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Posts Tagged ‘Ice patterns’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In places the woods were full of ice.

And in other places they were nearly ice free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It was cloudy but finally warm at 38 degrees F. last Sunday so I decided to see how the ice had grown in the deep cut rail trail that ice climbers call the icebox. Since we have had plenty of below zero nights I expected the ice to be big, and I wasn’t disappointed.


Though I’ve seen as many as thirty at a time, on this day there were only two ice climbers here. It was dark in this part of the canyon on such a cloudy day so I had to really increase the ISO on my camera. Sunshine is limited on this part of the trail even on a sunny day because it’s about 50 feet below the surrounding hill that the railroad cut through.


The ice climbers said this was their third time here but they were climbing on a skimpy little ice column that didn’t look like it would support much weight. I pointed out the huge ice column on the other side of the canyon and told them that was where most people climbed, but they stayed where they were and I bid them good luck. You could fit what I know about ice climbing in a thimble anyway.

This massive pile of ice is where most ice climbers climb but on this day you could hear water dripping behind it, and that was odd.


There was a large pool of water at its base as well, and that probably would have given me second thoughts about climbing it. If groundwater was dripping between the ice and the stone of the canyon the whole thing could come tumbling down, and you don’t want to be here when that happens.


But I decided not to think of such things and instead focused on the beauty of the ice. After all, it was why I had come. All of the water that drips from the stone walls of the canyon collects in drainage ditches originally built by the railroad 150 years ago. The water is carried by the ditches out into the woods where it must eventually find its way to a swamp or pond. Meanwhile beautiful patterns form in the ice covered ditches.

Ice can be very beautiful, especially on a warm day when you have time to linger and appreciate it. I often catch myself lost in the photos I’ve taken of it as well, wondering what I might see. I’ve seen birds flying, eyes staring, waves and rivulets caught in mid flow and entire galaxies, all frozen into the ice. I love what it did here; it’s much like a topographic map because if you look closely you see that the ripples formed around peaks, and the peaks are stones in the stream. It’s a beautiful scene, and there are thousands upon thousands of others much like it out there, just waiting to be discovered.


I saw that someone had put up a sign to warn snowmobilers that there were people on the trail. That’s a good idea because the trail curves in the canyon and I’m sure a snowmobiler could be just about on top of the climbers before he sees them, depending on how fast he was moving. I hear people complaining about snowmobilers but I don’t agree, because if it wasn’t for them many of these rail trails would have become impassable long ago. Many snowmobile clubs donate their time and tools and work hard all summer long to keep these trails open and we who use them owe them a real debt of gratitude.


When you come into the canyon you can go north where the ice climbers climb or you can go south where the most colorful ice grows. I usually do both. The walls don’t soar quite as high in this section but the ice comes in many colors and grows as thick as tree trunks.

There was lots of blue ice here this day and I wasn’t surprised because it has been so cold. I’ve heard that blue ice is the hardest and most dense, and its color comes from the way the dense ice reflects light, rather than any imperfections in the water.


Other colors come from the minerals in the groundwater, I believe. Some years you see lots of orange ice like this and in other years you hardly find any. You can see at the base of the column how the snow is stained by the dripping, mineral colored water.


Though I see green when I see this ice my color finding software sees tan. Since I’m colorblind the software gets the call. Whatever the color, this formation was big. This also illustrates why I don’t come here much after the end of February, because when large ice columns like this one release from the stone they often fall like trees, right across the trail. I’d rather not be here when that happens because a person could easily be crushed.

Here is some mineral staining on the stone walls of the canyon. I believe this is what colors the ice but the strange thing is how these colors all but disappear in warmer months. Cold brings out the colors in many things like tree sap, and apparently mineral staining on stone.


It was the texture of this ice column that caught my eye. It was like ten thousand icicles had all frozen together. Quite often you see these ice columns with a smooth, shiny surface but this one was rough.


Here is a better example of how the snow stains at the base of these columns.


Frost flowers bloomed on the ice covering the drainage ditches.


I don’t see these very often so conditions must have to be just right. I’m guessing it has a lot to do with humidity. I see birds flying above Saturn’s rings, and the universe beyond.


