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Posts Tagged ‘Cheshire Rail Trails’

What I would have to call my favorite rail trail was calling to me and had been for a week or two, but I had resisted its pull until this day. Like getting a song out of your head by playing it, I had to walk this trail to stop it from calling, so here we are. Since I love jungles, I was happy to see that the area had almost become one. I hadn’t been here since last February and of course I didn’t see how overgrown it had become then.

The first thing I noticed was orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata) flowering along the side of the trail. Orchard grass is a pretty little grass. In my opinion a kind of architectural grass, if there could be such a thing. It was introduced into this country over two hundred years ago as a forage crop and of course it immediately escaped and is now everywhere I go. That’s fine with me because it’s very pretty when it flowers, as can be seen in the photo.

I followed the railroad tracks that were here when I was a boy every chance I had and one of my favorite things to do as I walked along in summer was to eat the raspberries that grew here. Last summer when I came here I didn’t see any, but there were plenty on this day. Not ripe yet but they’re coming along.

Blackberries are also waiting in the wings.

My biggest surprise on this day was finding ragged robin flowers (Lychnis flos-cuculi) growing along the trail. I’ve never seen them in any other place than in Hancock where I used to work, and I searched for many years before I found them there.

It’s a very unusual flower that is hard to find and amazingly, here it was right where I first flowered. I hope to one day see many of them here. It is said to prefer disturbed habitats like meadows and fields.

Multiflora roses (Rosa multiflora) have just started blooming and the pollen eaters aren’t wasting any time. Though this small flowered rose from China is very invasive it is also highly fragrant and I’ve always loved smelling it as I walk along. Birds plant it everywhere and I’ve met people who fertilized it, not knowing what it was or where it came from, but thankful for its wonderful scent. I’ve seen it climb 30 feet up into trees without any fertilizer, so personally I’d just let it be.

This is where as a boy I discovered that the best walks are unplanned. They are those with no purpose, when you have nothing to gain and no destination in mind. You just surrender yourself to the unknown and wander the countryside, and over and over again you stop, you see, you wonder, you learn. This is where I discovered the value of empty space and silence, and first found the solitude that was to become a life long friend. My grandmother worried about my being alone out here and thought I was “brooding,” as she put it. She thought I was deeply unhappy because I didn’t have a mother, but had I been older I would have asked her, how can you miss what you’ve never known? I was too young and didn’t have the words to explain to her that what I really felt out here was pure unencumbered bliss.

I tell these stories hoping that they will resonate with the parents and grandparents out there. Let your children and grandchildren run free in nature. Let them wander and wonder. Or, if you can’t bear to cut them loose, go with them. If you can’t bear that send them off to a nature camp. Nature will become their teacher, and they will be all the better for it. Just be prepared to find them books on botany, biology, entomology, nature study, etc., etc, because their heads will be full of questions. They’ll want to know everything; not about the latest video game but about life and their place in it.

I went down the embankment to see what was once a cornfield, but what is now forest. Nothing but silver and red maples, and sensitive ferns. All of it has sprung up over the last 50 years or so, which means that I’m older than everything in this photo. The way the flooding of the river and Ash Brook happens now I doubt this will ever be farmland again.

I was surprised to find bloodroot plants (Sanguinaria canadensis) out here because I’ve never seen them here before. Next May I’ll have to come back and see their flowers.

I could tell that the plants had bloomed because they had seedpods on them. They also had poison ivy growing all around them and I knelt right in it. As of this writing my knees aren’t itching but since I end up with a poison ivy rash every year I won’t be surprised if they do.

Something seemed to be ravaging the new buds on American hazelnuts (Corylus americana), which will mean no nuts this year on this bush.

I can’t blame this tiny creature for the damaged hazelnut buds but it was the only insect I found on the plant. After a bit of searching I have been able to identify it as the larva of an Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis) so it was not eating the hazelnut buds. It will actually eat the aphids that do harm to so many plants.

River grapes (Vitis riparia) were flowering in high numbers and I was happy to see them. I hope the grapes will draw the Baltimore orioles back to the area. There used to be lots of them when I was young but I never see them out here anymore. Grape flowers are among the smallest I see but when thousands of them bloom together their wonderful fragrance can be smelled from quite a distance. I’m sure many have smelled them and not known what they were smelling. The vines climb high into the treetops by using tendrils, and you can just see one over on the left, looking for something to cling to.

Other plants have different strategies when it comes to climbing. Native climbing false buckwheat (Fallopia scandens) does it by sending long shoots straight up, hoping to find something to twine itself around. This one missed the mark by a few feet but it will just fall over after a bit and grab on to whatever it can. Eventually it will get to where the most sunlight is. This plant is also called climbing bindweed and there are invasives that resemble it.

A bicycle built for two had ridden over the trestle just before I reached it. I saw lots of people on bikes out here on this day including an old friend I hadn’t seen in many years. I was glad to see so many people using the trail. That means it will stay open and will be cared for.

I went down beside the trestle, which is something I used to do regularly years ago, just to explore. The banks seem to have narrowed quite a lot between the stream and the abutments since those days but I suppose it’s in the nature of a stream to want to widen over the years. I wanted to go under the trestle but I didn’t trust the mud there. When conditions are right you can sink into it quickly. I saw animal tracks but no human ones, so I stayed away.

