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Posts Tagged ‘Black Birch’

I couldn’t remember the last time I had climbed a hill or mountain so last Sunday I decided it was time. I chose Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey, for no particular reason other than that’s where the 40 ton glacial erratic called Tippin Rock lives. I set off across the meadow in wall to wall sunshine and a 46 degree temperature. This was no thaw, this was spring, and I was glad that I had worn a short sleeve shirt and a light jacket.

There is at least one basswood tree here and someday I’m going to find it. They aren’t common in this area in my experience.

The trail starts off level enough but it isn’t long before you’re climbing.

Someone lost a glove and someone else hung it on a tree.

There are lots of black birch here. I keep running into black birches (Betula lenta) with what appears to be a deformity in their buds. I wouldn’t call it witches broom but the buds grow in a tightly packed cluster which isn’t normal, judging by the other buds on the trees. I haven’t been able to find out anything about it from any source, so if you happen to know I’d love to hear from you.

Oak leaves have been falling, and that’s a good sign of spring. The trees will make new leaves as they shed the old.

This trail is well blazed. Blazes are important because they keep people from getting lost out here. A trail is easy to follow at this time of year because you just follow the footprints in the snow, but in the fall when the trail is under a fresh coating of leaves it can disappear quickly for those who don’t know how to read the woods. The meaning of various blazes and how to read them is easily found online. This one means there is a right turn ahead. On a single out and back trail like this one blaze color has no real meaning.

The old way, a hatchet blaze, simply tells you that you’re on a trail.

I saw lots of freshly fallen trees out here; more than I’ve seen anywhere else. There must have been quite a wind storm come through here.

But there are plenty of hemlock seedlings waiting to fill in the gaps. Life is a circle.

There were icicles on the ledges. They weren’t that impressive at about three feet long but it shows how cold it has been up here.

I think the outcrop the ice was on was more impressive. It’s quite long.

I had reached the steepest part of the trail without any breathing issues, for which I was very grateful. I was also grateful that there was no ice on the trail. I did stop here to catch my breath and thought about how nice it was to be climbing through the winter woods again. Climbing is easy to get addicted to. The more you climb the more you want to climb and when you can’t you miss it. It calls to you, and it won’t stop calling until you climb again.

I noticed that captain obvious had put up new signs.

I call this mysterious person captain obvious because the sign in the previous photo is only a few feet from the behemoth called Tippin Rock. You couldn’t miss it if you were blind, so the sign is kind of useless. But how amazing that such a thing was dropped by a glacier onto this hilltop. Even more amazing is how it will rock slowly back and forth like a baby cradle when pushed in the right spot. Even after seeing it myself it’s hard to believe.

Some of the oldest striped maple trees (Acer pensylvanicum) I’ve seen grow up here. This one was probably 6-8 inches through, which seems big for them if I’m to go by the ones I’ve seen.

I learned a long time ago that if you climb solely for the view you’ll be disappointed most of the time. On this day it was hazy but not too bad. I like a good view as much as the next person but I never count on there being one because it doesn’t take much haze or humidity in the air to spoil them.

This view shows the haze in the distance. There was actually a warm breeze blowing and the snow had melted from the leaf covering in several spots so I sat, warm and dry, and looked out over the endless forest.

You can’t help but wonder, after seeing miles of unbroken forest from above, how the early settlers ever did what they did. I always wonder if I could have gone on after seeing this, or would I have turned back? There was nothing familiar out there, after all. No stores, no roads, no houses, nothing. It would have almost been as if they had landed on another planet. Personally I would have loved the emptiness and the solitude but you have to eat and you need shelter, so I’d guess that staying alive would have taken up almost all their time.

It’s a long way down from here so you want to watch your step. I always check to see how near the edge I am before I bring the camera to my eye. Once I’m looking through the viewfinder, I don’t move a step. Heights and I don’t get along well but up here you don’t know how high you are until you look down. Then you get the heebie jeebies.

Of course I couldn’t come all the way up here without checking on my little friends the toadskin lichens (Lasallia papulose.) This one seemed to whisper “Hey, look at me,” so I did and I saw how very different it was. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen that was brown. Usually they’re pea green when moist or ash gray when dry. You can see a hint of that gray in this one’s center. You can also see the point where it has attached itself to the rock in its center. It’s like a belly button and that’s what makes them umbilicate lichens. The many “warts” are what give it its common name.

When dry the toadskin lichens usually turn from their normal pea green color to the ashy gray seen here. They also become very brittle, like a potato chip. All those black dots are this lichen’s fruiting bodies, where it’s spores are produced. I’ve noticed that they often seem to form where the lichen stays wettest longer after a rain.  

The head of a pin is .06 inches (1.5 mm) in diameter and one of the toadskin lichen’s fruiting bodies (Apothecium) could easily hide behind one. The apothecium is where the lichen’s spores are produced. In this case it is tiny black disc with a sunken center that makes it look like a bowl with a thick black rim. The way that they sit on the body (thallus) of the lichen makes them look like they’d blow away in a breeze, but they are attached. This isn’t a great photo but it’s only the second time I’ve ever been able to get this close to this lichen‘s apothecia and it’s a pretty fair bet that you’re seeing something you’ve never seen.

Here is what a normal, healthy and happy toadskin lichen looks like, and this one looked like this because an icicle was dripping meltwater on it. It was about as big as a quarter and cute as a button.