This takes the prize as the biggest mass of ice I’ve ever seen off a pond. It’s so big I don’t know how to explain just how big it is. Tons and tons of ice, I’d guess.


Somehow a beech leaf stuck itself to an icicle. I’ve noticed that many beech and oak leaves are falling, and I hope that’s a sign that spring isn’t far away.

A small animal came out of its den for a drink and found the well frozen over. Its tracks made the snow look as if it had been zipped together.


My walk through the canyon ends at the old lineman’s shack, because that’s where the big ice ends. It looks like the old building will make it through another winter, though I don’t know how. It’s the very definition of well built. I picture it full men sitting around a potbellied, coal fired stove, wishing they didn’t have to shovel all the snow out of that canyon. But that chore must have fallen to someone.

Ice burns, and it is hard for the warm-skinned to distinguish one sensation, fire, from the other, frost. ~A.S. Byatt

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1-stream-ice

I visited the otter pond recently, trying to figure out how he would come and go. This small stream feeds into the pond but it’s too shallow and narrow for an otter to swim in. It had some beautiful patterns in its ice though.

2-icy-pond

The reason I wondered about the otter is because its pond is completely frozen over with no holes like there were the last time I saw it in December. Where do otters go when this happens, I wonder?

3-stress-cracks

All of the thawing and re-freezing has left the ice as smooth as glass, but the warm weather has made it too thin to skate on. The two dark spots show little to no thickness and there were thin ice signs where people skate. I’m sure there are a few dozen frustrated skaters it town because of it.

4-burdocks

I saw some burdocks and remembered how Swiss engineer George de Mestral got the idea for Velcro from the sticky burrs lodged in his dog’s coat. I wondered why I didn’t think of such things.

5-burdock

This is where the hook part of the “hook and loop” Velcro fasteners came from. I’ve never seen it happen but I’ve heard that small birds can get caught in burdocks and then can’t escape. That could be why there were no seeds missing from these examples; maybe the birds have learned to stay away. According to John Josselyn, a visitor from England in 1672, the burdock came to this country as burrs tangled in cow’s tails, but if that is true then how did Native Americans know the plant so well? They used the entire plant as food or medicine and made a candy-like treat from burdock roots by slicing them and boiling them in maple syrup. They stored much of it for winter.

6-coneflower-seed-head

Birds aren’t staying away from coneflower seeds. I always let coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) go to seed. Goldfinches, cardinal, blue jays and other birds love to eat them. I’ve never seen a bird on them but the seeds disappear and there is often a pair of blue jays in the yard.  Many butterflies and bees also love its flowers, so if you’re looking to attract the birds and bees, this is one plant that will do it. The Echinacea part of the scientific name comes from the Greek word echinos, which means hedgehog, and refers to the spiny seed head.

7-british-soldier-lichen

An old pine stump was red with British soldier lichens (Cladonia cristatella.) This lichen also grows on bark or soil and is often seen where people live because it is extremely tolerant of pollution. Because of that and its bright red color it is said to be the best known lichen in the eastern United States. I’ve even seen it growing on buildings.

8-british-soldier-lichen

The spore bearing apothecia of the British Soldier is very red with a matte rather than shiny surface. The biggest among this grouping could have easily hidden under a pea.

9-sidewalk-firedot-lichen

If you spend time walking along stone walls eventually you’ll see a stone with a splash of bright orange on it. This is the sidewalk firedot lichen (Caloplaca feracissima,) so called because it is a lime lover and grows on concrete sidewalks, which have lime in them. When you see it in a stone wall it’s a fair bet that the stone it grows on has limestone in it.

10-sidewalk-firedot-lichen

A closer look at this example of the sidewalk firedot lichen showed it was made up of mostly irregularly shaped fruiting bodies, so it was making plenty of spores. I think this is the first time I’ve seen it do so.

11-scattered-rock-posy-2

I had to visit my old friend the scattered rock posy lichen (Rhizoplaca subdiscrepans) that I’ve been watching grow for several years now. It has gone from penny to quarter size (0.75-0.95 in) and is both beautiful and unusual with its brain like body (Thallus) and orange fruiting discs (Apothecia.) I always find them growing on stone in full sun. This is a lichen that never seems to stop producing spores; its orange pad like apothecia are always there.

