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Posts Tagged ‘Ashuelot River’

Hello again everyone, I hope you are all well and hope that you’ve had a wonderful summer. I can’t believe that fall is here already but as you can see, the trees are saying that it is so. I’d like to thank all of you for understanding my need to take a break and I thank you for your well wishes. Also, thank you to those of you who have written to ask how I’ve been doing. I’ve been fine, and though you haven’t heard from me in a few months I’ve still been out meandering around and taking photos, though not in the large numbers I once did. Fall in New England is a special time and this year has been particularly colorful, so I didn’t feel right letting it pass without showing you some of it. I’m not going to say much about the photos because I think just about everyone everywhere knows that leaves change color in October in New England.

I’d like to think that I’ve used the time away from this blog wisely by finding answers to some difficult questions, some of which concerned this blog. For years it had been such a joy to do. It was hardly a burden at all; I just went on walks and took photos of anything that caught my eye and then showed them to you, and that was really all it was. Easy, laid back, no cares, no troubles. But then somehow it began taking more and more time and the joy was slowly seeping out of it. What to do was a question I had to answer.

The problem was, putting this blog together was taking every minute of free time I had, and that’s because I let it happen. I thought readers were getting tired of seeing the same old places so I tried to find new places to go, even if it included driving to them to do it. Then, because I always took far too many photos I added more and more to the blog. One day I saw that it had grown into something I really didn’t enjoy anymore, but I felt chained to it.

For all of my life, I have found answers to difficult questions through simply being silent and listening. Solitude has always been part of the solution because it is solitude that makes silence shine like a bright light in the darkness. That light leads you into yourself and it is there where the answers are found, because they come from the heart. That’s a large part of why I had to take a break from blogging.

When I was a boy summer seemed to last forever, and for many years I wondered why that was. The answer, I finally saw, was that there was no time then. Though I still had chores and other things to take care of I could do them whenever I wanted, so I was completely free of time. It was easy to envision retirement being the same way. I would just throw away all the clocks and step out of time and I’d be free, but if we don’t pay attention in life, we can set traps for ourselves and then fall into them, and that’s just what I had done. I had all the free time I wanted yes, but I also had no really constructive ideas about how to use it. I knew that I didn’t want to use it all writing this blog, but I had to ask myself what life would be. Would the high points of life now consist of walking, mowing the lawn, reading, and writing blog posts?

There had to be more to retirement than that, so I thought I’d travel a little. I’d get to see some places I hadn’t seen in years and I could take photos while there and show you our mountains and seashore, each about two hours away. But then gas prices started rising almost on the day I retired and went so high that any plans that included driving any real distance had to be put on hold. I had also always wanted to volunteer as a reader for / to the blind so I wanted to use some of my free time for that, but apparently advances in audio gadgetry have put an end to that need. Both my father and an aunt were blind so I know what a challenge it can be. Other volunteering opportunities in the immediate area seem to be slim to none. I couldn’t believe that I had all this free time and could find no good, useful way to use it.

So to feel somewhat useful I found a part time job. It isn’t much; just 25 hours per week, but I feel like I’m accomplishing something. I’m not one to sneeze at a little extra money but that’s not what having a job is really about for me at this point; it’s more about feeling like I’m doing something that matters while having the chance to be around other people. The hermit that lives here inside me was telling me that I should go and stay in a cave I found but as tempting as it sounded, I think it would be too much of a good thing. I’m getting too old to fight off animals and sleeping on stone has never been any fun. Besides, the people I work with are among the kindest, most helpful people I’ve met and so far, I feel at home there. It may not last forever but at this point I think I could look back on it fondly, as a good thing.

Finally, I had to sit down and ask myself why this blog was even here. What did I expect from it? Was it a hobby? What good was it? It started as an offshoot of a garden coaching business that never took off. Garden coaching is where you show homeowners how to do the “hard and scary things” like pruning trees and trimming shrubs and hedges, and transplanting. You help them find solutions to what they see as problems, hence the strange name of this blog. The other part of it was proving that I didn’t have what it took to write a weekly gardening column for a local newspaper. People were telling me I should and I told them if I did, it wouldn’t last. After eleven years of keeping this blog going that thought has obviously gone out the window. But here was this blog, coming up out of the ashes of two ideas that had collided simultaneously. At first it was about gardening and nobody cared, so I decided to end it on its one-year anniversary. But then I stepped back out of the way. I hung my mind on a peg and just let this thing do what it would. Posts began writing themselves, and suddenly people began showing some interest.

It’s hard to explain what I mean when I say a post “wrote itself” but it’s almost as if I’m taking dictation when it happens. I sit and watch words appear on the screen and I’m often surprised and baffled by what I see. Here’s an example of what I mean:

I remember wondering, where did that come from? It came pretty much as it is, with very little tinkering required. I had to turn it into an image so WordPress wouldn’t change the format, so that’s why the text looks smaller.

I’ve always had a spark in me that made me want to draw and paint, or write, or design gardens, or take photos, or anything else that made me feel that I was making something out of nothing. When that spark of creativity begins to burn inside, bright and hot enough so you have to do something about it, it is the most wondrous thing you can imagine. You just step out of yourself; get out of your way, and let whatever it is you’re doing flow out of you unobstructed, like water. When it happens it is euphoric, and that’s putting it mildly. So yes, as a creative outlet this blog has value, but obviously it is a personal thing.

All of you, through your comments and emails over the years, have shown me that this blog has value beyond any personal satisfaction that I might receive from it. I’ve heard from many people who are nature lovers but who for whatever reason can’t get outside easily anymore, and they’ve told me that this blog is their only link to the outdoors. Their situations are what made my recent break so hard, because I felt as if I was letting them down. That’s why it’s important to me that you know that the decision to shut down for a while wasn’t just off the cuff. I put a lot of thought into it before finally understanding that it had to happen. In the end it is all of you who have answered the question, why is this blog even here?  