I got back to my car and saw that a horse had been there. Horseshoes are supposed to be lucky but I’m not sure about a horseshoe print. I did feel lucky though, having gotten up and down the hill without any issues. The temperature even went up 8 degrees and it was a beautiful day, up or down. I’m already itching to climb again.

Perhaps there’s no better act of simplification than climbing a mountain. For an afternoon, a day, or a week, it’s a way of reducing a complicated life into a simple goal. All you have to do is take one step at a time, place one foot in front of the other, and refuse to turn back until you’ve given everything you have. ~Ken Ilgunas

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Actually it was Christmas eve day when a trail I haven’t walked in a while called to me. It was a bright, sunny and warm day with temps nearing the mid-40s F. Days like this don’t come often in a New Hampshire December so I hated to waste it. I hadn’t been the only one to think so; the thin snow on the trail showed many footprints.

There were icy spots on the trail but I had my micro spikes on so I stayed upright. It’s a good idea to have them if you hike popular trails because the compacted snow quickly turns to ice.

There is pond here that’s a popular ice skating spot for local children. In fact I skated here as a boy. The town usually plows the snow off it but over the past few winters it has taken the ice longer to thicken up. I don’t think it was plowed at all last winter because it was too warm for good ice. Plow trucks have ended up at the bottom of the pond in the past so they make sure it’s good and firm before plowing it these days. But kids will be kids and you can see where they have shoveled to make a small skating area.

They pay no attention to the signs. Someday they might wish they had, but I hope not. This sign is on a dam and I’ve seen the pond when it had to be drained to work on the dam a few years ago, and I was shocked at how shallow it was. If a pickup truck went in at the deepest point the water would probably reach to the bottom of the windows.

Spidery cracks in the ice showed that it was still quite thin in places.

When a thin layer of ice on a pond gets snowed on quite often the snow is heavy enough to make the ice sink a bit, and this forces water up through holes in the ice. The water turns the snow to slush, which then freezes into the spidery patterns seen here. For years I wondered if someone had thrown a rock and broken a hole in the ice but this comes from below, not above.

Another thing I wondered about for years was what tree produced such zig zaggy twigs. When I finally realized it was witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) I felt pretty foolish, because all I would have had to do was look the plant over more carefully and I would have seen its seed pods and cup like bracts, which would have been an immediate give away. The seed pods especially are unmistakable in the winter. Inside each pod are two shiny black seeds that were much loved by certain Native American tribes. They are said to taste like pistachio nuts but I’ve never tried them. Natives also steamed witch hazel branches over hot stones in their sweat lodges to sooth aching muscles and used its Y shaped branches for dowsing. In fact the Mohegan tribe is said to have shown early settlers how to find water using witch hazel branches, and also how to use the plant medicinally. A tea made from witch hazel tightens muscles and stops bleeding and the plant is one of only a handful of medicinal plants still approved as an ingredient in non-prescription drugs by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s amazing that it is still being used medicinally after what is quite probably thousands of years. 

Two things we have lots of here in New Hampshire are trees and stones and you can find plenty of both along this trail. Some look like they were just left here by glaciers.

A vein of quartz in a stone points the way. Quartz can fill an already present crack in a cooling stone as a hot, liquid brine and some of the resulting veins can be very large. In Frankfurt, Germany there is a hydrothermal vein system that is nearly 4 miles long and almost over 200 feet wide. 

This little fern growing in a crack in a boulder never gets any bigger than what is seen here but it comes back every year to try again. It’s very persistent.

When water finds its way into a crack in a stone and freezes, the pressure from the ice can split the stone, and that’s what happened here. What is unusual about this scene is how a tree seed found its way onto the ground at the bottom of the crack and grew there. I’m guessing that the ever growing tree trunk is pushing the crack in the stone open even more each year. I’ve seen boulders as big as trucks split in the same way, cleaved perfectly by ice.

Stones aren’t the only things in the forest that crack; trees also crack. Straight, vertical cracks in tree bark like that shown above are called frost cracks because they happen in frigid weather when bark repeatedly freezes and thaws. Sunlight warms the bark during the day and then at night when the temperature drops quickly the bark cools and shrinks much quicker than the inner wood, and this causes stress and pressure build up. The unequal shrinkage and contraction between wood and bark can cause the bark to split, sometimes violently and as loudly as a rifle shot. It’s a relatively common sound in the woods at night, but it’s always startling. This frost crack is rare because it is in the bark of a white pine, which has thick bark.

Most frost cracks usually appear on thin barked trees and heal relatively quickly. This photo shows a healed frost crack in an oak.

Here is a scar in the bark of an eastern hemlock that I can’t explain. I’ve shown it off and on in blog posts over the years and many readers have had a shot at guessing the cause but none of us has truly been satisfied with their guess. By far the most popular guess is that lightning made the scar, but the lightning strikes that I’ve seen in tree bark have run as straight as a frost crack. They have also run the length of the tree, while this one comes up out of the ground and runs maybe 4 or 5 feet up the tree.

The zig zag crack is quite deep so I think it has been there for a few years. I’ve seen only one other photo of a similar scar and that also came with no explanation.

Sunlight on a hemlock branch warmed my spirits as much as it did the branch.

When a tree dies it often will shed its bark before it falls if it falls naturally, and the serpentine opening that shows in this tree’s bark is the beginning of the process. I see trees all the time that have all their bark lying in a heap at their base.