12-blueberry-buds

If you’re stuck in the winter doldrums and feel the need for some color, just find a blueberry bush; everything about them is red, except the berries. Part of the reason the earliest English settlers survived New England winters in Plymouth was because the Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe showed them how to dry blueberries for winter use. Natives used the dried berries in soups and stews and as a rub for meat. They also made tea from the dried leaves. More than 35 species of blueberries are native to the U.S.

13-amber-jelly

Amber jelly fungi (Exidia recisa) have started to appear on downed trees and limbs. You can’t tell from this photo because these examples were frozen solid but this fungus has a shiny side and a matte finish side. The spores are produced on the shiny side and if I understand what I’ve read correctly, this is true of most jelly fungi. This one has the color of jellied cranberry sauce. Jelly fungi can absorb up to 60 times their weight in water, so if a weakened branch is covered with them as this oak limb was, it doesn’t take much of a wind to bring the heavily weighted branch and the jelly fungi to the ground. Jelly fungi are a signal that the tree’s health isn’t good.

14-indian-pipe-seed-head

Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) seed pods look like beautiful carved wooden flowers that have been stuck into the snow. Most have split open by now into 5 separate parts to release tens of thousands of seeds to the wind. Each individual seed is only ten cells thick. Indian pipes are parasitic on certain fungi, which in turn are often parasitic on the roots of trees so in a roundabout way they get their food from trees.

15-tinder-fungi

Tinder polypores (Fomes fomentarius), also called horse hoof fungus, grew on a fallen log, but didn’t grow on the tree while it was standing. I know this because their spore bearing surfaces pointed towards the ground. If they had grown before the tree fell then their spore bearing surfaces would appear perpendicular rather than parallel to the ground. This bracket fungus produces spores at all times of year but through spring and summer studies have shown that as many as 800 million can be produced in a single hour. The fungus is also known for its ability to stop bleeding and was recommended for that purpose by none other than the father of medicine himself, Hippocrates (460 – 370 BCE).

16-twisted-log

I’ve searched and searched for the answer to why some trees twist when they grow and the short answer seems to be; nobody really knows. What is known is that the wood is often weaker and boards cut from spiral grained trees often twist as they dry, yet while the tree is standing it is more limber than a straight grained tree and is better able to withstand high winds. Scientists have also found that spiral growth can be left or right handed and both can sometimes appear on the same tree. Though spiral growth appears in the trunk, limbs and roots of some trees you often can’t see it until the bark comes off.

17-ice-on-a-log

It’s easy to believe that a fallen tree is just an old dead thing that is slowly rotting away but as the icicles on this example show, there is life in it yet.

18-raspberry-cane-2

It’s always a pleasure to see the beautiful blue of first year black raspberry canes in winter. The color is caused by a powdery wax which can protect the plant from sunburn, prevent moisture loss, or help shed excess water. In botanical terms, a plant part that looks like this is said to be glaucous, which describes the whitish blue color.

19-blue-jay-feather

The blue of this blue jay feather rivaled that of the black raspberry cane. I don’t see many blue feathers so I was happy to see this one.

20-blue-jay-feather

I was even happier when I looked a little closer. Seeing it up close revealed many things about blue jay feathers that I didn’t know. Chief among them was how very beautiful they are.

To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing.  One does not see anything until one sees its beauty. ~ Oscar Wilde

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1. Dim Sun

The old saying says that you should make lemonade when life gives you lemons, so when life gives me cold I take photos of the ice. The one above shows what a little glimpse of sun on a cold, cloudy winter day looks like. There seems to be little real heat coming from it but I suppose if it wasn’t there we’d know what cold was really all about. We’ve seen the temperature fall to as low as -12 °F (-24 °C) so far, and there’s a lot of January left.

2. Window Frost

In the old house I grew up in the curtains would blow in the breeze even when the windows were closed and frost grew on the windows all winter long, so I grew up admiring all of the different shapes that can be seen in ice. They can be very beautiful and I still admire them.

3. Window Frost

Ferns, flowers, trees; window frost can take on almost any shape and I’ve always wondered what made them grow in the shapes that they do. I finally found the answer at Snow Crystals.com: “Window frost forms when a pane of glass is exposed to below-freezing temperatures on the outside and moist air on the inside.  Water vapor from the air condenses as frost on the inside surface of the window. Scratches, residual soap streaks, etc., can all change the way the crystals nucleate and grow.”

