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Posts Tagged ‘Blackberry leaves in Winter’

Finding ice baubles along the shore of the Ashuelot River last week made me wonder if the ice was growing at the deep railroad cut called the “icebox” up in Westmoreland, so last Saturday I decided to go and have a look. There was ice on the man-made canyon walls but it was too early for the ice climbers who named the place to be here.

Broken ice at the base of the ice falls told me that the icicles had formed and melted a few times. It takes a good cold period to get them going but once they start growing in earnest, they can reach the size of tree trunks in just a few weeks.

The groundwater that seeps through the fractures in the stone never stops. Winter or summer, it still flows. The reason the ice grows so well is because, the walls are shaded in this part of the canyon. The canyon rim is 50 feet high in some places, so sunshine might kiss the canyon floor for an hour each day. That’s also why you find no plants growing here.

In this photo from a few years ago you can see the scale of the place and you can also see that the ice climbers don’t wait long to start climbing. These are very focused, intent people and I don’t like to bother them when they’re up there.

In places water pours from the walls in streams but in most places it just seeps slowly, drip by drip.

Never was moss so green as it was on this day.

As you can imagine it is cold here, usually made colder by the breeze that blows through, so the 28 degrees F. I started with was probably more like 18 or 20 when I finally turned south to find some sunshine.

The railroad engineers had a lot of stone to get rid of once the canyon had been blasted through the hillside and one of the ways they got rid of it was to build massive retaining walls along sections of railbed. For the most part they’re still in perfect shape after 150 years.

The southern canyon’s walls aren’t quite so high so more sunshine pours in, and that means more plants grow here on the southern end. At this time of year it seems kind of empty but in summer the growth here is lush, with every vertical and horizontal surface covered by growing things, and it always reminds me of the Shangri-La that James Hilton described in Lost Horizon.

Last summer I discovered ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) growing here and here was the evidence; their feather like fertile fronds, covered with spore capsules. There will most likely be more of them here in the future. They’re a beautiful fern so I hope so.

There are lots of blackberries growing here as well and most still had leaves to show off.

But just because the sun shines brighter here in the southern canyon, that doesn’t mean that ice doesn’t grow here. The cold wins out over the weak winter sunshine and these walls are often trapped under ice that is feet thick until spring.

To give you a sense of what I’m talking about, here is the southern canyon in March of 2015. The ice columns, stained various colors by minerals in the groundwater, were thicker than tree trunks. It’s a good idea to wear warm clothes if you come here in winter.

Until and unless the drainage channels freeze over the ice, no matter how big it might get, is cutoff by the flowing water.

You can see how easily the groundwater can flow through the cracks and fissures in the stone. That’s what makes this place so special. I’ve been in other deep cuts but none have had ice like I find here. Everything has come together perfectly to create a land of water, stone and ice.

Here was new mineral staining that I hadn’t seen before. If an ice column grows in this spot, it will most likely be orange.

An evergreen fern grows in a grotto, set back from the face of the wall and each year icicles, like prison bars, surround it until spring.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of nature, because in other places the ice was rotten. Ice becomes rotten when water, air bubbles, and/or dirt get in between the grains of ice and cause it to honeycomb and lose its strength. Instead of a sharp ringing crack when it is struck it produces more of a dull thud. The grayish white color and matte finish are a sure sign that you should stay away from it when it’s hanging over your head. Compare the ice in this shot with that in the previous shot and the difference will be obvious.

There was puddle ice to see. Do you see the fish?

In one spot on the wall of the southern canyon a green alga called Trentepohlia aurea grows. Though it is considered green algae the same pigment that colors carrots orange makes green algae orange. It’s is very hairy, but with the drainage channels filled with water I couldn’t get close enough to show you.

Reptilian great scented liverworts (Conocephalum conicum) also grow on the southern canyon walls. This beautiful liverwort gets its common name from its fresh, clean scent. It will only grow near water that is very clean and it grows here just above the drainage ditches. Groundwater constantly splashes them and keeps them wet in warm months. In winter they are often encased in ice, and they will stay that way until spring. It doesn’t seem to hurt them any because there are thousands of them growing here.