Sometimes I see trees that have broken off and fallen and their trunks are completely hollow. I often wonder how many of the trees that surround me in the woods are standing with hollow trunks. That isn’t a real comforting thought especially on a windy day, but I think the wound “window” in this tree shows how it happens. The weathered gray heart of the tree died first and the outer bark lived long enough to start healing the wound. If the tree had lived it would have most likely just been another standing hollow tree, but it finally died and I think the channels showing bark beetle damage all around the wound tell the story of how. Bark beetles don’t usually attack healthy trees but if the tree is alive when they move in it is doomed.

Here was a tree scar that wouldn’t ever heal; someone had cut down a hemlock that was about 5 inches through and I wondered who would do such a thing and why. And then I remembered doing the same thing when I was a boy, and I thought about how I didn’t know then and still don’t know why I did it. This seemed like a good time to ponder such things but I wasn’t able to fill in any blanks. It is healthy I think, to occasionally question our actions. I hope whoever did this will one day ask themselves why, just as I did on this day.

The bark had fallen off an old black birch (Betula lenta) and the inner bark was like confetti. Black birch bark looks a lot like cherry bark when young but once they reach about 50 years old the bark begins to split and form scaly plates. These irregular plates start to fall off when the tree is about 80 years old,  so I would say this tree must be at least that old. The beautiful inner bark shown here will eventually become the outer bark and it will begin to fall off when the tree is about 150 years old. Black birches were once heavily harvested for their natural oil of wintergreen so it’s unusual to find such an old example. I gave it a pat on the bark and wished it well.  

I know this very popular trail has been here since the late 1800s but this tree hasn’t been here that long. Still, it took a lot of foot traffic to wear the bark off its roots like this. I always stop to look at roots like this. Some are so smooth they look as if they had been sanded and polished by a cabinetmaker. Many show wood of different colors and are beautiful.

You will find something more in woods than in books. Trees and stones will teach you that which you can never learn from masters. ~St. Bernard

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Well, the growing season is about finished here since we’ve had a freeze, but we were very lucky to have fall colors go on and on the way they did. This photo of Mount Monadnock was taken from a spot where I’ve never viewed it before. It was early on a cloudy morning, bordering on twilight, but boosting the camera’s ISO function showed me what you see here. The mountain had its head in the clouds again but there was plenty of color to be seen.

There was mist on Half Moon Pond in Hancock one morning. It’s been a very misty fall, I’ve noticed.

You could barely see the hill on the other side of the pond.

But when the mists cleared it was beautiful.

I’ve been trying for several years now to get a shot of the full moon over Half Moon Pond, and this year I finally got it.

I’ve known witch alders (Fothergilla major) for a long time but apparently I never paid them any mind in the fall. They’re quite pretty. This is a native shrub related to witch hazel which grows to about 6-7 feet in this area. Though native to the southeast it does well here in the northeast, but it is almost always seen in gardens rather than in the wild. The fragrant flower heads are bottlebrush shaped and made up of many flowers that have no petals. What little color they have comes from the stamens, which have tiny yellow anthers at the ends of long white filaments.

The yellow leaves are from black birch and the white bark is from a gray birch, so we have black, white, and gray subjects in color.

Blackberries can be quite beautiful in the fall with their deep maroon / purple leaves.

The maple leaved viburnums (Viburnum acerifolium) have been beautiful this year. Their leaves seem to start out colored just about any color you can name in the fall, but after their red / yellow / orange/ purple phases all of the leaves eventually become a very pale, ghostly pink, making this shrub’s fall color among the most beautiful in the forest, in my opinion.

Maple leaved viburnum berries (drupes) are about the size of raisins and I’ve heard that they don’t taste very good, but many birds and animals eat them. They disappear quickly and getting a shot of both fall colored leaves and fruit is difficult.

What else can I say about the red maples? They’re just so beautiful with their many beautiful colors at various times of year.

This bracket fungus had the autumn spirit.

I had high hopes that I’d see the burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) along the Ashuelot River in Swanzey go all the way this year, showing leaves of the lightest pastel pink before they fell, but unfortunately a freeze saw all the leaves drop overnight last week, so this photo of them in much darker pink will have to do. Burning bushes might lose their leaves quickly some years but the berries will persist until birds have eaten every one of them. That’s what makes them one of the most invasive plants in the area and that is why their sale and cultivation have been banned in New Hampshire.

Here’s a closer look at the burning bushes. It’s too bad that they’re so invasive because they really are beautiful, especially when massed in the thousands as they are in this spot.

We’ve had some ferocious winds this year but I’ve been lucky enough to find still waters for tree reflections.

The beeches have also been beautiful this year but once they started they turned fast and most now wear brown. I thought this young example was very beautiful.

There are over 200 viburnum varieties and many grow as natives here. Smooth arrow wood (Viburnum dentatum) is one of them. It has yellowish white, mounded flower clusters and blooms along stream banks and drainage ditches. The flowers become dark blue drupes that birds love. You can see some of them in this photo. It is said that this plant’s common name comes from Native Americans using the straight stems for arrow shafts. They also used the shrub medicinally and its fruit for food. It’s quite pretty in the fall as well.

Staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) are one of our most colorful shrubs in the fall. They can range from lemon yellow to pumpkin orange to tomato red, and anything in between. These examples were mostly orange.

