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Posts Tagged ‘Ashuelot River’

Well the January thaw ended with a wake up slap; two snowstorms within a week and temperatures a good 40 degrees below the 62 degree high we saw during the thaw. It looks like it’s back to normal for now. This photo was taken before dawn on the morning of the first snowstorm. Because it was still dark when I took it, it’s very grainy but it shows how the snow stuck to everything in the forest.

Once it got lighter it was still a black and white world. Sometimes the sun will come out after it snows but it usually stays pretty gray for a day or so.

The snow was wet and the wind made sure it stuck to even the tree trunks.

Though there really wasn’t much snow, maybe three inches, it looked like a lot more.

This shot taken under trees shows how thin it was in places.

I like what the light does in winter and though this is another shot that it was really too dark to take, the sky was amazing.

This shot of Half Moon Pond reminds me of a 1930s post card.

The previous photos were from the first storm. This shot, taken from my back doorway, shows a fresh coating of another 4 inches of snow later in the week.

Though this time the snow was very light and powdery it still covered everything. As William Sharp once said: There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance. If you click on this photo you’ll see what he meant.

Two posts ago this view of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey looked like it had been taken in March. Now here it is back in January dress again. Once this storm had blown itself out the sun came out quickly, and this made for a prettier day.

The snow covering a local pond looks pristine with hardly a mark on it but just off to the left out of the frame a man was shoveling the ice for skating on. This despite at least 5 signs warning that the ice was too thin.

No matter how many of these are put up people think they know better, but shoveling off the ice so your children can skate on it even after seeing the signs seems a bit reckless to me. It’s hard to understand the thought processes of some people.

But it was a beautiful sunny day and I decided to follow the trail around the pond.

Some thoughtful soul had made a path down the middle of the trail and I was thankful because that made walking easier. At first I thought the path had been made with a shovel but after I walked it I was fairly sure that it was made by a child’s plastic sled being pulled through here. There is a great sliding hill nearby and it’s usually crowded after a storm.

The light was beautiful. It kept stopping me so I could watch it before it passed.

It was easy to see which way the wind had blown during the storm.

Every beech leaf wore a mantle of snow, but they still stayed dry and papery. Leaves that weren’t weighted by snow still whispered as I passed by.

Anyone who knows rhododendrons and winter weather knows that they only do this when it’s very cold. There are several theories about why rhododendron leaves do this, but the most plausible (to me) is that the leaf curls to prevent moisture loss. Another theory that sounds likely is that the leaf is protecting its soft underside by curling it up inside the tougher, waxy outer surface. In any event this behavior doesn’t harm the plant, and once it warms up the leaves will perk up and flatten right out again.

More light through the trees. It was a beautiful scene, I thought, with the sunlight on the snowy branches.

Every twig on this tree was highlighted. Winter is my least favorite season because of all the added work but that doesn’t mean I can’t see the beauty that is unique to the season and for me the beauty of this scene is how easily you can see how this tree grew into in two trees. Though they had the same root ball the two trunks didn’t seem to get along and grew apart from each other over the years. It isn’t hard to imagine them wishing they could simply walk away from each other. That’s something we humans have to be thankful for, I suppose.

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

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On Friday the 10th of January it started warming up, and it didn’t stop until the temperature reached 62 degrees F. and all the snow was gone and all the records were broken. January thaws usually last for about a week and temperatures rise an average of 10° F higher than those of the previous week but this was a thaw to remember, with temperatures rising 30 degrees or more. I think of a January thaw as a taste of spring in the dead of winter, and it is always welcome.

Snow was coming off roofs in lacy sheets because of the ice underneath.

I followed an ice covered road by a pond and by the time I walked back, in the space of a half hour most of the ice you see here had melted.

The ice on the pond was melting quickly and was covered with water. When it freezes again it will be a great surface for skating.

On a day like this it was easy to think of red wing blackbirds building nests in the cattails at the pond edges, but they won’t really be back for a couple of months.

North of Keene you could see it was still January on the banks of the Ashuelot River but that snow was thin and I’d guess that it is all gone now.

You can see how thin the snow was in the woods. I’d guess no more than two inches, and two inches melts fast in 60 degree weather.

The high water mark along the river showed that there was plenty of room for all the melting snow.

The Ashuelot River south of Keene looked completely different than the photo I took of it in the north of Keene and they were taken just a few hours apart. This view looks more like March.

The melting ice and snow has uncovered a bounty for animals. It was a good year for acorns.

Spring has always been my favorite season so for me a thaw is also a tease that lights the pilot light of spring fever. Seeing pussy willows in January fuels the flames.

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. 

I went to see a witch hazel that I had seen bloom quite late before and there it was, blooming again. This is unusual because it’s a fall blooming witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana.) At this time of year I’d more expect to see a spring blooming witch hazel in bloom.

