The last time I talked to anyone at the Keene Middle School about it, it looked like the boardwalk through Tenant Swamp behind the school might be closed in winter, so I was happy and surprised to find it open last weekend. You enter the swamp by crossing this bridge.
The bridge crosses over a small stream which on this day had a skim of ice. For a swamp there is remarkably little standing water seen here.
I was happy to see that the boardwalk had been shoveled. At least I thought so…
Until I walked a little further and saw this. The snow had turned to a solid block about 3 inches thick, but thankfully it wasn’t slippery. On the left in this photo you can see the tall stems of the common reed, which is invasive.
The invasive reed is called Phragmities australis and has invaded the swamp in several places. Even in winter its reedy stems block the view. Tenant swamp is bisected by a highway (Rte. 12 N.) and you can see large colonies of it from the road. This reed came from Europe and forms large monocultures that even burning can’t control unless it is done 2 or 3 times. Not only does a thick matted root system choke out other plants, but decaying reeds also release gallic acid, which ultraviolet light turns into mesoxalic acid and which means that seedlings of other plants that try to grow near the reed have very little hope of survival. It appears to be here to stay.
I think that even if I was blindfolded and brought here I’d know that I was in a swamp. There just isn’t anything else quite like them and being able to walk through one is a rare opportunity. In 2010 Keene built a new middle school at the edge of Tenant Swamp and the building sits on a high terrace that overlooks it. Before the school could be built however an archaeological sensitivity assessment had to be done, and by the time the dig was completed it was found that Native Americans lived here at the end of the last ice age, approximately 11,000-12,000 years ago. The dig also found that the Ashuelot River once ran through here; about a half mile east of where it now flows. Since the site evolved into a swamp it was never farmed or built on so it was valuable enough archeologically to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Since then, after much hard work and fund raising, a path and boardwalk leading into the swamp itself was built. It’s the kind of place that people rarely get to experience so it is meant to be a kind of outdoor classroom for anyone who wants to learn more about nature.
One of the most notable things seen here are the many spruce trees, because they aren’t normally plentiful in this area. It must stay relatively cool here because spruce trees prefer the boreal forests further north. There are at least two species here and I think they were probably red spruce (Picea rubens) and black spruce (Picea mariana.) Neither one minds boggy ground.
Many of the older spruce trees are dying but they are pole size and I wouldn’t think that they’d be too old. I can’t even guess what would be killing them.
Something had peeled the outer bark off this spruce to expose its beautiful, colorful inner bark.
The spruce trees are hung thickly with beard lichens (Usnea) in places. These lichens seem to especially like growing on the bare branches of evergreens. I’ve met people who think the lichens kill the tree’s branches but they don’t, they just like plenty of sunlight and bare branches get more of it.
Winterberries (Ilex verticillata) are a native holly that love wet feet so I wasn’t surprised to see many examples of them here. The berries were a little puckered but birds are probably still eating them because I rarely see any in the spring. Robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, Eastern bluebirds, and cedar waxwings all eat them.
The bright red color of winterberries makes them easy to see. There are also many blueberry bushes growing here, but I didn’t see a single berry on them. When I thought about it I realized that this swamp is full of food for birds and animals, and for humans as well.
Cattails (Typha latifolia) were an important food for Native Americans. Their roots contain more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice, and native peoples made flour from them. They also ate the new shoots in spring, which must have been especially welcome after a long winter of eating dried foods. Some of the cattails were releasing their seeds, just in time for the return of red winged blackbirds. The females use their fluffy fibers to line their nests. Cattails can grow faster than fertilized corn and can create monocultures by shading out other plants with their dense foliage and debris from old growth. They are very beneficial to many animals and birds and even the ponds and lakes they grow in by filtering runoff water and helping reduce the amount of silt and nutrients that flow into them.
I saw what I think were bobcat tracks meandering around and under the boardwalk. There are many squirrels in this swamp and it might have been hunting.
This might have been a squirrel’s home, but it was too high up to look into. It might also have been an owl’s home, so it was probably best that I didn’t stick my nose into it.
Alders (Alnus) love to grow near water and they are one of the easiest shrubs to identify in winter. This is because the alders, of which there are about 15 species native to the U.S., bear seed pods that resemble miniature pine cones. These cone shaped seed pods are the fruit of the female flowers and are called strobiles. Many birds eat alder seeds including ducks, grouse, widgeons, kinglets, vireos, warblers, goldfinches and chickadees. Moose and rabbits feed on alder and beavers eat the bark and use the stems to build with. Native Americans used alder as an anti-inflammatory and to help heal wounds. They also made a tea from it that helped cure toothaches. Those allergic to aspirin should not use alder medicinally because the bark contains salicin, which is similar to a compound d found in aspirin.
There are many ferns here. When I visited the swamp in the summer I saw some that were easily waist high; mostly cinnamon ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum,) which love boggy ground. Of course you won’t see any in winter but you can see plenty of signs that they grow here.
I’ve seen lots of pine (Pinus strobus) sap turn blue in winter cold but this is the deepest blue that I’ve ever seen it. That’s odd since it really hasn’t been that cold since December. Native Americans used pine sap (or pitch) to treat coughs and pneumonia. It was also used to treat boils, abscesses and wounds.
Lichens like plenty of water and mosses soak it up like little sponges, so this friendship between a crispy tuft moss (Ulota crispa) and a hammered shield lichen (Parmelia sulcata) is no real surprise. Hammered shield lichen gets its common name from the netted surface of each of its many lobes. It is also called the wax paper lichen, and if you’ve ever crumpled a piece of wax paper and then flattened it again out you know just what this lichen looks like.
To a nature nut the swamp is like a siren’s call and I would have loved to step off that boardwalk and explore it further, but then I remembered the stories of people getting lost there. A five hundred acre swamp is huge and I’m guessing that I’d probably be lost in under an hour. In November of 1890 George McCurdy went in and never came out alive; he died of exposure. They found him, but I’ve heard stories about another man who went into the swamp and was never found. As much as I’d love to explore more I think I’ll just stay on the boardwalk for now.
The most primitive places left with us are the swamps, where the spruce still grows shaggy with Usnea (lichen). ~Henry David Thoreau
Thanks for stopping in.