But this sumac was very red.

I thought I’d end this post with a leftover photo from my last trip up Pitcher Mountain in Stoddard. I finally hit the peak color up there at just the right time this year and it was so glorious I hated to come down. They were truly some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a few.

So many hues in nature and yet nothing remains the same, every day, every season a work of genius, a free gift from the Artist of artists. ~E.A. Bucchianeri

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In 2010 Keene built a new middle school at the edge of a 500 acre wetland called Tenant Swamp and the building sits on a high terrace that overlooks the swamp. To create an “outdoor classroom” for the students a boardwalk leading into the swamp was also built. I frequently drive by tenant swamp at this time of year and note the beautiful fall foliage that can be seen from the road and I’ve always wondered what the fall foliage would look like from inside the swamp. That’s what this trip would be about on this beautiful day.

A sturdy bridge built over a seasonal stream leads into the swamp.

An 850 foot boardwalk meanders through the swamp. It’s sturdy and well-built and about a foot or two off the ground. When it was being installed 9-12 feet of peat was discovered in some places. Two feet of peat takes about a thousand years to form so this peat has been here for a very long time. I’m tempted to call this a peat bog because of these discoveries but technically because it is forested, the correct term is swamp.

I was happy to see that there was some nice fall color here inside the swamp in addition to the beautiful colors I had seen on the outer edges.  

The swamp is left to itself as much as possible and when trees fall they lie where they fell.

I saw lots of New England asters in sunny spots and I’m guessing that this swamp must be full of them and many other plants that I’d love to see.

There were lots of blueberry bushes here as well, and most were wearing their beautiful fall red.

Black raspberries are also plentiful here.

I’ve never seen so many winterberries growing in a single place before and every bush was loaded with fruit. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native plant in the holly family and is toxic, but birds love the berries. This plant loves wet feet so if you find it you can almost always be sure there is water nearby. Native Americans used many parts of it medicinally but they knew how to prepare it so it would cure and not make them sick.

I saw many spruce trees here and that immediately told me something about this place was different, because I don’t see many spruce trees in the wild. Spruce trees like it cool and they prefer the boreal forests further north. There are at least two species here and I think they were probably red spruce (Picea rubens) and black spruce (Picea mariana.) Neither one minds boggy ground.

Cattails (Typha latifolia) were an important food for Native Americans. Their roots contain more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice, and native peoples made flour from them.  They also ate the new shoots in spring, which must have been especially welcome after a long winter of eating dried foods. They are very beneficial to many animals and birds and even the swamps, ponds and lakes they grow in by filtering runoff water and helping reduce the amount of silt and nutrients that flow into them.

Before the new middle school could be built here an archaeological sensitivity assessment had to be done, and by the time the dig was completed it was found that Native Americans lived here at the end of the last ice age, approximately 11,000-12,000 years ago. The dig also found that the Ashuelot River once ran through here; about a half mile east of where it now flows. Since the site evolved into a swamp it was never farmed or built on so it was valuable enough archeologically to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are a few diagrams like the one above placed here and there on the boardwalk to help people understand exactly what went on here 12,000 years ago.

I thought this was interesting.

500 acres of swamp boggles my mind and I know that if I hopped off the boardwalk and bush whacked my way into the swamp, I’d probably be lost in under an hour. Once you get turned around and start wandering in circles it’s all over, and in November of 1890 that’s exactly what happened to George McCurdy, who died of exposure. I’ve heard stories about another man who went into the swamp and was never found. I’ll stay on the boardwalk but the swamp is very enticing and I’d love to explore it.

There are lots of birds in the swamp and benches are placed here and there along the boardwalk for people who like to sit and watch them.

It’s not hard to find evidence of woodpeckers here. This hole was made by a pileated woodpecker sometime in the past.

This hole was fresh and was probably made by one of the smaller woodpeckers, like the downy woodpecker.

There are lots of cinnamon ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) growing in the swamp. They like wet feet and I usually find them near water. The common name for this fern comes from its upright reddish brown fertile fronds which someone thought looked like cinnamon sticks. It often turns bright pumpkin orange in the fall.

There were many fallen leaves on the boardwalk.

The fallen leaves made me look up, and when I did I was surprised to see bare branches on some of the maples already. Fall must pass quickly here.

A black birch (Betula lenta) showed how beautiful it could be. This tree is also called sweet birch and its numbers were once decimated because of its use as a source of oil of wintergreen. The bark looks a lot like cherry bark but chewing a twig is the best way to identify it; if it tastes like wintergreen then it is black birch. If not then it is most likely a cherry.

Royal fern (Osmunda spectabilis) has a strong presence here and this one was very beautiful in its fall colors. Royal fern is one of the most beautiful of our native ferns in my opinion, but often fools people by not really looking very fern like. Royal fern is in the family Osmundaceae, and fossils belonging to this family have been found in rocks of the Permian age, which was about 230 million years ago. There is also a European species of royal fern called Osmunda regalis.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. ~Henry David Thoreau

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The last time I passed through this section of woods I couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. The house I grew up in was just a few yards from the railroad tracks and I’d guess I started walking those tracks almost as soon as I could walk. I knew that if I followed them one way (north) I’d get to my grandmother’s house and then downtown Keene further on. But I didn’t know where the other direction went, so one day I decided it was time to find out. It would be my first great adventure.