I tried to get a good shot of the entire trestle but low hanging silver maple limbs were in the way. Since when I was a boy I had to cross another trestle near my house to get to this one, this will always be the second trestle to me. Its sides are much lower than the first trestle for some reason, maybe only as high as the bottom of a rail car. For that reason I also think of it as the small trestle. When I was a boy, I could and often did sit out here all day long and not see another person. The brook meets the Ashuelot river just around that bend and there is a high sand bluff where bank swallows used to nest, and I would sit and watch them for hours, wondering how a bird could dig a hole.

Ash Brook was calm and shallow and behaving nicely on this day but I wasn’t fooled by its calm demeanor. I’ve seen it rage and swell up and pour over its banks too many times. This was a good place to learn about the true power of nature.  

As you get closer to the brook the trees get bigger because this land was never cleared like the land from a few photos ago was. It wasn’t cleared for planting because it has always flooded, but never like it has lately. You can see where the waterline shows on some of the tree trunks from the flooding last February. The water here would have been up to my chest in this spot, I’d guess, which is deeper than I’ve ever seen it. I remember standing on the embankment listening to the hissing, creaking and cracking ice. Of course deeper water means it spreads further over the land, and that’s why there is no corn grown anywhere near here now. It takes too long for the soil to dry out so planting can begin.  

The undergrowth in the photos of the forest is made up almost entirely of sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis). Many thousands of them grow here, for as far as the eye can see. They, like the trees, don’t mind wet ground and in fact they are a good wetland indicator. Their rhizomes branch and creep and as this photo shows, this fern can form large colonies. I know this fern is toxic to cattle and horses but I don’t know if it is toxic to wildlife. I do know that Deer and muskrats won’t eat it. The only animal I’ve ever seen have anything to do with it was a beaver that was swimming down the river with a huge bundle of fronds in its mouth one day. I supposed it would use them for soft bedding rather than food.

Though there were so many ferns you couldn’t see the ground, more were still coming. I’ve heard that you can eat the spring fiddleheads but I certainly wouldn’t.

Can you see the wind when you look at this nodding sedge (Carex gynandra)? See how the hanging seed spikes aren’t hanging perfectly vertical? The breeze came from the right and the camera had to stop the motion.

On the way back I saw lots of stitchwort blossoms (Stellaria graminea) that I hadn’t seen on the way out. They’re pretty little things and I’m always happy to see them, even if they are a weed.

I also saw plenty of fuzzy staghorn sumac buds (Rhus typhina). Soon they will be tiny green fuzzy flowers that will become first pink and then red, fuzzy berries. This was the first time I’ve noticed that the buds spiral up the stem. The spiral is nature’s way of packing the most flower buds into the least amount of space, but that’s only one example of how nature uses spirals. I see them everywhere all the time, in everything from trees to snail shells to coiled snakes. It’s just another one of those many things in nature that makes you wonder and seek answers.

Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the stars and the mountains above. Let them look at the waters and the trees and flowers on Earth. Then they will begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.  ~David Polis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As this photo shows, winter has made a comeback. Not only did we get a few inches of snow about a week ago but it turned cold again and has stayed cold, so that means the ice on the wooded trails is still there. They say tomorrow it might reach 55 degrees, so maybe I’ll have some flowers to show you next time. Meanwhile, I chose to walk the Industrial Heritage Trail in Keene. Not only is it paved and regularly plowed, there are some interesting things to see along the way.

This was once a rail bed used by the Cheshire Railroad and then the Boston and Maine Railroad and there are informative signs along the way that tell you the history of the place and what went on here. I’ll leave it up to you whether to read them or not.

This bench made from bicycles was probably the strangest thing I saw on this day. It doesn’t look very comfortable.

The city maintains this segment of trail and the have planted shrubs, including lilacs. Slowly, the buds are growing bigger.

They’ve also planted hydrangeas here and there. Panicled hydrangeas I believe, but there are so many different varieties these days I can’t keep up with them. I grew up with my grandmother’s “snowball” hydrangeas and that was good enough, even though I’ve never felt a need to have them in my own yard.

What I enjoy about hydrangeas is how, when their petals hang on through winter, they sometimes look like stained glass before they fall. These weren’t quite there yet.

This trail is one of those that the railroad had to build up quite high above the surrounding landscape so they could have a nice level grade throughout the run, and down below I spotted two concrete structures that I can only imagine must have been tank supports for a huge round tank. What was in the tank I’ll never know but it seemed too far away to be of use to the railroad. With so much industry in the area it could have held just about anything.

But the land owners didn’t want anyone exploring and I can’t blame them. You have to always remember when you are on a rail trail that you’re walking through the back yards of the people who live along it. I lived very close to a working rail line so I know what it is like to have some random person just wandering around through the yard after coming down from the tracks. It’s a bit disconcerting, so all of us who walk rail trails should stay on the trail and respect the privacy of those who live along them.

I found a poplar branch covered with black jelly fungi (Exidia glandulosa). They were a bit dry and had lost some of their volume but they hadn’t shriveled down too much. When they dry out they lose about 90% of their volume and shrink down to small black flakes, and it looks like someone has smeared paint or tar on the limb that they grow on. You can see that over in the upper right, how paper thin one of them has become. When it rains, they will all swell up like black pillows. Their reaction shows that jelly fungi are mostly water.

There were lots of self-seeded wild crabapples out here and the birds had been slow about it but they were eating them. A flock of robins can strip a crabapple of every bit of fruit in no time at all, so I doubt it was robins eating them.

There are lots of old repurposed factory buildings in this section of town is what this sign is saying.

And there is one of the old factory buildings that has not been repurposed. It’s easy to tell Kingsbury Corporation by its huge smoke stack.