But no, the spring blooming witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) buds were still closed up tight. They’ll bloom in March, and I can’t wait to see them again.

I was shocked to see what I think are reticulated iris (Iris reticulata) shoots out of the ground. These irises are early, sometimes even earlier than crocuses, but I have a feeling they’ll pay dearly for believing it was spring in January.

The big flower heads of Hydrangeas can usually be seen blowing across the ground like tumbleweeds in spring, but these stayed put.  

Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) loses its berries over winter and in the spring you can find the ground under them littered with small blue spheres. These examples were still hanging on tight, so they hadn’t been fooled by the warmth. Boston ivy lends its name to the “ivy league” schools. The odd thing about Boston ivy is its name, because it isn’t from Boston and it isn’t an ivy; it’s a member of the grape family and comes from China and Japan. This vine attaches to just about any vertical surface with tiny circular pads that form at the ends of its tendrils.  It secretes calcium carbonate and uses it to “glue” the pads to the surface it wants to climb. The glue can to hold up to 260 times its own weight, which is pretty remarkable.

The magnolia flower buds still wore their fuzzy caps and I was glad to see it. I’ve seen lots of beautiful magnolia blossoms browned over the years by opening early and getting frost bitten.

There wasn’t any ice to be seen at Ashuelot falls. The falls are shaded for a large part of the day so any ice that forms here often stays for the winter, but not this time.

The warm spell was a nice respite from the cabin fever that always starts to set in around mid-January. Forty degrees above our average high lets us catch our breath and prepare for more winter weather. We all know there is plenty of winter left to come but for now a taste of spring was just what we needed. Everywhere I went there were people outside, loving it.

The sun came out,
And the snowman cried.
His tears ran down
On every side.
His tears ran down
Till the spot was cleared.
He cried so hard
That he disappeared.

~ Margaret Hillert

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Back pain led me to look for an easy place to walk, so I chose a familiar rail trail that I knew wouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Since I fell out of a tree and suffered a double fracture to my spine when I was a boy, back pain has been an old “friend” for most of my life. Usually it really isn’t that much of a problem but every now and then it becomes an issue, and I’ve found that the best cure for it is to simply walk it off.

It was a beautiful blue sky day with temperatures just above freezing, so walking was just what the doctor ordered. Actually in my experience the doctor will order you to go home and stay in bed for a week if you complain of back pain, but I’ve found that is the worst thing I can do. Keeping moving; that’s my cure.

I saw a log with some very strange looking branch collars on it. It was some type of evergreen, possibly spruce, but I’m not sure. The part of the tree that protrudes and surrounds the branch is called the branch collar and it should always be left intact when pruning. As can be seen here, the tree leaves it behind naturally.

Private suburban land abuts this section of trail along parts of its length and over the years the homeowners have planted numerous nonnative trees and shrubs, trying to screen their yards from the trail that cuts through them. A homeowner who lived along the rail trail had long ago planted a privet hedge and then never trimmed it so the hedge grew to about ten feet tall, and it was covered with berries that the birds weren’t eating. That’s a good thing because privet is considered invasive.

Evidence of the ice storm I wrote about in my last post was still seen over a week later, sparkling in the sun.

An Oriental bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) decided it would try to strangle a large white pine tree. If the tree lives another 50 years or so the bittersweet will most likely win and the tree will die, because these vines are like steel cables. They strangle many native trees by wrapping themselves around the tree’s trunk like a boa constrictor. I’ve seen vines as big as my arm wrapped tightly around trees so as the trees grew they had no room to expand and slowly died. 

Sometimes they even try to strangle each other.

The bittersweet berries are quite pretty but unfortunately they’re also quite tasty to birds, and of course that’s why they’re so successful at spreading throughout the countryside, and why they grow near trees and fences.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years of doing this blog is how windstorms are becoming more numerous and more severe, and I saw evidence of it everywhere out here. Though it’s hard to tell from a photo this pine tree was the diameter of a car tire and it snapped like a toothpick.

The pine tree wasn’t the only tree that had fallen. Downed trees were everywhere.

I saw a child’s footprint frozen into the ice.

Then I saw a lot more children’s footprints leading off the rail trail into the woods. It seemed I had stumbled onto the trail to a secret hideout off in the woods. It wouldn’t be secret for long though, with all those tracks coming and going. I was tempted to follow the prints but I thought about how I would have felt if an adult had appeared at my secret hideout, so I kept going down the main trail.  

They had marked their secret trail with a broken concrete base to an old birdbath. How in the world did they get that out here, I wondered. It must weigh 50 pounds.