There was a slight problem though. The Ashuelot River was also just a few yards from the house and if I was going to follow the tracks the way I’d never been I had to cross it by way of the train trestle over the Ashuelot River. The trestle had gaps between the ties and if you weren’t careful my grandmother said, a skinny little boy like me could fall right through one of those gaps and end up in the river. That thought had held me back for a long time as she knew it would but on this day I was determined, so off I went across the trestle for the first time, headed south.

My father knew that a boy had to run and explore and learn, and he let me off the leash early on. I had no mother to say otherwise so I simply loved life and made my own fun. Unlike the other boys I knew who could only seem to focus on what they didn’t have I saw what I did have, and though we were poor when it came to money I knew that I was rich; I could see it, sharp and clear, and even at twelve years old I knew that no boy anywhere else on earth was having a better boyhood than I was.

But even so my father would have had something to say about this adventure and I probably would have had to eat standing up for a few days if he’d found out. That’s because he knew the river drew me like a magnet. He was forever having to tell me to stay away from it, and with good reason. As I was taking photos of the frozen river on this day it began to groan and crack open and my stomach fell into my shoes. It was the same sound I’d heard when I was walking down the middle of it so many years ago when the ice gave way. Even after 50+ years it’s a sound that can still make my stomach lurch and my hands shake.

I could have drowned that day but instead I learned a good lesson, and it’s one I’ve never forgotten. In fact I learned all kinds of things along these rail lines because I was curious and I wanted to know the answers to the thousand and one questions I had in my head. Since nobody I knew could answer the questions I turned to books. Botany books, wildflower books, tree books, bird books, I had them all and I learned from them, but even so I’m still what I call “overly curious” when it comes to the natural world, and it’s that curiosity that fuels this blog. For instance I’ve wondered for years why the buds on a black birch will suddenly form a cluster of buds like that in the above photo. It’s almost like a witches’ broom but not quite because they don’t seem to grow after they knot up like this. Actually I think they die.

This is what a normal, healthy black birch bud (Betula lenta) looks like. The young bark of these trees looks a lot like cherry bark but if you nibble a twig and taste wintergreen, it’s a black birch. It’s also called sweet birch and cherry birch, and birch beer was once made from it and so was oil of wintergreen. In fact so many trees were taken to make oil of wintergreen for many years the trees were very hard to find. This is the only birch that I’ve seen the strange bud clusters on.

Another mystery is why birds don’t eat sumac berries until spring in this part of the country. I’ve heard that in other parts of the country they snap them up as soon as they ripen but here they’re still on the bushes even into April in some years. I’ve heard that they’re low in fat and not very nutritious so that might have something to do with it, but why wouldn’t that be true everywhere? The berries seen here are those of the smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) but smooth or staghorn sumac berries, most will still be there in spring.

Another mystery is how can a river look frozen solid in one place and then be free of ice less than a mile downstream. It could have something to do with restricted flow, I think. The place where I took the photo of the iced over river has a kind of S curve and an island, and both would slow down the flow.

I had to have a look at the shagbark hickory buds (Carya ovata) while I was here. There is no sign of any movement yet but come mid-May they’ll open to reveal some of the most beautiful sights in the spring forest.

I did see some movement in some of the beech buds (Fagus grandifolia) I looked at though it was almost imperceptible. You can just see how some of the silvery white tips of the bud scales have barely pulled away from the bud. Soon they will start to grow and lengthen and then in May will finally open, and then the trees will look as if they’ve been hung with tiny angel wings.

In places the woods were full of ice.

And in other places they were nearly ice free.

The drainage ditches that were dug by the railroad 150 years ago were still working fine, though they were ice covered.

What interests me most about this ice is the oak leaf shape in the lower left corner. I can’t even guess how that would have happened. Ice is such fascinating stuff.

There are lots of old stone walls out here. They are “tossed” or “thrown” walls, where the stones were literally just thrown on top of one another, because the object was to get them out of what would become cropland as quickly as possible. I know this wall is quite old because of the lichens and mosses on the stones. Walls I built 45 years ago still don’t have any mosses or lichens on them and the stones haven’t even grayed yet. I’d guess this one must be at least 200 years old, built even before the railroad came through.

This boulder pile shows what those who first cleared the land faced. Left here by the last glacier, they had to be moved if you were going to plant crops.  I’ve collected stones to build walls with and I can say that it is backbreaking work.

I hoped to see some signs of hazelnut catkins opening but these were still closed tight. It won’t be long now though.

Distances seemed longer and time passed much slower when I was a child and this walk seemed very long indeed, but for the first time I had actually left my town and crossed into another: Swanzey, and that was quite a feat in my opinion. Swanzey lies to the south of Keene and it isn’t very far but I remember feeling so tired that day when I came to this road, and I had the walk home still ahead of me. I could have waited for the Boston and Maine freight and hopped it, but my grandmother told me in graphic detail what can happen to little boys who try to hop on trains. Of course she did that to keep me from hopping the trains I saw creeping by twice a day, and it was very effective. I wanted badly to try, but I never did.

So I walked back home dog tired but elated, and as I retraced those steps on this day once again I realized how very lucky I was to have had this place to grow up in; to be able to run and play in the fields and forests along the river, surrounded by and immersed in nature. It was such a glorious life and if I ever had a choice of where and when I could return to it would be that place and that time, because for me there is simply nothing better. I really do hope that all of you have a place that you feel the same about, and I hope you’re lucky enough to be at least able to revisit it occasionally.