It has lightning rods and steel bands, and many, many cracks. It even looks like it bulges a bit.

Some of the steel bands have and are falling off, which is just a bit alarming.

Kingsbury started out over a hundred years ago making toys, but evolved into a world leader in the design and manufacture of machine tools. Now the company has gone out of business and the building is all but abandoned. I worked there as an engineer for years until the bottom fell out of the engineering market pretty much all-over New England. When all the car companies went into a slump so did many other businesses.

The windows in the engineering department have been bricked up. Mechanical engineering was a job that I truly loved and I have many fond memories of my time spent here.

I used to have to cross a bridge different from the one this sign speaks of to get into the building. Beaver Brook actually flowed under the Kingsbury building I worked in and one year when it flooded all the wood blocks in a big wood block floor floated into a pile. It was a bit of a nightmare because it meant that area couldn’t be used to assemble machines.

This bridge over the brook is much different than the original railroad trestle but it serves today’s purpose. I was out here mid-day on a week day and I met a few people out using the trail. It was just after my retirement and I found myself feeling like I had skipped out of work and was slacking off. It has been a long time since I’ve been out walking on a week day so I’m sure it will take some getting used to.

Beaver Brook was staying where it belonged and looked good and clean. This brook, along with the Ashuelot River, is responsible for the town having grown up where it did. Between them they powered a lot of industry. The first sawmill and grist mill in Keene were powered by Beaver Brook. It winds its way through the heart of the city and it’s a fine thing unless and until it floods.

Another shrub the city has planted along the trail is the highbush cranberry, which isn’t a cranberry at all. It is a native viburnum named Viburnum trilobum with fruit (drupes) that resemble cranberries in color and shape. They are also said to taste like cranberries but I’ve never tried them. They’ll grow to 15 feet tall under the right conditions and these examples were quite tall. Birds are said to love the fruit and I was happy to see that most of them had been eaten.

White poplar (Populus alba) catkins were just starting to come out of the bud. They’re gray and fuzzy much like willow catkins and when they flower, they’ll grow to 3 or 4 inches long and fall from the trees in great numbers. This tree was imported from Europe in 1748 and liked it here enough to now grow in almost every state. It won’t be too long before their fluffy seeds will be floating on the wind.

There is a beech tree out here that shows what can happen when Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) twines itself around a tree. Luckily someone cut the vines away from the beech but it will now be deformed for life.

The tree looked healthy but it’s hard to say if it will live a full life with such a twisted shape.

This shot that I took previously shows what Oriental bittersweet was doing to a young elm. Elm is one of the toughest of our native trees but no tree can withstand the steel cable like strength of bittersweet. Once it wraps around a tree trunk the tree’s only hope of survival is to grow out around it and absorb it.

The trail goes on into downtown Keene and from there south into Swanzey, Winchester, and Hinsdale if you feel like a good long walk, but since I grew up walking these railbeds I’ve walked it all at one time or another, so I turned around here. Though it isn’t as nature filled as my usual walks I do like this part of the trail, especially in winter when everything is so icy.

It’s hard to leave the only place you’ve known.
~Lois Lowry

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You might want to grab a shawl or a warm cup of something before you start reading this post because it will be a cold one. We’ve seen some of the coldest temperatures we’ve had since 2019 they say, and cold means ice, so at about 2:00 pm when it had reached the highest temperature of the day (21 F) last Saturday, off I went to the deep cut rail trail in Westmoreland to see if I could find any big ice. Finding ice would not be a problem I quickly discovered, but keeping warm would.

When I say big ice, I mean tree size ice columns that start sometimes 50 feet off the ground. This is the kind of ice that you don’t find just anywhere, and that’s why I and many others come here. If you’d like a better view you can click on the photo and see a larger version.

Sometimes the ice is colored due to various minerals in the groundwater, I believe. I’ve wondered if there are impurities in the colored ice that weaken it because I’ve noticed when the Appalachian Mountain Club comes here to train, they never seem to climb the colored ice. You can see a few of the climbers there in the distance to the right. They call this place the icebox.

These ice climbers are the most focused people I know of. They have excellent powers of concentration, but I’m still always wary of disturbing that concentration. When this climber paused and looked at me, I asked if my being there would bother him. He said no so I watched for a bit. It was a bit disconcerting because every time one of the picks he held hit the ice it made a hollow “thwock” sound, but if there is one thing I’ve learned by watching these people it is that they know the ice, so I don’t ask questions. In fact unless they have both feet on the ground, I don’t say a word. I just stand and watch. When my nerves have had enough I leave, and with my fear of heights sometimes it doesn’t take long.

I suppose one reason I get a bit nervous watching them because I’ve seen a lot of this. There is a crack running through that ice column. The column diameter is about the same as three or four men side by side so if it came down well, I don’t like to think about that. I’ve seen them after they’ve fallen in the spring and some can reach from one side of the trail to the other. If you happened to be there you would be crushed, and that’s why I don’t come here in spring when things start to thaw out.

By this time I was feeling a little chilled so I decided to go south into the southern canyon where all the sunshine was hiding. The blue ice on the left was pretty. I’ve heard that blue ice is the hardest and most dense. Ice climbers tell me they like their ice “plastic” with a little give, so maybe that’s why they weren’t climbing the blue ice.

I stopped to admire a frozen waterfall. It’s hard to tell it’s a waterfall I know, but I’ve seen and heard it countless times so I was surprised to see it completely frozen and silenced for the first time. The ice has mounded up and is engulfing that tree.