The secret hideout was on Yale Forest land, which borders part of the trail. This sign marking the forest is slowly being eaten by a tree.

These oak leaves shining in the sunshine were beautiful, I thought.

This oak was full of galls. There are horned oak galls, gouty oak galls, artichoke oak galls, potato oak galls, and oak marble galls. The photo above is of marble galls and they really are about the size of a marble. These marble galls are usually near perfect spheres. Some galls form on the undersides of leaves, some on the tree’s roots and others, like the one shown, on the twigs and stems. All are caused by different wasps or mites which will only lay their eggs on the leaves, roots, or twigs of their favorite species of oak tree. Iron sulfate mixed with tannic acid from oak galls made ink that was the standard writing and drawing ink from the 12th century until well into the 20th century. Some still use it today.

I’m not sure what happened here but this oak gall was seriously misshapen.

My back felt much better by the time I reached the trestle but it didn’t last so I’m still trying to walk it off as of this writing. It takes longer to straighten it out as I get older, but it will happen.

Every time I see the Ashuelot River from one of these old trestles I’m very happy that I didn’t have to bushwhack my way through the woods to see it. We’re very lucky to have these trails.

When I was a boy I walked the railroad tracks to get to my grandmother’s house but before I got there I had to cross a street. This was the same street crossing that, twice a day, the big diesel Boston and Maine locomotives would slow for. Before they crossed they would blow their horns to warn the cars on the street, and you could hear those horns from either my or my grandmother’s house, so I heard them twice a day everyday while I was growing up. Knowing all that you would think I would know what the W on this post stood for but it has taken me years to learn that it simply means “Whistle,” as in “blow your whistle because there’s a road crossing up ahead.” Two longs blasts followed by a short blast and a final long blast of the train’s whistle or horn is a Federal law and every train crossing a road has to abide by it to warn passing traffic. These days you’re more likely to see a flashing light or some type of barrier, but back then I could tell time by the horns on those trains.

These trains are just like the ones that rumbled by (and shook) my house for so many years. Once the trains stopped running it was very hard to see them tearing up all the tracks in this area, and it took several years before I could walk the rail trails left behind. Though I’m very thankful that we have the rail trails, seeing photos like this one is like seeing a photo of an old friend who has died. They roll by only in dreams now, hauling boxcars full of memories.

Human history and natural history are visible from trails. The old railroad routes through a town can show a lot about how the town developed, what it was like long ago. When you go through a town by bicycle on an old railroad route, the place looks very different than from the customary perspective of the car and the highway. ~Peter Harnick

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Last Saturday it rained and Sunday the forecast was for 40 mile per hour wind gusts, so I decided to stay out of the woods and play instead along the banks of the Ashuelot river. I’ve seen a lot of blown down trees this year and it doesn’t take much to bring them down when the ground is saturated. And saturated it must be because all the snow has melted and the river is approaching bank-full.

Downstream from the bridge I stood on it was choppy.

I stopped trying to get a good wave photo in the dim light and admired an aster seed head instead.

The remnants of a bird’s nest hung from the branches of a small oak. I was surprised at the length of the fibers it was woven with. They must have been nearly a foot long. I saw an eastern phoebe nesting here in the past but I can’t say it that was a phoebe that built this nest.

Instead of being caused by an insect like many galls, alder (Alnus incana) tongue gall is caused by a fungus (Taphrina alni). The fungus chemically deforms parts of the ovarian tissue of the female cone-like catkins (strobiles) and causes long, tongue shaped galls known as languets to grow from them. These galls seem to like high humidity so are usually found on alders that grow near swamps, ponds, rivers and streams.  

Birds are gobbling the berries of the invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus) which isn’t a good thing, because this shrub doesn’t need any help in its mission to take over the understory. Since its introduction from Asia as an ornamental in 1860, Winged euonymus has spread as far south as the gulf coast, north into Canada, and as far west as Illinois. It creates such a dense shade nothing else can get a start, so our native plants won’t grow near it. Because of that burning bushes can create monocultures of hundreds or even thousands of plants, and that is what has happened along this stretch of river.

One of the curious things I saw on this walk was what I think was a hemispherical insect egg case attached to a tree.  It had a single hole in it where either the insect had escaped or a bird had pecked the larva out of it. It was hollow and had opened somehow and fallen away from the tree, and I could see that the inside was pure white.

I carefully closed the egg case (?) against the tree and this is what it looked like. The white spot is the hole in it showing the white inside. It was only about a half inch across and I don’t know what made it.

It was a mostly cloudy day but the sun was kind enough to come out long enough to illuminate a beautiful patch of snowy moss that was in front of me.

There is a trail here that follows a narrow spit of land that juts out into the river. I suppose you’d call it a peninsula. It’s wooded and though I told myself I had to stay out of the woods I couldn’t resist.