I’m not here to win prizes or to see how many people I can get to read this blog; I’m here to get you out there. The hope I’ve always had is that whoever reads this will want to get out there and see the things I see because I can guarantee that if they do, they too will fall in love with nature. That’s important, because when we love something, we are less apt to destroy it. That is the essence of this blog in a nutshell so please, go out and fall in love with this beautiful place we live in, and then tell everybody you know about the miracles you’ve seen. No matter where you live, there is beauty there. There is beauty absolutely everywhere you look, and part of the fun is exploring your piece of the world and seeing it. If you pay attention, you will notice how nature quietly leads you from one beautiful thing to another all throughout your walks, and over time you’ll find that one of the most beautiful things it has led you to is you. It is by losing ourselves in the beauty of this world that we can find our true selves. One of the biggest surprises about being in nature is, we learn as much about ourselves as we do about nature. Just be there fully, with your whole self, and walk with nature, not through it. This isn’t a bare rock we live on; it’s a garden paradise, and we are as much a part of it as it is a part of us. Let nature show you that you don’t stop at your skin. You are so very much more.

So here we are. I can answer my own questions with yes, this blog does have value and as a creative outlet it is more than just a hobby. I see creative outlets as similar to pressure relief valves, so I’ve decided to keep it going. I’m going to have to cut back on the number of posts I do though; no longer will I be doing two posts per week. I don’t know if I’m just getting old or what it is but two posts per week seem to have really become just too much. For years I told readers they didn’t have to go anywhere to see the wonders of nature because nature was everywhere. I could walk into the woods or along the banks of the river each day and see new things every single time. So this blog is going to go back to that easy, laid back, joyful, no cares thing that it once was. I’m going to let simplicity be my guide and just wander and see what I see with nothing more in mind than walking with an old friend. I can’t say what the new schedule will be yet because I don’t know that myself. Friends have suggested that one post each month would be easier to bear but no matter what I decide you might want to click on the “Follow This Blog Via Email” button over there on the right. I was getting lots of emails from people saying they were no longer being notified of new posts and the way to solve that problem (I hope) is by clicking that button and adding your email address, even if you’ve already done so. That way if these posts become just a random thing you won’t miss any, not that there is anything earthshaking here to miss.

I have to say that when I think about it, I find that it’s very strange to be doing something like this. It’s easy to get carried away by it, always thinking the current post should be better than the last. That’s why it’s a good idea I think, to sit down every now and then and remind yourself what it’s really all about. A kind of reaffirmation of the core principles that made you want to start doing it in the first place. I can never know how many people this blog has touched, and I’ll never know what they might go on to do or be, and I have to be okay with the not knowing. All I can really do is hope that the message gets through and makes people want to get outside and explore their world. From then on if nature fills even one of them with the kind of love and reverence that makes them fall to their knees and weep tears of joy and gratitude, this blog will have done something.

Until the next time, which shouldn’t be too long, thanks for stopping in. It’s been nice talking to you again. Take care, and enjoy life.

There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice. ~John Calvin

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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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I thought I’d take a break from flower posts this week, not because I’m tired of flowers but because my California friend Dave asked when he would see photos of shagbark hickory buds breaking. They’re easily as beautiful as a flower, but to see them I had to go to the banks of the Ashuelot River. This was no hardship because I started playing on the banks of this river when I was a boy and have loved doing so ever since.

It was beautiful along the river with all the new spring green leaves, but the water level has dropped considerably since the last time it rained. I think it has been close to two weeks since the last substantial rain, and many smaller streams are starting to dry up.

I saw lots of what I think were muskrat tracks in the mud along the shore.

And there were the new shagbark hickory leaves. I couldn’t catch the color I wanted on the bud scales (actually inner scales) in the bright sunshine so I went back the following day when it was cloudy. On this day the beautiful pinks, reds and oranges were easier to capture. It’s not just the light though; some inner bud scales are a single color and others are multi colored like these were. They also lose color quickly as they age so you just have to walk along the river bank and look until you find the one that speaks to you. Fortunately a lot of shagbark hickory buds usually break at the same time so they aren’t hard to find. They’re worth looking for because in my opinion, they’re one of the most beautiful things you’ll find in a spring forest.

This is what they look like when they have spread out to unfurl their leaves. It’s unusual to be able to see this because it usually happens far up in the tree tops, but for some reason in this area the beavers keep cutting the trees. New shoots regrow from the stump and the beavers leave them alone for a while before coming back and cutting them again. Thanks to the beavers there is always a good supply of buds at eye level.

The oaks have also broken their buds, and more new leaves appear each day. Oaks are one of the last buds to break.

Like the maples, oaks can have very colorful new leaves. I’ve seen them in white, pink, red, and just about every shade of green imaginable.

Some new oak leaves even have stripes, as these did. I saw a lot of these leaves in all stages of growth and they appeared to be changing from white to red, which accounted for the stripe. New oak leaves are always velvety and soft.

Some oaks are even showing flower buds already.

Here was a young oak that had barely unfolded its leaves and it was already being eaten by something. It also had three or four oak apple galls on it. They’re caused by a wasp (Amphibolips confluenta) called the oak apple gall wasp. Galls that form on leaves don’t harm the tree so they can be left alone. They’re always interesting to see.

Striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum) are also flowering, with their green bell-shaped flowers all in a string. Sometimes they dangle under the big leaves and other times the wind blows them up and over the leaves as these were. There is only one maple in this region that flowers later, and that is the mountain maple (Acer spicatum).

If you want to see a beautiful, non-flowering plant called the woodland horsetail (Equisetum sylvaticum) you’ll have to leave the trail and go into the forest, but it will be worth the effort to see the delicate, lacy foliage of what is considered the most beautiful of all the horsetails. I was happy to see that they had grown from what was a single plant a few years ago to ten or more now, so they like it here. I originally found them by following a beaver pond outflow stream into the woods.