I stopped again to see some intersting frost formations on the ice of a drainage channel. I’ve seen frost grow directly on ice before but these appeared to be growing on leaves and twigs. The various shapes were feathery and lacy or long and sharp. They were so delicate a single breath would have most likely melted them.

I thought I was going to tell you that frost was even growing on the stones but a closer look at the photo shows that it was actually growing on bits of moss that hung down. These kinds of frost crystals must need high humidity to grow because they grew over and on the drainage channels.

The ice on the drainage channels was interesting in places but I couldn’t get too close to it since I didn’t have my rubber boots on.

The southern canyon wasn’t quite as icy as I thought it might be but it still held some impressive ice columns. The walls aren’t as high here as they are in the northern canyon so more sunlight gets in. In this view looking south it is the wall on the left that gets the most sun.

This snowmobiler gives a good sense of the hieght and scale of the place. This was the only one I saw on this day. I’ve heard all the arguments against snowmobilers but since they’re the ones who keep these trails open, I think we’re very fortunate to have them.

You have to stop sometimes and remind yourself that the ice here didn’t grow in a flood or a waterfall. The groundwater seeps from these walls almost imperceptibly, drop by drop. In the summer you can hear the drops falling into the drainage channels but in the winter, you can see just how much water there is here. This ground is full of it, and much of it is very close to the surface.

Quite often, in fact almost always, the most colorful ice is found in the southern canyon. I’ve seen blue, green, orange, red, tan and even black ice here. As I said when we were in the northern canyon, minerals in the groundwater seems to be the only explanation.

This was the best example of colored ice that I saw on this day. You don’t see things like this just anywhere. It is one of those special, beautiful gifts of nature.

Here you can see how the colored water that makes the ice can also stain the snow.

When a drainage channel freezes solid like it had in this spot the water has nowhere to go so it pools at the base of the ledges. This ice had humped up and was slowly inching its way into the trail.

In other places there was no ice at all in the drainage channel. I don’t know what the difference bewteen the two places was. Maybe the depth of the water has something to do with it or maybe this spot gets more sunlight.

In other places the ice was growing slowly but it hadn’t covered the water yet.

Before I knew it, I was at the old lineman’s shack. It looked to be leaning even more than it was the last time I was here but that could just be my imagination. Last time it seemed to be at about 30 degrees but I’d say it was tilted more than that this time.

There really isn’t much left of it to fall but the place sure was built to last, with railroad tie sills and a slate roof. Now it’s the weight of all that slate on the roof that is helping to pull the place apart.

By this time, after about an hour and a half in the icebox, I was about cooled off right down to the bones, so it was time to go. The sunshine was bright enough but it held little heat. The car thermometer still read 21 degrees, just as it had when I arrived. I hope you stayed warm and aren’t feeling too much of a chill after reading about all this ice. It’s cold, but it’s also amazing.

As children, we are very sensitive to nature’s beauty, finding miracles and interesting things everywhere. As we grow up, we tend to forget how beautiful and magnificent the world is. There is magic and wonder for eyes who know how to look with curiosity and love. ~ Ansel Adams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burl is an abnormal growth that grows faster than the surrounding tree tissues. They are thought to grow on trees that have been weakened by stress or damage.  Once the tree’s defenses have been weakened insects and /or fungi can attack and cause the abnormal growth. I see them all the time on hardwoods but not usually on evergreens. Woodworkers can make some beautiful things from burls.

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

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

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

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

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

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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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On a recent hot, humid day I thought a rail trail might be a rather effortless walk so I chose one I knew well. When I started walking here some 50+ years ago trains ran through what now looks like a jungle. The railroad would never have put up with so much growth on the sides of the railbed of course, but I kind of like it this way. I was to find out that a little bit of everything grows here now, and the time spent here was full of discovery. This trail has become popular with bicyclists and I was passed by quite a few.

I saw lots of hazelnuts (Corylus americana.) Hazelnuts are a common sight along our rail trails but they have good years and bad years and more often than not there are no nuts on the bushes. On this day though, they were everywhere.

If you turn the nut cluster and look at the back you can see and feel the unripe nuts inside. There were four in this cluster.

Fringed loosestrife grew in shaded places along the trail. Note how virtually every flower nods toward the ground. As far as I know this is the only one of our yellow loosestrifes with this habit. Whorled loosestrife looks identical at a glance, but its flowers face outward.

A vine I never saw when I was a boy and saw only in one spot just a few years ago is spreading enough so now I’m seeing it almost everywhere I go. It is the smooth carrion flower vine (Smilax herbacea.) This native, non woody vine gets its common name from the strong odor of its flowers. There are both male and female plants, and they usually grow near each other.

The flowers of the smooth carrion flower vine become dark blue berries that birds love and I would guess that accounts for it quickly spreading from place to place as it has. The berries on this vine were still green but I would guess that they’ll be ripe by the end of July.   

Common mullein surprised me by growing along the trail. I’ve always wondered if the railroad didn’t spray some type of herbicide along the tracks because you never would have found plants like mullein growing here back when the trains ran. There were an awful lot of raspberries and blackberries back then though, but now all I see are canes with no berries. Raspberries and blackberries bear fruit only on second year canes so I’m guessing the young canes I’ve seen here are being cut. Possibly by a snowmobile trail improvement crew.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) grew all along the trail and had large flower heads all ready to bloom. You can see how smooth and hairless its stems are in this photo. They are also a bluish color when young. This is another plant I don’t remember ever seeing here when I was a boy.