A little spruce tree reminded me that Christmas is near. It’s unusual to find a spruce growing here.

Barberry berries looked like tiny Christmas ornaments but barberry is extremely invasive so I’d rather not see it here. Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) is native to Japan. In 1875 seeds imported from Russia were planted at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, Massachusetts. Birds helped it escape and now it has become a very invasive shrub that forms dense thickets and chokes out native plants. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, recently “barberry has been implicated in the spread of Lyme disease. Researchers have noted higher densities of adult deer ticks and white-footed deer mice under barberry than under native shrubs. Deer mice, the larval host, have higher levels of larval tick infestation and more of the adult ticks are infected with Lyme disease. When barberry is controlled, fewer mice and ticks are present and infection rates drop.”

Japanese barberry has inner bark that is bright yellow. It also has thorns that are a son of a gun to kneel on.

This is the first gall I’ve ever seen on a silky dogwood shrub. I haven’t been able to identify the insect that made it but it doesn’t matter because galls don’t usually harm the plants they grow on.

There are many witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) on the peninsula and I like to come out here in winter to see their beautiful brown leaves.

Beavers like witch hazels too, and treat them as we would a garden vegetable. Over the years, due to the cropping by the beavers, I’ve seen the witch hazels here grow into many stemmed shrubs. The beavers come and harvest a few; never all of them, and then leave them alone for a few years to grow back. Then they repeat the process, all up and down the river. It’s so good to have beavers here, because when I was a boy this river was so polluted few animals frequented it. Muskrats, I think were the largest animal using the river then. I can’t remember ever seeing a single sign of beavers.

Witch hazel seed pods 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.

Bark beetles usually attack weak or dying trees but they can also kill healthy trees by girdling them.  Adults bore small holes in the bark and lay eggs in a cavity. Once the larvae emerge from the eggs they make tunnels in the inner bark. Once they stop feeding they will pupate at the end of these tunnels. The pupae then become young adults and fly off to find another tree. These beetles carry spores of various fungi which can grow on the outer sapwood and stop the upward flow of water to the crown. Bark Beetles include over 100 species. It is said that their work is like a fingerprint for the species. They can create such beautiful patterns in wood that it looks as if a calligrapher has taken up a chisel instead of a pen. When I think of things like this, created under the bark of a limb and never meant for me to see, that’s when I feel an almost overwhelming sense of gratitude, just for being alive and able to see beauty like this every day.

Bark beetles excavate egg galleries in fresh phloem, the inner bark which carries food from leaves to the roots of a tree. For a living tree this is a death sentence.  

The peninsula I was on gets narrower and narrower until it becomes just a point jutting out into the river, but on this day the water was so high I knew I’d never reach the end.

In fact the end of the peninsula was under water and this was a scary scene that I’ve never seen before. I’m guessing the peninsula is going to be a hundred or so yards shorter from now on.

On my way back up the trail I tripped over a pine branch and fell to my knees right on some Japanese barberry thorns. Once I stopped cursing my bad luck I saw that in fact I’d had good luck, because I saw a little pink, brain like jelly fungus that I’ve never seen before growing on the branch I had tripped over. Now I just have to see if I can identify it. So far I haven’t had much luck doing so. It’s very unusual, and cute too. It was a little over a quarter inch long.

There is no music like a little river’s . . . It takes the mind out-of-doors . . . and . . . it quiets a man down like saying his prayers. ~Robert Louis Stevenson

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I’ve seen some glorious sunrises lately. This one reminded me of the old “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning” saying, which is based in fact. According to Wikipedia “If the morning skies are red, it is because clear skies over the horizon to the east permit the sun to light the undersides of moisture-bearing clouds.” The concept is over two thousand years old and is even referenced in the New Testament, so sailors have been paying attention to the skies for a very long time.  

I like looking for patterns in ice and I thought I saw the Statue of Liberty’s Crown in this puddle ice. The whiter the ice, the more air bubbles were trapped in it when it froze. That explains the color, but what explains the long, needle like crystals and the strange pinging noise it makes when it breaks? There might be answers to those questions out there, but I still haven’t been able to find them.

Winterberries (Ilex verticillata) are a native holly that love wet feet so I look for them in swamps and along streams.  Conditions must have been perfect for them this year because I’ve seen more berries on them than I ever have. Robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, Eastern bluebirds, and cedar waxwings all eat them so this year they’ll eat well.

Spindle berry is native to Europe but we have a native version called eastern wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus,) and I think this plant is probably the native version. The photo above is of its interesting bright red fruit, which many birds eat. I watched a pair of blue jays eating the fruit just the other day, in fact. Though Native Americans used the bark, leaves and fruits medicinally  all parts of this plant are considered poisonous if eaten. Wahoo was their name for the shrub.

