a New Hampshire forest without bumping into a stone wall that will be the surprise. There are an estimated 50,000 miles of stone walls in New Hampshire and 250,000 miles of walls in New England and New York. There is a mapping project going on now that wants to map all of the stone walls in the state, and to that I say good luck.

This is what you do when there isn’t a bridge. That third flat rock that is shaped like a slice of pizza wobbles when you step on it and I thought I was going down when I stepped on it. A friend of mine fell into a stream in exactly that way and cracked several ribs. Another friend gave me some walking poles when he got new ones but I never think to use them, even though I have them right in the car. I’m going to have to move them to the front seat. They would have been handy here.

Here was the pine tree that was struck by lightning. I came through here just a day or so after it happened a few years ago and found long strips of bark on the ground around the tree. The lightning had blown them right off the tree.

Slowly, this pine is dying. Each time I look more limbs have died and one day it will fall, probably into the pond.

I think this is the best shot I’ve ever gotten of the island, because the light was good. I wondered about how the island might have been a hilltop before the size of the pond was artificially increased. I would have loved to explore it as I have so many other islands but without a kayak, swimming would be the only way. I knew better; I tried to swim out to the island in Spofford Lake once and almost drowned because even when I was young, I had weak lungs.

Pine and hemlock pollen is falling. It floats on the water of lakes and ponds and makes designs every year at this time. Sometimes it can be very beautiful on water, and allergy sufferers would rather see it floating on water than in the air.

I use my phone camera quite a lot for landscape shots these days and it usually does a good job but sometimes the photos look a bit garish, and that’s the way this one looks to me. This shot is of one of two dams on the pond. It took me a while to get a shot of it because I saw a lot of people and a lot of dogs here on this day, and that’s what makes this pond so different from Willard Pond. I waited to take the shot as a young girl sneezed her way across the dam. “It sounds like someone might have allergies,” I said to her mother. “Yes, it seems like everyone is allergic to something these days,” she said. I agreed. I was never allergic to anything until I turned 50 and then I became allergic to many things. I can’t remember anyone in my family ever having allergies when I was a boy though, even during haying season.

I’ve seen lance leaved violets (Viola lanceolata) growing in the water at a pond’s edge before but here they were high and dry on the dam, and there were hundreds of them.  It is also called the bog white violet or strap leaved violet, for obvious reasons. The plant needs a wet, sunny habitat, preferably one that floods and then dries out. It is listed as present in 8 out of the 10 counties in New Hampshire but though I’ve been on a lot of pond shores, I’ve only seen it twice. It is said to be rare in Vermont.

For the most part lance leaved violets are said to have no hairs on the side petals, but according to what I’ve read they may occasionally have residual, greenish white hairs as this one did. The flowers nod on stems that can be as much as 6 inches long and both the bottom and side petals can have purple veining. This little plant only blooms for three weeks. The leaves are much longer than they are wide and after much searching in books and online I believe that this is the only violet that has them.

A sleepy-eyed female bullfrog rested on a mat of vegetation. You can tell she’s a female by the size of the external eardrum, which is called a tympanum and which appears just behind and below the eye. A male’s eardrum is much bigger than the eye. As soon as I got to the pond and all the way around it all I heard was the loud croaking of male bullfrogs, so it’s no wonder she needed a rest.

I saw the blue flag irises (Iris versicolor) I remembered were here, but there wasn’t a flower to be found on any of them. I think I must be rushing it a bit. I usually see them in June but sometimes they come out earlier so I thought I might see some.

Something that surprised me was all the painted trilliums (Trillium undulatum) I saw. There must have been two dozen of them here, right along the trail. They had all gone by as the one in the photo had but this is a hard plant to find in this area so I’ll have to remember to come here next year to see them. I’ve written myself a note, just in case. This one was forming a seedpod, which I was happy to see.

The old stump I sit by sometimes showed that the water level had dropped an inch or two. Goose Pond is a great place to find mushrooms so I’m hoping we don’t have a dry summer. An inch of rain per week would be perfect but I don’t think there is any such thing as a perfect summer anymore, if there ever was. Last summer it rained two or three days each week and was too wet but the two summers before that saw hardly any rain at all, so I’m hoping we can get back to average this year, whatever that may be. Whatever happens we’re sure to still be surrounded by the beautiful countryside we’ve been blessed with, so it’s hard to complain.

If you reconnect with nature and the wilderness you will not only find the meaning of life, but you will experience what it means to be truly alive. ~Sylvia Dolson

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Every year around Halloween I go to Willard Pond over in Hancock to see what in my opinion, is some of the most colorful foliage in the region. Every year I tell myself that I’ll come back in the spring to see what it looks like then but I never have, until now. We’re going to be walking through a beautiful hardwood forest of oak, beech, and birch right along that shoreline over there behind that boulder.

Though the forest looked leafless in that previous shot there were plenty of spring leaves to see. This is the start of the trail that I follow. It is called the Tudor trail but I think I would have named it serenity, because that’s where it leads.

There were lots of new, velvety oak leaves.

Shadbushes (Amelanchier canadensis) still bloomed.

Ferns were in all stages of growth.

And everywhere you looked there were the big white flowerheads of hobblebushes (Viburnum lantanoides). It was hard to get a shot of them in the bright sunlight so I had to underexpose this shot. White is a tricky color for a camera on a sunny day. I’ve had several questions about cameras and how to use them lately and if this situation seems tricky for you, you might want to read about “bracketing exposures.”  It’s a simple tip that covers a lot of bases and helps you get more used to changing the settings on your camera.