Woodland horsetails like to grow in bright sunshine in very wet ground. Here they grow right along the water’s edge by this stream. They blend in easily with the foliage of other plants, so you have to walk slowly and look carefully. The sylvaticum part of the scientific name is Latin for “of the forest”, and that’s where you have to search for them.

I found what was left of a wild turkey egg shell by the stream where the woodland horsetail grows. Turkeys nest directly on the ground but I didn’t see any signs of a nest so I wonder if a predator didn’t carry the egg here to eat it. According to the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game turkeys lay an average of a dozen eggs in early to mid-May, only one per day, and they hatch after about 28 days, so either this hen laid her eggs early or this egg didn’t hatch. If a predator gets to her eggs she’ll lay another clutch in July or August, but normally they lay only once per year. This egg was tan colored, about the size of a hen’s egg I think, with brownish speckles all over it. New Hampshire has an estimated population of 45,000 turkeys. I see them everywhere but they’re almost always running into the woods as I drive by.

If I’m lucky I might see one beech seedling with its seed leaves still intact each year. Here is this year’s seedling. Seed leaves often look nothing like the true leaves. In the case of American beech they look more like flower petals than leaves but feel tough and leathery. On a beech seedling they will photosynthesize until the true leaves appear, and then once they are no longer needed, they will wither and fall off. In my experience they are a rare sight.

Each spring I look for the shoots of the white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda), and each spring they look absolutely identical to the ones I found the spring before. They always look to me like a small hand is holding the plant’s flower buds while an older “parent” gazes down lovingly at them. It always seems like a tender moment has been caught and frozen in time, and it’s always as if I’m seeing the exact same thing I saw the year before. I’ve seen lots of new spring shoots but these are the only ones I know of that never seem to change. They’re like an old friend who comes around once a year to remind me that some things never really change, even though it may seem as if they do.

Mr. robin wondered just what it was I was doing and hopped over to get a better look. Though most robins will hop or fly away if you get too close there are some that are very curious. If you let them come to you they’ll often get quite close, as this one did. I was on my knees taking photos so maybe he wondered why this human’s eyes were so close to the ground while others were not. I didn’t realize what eye movements could do to animals until I watched a show on PBS television that showed border collies herding sheep by using only their eyes. They never bark; it’s all done with eye movements. I’m hoping I remember never to stare into a bear’s eyes again.

I don’t know if this was two trees or one tree that split and grew this way but either way, I’m not sure what would have made it do this. Trees do some strange things.

A big dead white pine fell into a pond and stretched two thirds of the way across it. White pine (Pinus strobus) is New Hampshire’s tallest tree but you often don’t realize how tall they really are until they fall.  

A painted turtle looked like it was practicing its yoga exercises on a log, but really it was just releasing heat. I read that when they raise their feet like that it cools them off. Sometimes they look as if they’re trying to fly.

I went to the skunk cabbage swamp and not surprisingly, found it full of skunk cabbages. But that’s not the only reason I come here. Nearby, higher up on drier ground, our beautiful native azaleas (Rhododendron prinophyllum) bloom so I wanted to check their progress. It’ll be another week or so before we see the flowers, depending on the weather.

I saw something bright yellow in a drainage ditch and when I looked a little closer, I saw that the color was coming from swamp beacons (Mitrula elegans). Swamp beacons are interesting “aquatic” fungi and I find them in seeps and ditches where ground water stays on the surface year-round. They will be my first fungal find of the season.

Swamp beacons use a process called soft rot to decompose plant material in low-oxygen areas. Since they only decompose soft tissue, they aren’t found on twigs or bark. I almost always find them growing out of saturated oak leaves, as these were. They are small; about the size of a wooden match, and another name for them is matchstick fungus. These were some of the brightest colored examples that I’ve seen.

Treasures are hidden away in quiet places. They speak in soft tones and often become silenced as we approach. They don’t beg to be found, but embrace us if we do happen to find them. They are the product of completely ordinary circumstances unfolding in wonderfully extraordinary ways. They are found hidden in the nooks and crannies of our existence; all around us if we quit allowing our attention to be captivated by that which is noisy and listen for that which is quiet and still. ~Craig D. Lounsbrough

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I find the most satisfying times I spend in nature are when I go with no expectations. When I just go and see what I can see without any preconceived notions, I get the most out of it. So with that thought in mind I went to the Ashuelot River in Swanzey on one recent showery day. It was a good choice because I knew if it rained, I could get back to the car without getting too wet. The way the clouds looked I doubted that I would be there long.

The river was tame and had nothing much to say. Surprising, since the last time I came here to get photos of waves, it roared. It was out of its banks here for part of the winter and flooded parts of the area that I’d be visiting, so there was no telling what I’d see on this day.

The first thing I saw was a beautiful mussel shell tangled in the weeds. All the colors of a rainbow were in it and as I see it in the photo, I wish I had brought it home. There are lots of mussels in this section of river and the raccoons come down to the shore at night to enjoy them.

There was another shell, but what I was really taking this photo of were the interesting patterns in the sand. I’d guess that the lighter sand was drier than the darker but why it wasn’t all drying at the same rate was a mystery. What was not a mystery is why the sand was here. The river seems to flood more area each year in this spot and the silt gets deposited higher on its banks.

The water had just receded from this spot and here already were green spring shoots.

The wind had blown all the stuffing out of a bird’s nest. It was some type of fabric and I wondered where the bird had found it all.

The mosses were in many shades of green.

And the oak leaves were in many shades of brown. They were beautiful, as if they had been sculpted. I thought, if I could make a mold by carving an oak leaf into a block of wood, and then get a thin sheet of copper and hammer it into the mold, I would have a copper oak leaf. Then if I curled it and painted it just so, I could have a fair representation of what I see here, and I could see it every day. But then I thought, maybe what makes things like this so special is that we can’t see them every day. We just happen to run into them now and then and that’s why we stop and see, and admire and learn.

This was a bit unnerving. Silt on the trail meant that the river came up over the land here; the first time I’ve seen it happen. This bit of land is a small peninsula that juts out into the river and points like a finger downriver.