When young yellow hawkweed seedlings (Hieracium caespitosum) look like the above photo; very hairy. And when it gets cold the leaves will turn purple unless covered by snow. When covered the leaves will often stay green all winter and there are thousands of them in a meadow where I work. Hawkweeds were used in Europe to treat lung disorders, stomach pains, cramps, and convulsions. Native Americans used our native hawkweeds in chewing gum.

I know I showed Mount Monadnock in my last post but I’m showing it again because I just heard that a man had to be rescued from the summit recently. Unfortunately this has become a common occurrence that is expensive and dangerous for rescuers. It usually happens because people simply aren’t prepared for the weather conditions up there. They get wet, cold, and find themselves in serious trouble. People have died on that mountain, so if you plan on climbing it please do some research and stay safe. By the way, all the snow in this photo is gone now but it’s still mighty cold up there. For a current forecast visit https://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Mount-Monadnock/forecasts/965

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) grows long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. Virgin’s bower is our native wild clematis vine that blooms anytime from July through September. 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. What is uncommon is its pretty star shaped seed head. The hairy looking seeds give it another common name: Old Man’s Beard.

I think this is the worst tree wound I’ve ever seen. Though dead now the tree lived like this for many years. It showed me that the natural drive to live is very strong among all living things.

I saw a familiar black growth on a fallen beech limb (Fagus grandifolia) that I recognized as an unusual little fungus that I had seen before.

Annulohypoxylon cohaerens fungi like beech trees and that’s where I always find them. They start life brown and mature to the purplish black color seen in the photo, and always remind me of tiny blackberries. Each small rounded growth is about half the diameter of a pea and their lumpy appearance comes from the many nipple shaped pores from which the spores are released. The fruiting bodies seen here are described as “cushion like round or flask shaped masses of fungal tissue with nipple or pustule shaped pores.” It took me about three years to be able to identify this fungus, so you have to be persistent in nature study.

Another black fungus found on trees is the bootstrap fungus. It is caused by honey mushrooms (Armillaria mellea), which are parasitic on live wood and send out long root like structures called rhizomorphs between the wood of a tree and its bark. When fresh the rhizomorphs are cream colored but darken to brown or black as they age. The fungus is also called armillaria root rot or shoestring root rot. It causes a white pulpy rot in the wood and kills many species of both soft and hardwood trees.

Fungal spores can enter trees through wounds in the bark, like sapsucker holes for instance. 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 help out a lot of their forest companions.

Many ash trees have black winter buds, like black ash for instance, but I know this one by its fruit and it is a native mountain ash. It grows in a very un-mountain like wet place and because of that I think it suffers. It seems a weak, sickly tree and I didn’t know that its buds also looked sickly until I took this photo. It does bear a limited amount of fruit though, so it’s obviously trying.

But none of that was the actual point of taking this photo; I took it so I could tell you that the best way to start learning to identify trees when they are leafless is to find a tree with prominent or unmistakable features (like buds) and start there. Once you’ve learned all you can from that tree choose another. Sooner or later you’ll notice similar patterns among tree species and that will make them even easier to identify.

Shrubs too, can teach. I can’t think of another shrub with chubby purple buds like those found on the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa.) In spring the outer purple bud scales will open and show the green inner bud and they will be very beautiful in their purple and green stripes. A bud scale is made up of modified leaves or stipules that cover and protect the bud in winter. Usually the number of bud scales surrounding a bud will help identify a tree or shrub.

A bud I most look forward to seeing open in the spring is the beech (Fagus grandifolia.) There are beautiful silvery downy edges on the new leaves that only last for a day or two, so I watch beech trees closely starting in May. Botanically beech buds are described as “narrow conical, highly imbricate, and sharply pointed.” An imbricate bud is a bud with numerous scales that overlap each other like shingles. In May they are one of the most beautiful things in the forest.

The inner bark on dead staghorn sumacs can be a beautiful bright, reddish orange color in the winter. I’ve read descriptions that say the inner (live) bark is “light green and sweet to chew on,” but no reference to its changing color when it dries, so it is a mystery to me. The plant is said to be rich in tannins and I do know that dyes in colors like salmon and plum can be made from various parts of the plant, including its bark.

I’ve seen various animals and even beautiful Hindu dancers in grape tendrils but in this one all I see is infinity, because it doesn’t seem to have a beginning or an end. A grape tendril is a flower stalk that has evolved into a grasping support to get the vine into the bright life giving sunshine at the tops of trees. They bend in the direction of touch so if the wind happens to blow them against a branch they will twist spirally around it. In a vineyard they usually point to the north.

I like the warm, rich brown of oak leaves in the winter. These were curled together in a hug, as if to keep each other warm.

Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) seed pods covered the ground under an old tree and I was glad I wasn’t the one who had to rake them all up. When the seed pods are green the pulp on the inside is edible and very sweet, while the pulp of the very similar black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) is toxic. One good way to tell the two trees apart is by the length of their seed pods; honey locust pods are much longer and may reach a foot in length, while black locust pods only grow to about 4-5 inches long. Honey locust seed pods look a lot like giant flat string beans about 9-12 inches long and often curled. Some of them look like polished mahogany and others can be purple. Beautiful white, fragrant flowers cover these trees in late spring. Locusts are legumes, in the pea family. Deer love the seed pods.

Honey locust thorns grow singly and can be 3 to 6 inches long. They will sometimes branch like the example in the photo. These thorns are big and as hard as iron. They can reach 6 inches in length and poke right out of the bark of the tree along its branches and sometimes even the main trunk. They are tough enough to puncture shoe soles and I always watch my step when I walk under one of these trees because thorns like these can cause a nasty wound. In the past the hard thorns of the younger trees were used as nails. Confederate soldiers once used them to pin their uniforms together and survivalists still use them as fish hooks, spear heads, nails, sewing needles and even small game traps. Native Americans used the wood to make bows, and medicines were made from various parts of the plant.

Go to the winter woods: listen there; look, watch, and ‘the dead months’ will give you a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest. ~ Fiona Macleod

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On the night of Sunday December 1st, just after I visited the deep cut rail trail in the last post, it started snowing. And then every day for all of that week we had at least some snow falling. In my yard I had about a foot of it but some towns in the region saw as much as three feet. I stopped one snowy morning to take the above photo of the road to work. Every living thing was snow covered, settling in for a long winter sleep.

The swamp off the side of the road still showed some water but just a shadow of what it actually holds.

In case you’re wondering, it costs $80,000 per hour to remove all of this snow from state roads. That doesn’t include the cost to each individual town to remove the snow from town roads. It takes a lot of time and effort to move a foot of snow, but move it we must.

I love how the water looks so dark against the snow. Like a black mirror.

We actually got more snow than this. It settles quickly so you really should measure it just after it falls, but this was 2 days later. Still a foot even after settling. I’d say we got 14-15 inches total.

The sky looked like someone had painted the sun into it as an afterthought. It gave light but no heat. We’ve seen 7 degrees below zero F. so far.

This is another shot taken during a snow storm. They say that it snowed for about 48 hours but it felt longer than that.

The slushy snow on Half Moon Pond in Hancock absorbed water from the pond and glowed a strange color that looked green to me, but I was told that it was kind of tan.  

Finally the snow stopped but the strange colored ice was still there.

I saw some excellent examples of ice needles before it snowed and the crunch underfoot told me they were there before I saw them. They were some of the longest ice needles that I’ve seen. Many were 6-8 inches long.

When the air temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit right at the soil surface and the soil and groundwater remain thawed, hydrostatic pressure can force the groundwater, sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because of more water freezing at its base. From what I’ve seen the needles almost always freeze together and form ribbons like those seen in the above photo. I’d love to find a single one but so far, no luck with that.

Ice needles are very fragile, as you can imagine. They weigh next to nothing and just a warm breath or the swipe of a finger can destroy them. This is the same ice ribbon in the previous photo turned on edge.

The view out my back door was a little snowy.

Mount Monadnock over in Jaffrey looked cold. I’m betting that the snow was deep up there, but I’d also bet that people were still climbing it. Monadnock is the second most climbed mountain on earth after Mount Fuji in Japan and it is climbed year round. The wind blowing through this spot at Perkin’s Pond in Troy can quickly chill you right to the bone, so imagine what it must be like up there.

So far the Ashuelot River in Swanzey remains ice free.

But ice shelves are forming along the Ashuelot in Keene. These ice shelves can be very dangerous once they get snowed on because it can be hard to tell where the land stops and the river begins. I’ve found myself standing on one more than once. Luckily I haven’t gotten get wet.

I stood on a bridge over the river and saw last year’s cattails through the ice.

The shadows on the snow were deep blue one day and they reminded me of a special high school art teacher who taught me to see rather than just look. To me, probably due to colorblindness, winter shadows looked gray but she convinced me that they were and should be blue. The odd thing about all of that is how, once I began painting them blue I began seeing them in blue, and I have ever since. Colorblindness is a very strange thing and it doesn’t behave as many people think it does. I can see red and green separately for instance but when a red cardinal lands in a green tree it completely disappears. Stoplights however are always red, green and yellow.

Speaking of yellow the bright yellow blossoms of witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) on a 25 degree f. day were a pleasure to see. Witch hazel is our latest blooming shrub, even blooming as late as January in a warm winter, so I wasn’t that surprised to see these blossoms in December. There were lots of them.