A boy’s will is the wind’s will,
And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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We’ve had a return to summer here in southwestern New Hampshire and it was a hot, humid day when I sought out the natural air conditioning of the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland. It’s always about 10 degrees cooler here and there is almost always a breeze blowing through the man-made canyon. The canyon was hacked out of the bedrock by railroad workers in the mid-1800s. The rails are long gone but luckily, thanks to the efforts of local snowmobile clubs, the trails remain open. Note all the fallen leaves.  Already.

The last time I was here in May I found that a huge stone had fallen from the canyon wall. Though someone had been cleaning out the drainage ditches and cutting brush, the stone still sat where it had fallen. I think it would take a good size bulldozer to move it but then, move it where? The only way out of here is by one end or the other; there are no side trails.

Rocks aren’t the only things falling here; a large maple tree had fallen as well, but someone had cut it up. It seems odd that I see so many things that have fallen but I never see them fall. Maybe I should just count my blessings. That tree or the boulder could have easily killed a person.

The railroad used the stone blasted from the canyon to build retaining walls along parts of the trail. They’re beautifully built and they’ve held the hillside back for 150 years. Anyone who knows much about lichens would expect a wall like this one to be covered with them, but this entire place is remarkably almost lichen free.

Most of the trail is natural; just a very long trench cut through the bedrock of the hillside. It really must have been difficult to remove the snow from here in the winter so trains could get through. The canyon walls would have allowed just a few feet of space on either side of a train.

Many kinds of mosses, liverworts, ferns, flowering plants, and trees grow on these ledges, constantly watered by groundwater that seeps out of cracks in the stone. The scope of what you can find here is really amazing; I’ve seen things here that I’ve never seen anywhere else. At this time of year the lush green growth always reminds me of the Shangri la that James Hilton wrote about in his book Lost Horizon.

Drainage ditches on either side of the rail bed catch all the seeping groundwater and transport it out of the canyon so the rail bed stays dry. The railroad built the rail bed by laying large, flat stones like Roman road builders once did. On top of that they put course gravel, and over the gravel they laid track ballast. Track ballast is the crushed stone on which the ties or sleepers were laid. If the ballast was thick enough it kept weeds from growing and helped with drainage. Judging by all of the plants that usually grow alongside the ditches the ballast is most likely gone now, or it has certainly thinned out. I knew that people had been working here because all of the shoulder high plants that normally grew alongside the ditches had been cut, but they’ll grow back.

8. Washed Out Trail

We had torrential storms this past summer which in certain instances dropped 4 inches or more of rain in less than 24 hours in places, and this was one of those places. This photo shows a 3 foot wide, 6 inch deep trench that rushing water cut down the center of the rail bed. There were 2 or 3 other places that had washed out as well, so somebody has a lot of work ahead of them. Luckily trucks can get in here, but I doubt anything bigger than a one ton dump truck would get through without destroying the rail bed. The only thing good about the washout was that it let me see how the railroad built the rail bed.

Green algae (Trentepohlia aurea) grow here and there on the walls and are bright orange and very hairy. They grow like small tufts of hair all over some rocks. I’m not sure what the algae / stone attraction is, but it only grows on certain stones and this is the only place I’ve ever seen it. Though it is called green algae a carotenoid pigment in the alga cells called hematochrome or beta- carotene, which is the same pigment that gives carrots their orange color, hides the green chlorophyll. I keep hoping I’ll see it producing spores but I never have. In fact I’m not sure if I’d know when it was producing spores because it always looks the same to me.  Algae do produce spores though, and they can produce them in high enough concentrations to actually color rainfall. Red, yellow, green, and black rain has been reported in various parts of the world.

I saw plenty of asters on this trip and some of them grew right out of the cracks in the stone walls of the canyon. Many plants and even trees grow on these walls, wherever they can gain a foothold.

In the winter huge columns of ice, some as big as tree trunks and 50 feet tall, grow here; fed by the constantly dripping groundwater. In places the groundwater carries a lot of minerals with it, and the above photo shows orange staining on the stone, probably caused by iron in the soil or stone. The minerals in the water also stain the ice columns in winter and you can find blue, green, red, orange, yellow, brown, and even black ice. It’s a magical, beautiful place when we have a cold winter.

The ledges soar overhead, up to 50 feet in places, and rock and ice climbers can often be found training here. I haven’t been able to talk to any of them to see what they think of the large boulder that fell, but I would think that it would make them a bit nervous. The shadows make the stone look very dark but it isn’t quite as dark as the camera thinks it is.

The sun lit up the yellow fall foliage of the black birches (Betula lenta) that grow at the top of the canyon walls. This tree is also called sweet birch and its numbers were once decimated because of its use as a source of oil of wintergreen. The bark looks a lot like cherry bark but chewing a twig is the best way to identify it; if it tastes like wintergreen then it is black birch. If not then it is most likely a cherry.

Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) grows well here in the moist soil, and even grows on the ledges. Since they have a root much like the corm on a gladiolus I’m not sure how they manage to grow on stone but they do. Though it is considered toxic Native Americans cooked and ate the roots, and this gave the plant the name Indian turnip. Jack in the pulpit is a native plant in the arum family similar to the Lords and Ladies plant found in the U.K.