Here is a smooth sumac flower, just opened. They are so small I really doubted that I’d be able to get a useable photo of them. They look quite complicated for such a small thing.

While smooth sumac was just starting to bloom staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) had already formed fruit. I didn’t know that sumac berries went from green to pink before they became red.

Some of the things I remember most about this place when I was a boy are the cornfields, most of which are still here. More or less; last years drought killed off the young corn plants and for the first time that I can remember there was no corn growing here. This year in spring I came out here and found wheat growing in this field, as far as the eye could see. Wheat? I didn’t know what that was all about but they’ve cut all the wheat and are leaving this part of the field fallow, apparently. Off in the distance you can just make out corn growing, about a third of the way up in this photo. Why they didn’t plant the whole field I don’t know but the corn that is there was knee high by the fourth of July, and that’s perfect.

Here is the wheat I found a couple of months ago. It is actually triticale according to Google lens, which is a hybrid of wheat (Triticum) and rye (​Secale) first developed in laboratories during the late 19th century in Scotland and Germany. If the word triticale (trit-ih-KAY-lee) rings a bell you might have seen an original Star Trek episode called “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Everyone knew what triticale was except captain Kirk, and the tribbles ate all the poisoned triticale and saved the day.

I kept taking photos of the trail because I couldn’t believe how jungle like it has become. I dreamed of being a plant hunter in the world’s jungles when I was young, so I would have loved this. Back then though, this corridor was at least twice as wide.

There are things to watch out for in any jungle and on this day it was stinging nettle (Urtica dioica.) The Urtica part of the scientific name comes from the Latin uro, which means “I burn.” The hollow stinging hairs on the leaves and stems are called trichomes and act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamine and other chemicals that cause the stinging.

Buttery little sulfur cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) likes waste places and disturbed ground so I wasn’t really too surprised to see it here. I was surprised that it got enough sunlight to bloom though.

Tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens) bloomed weakly. Since it starts blooming in June I was surprised to see any flowers at all. I took this shot this way specifically so you could see the plant’s leaves. In early spring a lot of people confuse this plant with wild columbine, though the leaves are quite different.

What surprised me more than anything else I saw was a Canada lily (Lilium canadense) blooming beside the trail. This is something I would have remembered had I seen them here years ago. These plants are one of our biggest wildflowers. They can reach 7 feet tall and have as many as 10 flowers dangling chandelier like from long petioles. This plant only had 2 blossoms and I think it was because it didn’t get enough sun and grew in dry, sandy soil. I’ve seen woodchucks burrow into this ground and all they’ve brought up from under the railbed is pure sand.

Canada lily flowers are big, and can be yellow, orange or red, or a combination. They have purple spotted throats that aren’t always seen because the flowers almost always face downwards. If you’re very gentle though, you can bend a stem back enough to see into a blossom without breaking it. This plant is unusual because it prefers wet places. Most lilies, and in fact most plants that grow from bulbs, do not like soil that stays wet. They prefer sandy, well-drained soil. I almost always find Canada lilies growing along rivers and streams, and that’s why I was so surprised to see it here in this dry soil.

A tiny golden metallic bee landed on a leaf beside me.

The green berries of false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) are now speckled with red. Eventually they’ll become all red and will disappear quickly.

I was surprised to see tall lettuce (Lactuca canadensis) blooming out here. Though it can reach 10 feet tall its flowers are very small; no more than a 1/4 inch across, and appear in loose clusters at the top of wiry stalks. Native Americans used the plant for pain relief, as a stimulant, and for calming the nerves. The milky white sap contains a compound called lactucarium, which has narcotic and sedative properties. It is still used in medicines today but should be used with caution because overdoses can cause death.

There was the trestle over ash brook, where the brook meets the Ashuelot River after it snakes its way through Keene. I usually like to go under it and see what flowers are blooming along the banks of the brook but we’ve had several inches of rain and the water was far too high.

Of course the river was high as well. Not too far from this spot there used to be a small island in the river just off shore, and an oak tree had fallen from the river bank to the island and made a bridge. I used to spend many happy hours on that island but high water like that which we see here first washed away the oak tree bridge and then over the years the island disappeared as well. Water is a powerful thing.

This is a magical place for me. It’s a place where I can see, better than anywhere else, how the world has changed. Or at least this small part of it. The land in this view for instance was a cornfield when I was a boy. Now it’s just silver and red maples and a lot of sensitive ferns; all plants that don’t mind wet feet. If you walk through here you find that the surface soil is pure silt, as fine as sifted flour, and that makes me think they probably stopped farming this piece of land because of flooding. Both the brook and the river still flood in this area and since as I write this on July 11 there are rain or showers predicted every day for the coming week, it’s liable to flood again.

Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time. ~John Lubbock

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The last time I visited the deep cut rail trail up in Westmoreland I mentioned in the resulting blog post the violets that grow here in spring, and several people’s ears pricked up. They said they’d like to see them so that’s what this visit is all about. I had been seeing lots of violets blooming in Keene so I felt confident that I’d see some here, but not in the part of the deep cut that you see above. I think of this as the “sterile” part of the canyon because few plants besides mosses grow there. The walls are close to 50 feet high in places I’ve been told by people who climb them, and though it is sunny in the photo it’s in deep shade for most of the day.

Instead we go south to where all the growth is.