              

I’ve shown this trail many times in these winter posts but it has always been disturbed in the past, with the snow torn up by 4 wheelers or snowmobiles. This time except for a few deer tracks it was undisturbed and paved in golden sunlight. It was so beautiful I couldn’t bring myself to disturb it either, so I turned back and left.

By walking in a snowy forest you can really forget about this world, and every time you forget about this world you leave this world, and every time you leave this world you gain a very special wisdom that does not exist in this world. ~Mehmet Murat ildan

Thanks for stopping in.

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It has gotten cold enough now to start freezing up our ponds and rivers.  I’ve seen pancake ice on rivers many times and I’d expect to see it there; it’s the current that constantly moves circles of river foam or slush and makes them bump into each other and form rims, so that they start to look like pancakes. Most are about the size of a honeydew melon but they can be bigger or smaller. From what I’ve read pancake ice is rare outside of the arctic but I see it on the Ashuelot River almost every winter. What is strange about the ice pancakes in the above photo is that they were in a pond, not a river. Normally there is no current in a pond but we had very strong winds and I think they were what made the current that formed the ice pancakes.

In this photo you can see the ice ridge caused by the wind blowing across the pond. It blew all the slushy ice that had formed on part of the pond to this end and then spun some of it into pancakes.

On shore the ice kept piling up into higher ridges. In the arctic these frozen “pancakes” can pile on top of one another and in some areas 60 foot thick ridges of them have formed. In two days after it warmed up a little all of this ice had disappeared.

A milkweed seed was stuck on a very hairy branch of an American hazelnut (Corylus americana.) A good way to tell that you have an American hazelnut and not its cousin the beaked hazelnut is by the very hairy stem seen here. Only American hazelnut has hairy stems.

The male catkins of an American hazelnut are bigger in diameter and longer than those of the beaked hazelnut, from what I’ve seen. In spring they’ll slowly grow even bigger until finally turning golden yellow and bursting with pollen. I wait impatiently for it to happen.

If the male hazelnut pollen reaches a female ovary then there’s a good chance that hazelnuts like those seen here will be the result. In 1995 a large shallow pit in Scotland was found to be full of the remains of thousands of burned hazelnut shells and was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so man has been eating this nut for a very long time. In this country Native Americans used them to flavor soups, and also ground them into flour, most likely for thousands of years as well.

Here is a common sight in winter: milk white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus) is a resupinate fungus, which means it looks like it grows upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi appear to do. This is a very common winter fungus that grows on the undersides of limbs. The “teeth” are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and then break apart and turn brown as they age.

If you pick up a fallen limb and touch something that feels cold and rubbery, it might be milk white, toothed polypore. They are very tough and can stand all the snow and cold that winter can throw at them. I’ve never seen the interesting patterns that this one displayed.

If two trees or parts of trees like limbs of the same species grow close enough together the wind can make them rub against each other, wearing the outer bark away. Once the outer bark wears away and the cambium or inner bark touches, the trees can become naturally grafted together. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. I see at least a couple of self or naturally grafted trees each year.

If you thought you saw scratches on the bark of the maples in the previous photo you weren’t imagining it. Squirrels leave claw marks all over smooth barked trees and sometimes if you look closely you can see trails up the tree that they use over and over again. On those kinds of trails the scratches will appear thickly like those in the photo. I’ve known for a longtime that squirrels will nip off buds to make tree branches easier to travel on, but this is another of those bits of nature that I have never understood until just recently.

The beautiful color of a maple branch healing itself held me rapt for a time, and I remembered all of the times I’ve felt down when I walked into a forest, only to return having forgotten what it was that bothered me. The forest is such a loving place; a place full of miracles and one that reveals the secrets of creation, and it pains me to know that some people think it is a dark, forbidding place to be feared. Given a chance it will change you, and even heal you. If you spend enough time there first will come joy, and then a deep sense of gratitude and finally, after a time that might be weeks, months, or even years, a great love will well up inside of you. It is the love of all things; of creation, and at times it is so powerful it can bring tears to your eyes and make you want to kneel; not because someone tells you should but because of the love, gratitude and joy that you feel inside. You’ll begin to understand that you aren’t separate from all of this and you never have been. You are as much a part of nature as the birds that sing overhead and the leaf mold you might one day find yourself kneeling on.

Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata,) seed pods dry as thin and weightless as a sheet of paper, so though their spines are sharp at this point you can’t throw them at your friends. In the lower right quadrant of this example you can see a bit of the netting that is inside these seed pods. A man wrote to me once and told me that he decorated pens that he makes with that same netting. For me these plants are like a time machine that always takes me back to my boyhood, when we used to throw the soft spined fruits at each other before they dried out.