There is a huge old maple tree here that first lost one trunk and now it has lost the other. Woodpecker holes and lots of fungi tell the story.

I saw quite a few maple dust lichens growing on a muscle wood tree (Carpinus caroliniana.) Muscle wood is also called American hornbeam, and its wood is very dense and hard. It loves to grow by rivers and streams but it is short lived. I rarely see trees that are much bigger around than my leg, in fact. This one was just about that size but was leaning badly and will probably fall soon. You can see how its “tendons” ripple beneath its “skin” to give it its common name. It is also called blue beech and I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen maple dust lichens (Lecanora thysanophora) growing on one.

The rough looking seedpods of witch hazel are everywhere out here. Something I’ve always wanted to see (or hear) is witch hazel seed pods exploding. They explode with force and can throw the seeds as far as 30 feet. I’ve read that you can hear them pop when they open and even though I keep trying to be there at the right time to see and hear it happening, I never have been.

A burl on a tree reminded me of all the beautiful things that can made from them. Anything made from a burl will be beautiful but also quite pricey. I’ve seen huge antique burl bowls that were just amazing but they were also valued in the thousands of dollars. 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. I don’t know how that could follow with this young maple though. I suppose it might have been stressed but I didn’t see any damage.

Slowly, the river is cutting off the tip of the finger. From here on I’ve seen this entire tip of the peninsula under water a few times but there was a time not so long ago when I could walk right through here all the way to the point. Over across the water where all the silt is now thousands of violets used to bloom, and it was a shaded, beautiful spot where people liked to fish. Now as the river slowly erodes it away, it looks more waste land than the idyllic spot it once was.

Here is a view of the end of the peninsula completely under water after heavy rain in 2019. Each time this happens more of it goes.

The beavers had been busy, as they always are. They keep wounding this tree but have never cut it down. You can see this same tree to the far left in the previous photo. The beavers had chewed on it then, too.

There were either blue flag iris or cattails growing in the mud. Since I didn’t see any of what looked like last year’s cattail stems, I’m going to assume they’re irises.

A branch split away from this tree and revealed that it was completely hollow. It is just a shell with nothing inside so it won’t take much of a wind to blow it down. It’s amazing how many standing trees are completely hollow.

A large fugus lay on the ground by the hollow tree but I couldn’t see anywhere on the tree that it might have come from, so that was another mystery for this day.

The river had carved the sand in strange ways here. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like that.

This walk I thought, was like walking through an art gallery. The muscle shell, the patterns in this stone, and the way the river carved the sand were all beautiful, and I was grateful to have seen them. I can see a day in the not-too-distant future though, when the river will probably swallow all of it.

Happiness, not in another place but this place…not for another hour, but this hour. ~Walt Whitman

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I looked out the window to see the sun shining and the rhododendron leaves not curled one morning, so I knew it would be a good day for a walk. And how great it was to have nothing to do but choose a place to go walking, I thought. I chose a rail trail in Swanzey that I knew would be ice free over at least parts of its length, because I could see it from the road. My starting point still had a little ice on it but there was also gravel to walk on.

Once I got into the sunshine it was clear sailing. Or so I thought. There were two or three shaded spots further on that still had ice on them. One of the great things about this walk was the singing of the birds. Like someone flipped a switch, it seemed they all had to sing. One of the bird songs that always says spring to me is the “fee-bee” mating call of the black capped chickadee. Since I was a boy, I’ve loved hearing it in spring. Though some hear “hey sweetie,” from what I’ve read most of us hear “fee-bee.” In the end it doesn’t matter what you hear, what’s important is being out there to hear it.

The ice on the drainage channels beside the roadbed looked to be thick in places.

Most of it varied from between one and three inches thick, by the looks.

A beech in the sunshine on a winter day is a beautiful thing. What was strange though, was not having someone stop and ask me what I was looking at. That happens all the time but on this day, I had this trail to myself. I never saw another soul. That must be a weekday thing as blogging friend Eliza said, because the last time I was out here it was on a weekend and there were people everywhere.

Another beech had lost all its leaves so I looked at a few buds and noticed the bud scales were relaxing. They weren’t as tightly closed as they are in January. I could just see the hint of an arc in this one and that’s the thing I’ll watch for. Sunlight causes the cells at the top, or sunlit part of the bud to grow slightly faster than the shaded part and this makes the bud arch up until finally it can arch no more, and that’s when bud break happens. The bud fairly tears itself apart and the new leaves emerge, and fresh spring beech leaves are one of the most beautiful things you can see in a New Hampshire Forest in the spring. How nice it will be I thought, to be able to watch spring slowly unfold.

The big buds of shagbark hickory hadn’t changed much but they also bear watching, because they are also very beautiful when they open. A tree full of newly opened buds is a sight that can take the breath away.

One of the reasons I wanted to come out here was to see how my new camera would do with moss spore capsules, but I didn’t see a single one the whole way. Not any on the apple mosses, not even any left over from last year.

I could see the Ashuelot River through the trees and it was ice free. A good sign.

A pine tree had fallen and had been cut into logs, and they had been oozing plenty of sticky sap. Turpentine is made frome white pine sap, and that’s what it takes to get it off your clothes.

Another reason I wanted to come out here was to see if any work had been done to the drainage ditches. I was happy to see that they had been dug out and pitched correctly so the water would flow away from the rail bed. The only problem I saw was how all the removed soil had been piled along the tops of the ditches. I thought that when it rained the rain might wash the soil back into the ditches.

No sooner had I that thought I saw that the rain had indeed washed the soil back into the ditch, filling it to the top and completely stopping up any water flow. This damming up of the drainage ditch has happened in two or three places and means that water may fill the ditch and run up over the railbed in a heavy rain. This could wash out the railbed, which is exactly what digging out the ditches is supposed to prevent. The decision to pile the dirt where it has been piled doesn’t seem to have been a good one.

American wintergreen, also called teaberry, (Gaultheria procumbens) leaves were shining in the sunlight. They often turn purple in winter and these had done so.