The saddest thing I saw on this day was how the trail had flooded over half the length of the southern end. Nobody has maintained the drainage channels enough to keep them fully open and with all the rain we had over last summer they failed and flooded the trail. Snowmobile clubs try to keep up but there is only so much they can do with hand tools. To fix this properly now you’d have to bring in truck loads of gravel and heavy equipment to restore the drainage channels to the condition they once were in. It won’t be easy or cheap but I hope someone will do it because it would be a shame to lose this one-of-a-kind place. There is simply nothing else like it in this area.

All of the water in the drainage channels becomes a stream that runs off into the woods under that old bridge, and I was shocked to see how much soil had washed away from its banks. What was once a little surface stream is now about two feet below the surface.

I don’t know what this old bridge was used for but there was a lot of stone to be moved out of the canyons and I’m guessing that it was wheeled across this bridge and dumped in the woods. The railroad did that a lot and you can find piles of blasted stone all over this area. If I could find a way out there I’d go and see, but nobody is crossing this bridge unless they’re a tightrope walker.

And then there was the old lineman’s shack which, with its ridge beam broken, can no longer support its own weight. It now tilts at about 30 degrees, and if we have any mentionable amount of snow this winter I think it will surely come down.

It looks to me like the heavy slate roof is actually pulling what’s left of the building apart. It’s a shame that something so well built has to give itself up in this way but with absolutely no maintenance over a century or more, it has put up a good fight.

Though the old shack is beyond repair I hope the townspeople will somehow vote to find the funds to repair the damage to the trail itself one day. Other parts of the rail trails that surround Keene have had extensive work done to them, but they’re closer to town so more people use them. Meanwhile I’ll continue enjoying the place for as long as I’m able. I hope you enjoy seeing it as well. It’s a rare and special place that should be appreciated more than it is.

It’s amazing how quickly nature consumes human places after we turn our backs on them. Life is a hungry thing. ~Scott Westerfeld

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Since the last time I did one of these posts it has gotten colder; cold enough to freeze over our ponds and lakes in fact, as this morning scene from Half Moon Pond in Hancock shows. Many ice fishermen and skaters have been enjoying the ice this year. The ice has also been very vocal, and the pinging and twanging sounds I hear daily signal cracking of the ice. If you’ve never heard it the ice can sound eerie, but some people hear it as music. There is a good video with accurate reproduction of these sounds here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chxn2szgEAg
Nature just never ceases to amaze.

Pressure ridges have been building in the ice on the shore of the pond. It’s easy to think of ice as hard and rigid but it can be quite plastic and it moves around a lot.

Here was a window through the ice; a window into spring.

But it will be a while before spring arrives. We still have to get through February which, though it is the shortest month, can sometimes seem like the longest.

Of course cold doesn’t let snow melt so what looks like a lot of snow in this photo is what has built up over the course of two or three storms that have carried only three or four inches. “Nuisance storms” are what they’re called because, though the amount of snowfall is minimal and hardly worth shoveling or plowing, you never know what the next storm will bring so you’d better get out there and clean it up. It might be a nuisance but you feel better about having done it.

When the snow is light and powdery the wind can sculpt it into all kinds of shapes. That’s how these ripples were made.

I wonder if anyone knows what made these marks in the snow?

The marks were made by a pine cone, blown by the wind and rolling through the snow. I see this a lot.

Animals have started digging through the snow to find acorns and other seeds. I’m guessing these dig marks were made by a squirrel. They have a rough time in the extreme below zero cold we’ve seen lately.

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are patiently waiting in their swamp for the weather to be right before showing their mottled spathes, but it won’t be long. Once the modified leaves called spathes have unfurled and the flowers on the spadix have produced pollen the shoot you see here will grow and unfurl and become the large green, cabbage like leaves that the plant gets its name from. Skunk cabbage, through a process called thermogenesis, can produce its own heat and melt its way through ice and snow. They are a sure sign that spring has arrived.

I’m seeing lots of blackberries hanging onto their leaves this winter, and I’m always happy to see them. These were a pleasing shade of maroon. To see actual leaves in January is a great gift, in my opinion.

When a sunbeam lights up a single bit of nature in a given area I pay attention, and on this day one fell on a golden birch. Golden sunshine on a golden birch; a gift of gold that warmed my spirit on a cold blue winter day.

Blue is a color I see a lot of in winter. Here the normally white or greenish white stripes on a striped maple trunk (Acer pensylvanicum) have turned blue. Since I’ve only seen this happen in winter I assume that it is the cold that does it. This native tree is also called goosefoot maple due to the shape of its leaves, and moosewood maple because moose eat its leaves. Another name that I haven’t heard much of is snake bark maple. Native Americans are said to have used the wood to make arrows, which would make sense because these trees grow very straight. They also used it medicinally to treat coughs and colds.