Wild cucumbers have two large seeds that look like cucumber seeds but they’re at least 10 times bigger. The cavities seen here are where they grew. I’m seeing fewer and fewer of these vines each year and I can’t understand why. When I was a boy they were everywhere but now I have to search, often for days or even weeks, to find them.

Last year I saw a very strange pouch like cocoon on a tree. It wasn’t very big; about the diameter of a pencil or maybe a little bigger. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it and couldn’t find anything that looked like it online so I wrote to a local insect expert who explained that it was a tussock moth cocoon, probably made by the white marked tussock moth. The caterpillar constructed it incorporating its own hairs into the design. Now here was another one, almost exactly a year later.

All of the gypsy moth egg cases I’ve seen have been smooth and hard, like this one. European gypsy moths were first brought to the U.S. in 1869 from Europe to start a silkworm business but they escaped and have been in the wild ever since. In the 1970s and 80s gypsy moth outbreaks caused many millions of dollars of damage across the northeast by defoliating and killing huge swaths of forest. I remember seeing, in just about every yard, black stripes of tar painted around tree trunks or silvery strips of aluminum foil wrapped around trunks. The theory was that when the caterpillars crawled up the trunk of a tree to feed they would either get stuck in the tar or slip on the aluminum foil and fall back to the ground. Today, decades later, you can still see the black stripes of tar around some trees. Another gypsy moth population explosion happened in Massachusetts recently and that’s why foresters say that gypsy moth egg cases should be destroyed whenever they’re found.

This little moth was on the door of the maintenance shop where I work one morning and it stayed there all day. Since it was about 30 degrees that day I thought it was odd behavior, but then I looked it up and found its name is the Winter Moth. It is a European species that was first noticed in Nova Scotia in the 1930s and now is found coast to coast in the U.S. It’s a very destructive insect, especially to apple and blueberry crops because its caterpillars eat the emerging buds in spring just as the bud scales open. They also feed on maple, oak, ash, crabapple, cherry, and many deciduous shrubs. According to the University of Massachusetts “The eggs are green at first, but turn red-orange soon thereafter. In March, prior to hatching, the eggs turn a bright blue and then a very dark blue-black just before hatching.” They sound very pretty but I think I’d rather not find any.  

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) berries are ripe and red. These berries don’t get anywhere near as hairy as staghorn sumac berries do but the plants still look alike and are easy to confuse if you don’t look closely for the hairy stems of staghorn sumac. Smooth sumac leaves turn bright red in the fall and produce a rich brown dye. Birds supposedly love them but the berries are usually still there in spring until the migratory birds come through.

Staghorn sumac berries, like the rest of the plant, are very hairy. They are said to be an important winter emergency food for many types of birds including Robins, Evening Grosbeaks, Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Scarlet Tanagers in other parts of the country but like the smooth sumac berries seen in the previous photos, staghorn sumac berries aren’t usually eaten until spring here. That could be because we have so many other native fruits and berries for them to eat. After a thorough soaking and washing, the berries were made into a drink resembling pink lemonade by Native Americans. In the Middle East they are dried and ground into a lemon flavored spice.

Even on a cloudy day the stems of staghorn sumac glow, and they really do resemble deer antlers. (Antlers are not horns, by the way, and a stag has antlers.) If this were a smooth sumac this branch would be as smooth as a maple branch.

Many things in nature will turn blue when it gets cold enough. Ice can be blue and so can the sap of the white pine tree. I’ve also seen the white striations that give striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) its name turn blue. This is the only maple tree in New England that has bark that is striped like this. Other names for the tree are snake bark maple, moosewood maple, goosefoot maple, Pennsylvania maple, and whistle wood, because the soft pith makes the wood easy to hollow out and make whistles from. Native Americans used the bark of the tree to treat many ailments including coughs and colds.

I like the flowers of thimbleweed but I never see many of them. Until recently, anyway; I stumbled into a forest of them and for the first time, saw them going to seed. The plant gets its name from the seed head that grows to look like a thimble and I’ve seen those, but until now I’ve never seen one actually producing seed. The seeds are on the sticky side and before I was through trying to get a photo I was covered with them, so I might find them growing in my own yard one day.  

Here is a beautiful turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) for your Thanksgiving. If you walk off that big meal on a wooded trail you might see some in person. They’ll be far more beautiful there than they are here.

I thought I’d end this post with one of the things I’m thankful for; this view of Mount Monadnock I see every morning on my way to work. If you click on it you’ll see a larger version and then you might be able to see the snow on the summit.

If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. ~Tecumseh, Shawnee

I hope all of you have a safe and happy Thanksgiving day. Thanks for coming by.

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