And there is a lot of growth. Every surface, whether it is vertical or horizontal has something growing on it. When I was a boy I dreamed of being a plant explorer, travelling all over the world to find beautiful plants for botanic gardens, and one of the books I read back then was James Hilton’s Lost Horizons. I never became a plant hunter but I did find my own Shangri-La, right here in Westmoreland New Hampshire. The beauty and lushness found here are like nothing I’ve seen anywhere else.

By the way, for those new to this blog; this is what the canyon looks like in winter. All of the dripping groundwater you hear at other times of the year becomes ice, and in February you wonder how anything could ever grow here.

But things do grow here, and if anything it seems like it must be the ice helping them do so well. Foamflowers for instance, grow as well or better here than I’ve ever seen them grow anywhere else.

Foamflowers (Tiarella cordifolia) are always beautiful no matter where they grow but the ones that grow here seem healthier and more robust.

The Jack in the pulpit flowers (Arisaema triphyllum) I’ve seen here get bigger than they are anywhere else I go, so I’d guess that they like all the extra water as well. I usually lift the hood of the striped spathe so I can see the spadix inside but this time I didn’t have to; a side view shows how Jack lives in his pulpit.

I’ve seen Jack in the pulpit plants reach waist high here while in other places they barely reach knee high. The leaves on this plant were huge and I wanted you to see them because they are sometimes mistaken for trillium leaves.

Here were two red trillium plants, also with huge leaves. If you compare them with the Jack in the pulpit leaves in the previous photo you’ll see that there are differences. The overall shape of the trillium plant from above is round while with Jack in the pulpit it is more triangular. The trillium leaves are more rounded as well, but the main difference is in how the trillium flower stalk rises out of the center where the three leaves meet. In a Jack in the pulpit the flower is on its own stalk that rises directly from the ground.

And here were the violets; thousands of them, doing better this year than I think I’ve ever seen. In years past I decided that they were marsh blue violets (Viola cucullata) because the long flower stem (peduncle) gets the flowers high above the leaves. These violets aren’t shy; they shout here we are!

They’re very beautiful, even when they peek out of grasses and sedges. Though my color finding software sees lavender highlights here and there it tells me that most of these violets are cornflower blue.

Small waterfalls occasionally pour from the walls as they were on this day, and I think that’s why all of these plants can do so well here. The ice that forms here in winter is almost always colored in various colors and I think that is because this ground water is mineral rich. Those same minerals that color the ice are most likely taken up and used by all of these plants.

The tinkling, dripping sounds of water are constant no matter where in the canyon you may be.

All of that dripping, splashing water means that plants like violets can grow right on the stone. This shot shows how the flower stem on the marsh blue violet gets the flowers high above the leaves. If I understand what I’ve read correctly it is the only violet that does this. (And this is probably the only violet that can handle all of this water.)

Even dandelions, which have a tap root like a carrot, can grow on stone here. Note how wet the surrounding stone is. Even trees grow on stone here, but they usually fall before they get very old.

Kidney leaved buttercups (Ranunculus abortivus) grew here and there along the trail. They’re always a challenge to photograph because their wiry stems sprawl and move in the wind.

Each tiny flower is only about a quarter inch in diameter with five yellow petals and ten or more yellow stamens surrounding a shiny green center that resembles a raspberry in shape. This plant is also called little leaf buttercup or small flowered buttercup. Like other plants in the buttercup family it is toxic.

I saw a few groups of ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris) here and I’ve got to try to remember they’re here because their spring fiddleheads look like no other that I know of and I’d like to come back next spring to get photos of them. Another name for this fern is the shuttlecock fern and that’s a good description, because that’s exactly the shape they have. Though I’ve read that they can reach seven feet tall under optimum conditions the examples I saw were about three and a half feet tall.

The leaf stalk of an ostrich fern is deeply grooved as seen here, and if you are going to forage for fern fiddleheads to eat you would do well to remember this. Other ferns like the interrupted fern and cinnamon fern have grooved leaf stalks but their grooves are much more shallow than these.

As this shot from 2015 shows. ostrich fern spring fiddleheads are smooth and bright, pea green. Even at this stage they have that deep groove in the stalks, and no wooly coating. They like to grow in shady places where the soil is consistently damp. Ostrich fern fiddleheads are considered a great delicacy by many and many restaurants are happy to pay premium prices for them in spring. I’ve always heard that ostrich fern is the only one of our native ferns that is safe to eat.

Unfortunately there was a lot of garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate) here. This plant is very invasive and can form large monocultures of nothing but garlic mustard. The plant was originally brought from Europe in the 1800s as an herb, and to be used for erosion control. Of course it immediately escaped and is now trying to take over the world. By the time native plants come up in spring garlic mustard has already grown enough to shade them out and that’s how it outcompetes our native species. It is edible in spring when young but increases in toxicity (Cyanide) as it ages. It has a taproot but it can be pulled, preferably before it sets seed. In the U.K. it is called Jack-by-the-hedge and we kind of wish it had stayed there. By the hedge, I mean.

I like the fern like leaves of wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris) which grows along the drainage channels here. Wild chervil is thought to have come over from Europe in wildflower seed mixes. It has been growing in this area since the early 1900s and is considered a noxious weed in places. It isn’t the same as the cultivated chervil used to flavor soups and it shouldn’t be eaten. In many places it is called cow parsley and resembles many plants that are very poisonous, so it’s best to just admire it and let it be.

I realized when I was here that I’ve never shown you what happens when you exit the canyon, so here you are. You can just see the roofline of the old lineman’s shack behind those trees to the left.