The third reason I wanted to come out here was because I saw some skunk cabbage leaves at the base of this ledge last year and I wondered if I might see a spathe or two, but it looked like the plant went away when the ditch was dug out.

I saw what looked like bark beetle damage on a young red oak that had died and lost its bark. I think this is the first time I’ve seen damage like this on oak.

There was an apple gall on another oak, on what was left of a leaf. In May, a female wasp emerges from underground and injects one or more eggs into the mid-vein of an oak leaf. As it grows the wasp larva causes the leaf to form a round gall. Galls that form on leaves are less harmful to the tree than those that form on twigs, but neither causes any real damage. This gall was empty, and I knew that by its color and by a tiny exit hole near the top on the far side.

Though it looked like a fault had pulled apart this drainage ditch ice I think it was fast running water that caused the big gap.

And there was the trestle. This one is quite high above the Ashuelot River in this spot, much higher than the trestle that was near our house, which I grew up playing on.

The ripples on the river show how hard the wind was blowing up here.

The water was muddy but it had gone down some, according to the line of ice on the riverbank. It usually stays quite high through spring and that’s the time you see most of the kayaks and canoes on it.

The reason you don’t see many canoeists or kayakers once the water level drops in summer is because of all the submerged trees there are in this river. They seem to fall in constantly throughout its length.

I saw a curious almost perfectly round, thawed circle in the ice on the way back, and that was enough to keep me wondering all the way back to the car.

To walk into nature is to witness a thousand miracles. ~Mary Davis

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Wednesday the weather people said we’d probably see a dusting of snow that might “stick to grassy surfaces.” They were right; we got a dusting plus 6 inches that stuck to grassy surfaces and every other surface as well. One of the benefits of being newly retired is, I was able to go out and play in it.

But I was the only one playing it it at 8:00 am Thursday, apparently. The only other tracks I saw were of the four footed kind.

The sun was trying but hadn’t accomplished much yet. It was supposed to be sunny and 50 degrees F. on this day and if that turned out to be true all of this snow would quickly melt.

It was a light fluffy snow full of air spaces, but with just enough moisture to make it stick to things.

And it stuck to everything. I admired these coated tree branches and the strange wintery light behind them. I love the changeable light of winter. It’s very different than summer light.

Every tree, every shrub, and every twig was outlined in snow and it was beautiful. It was also absolutely silent; the kind of silence that calls to you. It speaks to the silence that is within us, and I believe that is why we are drawn to nature.

There are few times in nature when it is as silent as it is during and right after a snowfall. Science has found that as little as two inches of snow can absorb nearly 60 percent of sound when it is freshly fallen and fluffy, with plenty of air spaces. As I stood listening to the silence, snow fell from the trees. I call it “snow smoke” and though it isn’t rare, it is rare that I’m there with a camera when it happens.

Sometimes you can hear the snow fall from the trees and other times it is silent. It depends on the consistency of the snow, I suppose. On this day there was a barely perceptible Shhhh, as if it were telling me to be even more quiet than I was.

As is often the case the evergreens bore most of the weight. Their branches are supple and made for this, so they can usually take it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the big white pines off across the swamp lost some limbs though. The bigger the limb the more weight can pile up on them and white pine limbs get very big.  

Birch seeds had already fallen all over the new snow by the thousands, in less than 24 hours.

I heard a knocking and looked up and saw a woodpecker, and I wondered if it was knocking some of the seeds loose. The small red patch at the back of its head and its small size tells me it might be a downy woodpecker. I was really too far away for a good shot but I didn’t let that stop me.

I walked by some catalpa trees and couldn’t resist taking a photo. When they’re at this stage with their long seedpods hanging from the branches they take me back to second grade, when we called them “string bean trees.” Though nobody ever told us anything about the trees, we knew instinctively that we shouldn’t eat the “beans.” It was a good thing too, because they’re poisonous.

Someone has tried to fence off the forest, which means they get to keep mowing as long as they own the land. Large open spaces around houses may keep a brush fire from reaching the house, and back in the 1600s it might have let you see a bear or wolf’s approach, or the approach of Natives who were angry that you took their land, but it really is time to get over these huge lawns that take almost all of our free time to care for each week.

The fence rails showed the snow’s depth. I’d guess maybe four inches in this spot. Snow depth can vary quite a lot from place to place, even on different side of the same street.

At the river there was just a hint of blue in an otherwise black and white scene.

I looked up into a maple and saw sunshine, and it is that warm March sunshine that is waking it and all of its cousins up, and making their sap flow.

There was sunshine above and below these hemlocks, too.

Beeches added some beautiful color but soon these leaves will be pale enough to appear almost colorless, and thin enough to almost see through.

When the sun comes out right after a snow it can be very beautiful, but the sun has a lot of warmth at this time of year so by the time I got back home it had already started melting. There is an old saying that calls this kind of snow this late in winter “poor man’s fertilizer.” Science has shown that nitrates from the atmosphere attach to snowflakes and fall to earth, and then are released into the thawing soil as the snow melts. The nitrates help feed plants, so the old saying is true.

I wanted to do a post about this storm because I thought it might be the last snow for many months but now they say we’ll see more today, so the roller coaster continues on its way. We’ll have bare ground for a day or two and then snow covers it up again, but the further we get into March the shorter its stay. By Friday most of the snow you saw in this post had melted.

Great truth that transcends nature does not pass from one being to another by way of human speech. Truth chooses silence to convey her meaning to loving souls. ~Kahil Gibran

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The roller coaster changes between winter and spring go on in this area. Yesterday I was taking photos of Johnny jump ups and today as I write this it is 30 degrees F.

But the cold won’t hurt the early spring plants any, especially those in the pansy family like viola tricolor. They’re hardy, and built for cold finicky weather, and that’s why you’ll often see them blooming away beautifully in window boxes in March. I have to say I was quite surprised to see them blooming in February though. I think that is a first, but after two or three days in the 50s they responded. This is why, when I talk about spring on this blog, I’m not talking about calendar spring. I’m talking about the spring that the plants and trees and birds tell me is here now.

