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Posts Tagged ‘Nature Study’

I’ve left lichens alone up to this point this year because of the drought. Lichens, to be at their best photogenically at least, need rain and when they don’t get it they can change their appearance sometimes quite dramatically. Some lichens however, like the common goldspeck lichens seen above, seem to change very little no matter what the weather.

Common goldspeck lichens are very pretty and grow on stone. These examples were growing on 200 year old slate headstones in a cemetery, which is a great place to find lichens.

Not surprisingly when you get close enough you find that common goldspeck lichens look like tiny gold specks. This one happened to be producing spores and you can see that by the little round things that look like octopus suckers scattered here and there. They are the lichen’s apothecia and they are very rarely seen on this lichen. If you took a common pin and poked it through a piece of paper and then looked through the hole you’d have a fairly good idea of the size of most of those little specks.

Another rock loving lichen 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 too. This stone is almost completely covered by it.

A closer look at the sidewalk firedot lichen showed how it is another lichen made up of tiny specks, some of which are its dry fruiting bodies (apothecia).  

I wanted this post to be about showing you how lichens can change their appearance, and one that illustrates this well is the star rosette lichen (Physcia stellaris). This is how it might appear when it is very dry, with apothecia that appear very gray. The apothecia of this lichen are actually dark brown but they have a powdery wax coating that can cause their color to change depending on the light. Plant parts with this powdery waxy coating are said to be pruinose and a good example of it is the “bloom” on blueberries, grapes, plums, and other fruit. The coating reflects light and protects what it coats from the sun. Depending on the angle of the light these apothecia can appear blue, gray, brown or black. That’s why it pays to visit lichens several times.

Here, in a photo taken previously, the star rosette lichen’s apothecia appear blue-gray and that could be either because of the light or the fact that it had rained recently when this photo was taken.

The only thing that seems to change about this lichen is the amount of apothecia it has. On this very dry day it still had so many you could barely see its body (thallus). I believe it is a Powdery sunburst (Xanthomendoza ulophyllodes) lichen, which is very pretty. Unfortunately it is also relatively rare in this area. I’ve only found it on two or three trees in one location. This one is about 3/4 of an inch across.

Here is the same powdery sunburst lichen that appeared in the previous photo, but this is what it looked like three years ago. It clearly illustrates why, if you’re going to study lichens, you need to visit them several times over a period of time if you would know them well.

Pink earth lichen (Dibaeis baeomyces) is one that I have seen no changes in whatsoever after several years, This pretty little lichen closely resembles bubblegum lichen (Icmadophila ericetorum.) One of the differences between the two is the length of the stalks that the plump pink apothecia sit on. They are longer on bubblegum lichens than they are on pink earth lichens. Both are beautiful things that are rarely seen in this area. The whitish thallus, or body of the lichen, grows on soil; usually on dry acidic soil near blueberry and sweet fern plants. It can sometimes have a bluish cast as well.

Scattered rock posy lichen (Rhizoplaca subdiscrepans) is both beautiful and unusual with its brain like body and orange fruiting bodies. This lichen’s orange apothecia can disappear when it is dry so I was surprised to find them this time. This one was growing on stone in full sun. This lichen is fairly common and I find it both on mountain summits and in the lowlands.

The golden moonglow lichens (Dimelaena oreina) that I see are usually about an inch across but they can get much bigger. The ones I know grow in full sun on granite and don’t seem to change color when they dry out like many other lichens do. This one was producing spores and that’s something I don’t see this lichen do very often. This was an odd example because it had another foliose lichen growing in its center. If you spend much time in cemeteries you have probably seen this pretty lichen, because it seems to like growing on smooth, polished stone, especially granite. It is a crustose lichen and crustose lichens are very determined, so removing it from a gravestone would be a challenge. When lichens grow on glass the acids in them can actually etch the glass and this is a problem in the big European cathedrals, especially. I would think the same would be true for polished stone.

Rosy saucer lichens (Ochrolechia trochophore)seem toprefer growing on smooth barked trees but some like this one don’t seem to care and will form themselves to whatever shape the bark they grow on happens to have. I probably see more of this pretty little lichen than any other. It’s apothecia are not subject to cold or dryness, apparently; they are visible in winter or summer.

Peppered rock shield lichen (Xanthoparmelia conspersa) likes to grow on stone in full sun and I find a lot of them on stone walls. They’re a good introduction to lichen study because their brown apothecia, where their spores are produced, are large and easy to see without aid. Lichens are made up of a symbiotic relationship between fungi and algae or cyanobacteria. Technically apothecia are “fungal reproductive structures, in which the fungus reproduces itself through the production of spores” This is not the only way that lichens reproduce, but it is common and the apothecia are often beautiful and well worth watching for.

Here is a closer look at those apothecia. Note the different shades and shapes, all on the same lichen. They wrinkle up a bit when dry.

