Last Sunday dawned cold at only 4 degrees F so I waited until it had warmed up as much as it was going to before climbing Hewes Hill in Swanzey. The trail winds through mostly hemlock forest and is quite dark in places and I expected ice, so I strapped on my Yaktrax and set off across the hayfield in the above photo.
It wasn’t long before I was glad to be wearing the Yaktrax because there was ice here and there on the trail.
I’d bet that I’ve walked by this stone a hundred times without ever seeing anything interesting, but on this day I noticed that it was covered with concentric boulder lichens (Porpidia crustulata.) This lichen gets its common name from the way its fruiting bodies (Apothecia) grow in concentric rings around the center. I’ve only seen it two or three times and that led me to think that it was uncommon here, but now I wonder if I’ve just been walking right by them all these years.
We had one day with wind gusts near 60 mph last week so I wasn’t surprised to see this eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) lying across the trail. I saw several more fallen trees as well.
The hemlock most likely fell because it had been weakened by the tinder fungi (Fomes fomentarius) that were growing on it. The spores from this fungus enter the tree through damaged bark and cause rot inside. It usually grows on hardwoods but can occasionally grow on conifers as well. 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).
The fungal rot was white and clearly visible all over the inside of the tree. White rots break down lignin and cellulose and cause the rotted wood to feel moist, soft, spongy, or stringy. They can be white or yellow.
I heard crunching underfoot so knew I was walking on ice needles. For ice needles to form the air temperature has to fall below 32 degrees F right at the soil surface while the soil and groundwater remain thawed. Hydrostatic pressure forces 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. I’ve read that each thin needle is hexagonal in shape, and that needles have been found that were 16 inches long. The needles in this photo were no more than 4 inches long. They were very dirty.
Other ice growing on ledges was bigger; much bigger.
As is true on many of these hills and mountains the trail is steepest just before the summit.
The 40 ton glacial erratic known as Tippin’ Rock sits atop Hewes Hill on a slab of very flat granite bedrock. Legend says that it is called Tippin’ Rock because if you push in the right place it will tip. I didn’t know whether to believe it or not until I first saw it happen and then tipped it myself.
To give you an idea of the size of Tippin’ Rock and because I promised my friend Dave that I’d make him world famous, here he is actually tipping Tippin’ Rock last summer. We were shocked to see such a huge boulder rocking gently and almost soundlessly back and forth like a baby cradle. When you think about all of the forces that had to come into play for this stone to simply be here at all, but then to also be so perfectly balanced, it becomes kind of mind blowing.
Sometimes if a stump or log has decayed enough tree seeds can fall and grow on them. In this photo am eastern hemlock grew stilted roots over what was probably a stump that has since rotted away. From what I’ve seen any type of tree will do this.
The views weren’t spectacular but I sat for a while and wondered, as I often do, how the first settlers felt when they looked out over something like this. It isn’t hard when you’re up here to imagine nothing out there but trees and maybe a game trail to follow if you were lucky. And if you were very lucky you might have a gun, an axe head, and food enough for a day or two. I also often wonder if I would have had the courage to face such an immense unknown.
You really are in the treetops up here. Mostly oak treetops.
This is another unsuccessful attempt to show you how high you are when you’re up here. You’ll have to take my word that it’s quite a drop.
The views didn’t really matter because that’s not what I climbed up here to see. I haven’t seen my friends the toadskin lichens (Lasallia papulosa) since last fall, so I thought it was past time to pay them a visit. They prefer growing on undisturbed natural boulders rather than on man-made stone walls and in this area I’ve only seen them on hilltops, so I don’t see them often; only when I’m willing to work for it. We haven’t had any rain or snow lately so they were very dry, and when dry they usually turn from their normal pea green color to the ashy gray seen here. They also become very brittle.
Common toadskin lichens are umbilicate lichens, which means they attach to a substrate (usually stone) at a single point, like a belly button. That point is the lighter area in this example. These lichens also look warty, and that’s how they come by their common name. These examples were small at less than an inch across but I’ve seen them as big as 2 inches. They can be very beautiful.
The head of a pin is .06 inches (1.5 mm) in diameter and one of the toadskin lichen’s fruiting bodies (Apothecia) could easily hide behind one. The apothecia are where the lichen’s spores are produced. In this case they are tiny black discs with a sunken center that makes them look like a bowl with a thick black rim. The way that they sit on the body (thallus) of the lichen makes them look like they’d blow away in a breeze, but they are attached. This isn’t a great photo but it’s the closest I’ve ever been able to get to this lichen and it’s a fair bet that you’re seeing something you’ve never seen.
This photo shows how the apothecia are distributed over the surface of the toadskin lichen. Despite being quite dry this one was producing a lot of spores.
Mr. (or Mrs.) smiley face was there to greet me as I reached the bottom of the hill. I wonder if whoever painted it could have imagined that it would stay here so long and cheer so many people on. There have been times when my weariness has disappeared as the little smile put a smile on my face.
I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything. ~Alan watts
Thanks for stopping in.