Another native viburnum, maple leaved viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), showed how it got the name. In the fall these leaves can turn pink, purple, red, yellow, and orange and combinations of two or three, and are really beautiful. The Native American Chippewa tribe used the inner bark of this plant to relieve stomach pains.

The beavers had cut down a big beech and were in the process of stripping all its bark from it.

I stopped to look at the hillside across the pond with its soft, hushed hints of green. I saw what I had suspected; that this place is beautiful no matter what time of year it is. I could hear a loon laughing and giggling over there somewhere and I wondered what the early settlers must have thought when they first head loons. With all of their many superstitious beliefs it must have scared them half to death. If you’d like to hear what I heard, just click here: www.loon.org/the-call-of-the-loon/

A fly fisherman was fishing for trout from his kayak and he heard the loon too. The loon was most likely also fishing for trout. Willard pond is considered a trout pond and there are rainbow and brook trout, as well as with smallmouth bass. No boats with motors are allowed, and fly fishing is the only form of fishing allowed. Since it is part of a wildlife sanctuary the land surrounding the pond can never be developed. It is about as close to true wilderness as you can find in this area and it is beautiful.

Several times when I came here in the fall, I saw the seed heads of rhodora (Rhododendron canadense). They’re one of our most beautiful shrubs and I hoped to find them in bloom, but all I saw were buds. I had to go back to get these photos of them but it was worth it because this is not a common shrub.

Rhodora is a small, two-foot-tall 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 just before the leaves, but only for a short time in spring. They bloom just before irises in this area, and by mid-June their flowers will have all vanished. Henry David Thoreau knew it well, and wrote “The splendid Rhodora now sets the swamps on fire with its masses of rich color.” He would have loved this place.

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum) grew all along the trail and on some of the boulders. I saw plenty of buds but no flowers yet. In the fall dark blue or purple berries will hang where the flowers were.

I’m including this view of the trail to show that if you come here, you’d be wise to wear good sturdy hiking boots. Mud, stones and roots are some of the things you’ll have to scramble up and over. I tell you about trail conditions in these posts so you won’t get here and wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into. I often wish someone had done the same for me. Every hike has its own set of challenges, and their difficulty seems to increase with age.

For years, each fall I’ve seen what I thought was a species of dicentra growing on a boulder. But which boulder, I wondered on this trip. Then up ahead I saw that a tree had fallen across the path, stopped only by a boulder. When I got to the boulder sure enough, it was the boulder with the plant I was looking for on it. Luckily the tree hadn’t crushed the plants, so I was able to see them flowering. I could see that they weren’t dicentra.

Though I could see that they weren’t dicentra I didn’t know what they were because I had never seen them before. I took photos of the flowers and leaves from all sides as I always do and when I got home, I found that they were pale cordyalis. (Corydalis sempervirens.) They are a native which, from what I’ve read likes sandy, stony soil along pond and river banks. They are also called rock harlequin and why is perfectly clear, since this one grew on a boulder.

The small flowers of pale corydalis have two pairs of petals, which are bright pink with yellow tips. Some were white, but I’m not sure if they fade to white or come out white and turn pink. They are a biennial, which means that the plants appear in the first year and flower in the second. Flowers are small and appear in clusters (Racemes). They are related to Dutchman’s breeches, which is a native dicentra.

When I got home and saw this photo I took of the forest I thought my camera had lost its marbles, but then I checked the shots I took with the other two cameras I carried and they all showed the same; the most intense green I’ve ever seen. Colorblindness makes it hard to understand what color I’m seeing sometimes and sometimes the colors I see just don’t seem possible. “Find that on a color wheel” my mind taunts.

I’m always awe struck by this huge boulder. In relation to the glacier that scraped it up and brought it here it must have been little more than a grain of sand, and it’s hard to even imagine that.

Violets grew out of the moss on a stone at the water’s edge.

Blue flag irises grew close enough to the water to have wet feet, and that’s what they like. I haven’t seen any in bloom as of this post.

Over the years a few people have told me what I’ve missed by not following the trail past this old oak with its rickety little bench but I’ve seen, heard and felt enough, and I usually have more photos than I would want or need by the time I get here, so this is where I end my hike. I could go on to what is called “the point” or I could climb Bald Mountain, but I don’t feel a need to do so. This spot always calls to me to come and sit so that’s what I do, and it has always been enough.

I sit on the ground these days because the bench is getting wobbly, but it doesn’t matter. The view is the same and the sounds are the same. There is just the lapping of the waves and bird song, and maybe an occasional chuckle or hoot from a loon.

I watched the shadows from the waves move over the stone covered pond bottom. There was just enough of a breeze to kick them up a bit and thankfully, to keep the biting bugs away. In this region you would be hard pressed to find a day when there wasn’t a breeze coming across a lake or pond.

The one thing that is most abundant here is silence, and the simplest lesson nature teaches is the most valuable: silence heightens awareness. Once we have learned this silence becomes the teacher, and silence teaches peace. When I come upon the kind of beauty that makes me quiet and still, be it a tiny flower or a mountain top, I find that peace is always there, waiting. I do hope that you find the same.

The best places aren’t easy to see; instead of following light one must follow silence. ~Hanna Abi Akl

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