4. Streamside Ice

Fingers of ice suspended above the water of a stream revealed how much the water level had dropped since they formed.

5. Riverside Ice

The same drop in water level can be seen along the river, but the ice here shows it in a different way. In rivers and streams ice always seems to start forming on the banks before working its way toward the middle but on lakes and ponds it is just the opposite; it starts forming in the middle and works its way towards shore. I’m sure that the movement of the water in rivers and streams has a lot to do with it, but there must be more to it than that.

Last winter the river rose higher than I’ve ever seen it in this spot due to down river ice jams blocking the flow, and thick ice covered everything that can be seen in this photo. It was like an ice covered wasteland and you couldn’t tell where the land stopped and the water started. Best to stay off that kind of ice.

6. Ice on Rocks

I thought it was strange that all of the larger stones along the river were coated with ice but the smaller stones weren’t. I would have guessed that it would be the reverse, because it seems like the larger stones would absorb and hold more heat from the sun and keep the water from freezing. Could it be that the larger stones take longer than the smaller ones to absorb that heat?  Just another of nature’s mysteries to add to an ever growing list.

 7. Ice Needles on Stream Bank

Along another small stream I saw more ice needles than I’ve ever seen in one place. There were many millions of them growing out of the gravel, all along its banks. Usually I see ice needles that are coated with the soil that they grow out of but these were surprisingly clean because of the gravel.

8. Ice Needles on Stream Bank

They were also the longest ice needles that I’ve seen. Many were 6-8 inches long. When the air temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit right at the soil surface and the soil and groundwater remain thawed, hydrostatic pressure can force the groundwater, sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because of more water freezing at its base. From what I’ve seen the needles almost always freeze together and form ribbons like those seen in the above photo.

9. Ice Needles on Leaf

Ice needles are very fragile, as you can imagine. I wanted to move a leaf so I could get a better shot of some needles but when I moved it the needles went with it. You can see how they’ve attached to the underside of the leaf along with some hoar frost that has grown there. I was surprised to find that ice ribbons weigh next to nothing-little more than the dry leaf they were hanging from, so it must take very little water to make them.

 10. Ice Patterns

The whiter the ice, the more air bubbles were trapped in it when it froze. That explains the color, but what explains the long, needle like crystals and the strange pinging noise it makes when it breaks? There might be answers to those questions out there, but I haven’t been able to find them.

 11. Frosted Fern Leaf

Hoarfrost grows whenever it’s cold and there is a source of water vapor nearby. When it is below freezing the water vapor from unfrozen rivers and streams often condenses on the plants all along their banks and covers them in hoarfrost, as this fern leaf shows.

12. Frost on a Leaf

More examples of hoarfrost.  It looks so very delicate that I often have to remind myself to breathe while I’m taking its photo.  One touch of a warm finger, a ray of sunshine, or a warm breath and they’re gone.

13. Ice Patterns

Ice can be very abstract. This streamside example had a lot of large bubbles frozen in place and it showed a surprising amount of depth as well as abstraction and it reminded me of the old black and white Twilight Zone TV episodes from the 60s. I can see an eye and a set of teeth and a flying bird and a fish skeleton and several other things in it so you see, ice can even give us the imagination of a child again, at least for a little while. I can’t think of many gifts greater than that one.

14. Icy Rocks

Ice can also reveal the hidden groundwater that seems to seep out of the soil year round but is nearly impossible to detect until it freezes. Once winter shows us where it is if we can remember to return to the spot in the summer we might find some interesting plants there. Some orchids, certain liverworts, and other fascinating plants like to grow where water constantly seeps. In this spot the liverwort known as greater whipwort (Bazzania trilobata) grows in abundance.

15. Frozen Waterfall

In this photo the ice seems to be letting us see into the future. I can see a couple of large boulders and even a tree or two being toppled by this stream before too long.  Of course because of the way ice expands it might set things to tumbling before it even has a chance to melt.

Ice burns, and it is hard for the warm-skinned to distinguish one sensation, fire, from the other, frost. ~A.S. Byatt,

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