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Posts Tagged ‘Ash Swamp Brook’

Last Saturday was a beautiful warm spring day and though there was plenty of snow left, it was melting fast. The “plenty of snow” part of things is what dictates where I can go in winter because many parking areas have been plowed in or not plowed at all. Not only that but many places don’t see much foot traffic in winter so the snow hasn’t been packed down. This rail trail in Keene solves all of those problems and that’s why I chose it. There is plenty of parking space and the snow has been packed down by snowmobiles, making it easy to walk on. If you step off that packed trail though, you could find yourself knee deep in snow, so you have to keep that in mind.

I admired the branch structure of the trees against the beautiful blue of the sky. This one is a white poplar (Populus alba,) which is a weak tree that often loses large limbs. In ancient Rome this tree was called Arbour populi, which means tree of the people. These days it is also called silver leaved poplar. It originally came to the U.S. from Europe in 1748 and obviously liked it here because now it can be found in almost every state. It is very common here in New Hampshire and is considered a weed tree.

One of the easiest ways of identifying white poplar is by its diamond shaped lenticels, which are dark against the whitish bark. Another way is by its leaves, which are green on top and white and wooly underneath. The tree has a shallow root system and suckers aggressively from the roots, so it is best not to use it as an ornamental.

The native tree population in the area is mostly maple, pine, birch, and black cherry. This forest is young; I can remember when it was a cornfield, and knowing I’m older than the trees makes me feel a little strange. I can’t remember exactly when they stopped farming this land but if I go by the size of the tree trunks it couldn’t have been more than 25 or 30 years ago.

I finally saw birds eating birch seeds. This gray birch had a whole flock of them in it and they let me stand 5 feet away and watch them feed until a snowmobile came along and scared them away. These aren’t good photos at all but I wanted to show that I wasn’t imagining things when I say that birds eat birch seeds.

I tried looking these small birds up and the closest I could come was the black and white warbler, because of the stripes you can see in this  poor shot.  There was a resounding chorus of birdsong all along this trail on this day and now I know who was singing at least part of it. How could someone not be happy when so many birds are?

The whole of both sides of this trail are lined with American hazelnut bushes (Corylus americana) and I like the way the green-gold catkins shine in the spring sun. I looked several time for signs of them opening, but not yet. When they open there will be a single bright, yellow-green, male flower peeking out from under those diamond shaped bud scales.

As I was taking photos of these sapsucker holes I could hear a woodpecker drilling off in the distance. Yellow bellied sapsuckers are in the woodpecker family but unlike other woodpeckers they feed on sap instead of insects. They drill a series of holes in a line across the bark and then move up or down and drill another series of holes before moving again, and the end result is usually a rectangular pattern of holes in the bark. They’ll return to these holes again and again to feed on the dripping sap. Many small animals, bats, birds and insects also drink from them, so these little birds helps out a lot of their forest companions.

I was admiring the sunshine on black cherry branches (Prunus serotina) when a plane flew by. A single engine Cessna practicing stalls, I think. It flew in a nose up attitude and was surprisingly quiet.

This black cherry had a bad case of black knot disease, which is what caused the growth seen here. Though it looks like a burl it is not; it’s caused by a fungus called Apiosporina morbosa. When it rains the fungus releases spores that are carried by the wind to other trees and almost every cherry along this trail had the disease, which is always fatal if it isn’t cut out of the tree when it’s young. It also infects plum and other ornamental cherry trees. It’s often mistaken for the chaga mushroom but that fungus doesn’t grow on cherry trees. Note the tree’s platy, dark gray bark with horizontal lenticels. Black cherries can grow to 80 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet in diameter if they aren’t attacked by black knot.

I saw what I thought was snow on a fallen branch but it was a bracket fungus that had degraded so badly it had become paper thin and the purest white.

I reached the point where ash swamp brook meets the Ashuelot River and there were two small black and white ducks here, splashing across the water very fast; so fast I couldn’t get a shot of them. They were probably half the size of a mallard with dark and light colored bodies and they could really move.

I used to come here as a boy and watch the bank swallows that lived in this embankment. That’s all soil, probably 10 feet deep, from the brook to the top, all deposited as river silt over who knows how many thousands of years and soft enough for the birds to dig in. It’s no wonder farmers have farmed this land for centuries. “Rich bottom land” I believe they call it.

The brook and river still flood to this day, and you can usually see huge plates of ice all around the trees in this area in winter, but I didn’t see any on this day.