The ripe fruit of a Jack in the pulpit is bright red when ripe. Deer love these berries and often come by and chomp off the top of the plant, but I don’t know if deer dare to come into this canyon. I’ve never seen any signs of them here. Each Jack in the pulpit berry starts out green and contains 3-5 seeds.

Where it hadn’t been cut jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) still bloomed. These blossoms dangle at the ends of long filament and sway in the slightest breath of a breeze, so it was tricky getting a shot of one here where the breezes almost always blow.

Many species of moss grow on the moist stone ledges. I think this example was cypress-leaved plait-moss (Hypnum cupressiforme,) also called sheet moss or Hypnum moss. It is one of the mosses that are often used in moss gardens.

My favorite liverwort is the great scented liverwort (Conocephalum conicum) and they grow here on the stone ledges by the thousands. I was worried about them last year because many of them turned gray and looked like they might be dying, but now they’re back to their green color and looked to be good and healthy. Last year’s color change must have been a reaction to the drought. These plants need plenty of water.

Great scented liverwort is also called snakeskin liverwort, for obvious reasons. The reason it looks so reptilian is because of the way its pores and air chambers are outlined on its surfaces. It is the only liverwort with this feature, so it is very easy to identify. They love growing over the drainage channels here with ground water dripping on them from above. They are very fussy about water quality and will only grow where the water is clean and pure.  When you crush a leaf of this liverwort you smell a clean spicy aroma that I always think would make an excellent air freshener. They’re very beautiful things and I wish I could see them every day.

Another pretty moss that grows on the ledges is the leafy common pocket moss (Fissidens taxifolia.) This small moss is a water lover that grows near waterfalls and streams on rock, wood, or soil. It’s very small though; what shows in this photo would fit on the face of a penny. Its tiny leaves are only one cell thick and in the right light they are translucent.

The trail goes on all the way to Keene and I always tell myself that someday I’m going to follow it all that way, but by the time I’ve reached the old lineman’s shack I’m usually ready to turn around and head back. By this time I’ve seen much and have taken hundreds of photos, so I don’t need any more of those.  I like to take a little time poking around the old shack and usually end up wondering how it is still standing, and if it will make it through another winter. It was built well, that’s for sure. It’s only supported by two walls and only has half a roof and half a floor now.

There is always an adventure waiting in the woods. ~Katelyn S. Bolds

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1-half-moon-pond

After an extended nice warm January thaw we were brought back to reality by a sleet / freezing rain / snow/ rain storm that immediately froze into concrete like ice, making it treacherous to walk just about anywhere. This was the view across Half Moon Pond in Hancock to Mount Skatutakee, taken by cell phone the next morning. The pond Ice was cold but the air was warm, and that meant fog.

2-monadnock

It wasn’t fog but a cloud that tried to hide the summit of Mount Monadnock at Perkin’s Pond in Troy recently. There is still very little snow on this, the sunny side of the mountain. Every time it snows up there the sun melts it before it snows again, resulting in the least snowy Monadnock summit I’ve seen in a while.

3-puddle-mud

My thoughts turned from the lofty heights of mountaintops to the lowly depths of puddle mud when I found this. I don’t know if the mud froze and made these patterns or if ice on the puddle made them before it melted and then evaporated. Mud puddles can be very interesting things.

4-white-cushion-moss

The white cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) growing on a boulder made me want to reach out and pet it, and so I did. Though it looks like it might be stiff and prickly it’s actually quite soft. White cushion moss gets its common name from the way it turns a whitish color when it dries out so even though it was surrounded by ice this one was very dry. A perfect example of the winter desert when, though there is plenty of snow and ice, it’s too cold for any melt water to benefit plants.

5-crowded-parchment

Crowded parchment fungus (Stereum complicatum) lived up to its name on this log. The complicatum part of its scientific name means “folded back on itself.” This fungus often grows on fallen oak limbs and parasitizes some types of jelly fungi. It causes white rot of the heartwood when it grows on standing trees.

6-milk-white-toothed-polypore

I spoke about finding a very young milk white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus) in my last post. Since then I’ve seen older ones and this is one of them. The “teeth” are actually ragged bits of spore bearing tissue. They start life as tubes or pores and break apart and turn brown as they age. Milk white toothed polypores appear very late in the year and are considered “winter mushrooms.” Look for them in the undersides of tree branches.

7-turkey-tails

I’ve been looking for turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) that were wearing something other than brown all year and I finally found some that looked bluish gray. They were a little dry I think, because of their wilted looking edges, or maybe they were just old. This fungus been used medicinally by the Chinese, Japanese, and Native Americans for thousands of years and the FDA has approved them for trials on cancer patients. They’re found in forests all over the world from Europe to Asia in the US and Russia.

8-unknown-fungi

These mushrooms were well past their prime but I didn’t care because I loved their color and texture and the way they looked as if they had been sculpted and bronzed. In death they were far more beautiful than they had been in life.

9-sumac-berries

Birds aren’t eating staghorn sumac berries but they never seem to in this area until the end of winter. I’ve heard that birds shun them because they’re low in fat, but I wonder if that’s true of all birds because when birds like red winged blackbirds return in spring the berries disappear quickly. It’s a head scratcher because Jerry from the Quiet Solo Pursuits blog in Michigan says that the birds there gobble them up.