Except for an ice shelf over there on the left the ice has melted off the stream that runs through the skunk cabbage swamp. It was blue and beautiful on a sunny day.

And the skunk cabbages are growing quickly. Soon the spathes like the one seen here will open to reveal the spadix, which will be covered in tiny, pollen bearing flowers.

It rained hard the night before this was taken and instant ponds popped up everywhere. That’s a good sign that the soil under them is still frozen. Since the water can’t soak into the ground and has nowhere to go it ponds up in the low spots. This one was huge and I was surprised there were no ducks in it.

After it started to cool off again, I went to a waterfall to see if any ice had formed. I wasn’t disappointed.

Everything on the shoreline was covered with ice.

This grass plant had grown ice on its leaves that was thicker than my thumb, all from splashing drops of water. When I see ice like this I think of a candle. A candle starts with a wick, which is dipped again and again into melted wax. In this case each blade of grass is like a wick, splashed over and over by water.

This stone was covered in round spheres of ice. I can’t explain the mechanics of how this ice forms but I do know that splashing water creates it.

There was also plenty of white puddle ice to be seen. I’ve read that it is oxygen that makes the ice white like this. Microscopic bubbles, I suppose. It held the memory of what looked like a current.

This was a surprise and it was flowing right out of the ground just where I stood. I thought it was bright red but my color finding software sees rosy brown, chocolate and dark salmon pink. Though it looks strange it’s really just groundwater that has leeched out various minerals in the soil. Most of those minerals I’d guess, are iron oxide based. There are probably bacteria present as well and I’d guess that the heavy rain we had flushed everything out of a groundwater reservoir of some kind. Scientists say it’s all non toxic and harmless, but I admit it doesn’t look it.

I can remember as a boy seeing the Ashuelot River run almost the color of that seep in the last photo, when the woolen mills in Keene released their dyes into it. It ran all the colors of the rainbow, but when I need to think of a good success story I think of the river, because over the years it was cleaned up. Now trout swim in it once again and bald eagles fish here. We humans can accomplish quite a lot when we put our minds to it.

The river looked fairly placid in that previous shot but this is what was going on downstream. The camera made the water look dark but it was really chocolate brown from all the soil that is washing into it from flooding. This section looked to be about twice its normal width and it roared mightily.

Instead of a roar the ice on Halfmoon Pond in Hancock pings, creaks and twangs, especially when the wind blows. It was covered in melt water recently and looked like a mirror. It will freeze and thaw until one day, it won’t freeze any longer. I still think that ice out will happen in March this year.

When warm air flows over the cold ice sometimes the pond creates its own fog. Just another hint of spring that I enjoy seeing.

The witch hazels didn’t dare to unfurl their petals on this cold day. It’s kind of amazing how they can pull their long strap shaped petals back into such tiny buds but they’re fairly accurate. I’ve seen them get frost killed in the past but that doesn’t happen often. Each fuzzy bud that the petals come out of is less than the diameter of a BB that you would put in an air rifle. That’s 0.177 inches so I’d guess the buds are about an eighth of an inch, or .125.

The reticulated iris (I think) had grown some in the week since I had seen them last, and so had the daffodils. The seed pods you see are from redbud trees. These spring flowering bulbs grow under them.

Tree buds were calling to me as they always do in spring but I couldn’t see any signs of swelling in the pretty blue buds of the box elders. This tree in the maple family has beautiful flowers in spring so it’s always one of those I check regularly. They’ll bloom just after the red maples do.

These are the beautiful sticky, lime green female box elder flowers, for those who haven’t seen them. I’ll be waiting impatiently for both them and the red maple flowers. Box elders usually flower in April and red maples sometimes by mid-March. It all depends on the weather.

Speaking of red maples, here are some of their flower buds. I can see a little movement in them. The bud scales are starting to ease and open but I hope they won’t because it’s too early. I’ve seen trees with every flower killed by frost but nature has that all figued out, and not all trees bloom at the same time. The bloom times are staggered over several weeks, so if a killing frost happens not all tree flowers will be damaged by it.

I walked past the European beech I know of in Keene and saw its seed pods all over the ground, falling I suppose, to make room for new ones.

They were all empty, even the ones still on the tree. No wonder there are so many happy squirrels in that area.

Many, many years ago someone went around Keene with a stencil of a foot and spray-painted small feet here and there throughout town. I was surprised to find one still in good condition one day. It told me to stay on the trail. Keep walking and keep seeing the wonders.

It doesn’t take much to make my heart soar in spring; seeing sap buckets hanging on the sugar maples will do it every time. Though this post might seem to be all over the place, with flowers and ice and snow, that’s what spring is in New Hampshire. We are in the push-pull transition time between winter and spring and right now, winter is making a comeback. We are expecting a foot of snow as I finish this post, but it won’t last long and spring will win out as it always does. The trees producing sap means the ground has thawed and soon everyone will be wearing a smile. If you ask most of them why they’re smiling chances are they won’t be able to tell you but it’s just that spring tonic. It just makes you happy, for no particular reason.

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month. ~Henry Van Dyke

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We had a good string of 50-degree weather last week but of course on the weekend it dropped back down into the 20s F. and even snowed, just enough to slick up the roads and be a nuisance. That’s why we call them nuisance storms. Anyhow I’d had glimpses here and there of what looked like the Ashuelot River flooding and I wanted to see if what I thought I saw was actually happening, so I chose a section of rail trail in Keene that more or less follows the river. This was not a day for photography; all 3 cameras I carried had a hard time but I can’t tell you why. It was as if there was a mist in the air that only the cameras could see, so we’ll just have to pretend we’re walking into an impressionist painting.