I was able to climb / slide down the hill into the forest to get a shot of the trestle I stood on to take the previous 3 shots. This trestle is known as a “double intersection Warren pony truss bridge” and was probably built around 1900. It is also described as a lattice truss. Metal truss bridges were used as early as 1866 but railroads didn’t begin using them until around 1870. By 1900 they were common and replaced wooden bridges, which occasionally burned and often were washed away in flooding. I’ve seen water almost up to the bottom of this one and that’s a scary sight.

Some of these old Boston and Maine Railroad trestles have been here for 150 years and if man leaves them alone I’d bet that they’ll be here for another 150 years. I wish I knew if they were built here or built off site and shipped here. I do know that the abutments were built here from local granite, all without a drop of mortar.

Ash swamp brook was very low but since it hasn’t rained and no snow had melted for a week or so I wasn’t surprised. This brook meanders through parts of Keene and Swanzey and originates to the north of Keene. Hurricane brook starts it all near a place called Stearn’s hill. It becomes white brook for a while before emptying into black brook.  Black brook in turn empties into Ash Swamp, and the outflow from the swamp is called ash swamp brook. It finally meets the Ashuelot river at this spot after changing names at least 4 and maybe more times. I’m guessing all the different names are from the early settlers, who most likely didn’t know they were looking at the same brook. It’s quite long and I doubt anyone has ever followed it from here to its source.

I saw a small oak branch that was full of split gill fungi (Schizophyllum commune.) These are winter fungi that in late fall and I was happy to see them because I’ve been looking for them all winter but hadn’t seen any. They are about the size of a penny and are very tough and leathery.

Split gill fungi wear a wooly fur coat and this makes then easy to identify. Split gills grow on every continent except Antarctica and are said to be the most studied mushroom on earth. Scientists have isolated a compound in them that is said to inhibit the HIV-1 virus.

The “gills” on the split gill fungus are actually folds of tissue on its underside that split lengthwise when the mushroom dries out. The splits close over the fertile spore producing surfaces in dry weather and open to release the spores when they’re rehydrated by rain. It’s a pretty little mushroom, in my opinion.

It’s spring fever, that’s what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so! ~Mark Twain

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1. Rail Trail

I decided to visit an old familiar place recently, just to see if it had changed any since my last visit. Now a rail trail, when I was a boy the big Boston and Maine diesels used to roll though here and I spent enough time walking the tracks to know the place as well as I knew my own yard. The view down the trail reminded me of learning how to draw perspective in art class and how easily the concept came to me. I walked here almost daily and the idea of a vanishing point was right there in front of me every time. Way down there where those two steel rails used to look like they came together; that was the vanishing point, and that was where I was going on this day.

 2. Broken Birch

The birches have had a tough time of it this year; that heavy foot of snow we had on Thanksgiving eve was more than some of them could bear. This one broke right in half about half way up its length, and some of the others still haven’t stood back up completely.

 3. Cherry Burl

I saw a burl as big as a soccer ball on a black cherry branch (Prunus serotina.) Seeing something like this would have gotten me excited when I was younger and I would have been off to the library to read all I could about it. If a place can give a gift, then curiosity is the gift that this place gave to me. The things in nature that I saw in here made me curious enough to want to learn about them, and that’s something that’s still with me today.

Burl, for those who don’t know, is an abnormal growth 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. Woodworkers make some very beautiful things from burl and prize burls highly. I find them more on black cherry than any other tree, and I know what they are because of this place.

4. Grafted Elm

Before it died of Dutch elm disease this American elm grafted itself together in two places, both above and below where you can see daylight through the trunks. Natural grafts can’t really be called rare, but this is the first double one I’ve ever seen. The wind blows the trees and they rub together enough to rub off their bark down to the cambium layer, which can then grow together if the two trees are the same species.

 5. Hawthorn Thorn

Years ago the hawthorn trees (Crataegus) I saw here made me want to know why some trees had thorns and others didn’t, so I got ahold of a used 1858 copy of Asa Gray’s How Plants Grow to see if he knew. Gray was a hero of mine but he sure did write some awfully dry books, and if I hadn’t been so interested in plants I don’t think I could have made it through many of them. I learned a lot about the various ways plants defend themselves from his books though, including using thorns, spines and prickles.

6. Snow Depth

Because snowmobiles pack it down so much it’s very hard to judge how deep the snow is along these trails, so I was surprised when I came to a slushy spot and saw that it wasn’t more than an inch deep. It’s still pretty tough getting into the woods but spring is coming.