Dog or pelt lichens will grow on soil, rotting wood, or stone as this one was. The example pictured is I believe,  the scaly pelt lichen (Peltigera praetextata), and I arrived at that identification only with the help of a lichen expert. These lichens are associated with mossy areas because the mosses provide the moisture that they need. Since there are about 100 species of foliose lichens in the family Peltigeraceae they can be tough to pin down. It is a foliose lichen because it is lobed, or leaf like. The upper part of the body (Thallus) is undulating or veined in this case. This lichen is large and easy to see. It is also probably quite old.

What sounds most plausible to me about the origin of the name “dog lichen” are the white “roots” on the white underside of the lichen body. They are fang like and called rhizines. On some lichens they can be quite bushy, and on others they are narrow and thin. They are one of the identifying characteristics of dog or pelt lichens, so you should always try to get a look at them if you can. Often the edges of the lobes will curl up, revealing them. In this area these are relatively rare. I’ve seen them only in two places.

It originally took me quite a while to figure out what this lichen might be called but its green body (thallus) with flattened strap like branches and white fruiting bodies (apothecia) led me to finally settle on the tufted ramalina lichen. Then my lichen expert friend told me that it is now known as Ramalina americana.  A lichen guide from 1902 says this lichen is “very common in New England” but I had never seen it. My knowledgeable friend tells me that is because it was nearly wiped out by pollution, and that tells me that our air here in New Hampshire must be very clean. If you see lots of lichens where you live it’s probably fair to assume the same.

Here is a closer look at the Ramalina lichen’s apothecia. They’re very different from most lichens I see.

Leafy (foliose) lichens that look like this can be difficult to identify but I believe this one is the fringed wrinkle lichen (Tuckermanopsis americana). They are one of the easiest to find because they fall from the trees and litter the ground on virtually any trail you follow in this area. They can be difficult to identify because they change color so readily. I’ve seen them even look pure white when very dry. This one was found on a rainy day so I know its colors are true. The brown, roundish bits with dots (pycnidia) around the edges are its apothecia, and they can be very pretty. This could also be the variable wrinkle lichen (Tuckermanopsis orbata), which is a good name for a very pretty but variable lichen.

A lichen common to stone walls is the sulfur dust lichen (Chrysothrix chlorina.) It’s very yellow and hides under overhangs so it doesn’t get rained on. At least I think that’s why I always find it tucked away like this, but this is odd behavior for a lichen because they usually like a lot of rain and sunshine. It seems as if this one would rather have water run down the stone to it than have raindrops land directly on it. Sulfur dust lichens are kind of granular in texture. If you’re lucky you can sometimes find them with fruiting bodies (apothecia) but more often than not I see them when they aren’t producing spores.

Some lichens, like the script lichen show above, seem to only produce spores when the weather is cold. Though there are apothecia on this lichen you can barely see them; in the summer you can look at trees that are covered with script lichens and see nothing but grayish white spots on the bark.

But in the winter script lichens come to life and will be covered with squiggly “script” which can often be very beautiful. This is why one of my favorite times to go lichen hunting is in the fall and winter months. Lichen study is not a sprint, it’s a marathon that can sometimes take years to run if you want the medal. Once you become interested in lichens, you’ll find interest and pleasure on every rock, tree and fencepost you see for many years to come.

Smokey eye boulder lichens (Porpidia albocaerulescens) are one of the most beautiful lichens of all in my opinion, but their beauty is fleeting and it depends on how the light happens to fall on them. If you find one it might not look like this one at all. The pretty golden brown body (thallus) of the lichen is peppered with blue apothecia which are colored by the light due to their waxy coating. Take a look at the next photo to see what a simple change in light can do.

This is the exact same lichen we saw in the previous photo; all that is different is the light, and that’s why if you’re at all interested in lichens you really should visit them at different times of year and in different weather. The previous photo was taken when sunlight was falling on it, and this shot was taken when the lichen was in shade. Not only light but dryness can affect the color of many lichens, so make a note of where you find them and then go back when the weather has changed. I think you’ll be amazed by how much they can change, and also by how beautiful they can be.

Here is a lichen that was a learning experience for both myself and my friend the lichen specialist, who just happens to be writing a book about lichens much like the one you see above. There are many things on this lichen that lead to its identity but what I want you to see are its apothecia, which grow in concentric circles and look like little bumps or hills. That would tell most people that this was a concentric boulder lichen but they’d be fooled, just as I was. This photo was taken just after a rain and this lichen was very wet.

Here is the lichen once it had dried. As you can see it has changed dramatically; those little bumps have become cup shaped, and that’s because when wet they swell up and close, and then open again when they dry out. This was a challenge to even a lichen expert so you shouldn’t feel disappointed if you can’t identify every lichen that you see. Some like this one are hard to identify without expert help. Its name is the dusky map lichen (Rhizocarpon reductum) and it will appear in my friend’s lichen book.