And here is what’s left of the lineman’s shack. The front wall is leaning back quite severely now and that most likely means the ridgepole has snapped, so the old place can’t be long for this world. The ridgepole is what the rafters attach to and without it, it all comes tumbling down. I’ll be sorry to see that. I’ve been coming here for so many years it seems like an old friend.

I hope all of you violet lovers out there enjoyed seeing how they grow in nature, and the beauty of this place. This violet was my favorite. My color finding software tells me it’s steel blue.

The superstition still survives in widely scattered countries that to dream of the violet is good luck. ~Cora Linn Daniels

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I wanted to see if the wild columbines were blooming so on a recent sunny day I walked the rail trail up in Westmoreland to the ledges they grow on. There are lots of other wildflowers here as well so you always find something blooming along this trail in spring.

I was surprised to find coltsfoot still blooming. I haven’t seen any in Keene for two weeks.

I should say that I saw a single coltsfoot blossom; most looked like this.

Red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) had started blooming, but the flowers hadn’t opened completely.

Each greenish white red elderberry flower is tiny at about 1/8 inch across, but has a lot going on. They have five petals which are called “petaloid lobes” and which curve sharply backwards. Five stamens have white filaments and are tipped with pale yellow anthers. The flower is completed by a center pistil with three tiny stigmata. If pollinated each flower will become a small, bright red berry. Though the plant is toxic Native Americans knew how to cook the berries to remove their toxicity. They are said to be very bitter unless prepared correctly. Birds love them and each year they disappear quickly.

False Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) grew here and there and was already budded. Native Americans inhaled the fumes from this plant’s burning roots to treat headache and body pain. They also used the leaves and roots in medicinal teas.

The tiny flowers will be part of a large terminal flower head and will become bright white. The berries will form quickly and will turn bright red but before they do they are speckled red and green for a time. The plant is also called treacle berry because the berries taste like treacle or bitter molasses. They’re rich in vitamins and have been used to prevent scurvy, but large quantities of uncooked berries are said to act like a laxative so moderation is called for.

True Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) also grew along the trail. This is a fast growing plant once it gets started and it won’t be long before it blooms. It already had buds on it.

The Solomon’s seal flowers will dangle from the stem under the leaves and will be hard to see, so you have to look for them. They will eventually become small dark blue berries.

Ferns were yawning and stretching, happy to be awake and greening up once again.

Though the trail looks long in photos it doesn’t take that long to get to where the columbines grow.

Algae grew on the stone ledge you can see just to the right in that previous photo.

I believe it was spirogyra algae which always seems to have lots of bubbles. Looking at it is almost like being able to see through the skin of a frog. Spirogyra has common names that include water silk and mermaid’s tresses. It is described as a “filamentous charophyte green algae of the order Zygnematales.” I’ve read that they grow in nutrient rich places. They’re always interesting and they don’t feel slimy at all. They feel like cool water.

The trees are getting very green. All shades of green.

Some of that green came from the new leaves of striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum). The road seen far below is route 12 north. It lets you know how high up this rail trail is; this part of the rail bed was cut into the side of a steep hillside.

New red maple leaves lived up to their name and were tomato red. The same pigments that color them in the fall color them in the spring.

Here we are at the ledges. What is left of the hillside after the railroad cut its way through is home to a large variety of plants.

Spring shoots of Jack in the pulpit grew up out of the moss. If you know anything about Jack in the pulpit you know that it grows from a bulb like root called a corm, much like a gladiolus corm. That’s fine until you start wondering how such a root works on stone. I’ve also seen dandelions growing on these ledges and they have a long tap root. Again, how does that work on stone? There are lots of questions here that I can’t answer but that’s okay; nature knows what its doing.

When I first found this place a few years ago there was a single group of red trilliums (Trillium erectum) growing here. Now that small group is much larger and there re trilliums all along the base of the ledges so they’re obviously happy here.

They’re very pretty flowers but they won’t be with us much longer. Once the tree leaves come out that’s pretty much it for these plants.

Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum) grows in abundance here. I’ve never seen so much of it in any other place. It is named after a French monk who lived in the year 1000 AD and is said to have cured many people’s illnesses with it. 

And then there they were, the wild columbine blossoms (Aquilegia canadensis) I haven’t seen since last year. They are beautiful things; well worth the hike. Each red and yellow blossom is about an inch and a half long and dances in the slightest breeze at the end of a long stalk. The Aquilegia part of the scientific name comes from the Latin Aquila, which means “eagle” and refers to the spurred petals that Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus thought resembled an eagle’s talons. Some think they resemble pigeons around a dish and the name Columbine comes from the Latin Columbinus, which means “pertaining to doves or pigeons.” It is said that Native American men rubbed the crushed seeds on themselves to be more attractive to women. Whether they did it for color or scent, I don’t know.

Wild columbine flowers have 5 petals and 5 sepals. Each petal is yellow with a rounded tip, and forms a long, funnel shaped nectar spur that shades to red. The oval sepals are also red, and the anthers are bright yellow. When they grow on ledges some of them are up overhead, so you can see the nodding flowers in a way you never could if they were growing at ground level. 5 funnel shaped holes lead to nectar spurs and long tongued insects and hummingbirds probe these holes for nectar. Some say that these holes look like dovecotes, which is another reference to birds. We’re so very lucky to have such beautiful things in these woods.

This shot of a the back of a white garden columbine blossom that I took several years ago shows what I think is a good example of why columbines have always been associated with birds. As soon as I saw this shot I thought of five beautiful white swans with outstretched wings, come together to discuss whatever it is that swans discuss.