7. Woods

What are woods here now used to be all cornfields when I was a boy and it seems strange knowing that I’m older than the trees. When I think about it though, I suppose even the youngsters among us are older than at least some of the trees. Maybe it’s getting to meet the trees that I know are younger than me that makes it feel so strange. I like the way these woods have grown up to have a light and airy, uncrowded feel. These trees are mostly red maple and they don’t mind the occasional spring floods that happen here.

8. Winged Euonymus

I was dismayed but not really surprised to see some very invasive burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) growing here. These open woodlands are just the kind of place these shade tolerant shrubs love to grow in. Their shallow root systems and the shade they cast mean that native plants can’t get a start, so before long you have a monoculture made up of invasives. The plant is also called winged euonymus because, as the above photo shows, they have corky ridges or “wings” that grow along their stems.

9. Euonymus Pod

There were only 3 or 4 burning bushes here but they were big and had grown thousands of berries. Unfortunately the birds had eaten every single one of them and all that was left were the once purple pods.

10. Side Rails on Trestle

This old trestle marks the vanishing point that we saw in the first photo. Of course you can’t ever reach it because it moves with you (see-there is another one way down there) but it was a great thing for a young school boy to spend time thinking about. If you walk from vanishing point to vanishing point before you know it you’re in Swanzey with very tired feet, unless you cross country ski it like I used to. That’s another thing I learned how to do here.

11. Beard Lichen

Snowmobile clubs have put wooden safety railings all along these old trestles and there was a great example of a fishbone beard lichen (Usnea filipendula) growing on the weathered wood of this one. There are many lichens that prefer growing on wood, but it doesn’t always have to be in tree form.

12. Trestle Rivet

I’ve always wondered how these old steel trestles were built but I never have been able to find out. I don’t know if they were built in factories and shipped to the site to be assembled or if they were built right in place. Either way I’m sure there was an awful lot of rivet hammering going on. I do know that the stones for the granite abutments that these trestles rest on were taken from boulders and outcroppings in the immediate area, but I think they must have had to ship them from somewhere else in this case because there is little granite of any size to be found here.

13. Trestle Rivets

I’ve always been a lover of solitude and when I was young this is the place I came when I wanted to be alone, because back then you could sit on this old trestle all day without seeing another soul. It was a good place to just sit and think or watch the many birds and animals that came to drink from the river. I don’t come here very often these days because solitude is easier to come by now and the place seems to bring on an ache that’s hard to understand. Maybe it’s an ache for another shot at boyhood or maybe it’s just simple nostalgia, but it always seems to end with the feeling that there’s an empty place somewhere inside of me. Maybe that’s why I only visit about once each year.

 14. Brook View

Hurricane brook starts up in the northern part of Keene near a place called Stearns Hill. Then it becomes White Brook for a while before emptying into Black Brook. Black Brook in turn empties into Ash Swamp and the outflow from the swamp becomes Ash Swamp Brook. Finally it all meets the Ashuelot River right at this spot. Confused? Me too; it has taken me about 50 years to figure all of that out. Why so many name changes? I don’t know, but I’m guessing that the settlers in the northern part of Keene and the settlers here in the southern part didn’t realize that they were both looking at the same brook. I wonder if anyone has ever followed it from here to its source. It would be quite a hike.

15.Embankment

This bluff where the brook meets the river is where bank swallows used to nest. They are social birds and nest together in large colonies that sometimes number in the thousands. What I find fascinating is how the male birds dig nest holes using their feet, wings, and tiny beaks, and these holes can be 2 feet deep. They nest near water and eat insects, and that explains why there were never any mosquitos here. The swallows are a good example of how this place has taught me so much over the years; I didn’t know exactly what kind of birds they were and I had to look them up. After all these years I still learn something when I come here, and it could be that the most important lesson I’ve learned is, as author Thomas Wolfe said, that you can’t go home again.

The past is for learning from and letting go. You can’t revisit it. It vanishes. ~Adele Parks

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 1. Rail Trail

Last weekend really felt like spring with warm sunshine and warm southwesterly breezes blowing, so I decided to walk an old rail trail that runs right behind the house I grew up in. When I was a boy there were railroad tracks here and I spent many hours walking along them. Now snowmobiles get the most use out of the area. I appreciate them packing the snow down so you don’t need snowshoes, but it means that there is far less solitude here than there used to be.

 2. Wild Cucumber

There are many things along this old rail bed that take me back to my childhood, including the wild cucumbers (Echinocystis lobata) that we all used to throw at each other. This is one of the plants that made me want to know more about why and how plants grew the way they did. I had lots of questions and since nobody I knew could answer them, when I got a little older I turned to books like Asa Gray’s Manual of Botany.