10-rose-hips

Birds haven’t eaten these rose hips either but they were as big as grapes, so maybe swallowing them is a problem. Fresh or dried rose hips are higher in vitamin C than citrus fruits and they can be used in many recipes, including a tea that is very soothing for a sore throat. The seeds inside rose hips should always be removed before use though, because they have a hairy covering that can be irritating. They can cost as much as $25.00 per pound in health food stores, which is more than the price of a rose bush, so it is worth growing your own if you have a fondness for them. The best time to harvest rose hips is after the first frost because frost removes some of the tartness. Choose fruit that is firm and has good, deep color. These examples were not firm but they had plenty of color.

11-cherries

These cherries were the size of peas, so it wasn’t size that turned the birds away from them. I think they were chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) which are dark purple / black when ripe, but I wonder if these might have frozen before they had a chance to ripen. Robins, thrushes, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, jays, bluebirds, catbirds, kingbirds, and grouse eat chokecherries, and so do mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, foxes, deer, bear, and moose. The inner bark of the chokecherry was used by Native Americans in the smoking mixture known as kinnikinnick to improve the taste of the bearberry leaf, which was the chief ingredient for many tribes.

12-red-elderberry-buds

I don’t see many red elderberry bushes (Sambucus racemosa) but I’m always happy when I do because then I get to see their chubby plum colored buds, which are some of my favorites. Later on the plant will have bright scarlet fruits that birds love. The berries are said to be toxic but they were cooked and eaten by Native Americans so I’m sure they knew how to cook them in such a way as to remove the toxicity. They also used them medicinally. Red elderberry is one of two elderberries native to New Hampshire. The other is the common or black elderberry (Sambucus nigra V. canadensis) which has black berries and isn’t toxic.

13-poplar-sunburst-lichen

I had to go and visit one of my favorite lichens; the poplar sunburst lichen (Xanthomendoza hasseana.) It grows on a tree near a retention pond in Keene, right next to a shopping mall. I’ve visited it off and on for years now and it has never stopped producing spores. The sucker like, cup shaped bits are its fruiting bodies (Apothecia) where the spores are produced. Will it ever stop producing spores? After watching it do so for about 4 years now, I doubt it. In fact, it could go on for millennia:

Another sunburst lichen, the elegant sunburst (Xanthoria elegans) was exposed to ultraviolet radiation, cosmic radiation, and the vacuum of space for one and a half years and when it was brought back to earth it grew on as if nothing had happened. Many believe that lichens are virtually indestructible and are therefore as close to immortal as any earthly being can be.

14-star-rosette-lichen-physcia-stellaris

As I finished admiring the poplar sunburst lichen my attention was drawn to another lichen that seemed to be winking at me. It was a star rosette lichen (Physcia stellaris), which has dark brown apothecia that are often pruinose. Pruinose refers to a white, waxy, powdery coating like that found on blueberries, plums, and first year black raspberry canes. I’ve noticed by watching smoky eye boulder lichens, which also have pruinose apothecia, that the coating can reflect light in different ways, sometimes appearing gray and at other times more blue. These examples were kind of blue gray but it was a cloudy day.

15-black-birch-witchs-broom

I keep running into black birches (Betula lenta) with what appears to be a deformity in their buds. I wouldn’t call it witches broom but the buds grow in a tightly packed cluster which isn’t normal, judging by the other buds on the trees. I haven’t been able to find out anything about it from any source, so if you happen to know I’d love to hear from you.

16-black-birch-bud

This is what a normal black birch bud looks like. Birch beer was once made from the black birch and so was oil of wintergreen. If you aren’t sure if the tree you see is a black birch just chew a twig. If it’s a black birch it will taste like wintergreen. So many trees were taken to make oil of wintergreen that black birch is still hard to find in many areas today.

17-liverwort

I saw something on a tree that seemed very pale for this time of year. Most mosses are a deep green in winter so this chartreuse color really stood out. After a little research I think it is a liverwort called flat-leaved scalewort (Radula complanata.) I’ve read that it is common on trees and shrubs but I’ve never seen it. Plants are usually flattened, either forming patches like the one seen above or single stems creeping among mosses.

18-liverwort

A closer look at the liverwort shows round, flattened, overlapping leaves which are quite small. Each one is no more than 1/16  of an inch across. The even smaller, darker leaves look to be part of the same plant but I can find very little information on this liverwort. It is said to like sunny, sheltered, moist conditions and will sometimes grow on streamside rocks. Liverworts are epiphytes that take nothing from the trees they grow on. I’ve read that they were the first land plants to evolve about 500,000 million years ago and are the oldest living land plants.

19-twilight

The days are finally getting longer but it’s still too dark to do any serious photography before or after work. I took this shot of ice covered Half Moon Pond in Hancock at 7:30 one recent morning and it looks like the sun was setting rather than rising. The lack of light on weekdays leaves only weekends for taking photos and lately you can barely find the sun, even on a weekend. Our weather predicting groundhog Punxsutawney Phil just predicted six more weeks of winter (which just happens to coincide with the six weeks of winter left on the calendar) but the days are getting longer and not even old Punxsutawney Phil can stop that. I’m very much looking forward to being able to spend more time in the woods.

The days are short
The sun a spark
Hung thin between
The dark and dark.
 ~John Updike

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