The first thing I noticed was a flock of robins in the trees but I couldn’t tell what they were eating until I saw this photo, which tells me their food was the berries of the invasive Oriental Bittersweet. Unfortunately it doesn’t show the entire bird but it shows enough. It looked like he’d eaten enough berries to last for a week, but I didn’t want to embarrass him in front of his friends, so I didn’t say anything. Maybe he had just puffed himself up.

Further down the trail I saw a nest from last year that would have been the right size for a robin, so I think a lot of them live out here. There’s plenty for them to eat. When I was a boy, this area was filled with Baltimore orioles but I haven’t seen one here in years, and I think it’s because the type of fruit they ate no longer grows out here. I don’t see many wild grapes, for instance.

There were a lot of invasive burning bush berries but thankfully the birds were leaving them alone.

They had eaten all the native staghorn sumac berries so that was a good thing. Since I couldn’t get a shot of any sumac fruit I settled for a bud instead. It looked as much animal as vegetable but these buds are naked with no bud scales, so they use hairs to keep from freezing.

You have to really know hazelnut catkins to tell, but they are losing their green color and starting to turn just a little golden colored. They’re also lengthening and becoming pliable rather than stiff, as they’ve been all winter. These are all signs that the shrubs are switching from winter to spring mode and are getting ready to produce pollen. It won’t be that long before I have to start watching for the tiny scarlet threads of the female blossoms.

The catkins hold the male flowers, which are all arranged in a spiral around a central stalk. Each tiny group of hairs seen here is on the edge of a bud scale, and soon these scales will lift to reveal the golden pollen bearing male flowers underneath. It’s an event I’m looking forward to, very much.

Here was a sign that made me happy but I wish the deep cut trail in Westmoreland had been included. The drainage ditches have completely failed up there.

Before I decided to walk this trail, I got out of the car and walked a short way to make sure there wasn’t any ice. All I found was gravel but right after the sign in the previous shot there it was, and someone had slipped on it. There’s nothing worse than light snow on ice. It’s very slippery and now I was going to have to walk over half the trail on it. I knew I should have worn spikes. I hope the person who slipped didn’t fall and get hurt. I see quite a lot of older folks out here.

Some were even riding bikes out here. I’m not sure I’d do that on ice but maybe the tires had spikes.

I saw a very unusual oak gall, at least in my experience. It looked like this on one side….

….and it looked like this on the other side. Usually they are smooth and very hard. These galls form when an insect called a rough bullet gall wasp lays its eggs on part of the tree, be it leaves or twigs. They are of course called bullet galls and are maybe twice the diameter of a pea. They will often grow in large clusters of many galls but though this tree had many on it they all grew singly.

Here was something I had been wondering about for years and I thought maybe the new camera could show me what I couldn’t see. I’m talking about all those dark “pits” on the underside of beech leaves.

The new camera did a fine job of showing me that they weren’t pits at all. They looked like some type of gall. I looked them up and found that they are called “Erineum patches.” They are created by eriophyid mites and they don’t really hurt the tree unless there are very large numbers of them. Each patch is made up of tiny hairs that grow from the tissue of the leaf but you would need at least 40X magnification to see them or the mites that create them. The new camera is good but not quite that good, so we’ll just have to imagine creatures so small they can’t be seen.

This is what you see on the upper surface of the leaf; what look like pock marks. I see these all the time so I’m glad to finally know what they’re all about. Thanks goes to Ohio State University Extension Service for help in solving this riddle.

I had to say “wow” when I saw that the whole forest had flooded, even though the river was running very fast. Apparently, there is nowhere for all the water to go down to the south of town, so it’s backing up.

I went down the embankment as far as I dared to see if I could get shots that weren’t looking through brush. The noises from the ice cracking, hissing and groaning, were amazing. It might be as flat as a dance floor but it’s very alive and it lets you know it. Life is always flowing, even when it appears still.

Almost all of the trees here are red or silver maples and they can stand this kind of treatment but still, it was amzing to see. I used to play here as a boy and I used to see the river flood, but I can’t remember ever seeing it quite like this. The reflections must be beautiful under a blue sky.

Here was the trestle. I hoped to get a good view of the ice from there.

And there was what was supposed to be Ash Brook. It had grown many times over its normal width.

I can’t even guess what made that pattern in the ice. It looked like foam had frozen into it but where the foam came from, I don’t know.

The dark area shows where the channel of Ash Brook would normally be. I was flabbergasted by the extent of the flooding, and I left hoping no homes along the river had flooded. We lived just feet away from the river when I was a boy and each spring the river would rise just to the top of its banks but not spill over on our side. I hope that’s still true. The street I lived on isn’t far from here.

The blue sap on this white pine told me how cold it was but I didn’t really need its help because after being surrounded by all this ice I was chilled just about to the bone. I made it back to the car without slipping on the ice and the thermometer read only 27 degrees, so there would be no melting on this day. The next day, Monday was supposed to reach 50, so we’re on the spring roller coaster as far as temperatures go.

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. ~Loren Eiseley

Thanks for stopping in.

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I’m still taking vacation days from work to use them up before I retire and that’s a good thing, because the weather forecast was for dangerous wind chills of -30 F last Saturday. Flesh freezes in 15 minutes in that kind of cold, I believe the weather people said, so instead of testing their accuracy I opted for a Friday walk, when the temperature was a balmy 36 degrees F. I chose a rail trail in Swanzey that I knew would have packed snow from snowmobiles, but I was surprised to see the summer gate still up. It’s there to keep wheeled vehicles off the rail trails in warmer months but is lowered in winter for snowmobiles. Still, there it was. In any event the snow had still been well packed by snowmobiles.

I like this trail because it still has a lot of the old railroad artifacts still here, like this whistle post. The W on the post told the engineer to blow his whistle or horn to warn traffic on the road up ahead. Where I grew up it was two shorts and a long on a horn and I could hear it inside the house with all the windows and doors closed. I used to love seeing those trains, so much so that I spent years building an HO scale model train layout.