 3. Black Raspberry First Year Cane 

By reading Gray’s Manual and other botany books I was able to answer many questions, like why do some plants have this bluish white coating on them? I learned that, in botanical terms, a plant part that looks like this is said to be glaucous, which describes the color. The coating is called bloom and is a wax which can protect the plant from sunburn, prevent moisture loss, or help shed excess water from the leaves.  I see it mostly on plums and blueberries.

In the case of the plant in the above photo the bloom on the cane (along with the prickles) taught me that it was a black raspberry, rather than a red raspberry or a blackberry. I also learned that bloom on canes means that they are first year vegetative canes (primocanes) that would bear no fruit until their second year. There were plenty of others that did bear fruit though, and I used to eat bellyfuls of them.

 4. Winter Woods

At one time there were large fields of corn growing along the rail bed but now some of the land has started reverting back to forest.  Most of the trees seen here can’t be more than 40-45 years old. Knowing that I’m older than the trees brings on kind of an odd feeling.

I learned how badly corn plants can make you itch can be by running through the cornfields that were once here. Each corn leaf has tiny, saw tooth serrations on its edges that can cause quite a rash on exposed skin. Of course I could have prevented it by wearing a long sleeved shirt, but you would have had to have hog tied me to get long sleeves on me in the summer.

 5. Virgin's Bower Seeds

My grandmother taught me about the wind blowing pollen from one corn plant to another, but here on the tracks is where I learned how other plants use the wind. Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) for instance, grows long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. Botanically speaking these “seeds” are achenes, which are fruits with one seed. This is a common plant seen draped over shrubs and climbing into trees all along these tracks.

 6. Feathers-2

Every time I see a feather stuck in a bush I wonder what bird left it there. I usually come away scratching my head and this time was no different.  It’s odd that the wind can send clematis seeds flying, but feathers seem to stay stuck fast to whatever they land on.

 7. Ash Swamp Brook in Winter

Ash Swamp brook meanders lazily through Keene before finally meeting the Ashuelot River here.  I spent many happy hours exploring this place as a boy. Coming this far south down the tracks was quite an excursion but it was always worth it. Very near here the banks of the river are high and sandy and bank swallows used to nest there. Watching them come and go was always good for an afternoon’s entertainment.

 8. Willow Branches

Spring never came by the calendar here. I learned early on that plants could tell you more than the calendar ever could. Willows for example, take on a golden hue when they feel spring coming on.

 9. Pinecone Gall on Willow 

The coming of spring wasn’t the only thing willows taught me to see.  Willows often have pine cone galls on them, caused by a gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides). The midge lays an egg in the terminal leaf bud of a willow in early spring and the larva releases a chemical that tricks the willow into creating this gall instead of leaves. The midge spends winter inside the gall and emerges in the following spring, so the entire cycle takes a full year. It is fascinating things like this, found all along these railroad tracks, which let nature get its hooks into me early on.

10. American Hazelnut Catkins

This is where I also started paying attention to things like catkins; though half a century later I still struggle with the identity of some of the shrubs and trees I find them on. American hazelnut (Corylus Americana) catkins are easy because of the hairy young twigs they often hang from. These hairs are called stipitate glands. Botanically speaking a stipitate gland is a gland on the end of a stalk (stipe).  If you find a hazelnut that doesn’t have hairy young twigs and leaf petioles, it is a beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta).

11. Elderberry Buds

We used to make small “pipes” by hollowing out an acorn, putting a hole through the side of it, and then inserting a pipe stem. The choice for the pipe stem was always elderberry because it has soft pith that is easily pushed out of the stem with a hardwood twig.  American elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) pith is white and spongy, so when you pinch its twigs between your thumb and forefinger they will deform. If it doesn’t deform it isn’t elderberry.  It’s a good thing that we kids never smoked anything in these pipes because elderberry is toxic, especially to kids who make whistles and pipe stems from its parts.

12. Puddle Ice 3

Nothing takes me back to my boyhood at this time of year like the white ice on mud puddles. I remember, once the snow melted off the roads, riding my bike to school through the ice covered puddles that froze at night and melted during the day. I can remember how my spirit soared knowing that once the white ice appeared on the puddles it wouldn’t be long until summer because these were special puddles, not caused by rain but by snow melt. Soon the red sox would once again play at Fenway Park, school would be over until fall, and everything would be right with the world. There was as much joy in the anticipation of the event as there was in the event itself. Lately I’ve been feeling that same joy anticipating the arrival of spring.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.  ~ John Burroughs

Thanks for coming by.

 

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