This shot is for those who have never seen how and where columbines grow naturally. When it rains all that moss soaks up water like a sponge and then releases it slowly, and I think that is why the columbines and all of the other plants do so well here.

The woods were ringed with a color so soft, so subtle that it could scarcely be said to be a color at all. It was more the idea of a color – as if the trees were dreaming green dreams or thinking green thoughts. ~Susanna Clarke

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John Burroughs said “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday,” and that was to prove very true last Sunday. I followed a rail trail in Swanzey that I’ve followed more times than I can count but saw many things that I’ve never seen here before.

Male American Hazelnut catkins swayed lazily in the slight breeze. They had lengthened to three times their winter length and were still heavy with pollen.

The tiny female flowers were waiting for a good dose of that pollen so they could become the hazelnuts that so many birds and animals eat.

There is a nice little box culvert out here that I always like to stop and see. There was quite a lot of water in the stream it carries safely under the railbed on this day. It’s amazing to think these culverts are still keeping railbeds from washing away 150 years after they were built, and without any real maintenance.

The stream rushes off to the Ashuelot River, which is out there in the distance.

The first thing I saw that I had never seen here were trout lily leaves (Erythronium americanum). I didn’t see any flowers but I found the leaves growing all along the trail, and I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t ever seen them.

You can get a glimpse of the Ashuelot River here and there along the trail. This was where I was to get another surprise. I saw something swimming quickly toward me from those fallen trees you see in this photo. I thought it was ducks but I couldn’t see anything except ripples.

And then up popped a muskrat. At least I’m fairly certain it was a muskrat. Though it never showed me its tail it was much smaller than a beaver and nowhere near as skittish. It saw me up on the embankment but still just sat and fed on what looked like grasses. It probably knew I was far enough away; this photo isn’t very good because my camera was at the limit of its zoom capability. At least you can see the critter, and that matters more to me than a technically perfect shot.

I knew that apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) grew here and I was able to find it. Its reproduction begins in the late fall and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. When the warm rains of spring arrive the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes that always look like pearls to me, but someone thought they looked like apples and the name stuck.

Beech buds (Fagus grandifolia) are beginning to lose their straightness and that means the beautiful new spring leaves will be appearing before long. Beech bud break begins when the normally straight buds start to curl, as in the above photo. The curling is caused by the cells on the sunny side of the bud growing faster than those on the shaded side. This creates a tension that curls the bud and eventually causes the bud scales to pull apart so the new leaves can emerge. The buds literally “break” and at the bud’s location on the tree branch an entire year’s new leaves and stems will often grow from a single bud.

New maple leaves were everywhere but every one I saw was green. That was unusual because young maple leaves are often red for a while.  

Raspberry plants were also showing their new leaves but blackberry buds had barely broken.

I saw native cherries in all stages of growth. Cherries usually leaf out and blossom quite early.

Some of the willows along the trail had thrown in the towel and were finished for this year.

This is what the flower buds of a shadbush (Amelanchier canadensis) look like. After shadbushes come the cherries, closely followed by the crab apples and apples, and then the peaches and plums. Shadbushes bloom earlier than the other shrubs and trees but are often still in bloom when the others bloom. The flowers appear before the leaves, unlike apples and some native cherries. Small, reddish purple to purple, apple shaped fruits follow in June. The fruit is a berry similar in size to a blueberry and has from 5-10 seeds. They taste best when they are more purple than red. Shadbush flowers are pretty but their fragrance isn’t very appealing. I can’t remember ever seeing them bloom along this trail but there they were.

Forsythia has escaped someone’s garden and was blooming happily beside the trail. Another surprise.

Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is also called mayflower because that’s often when its small white to pink, very fragrant flowers appear, but here they were blooming beside the trail. This is another plant I can’t remember ever seeing out here before. Trailing arbutus was once collected into near oblivion but these days it can be found at many nurseries so there is no longer any reason to dig it up. Since it’s very fussy unless it’s given the right amount of light, water, nutrients and soil type it won’t grow except where it chooses to anyway. The reason it was collected so much was because its small pink to white, very fragrant flowers were used in nosegays.

I reached the trestle and found that someone, most likely a snowmobile club, had overlaid the flooring, which was starting to rot out. This was a another welcome surprise because that little square that juts out to the right was a hole right through the boards. It’s quite a drop down to the river.

This trestle is the last one I know of with its tell tales still in place. These are pencil size pieces of soft wire that hang down low enough to hit the head of anyone standing on top of a freight car. They would warn the person, or “tell the tale” of an upcoming trestle. I can walk from the trestle to this one in under a minute, so whoever was on top of the train wouldn’t have had much time to duck before they’d hit the trestle, and that would have been too bad. Tell tales used to hang on each end of every trestle in the area, but this is the last one I know of.

The river has come up some since the recent snowfall and a few rain showers. I was surprised I didn’t see any kayakers. They like to paddle the river in spring when the water is high because in that way they can float over all the submerged fallen trees.

It still has to gain more run off before it reaches its average height, by the looks. We’re still in a drought according to the weather people.

I was surprised to find a small colony of bloodroot plants (Sanguinaria canadensis) as I was leaving. This is another plant I’ve never seen growing here, so this day was packed full of surprises.

Bloodroot flowers don’t usually open on cloudy days and I couldn’t tell if this one was opening or closing, but I was happy to get at least a glimpse of its beautiful inside. These flowers aren’t with us long.

In a forest of a hundred thousand trees no two leaves are identical, and no two journeys along the same path are alike. ~Paulo Coelho

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