My favorite part of the striped maple at this time of year is its pink buds at the tip of orange branches. From this point until they leaf out they will get even more beautiful.

This photo taken previously what those striped maple buds will look like in late April or early May, just before they break and the leaves come out. A tree full of them is very beautiful.

A young striped maple’s bark is smooth and green or greenish brown with long white or whitish green vertical lines. As the tree ages the bark turns reddish-brown with darker vertical lines, as can be seen in this photo. It’s a tree that goes through many very visible changes and I like to watch them over time.

I saw an old river grape vine that was as big around as my arm. The bark on grape vines peels naturally and birds use it for nest building. North America has about 20 native species of wild grape and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so the grapes were used for juice and jelly or cooked and used in various recipes. Grapes were also used to dye baskets with a gray violet dye.

There is a disease of grapes called black spot disease, also known as anthracnose of grapes, but this isn’t it. This was like a thin black film on the vine that could be peeled off. I’ve searched grape diseases online for a while now and have found nothing like it. I’d hate to think there was a disease spreading among our wild grapes.

I believe that I do know what these black spots I saw on an oak log are; hypoxylon canker, which is a fungal disease of oaks. It appears as black, dead lesions on limbs, branches, and trunks and can kill the tree by causing white rot of the sapwood. The disease usually affects trees that are under stress or which have been damaged in some way. Signs are smaller leaves which are yellowing, along with a thinning canopy and falling twigs and branches.

I can remember when I was surprised to find a single maple dust lichen (Lecanora thysanophora), the only one I had ever seen, but now I’m seeing them everywhere. I don’t know if they were always there and I didn’t see them or if they are spreading, but I’m always happy to find them. They grow usually on smooth barked trees like beech and young maples. Most that I see are an inch or so across but they can get larger.  I like their stark simplicity.

The white / gray fringe around the outside of a maple dust lichen is called the prothallus and using it is a great way to identify it, because from what I’ve read there isn’t another that has it. A prothallus is defined as a “differently colored border to a crustose lichen where the fungus is actively growing but there are no algal cells.” The brownish field or body of this lichen is considered a sorediate thallus, meaning it has powdery structures called soredia that can fall from the lichen and grow new lichens.

If you see this do not touch it, because this is what a poison ivy vine can look like in winter. Poison ivy can appear as a plant, a shrub, or a vine and if you’re going to spend much time in the woods it’s a good idea to know it well. In the winter a vine like this can help identify the plant because of the many aerial roots that come directly out of its bark. It’s best not to touch it because even in winter it can cause an itchy rash. Other common vines like bittersweet, grape, and the trumpet creeper vine do not have aerial roots. They climb by twining themselves around the tree.

What I believe was a dead banded tussock moth was lying on a windowsill where I work. I was shocked when I saw the detail that my new phone camera captured. I think it has passed the macro test.

“Big deal,” I can hear someone say “it’s just an old leaf.” But to me, in the depths of winter when the world sometimes seems black, brown and white, a beautiful spot of color like this will stop me dead in my tracks. Can you be taken out of yourself by an old witch hazel leaf? Can you see that the beauty that you behold is in its essence, who you are? Can you melt into the gratitude that washes over you from having been given such a gift? Yes you can, and nature will show you how if you will let it.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude. ~A.A. Milne

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Last Sunday the weather people said it would be windy and cold with possibilities of snow squalls but I wanted to be in the woods, so I headed for a rail trail in Swanzey that I hadn’t been on since last year sometime. When I left the house it wasn’t bad; 36 degrees F. and cloudy, with a slight breeze. I was hoping the snow squalls wouldn’t happen because they can take you into white out conditions in an instant. When they happen you can’t see very well so I made a plan to just stand under a pine or hemlock tree until it passed. Luckily, I didn’t need a plan.

The trail was icy because we’d had rain all day the day before and then it froze up at night, but someone still had their bike out. You wouldn’t catch me doing that.

Though the trail was iced over the forest along the trail was mostly clear. Pines and hemlocks keep a lot of snow from hitting the ground.