Something else left out here from the railroad days is the stiff wire stock fencing they used to keep animals off the tracks. Miles and miles of it were strung along each side of the right of way, usually on stout metal posts, but in this instance a wooden fence post was used, and it showed its age beautifully, I thought.

Slowly, it was becoming hollow. The railroad came through this area about 150 years ago, and I wondered if this post had stood here all of that time. It looked like it might have so maybe it was black locust, which is known to last 100 years or more in the ground.

I saw many wood aster seed heads here and I noticed that many had been eaten, so that made me happy. Cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, indigo buntings, nuthatches, sparrows, towhees and other birds are said to enjoy aster seeds, so that’s a good reason to let them grow rather than treating them as weeds.

The birds had picked this flower clean except for one tiny seed, and that was perfect so I could show you what an aster seed looks like. It has a little tuft of filaments at the top which acts as a parachute. When a seed hits the ground the wind can catch in the filament parachute and blow the seed along the ground to a spot where it can grow.

This is the second time in recent months that I’ve seen a bird’s nest in a shrub overrun with Oriental bittersweet. I can see how the invasive vine’s many leaves would provide good cover, but since the berries don’t appear until late fall, I doubt it has anything to do with the nesting bird eating them. It would be nice for the mama bird if she could just sit in the nest and eat the berries that surrounded her but nature doesn’t work that way. There is plenty to eat but they have to go and find it.

What does Oriental bittersweet do when there are no trees around to strangle? It strangles itself.

As I began paying closer attention when I was in the woods and became more aware of my surroundings, I noticed things on trees in winter that didn’t seem to be there in the summer. At least that’s what I thought but no, they were there all the time. It was just that they became more visible in the winter, like the way frullania liverworts darken to a dark purple color in the winter. All of the sudden the trees were covered by these dark spots, so I began looking at them closely.

The tiny leaves of frullania liverworts are strung together like beads. Some of them are said to be very fragrant but I haven’t been able to smell them yet. There are over 800 species of this liverwort. I haven’t tried to identify them but I have noticed that the ones I see must like high humidity, because they never grow too far from water.

This drainage ditch looked to be frozen solid. The black spots on the snow are hemlock seeds and scales from the cones. Birds and squirrels had been busy.

Not all of the drainage ditches were solidly frozen, so I got to see some beautiful patterns in the ice.

Beech leaves are falling I’ve noticed, and while I’ll miss seeing them I know they’re letting go so new leaves can appear in the spring. Seeing buds breaking on a beech tree is one of the great gifts of spring in a northern forest. How very beautiful they are as they unfold from the bud like silvery angel’s wings.

I saw a pheasant feather in the snow; the first I’ve ever seen that was not on a bird. This bird had met an untimely end, judging from what I saw just out of camera range to the left. I’ve learned to be at peace with seeing death in nature. Sometimes, as in the case of some fungi and trees I’ve seen, death can even be beautiful. As John Muir said “Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”  

If you happened to be standing on top of a moving train, not knowing there was a bridge or tunnel up ahead, that probably wouldn’t have turned out well. To solve the problem the railroad came up with what they called “Tell tales.” They were lengths of soft, pencil thick wire that would hit you and “tell the tale” of a low obstruction up ahead. If you were smart you would drop to your knees immediately. These wires used to hang on either end of tunnels and trestles. I used to see them regularly when I was a boy but now this is the last one I know of.

The railroad engineers often used what they had at hand, like splitting boulders and ledges to get useable stone for building. In the case of tell tales they simply stood a section of rail on end and sank it into the ground. Then they added a rod that stood 90 degrees to the rail and hung the wires from it.

And here was the old trestle, just like the one that was near my house when I was a boy. Back then there was no solid floor like the snowmobile clubs have installed these days. Instead there were wooden ties, spaced just as far apart as they were on the railbed, and between each pair, far below, you could see the water. This was a fence when I was young, and it prevented me exploring the land of mystery to the south. I was told that little boys who weren’t careful could fall between the railroad ties and end up in the river, and for a while that possibility was an insurmountable fear. At six, seven or eight years old I was probably thin enough to actually fit between the wooden ties but I kept trying, going further and further out on the trestle, all the while hoping that a train didn’t come. Then one day at maybe twelve years old I made it across and I was free to explore the far side of the river. It was like a great space had suddenly opened around me, and I’ll never forget how happy I was about being able to see more of the river and the woods along its banks.

I looked at the Ashuelot River through a silver maple, which seems to lean just a bit more each time I come here.

There was ice along the riverbanks and since we’ve had below zero cold since I was there, I’m guessing it has grown some. It will grow from each shore and meet somewhere near the middle if it stays cold enough.

The snowmobile club had put up a warning sign on a pine tree, but I was more interested in the burl behind it.

Burl is an abnormal growth that grows faster than the surrounding tree tissues. They 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. I see them all the time on hardwoods but not usually on evergreens. Woodworkers can make some beautiful things from burls.

You know it has been cold when the sap of white pines turns blue.

I finally found a fresh blueberry stem gall and all signs pointed to the tiny wasps still living inside, because when the wasps have left the gall, the sides are shot full of small round holes. Blueberry stem gall forms when a shiny black wasp called Hemadas nubilipennis damages a bud while laying her eggs on the tip of a tender shoot. The plant responds to the damage by growing a kidney shaped gall around the eggs, and this is where the larvae will overwinter before emerging as adults in the spring.

But not so fast. There was one very large hole in the end of the gall and that told me a bird, possibly a woodpecker, had robbed the gall of all the wasp larvae. I’ve seen this happen to the round galls on goldenrod and have seen black capped chickadees pecking at those. This gall and its inhabitants appear to be done for but someday I hope to be able to show you a fresh inhabited one.

My favorite thing from this day was this stump. No bigger around than a tennis ball where it was cut but it looked as if it had been there for a thousand years. It’s a good thing I have never found a way to bring all of the beautiful wooden things that I find in the woods home with me because I wouldn’t be able to move.

I don’t mind going nowhere, as long as it’s an interesting path. ~Ronald Mabbitt

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