The old whistle post wasn’t covered by forest debris yet. The W stands for whistle and the post is called a whistle post because it marks the spot where the locomotive engineer was to blow the train’s whistle. When there is a crossing very nearby, where the railbed crosses a road, the whistle would have alerted wagon or auto drivers that a train was coming. Some whistle posts were marked – – o -, which meant “two longs and a short” on the whistle. I grew up hearing these whistles (actually horns) daily as the old Boston and Maine diesel freights went by our house.

There are houses not too far from this rail trail and years ago someone planted a privet hedge and let it go. Now it has fruit.

I saw lots of big red stem moss (Pleurozium schreberi) out here. This is a common moss that I often see growing in very large mats, sometimes even overrunning and choking out other mosses. In fact I’ve never seen a moss grow as fast as this one. A few years ago I hardly saw it and now I see it just about everywhere I go. I’ve read that it is native but it seems bent on taking over the earth.

There are lots of small oak trees out here that have been cut again and again by the people who maintain these trails, and this is one of them. It stopped me when I noticed all the various colors in its leaves. Beautiful warm browns, orange, and even pink.

Many of the oak leaves were covered with small spots, which I think were some type of fungus.

One of the oaks had galls on it and a bird had pecked them open to get at the galls inside. Years ago I thought at first it was woodpeckers that did this but I’ve seen blue jays and even chickadees pecking at them.

High up in the branches of many oaks jelly fungi grow on the limbs, and when these limbs fall we get a good chance to see them. I think that the most common of all jelly fungi is this one; the amber jelly (Exidia recisa,) because I see it all the time, especially after a rain. This one always reminds me of jellied cranberry sauce. Jelly fungi dry out when it’s dry and appear as tiny colored flakes that you’d hardly believe could grow as much as they do, but they absorb water like a sponge and can grow to 60 times bigger than they were when dry. Jelly fungi have a shiny side and a kind of matte finish side and their spores are produced on their shiny sides. After a good rain look closely at those fallen limbs, big or small, and you’re sure to find jelly fungi.

One side of this trail is bordered by Yale forest and there is plenty to see there. Yale University has a hands on forestry school in this forest so you can occasionally see it being selectively logged.

It’s easy to see how white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata) got its common name. This is a fairly common moss that seems to like to hang from the sides of boulders and ledges. Another name for it is Medusa moss, because when dry its leaves press close to the stem and it takes on a very wiry, string like appearance. Its ball shaped orange spore capsules (sporophytes) are hidden among the leaves on very short stalks, so they’re hard to see. This moss will even grow on asphalt roofs, so it is a perfect choice for green roof projects.

Due to the rain of the day before this particular moss looked happy and beautiful.

Before I knew it I was at the trestle.

There are good views of the river from these old trestles so I’m glad they’re still here.

Many trees topple into the river each year and that’s why you usually only see kayaks or canoes on it when the water is high in spring. I have a feeling that leaning maple will be in the water before too long.

I’ve been out here when the leaves were on the trees so I know they’re silver and red maples, but even if I hadn’t seen the leaves, those buds would tell the story.

I walked on past the trestle and saw a few stones with drill marks but I didn’t see any ledges or boulders that they might have come from. Usually you can tell right where they are from.

It was nice to see green leaves in January. I think the overhanging evergreens must have helped protect these blackberry leaves from the cold.

I saw a few partridgeberry plants with the berries still on them. Usually turkeys and other birds snap them up quickly so they can be hard to find. Partridgeberry is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but do not climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants. The berries will remain on the plant for long periods unless eaten, and can sometimes still be found the following spring.

Partridgeberry flowers come in pairs that are fused at the base. Once pollinated, the ovaries of these flowers will join and form one berry with 8 seeds. Partridgeberry plants can always be easily identified by the two indentations on the berries that show where the flowers were, and these can be seen in the photo above.  Other names for this plant include twinberry and two-eyed berry. The berries are edible, but mostly tasteless.

I saw a stone that was shot full of mica. I’ve had a hard time getting a good shot of mica in the past but this one came out reasonably well.

After a time I saw the river again and I knew it was time to turn around, because from here it is just a short walk to the other end of this leg of the trail where several roads meet. I was glad the snow squalls held off until later in the day.

Forests, lakes, and rivers, clouds and winds, stars and flowers, stupendous glaciers and crystal snowflakes – every form of animate or inanimate existence, leaves its impress upon the soul of man. ~Orison Swett Marden

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