If you find yourself interested in lichens maybe you could start like I did; find a particular lichen and simply watch it; maybe on that tree in your yard, or on your daily walk, or at lunch time. They grow virtually everywhere and are not hard to find. So watch “your” lichen and see how it changes. See how different it appears in sun and shade, and when wet or dry. Think about how all of these changes have been going on right there in plain sight all this time without your knowing. This will make you a better student of nature; a better observer. Ask yourself well, if I have missed this, something so obvious, what else might I have missed? Then you will be amazed at what you begin to see.

It is those insignificant things, the things most of us pay no attention to like lichens, liverworts or mosses, that often tell the most about that part of the planet we live on. Lichens, or lack of them, speak about clean air or air pollution. Liverworts speak about clean water or water pollution and mosses speak about soil conditions. These creatures are like canaries in a coal mine and will give advanced warning of any abrupt changes in climate or increases in pollution. All of things on this earth have voices. Nature speaks, but only to those willing to listen, and you listen by simply being there.

We do not see nature with our eyes, but with our understanding and our hearts. ~William Hazlett

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I was going to climb a hill last Saturday but it felt quite warm at 55 degrees, so I went to the lake instead. This is Swanzey Lake, one of many lakes in the area. Since it is relatively close to Keene you can usually expect the swimming area on the east side of the lake to be packed with children on a sunny summer day. I spent many wonderful hours swimming and playing here as a boy. There were even bathrooms and a snack bar.

If it rained you could go into the hall but there wasn’t really much of anything to do other than sit and wait for the rain to stop.

On this day the water was low because of the drought so the beach was twice as wide as it usually is. I swam here regularly as a boy but I had a blockage in my mind that told me I couldn’t swim in deep water, even though I swam fine in shallow water. My cousin, who was a lifeguard, told me “Don’t say you can’t swim. I’ve seen you do it; you swim like a fish.” He said that just before he dropped me into the deep end of a swimming pool, and it was a good thing he was a lifeguard because I swam like a stone and had to be rescued before I drowned. Only after I surrendered to the fact that I would never swim for real did the paralyzing fear melt away so I could finally swim in deep water. I didn’t have many opportunities to show it off here though; the water goes out 30 feet before it is over an adult’s head and a swimming area was always roped off for younger children. There was a lifeguard that made sure you stayed inside the ropes as well.

I discovered that watching ripples through a camera lens is completely mesmerizing.

A large bird with big feet walked all over the sand of the beach. I thought it might be a heron but I don’t know for certain.

You get down to the beach by following a paved downhill driveway, and rainwater washes down the driveway with such force that it creates deep gullies in the beach. I would have thought that it would have been fixed by now but no. It has been going on since I was a boy and I found myself wondering how much sand had washed into the lake in all that time.

If it weren’t for the fact that the swimming area has been developed the forest would grow right down to the water’s edge. There is a small area that is still forested and some quite large white pines grow there. They are lichen covered, with the ones that want the most humidity like these shield lichens growing on the side toward the lake.

There are a few trees just at the beach start and their roots have become quite exposed, both by years of small foot traffic and the washing of the water.

I was very surprised to find trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) growing among the tree roots. Trailing arbutus is also called mayflower because that’s often when its small white to pink, very fragrant flowers appear.  Its oval evergreen leaves are tough and leathery and hug the ground but though it looks like a groundcover botanically speaking it has a persistent woody stem, so it is classified as a shrub. This was one of my grandmother’s favorite flowers and she would walk in the woods to find and smell it rather than dig it up to plant in her yard.  It’s too bad everybody didn’t do the same because this plant was once collected into near oblivion. 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. It seemed to be doing well here in full sun, even though I usually find it in shady areas.

Horsehair lichens (Bryoria trichodes) and others grow on the sides of the trees opposite the water, which tells me they must need a little less humidity. Since it has rained little lately these lichens were very dry. Beard and hair lichens are extremely sensitive to air pollution and will only grow where the air quality is high. Deer, moose and squirrels eat this lichen and there are stories of deer rushing out of the forest and eating it out of the tops of felled spruce trees while loggers with chainsaws were still cutting the trees up.

An old tree stump was covered with American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) plants. They are also called teaberry or checkerberry and their small white flowers resemble those of the blueberry. It is probably the easiest of all wintergreens to identify because of the strong minty scent that comes from its crushed leaves. If you have ever tasted teaberry gum then you know exactly what it smells and tastes like. The plant contains compounds that are very similar to those found in aspirin and Native Americans used it much like we use aspirin. They also chewed the leaves for refreshment on long hikes.

Cushion mosses grew under an alder. White cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) can appear silvery, white, bluish green or grayish green but it always forms a thick cushion and stands out from the mosses that might surround it. It likes plenty of water and shade. It is probably the easiest of all the mosses to identify.

What could be better than green grass on November 21st in New Hampshire? Not that long ago you could ice skate in November.

This toadskin lichen (Lasallia papulosa) is very special to me because it is the only one I’ve ever seen that wasn’t on a mountaintop. Toadskin lichens show dramatic color changes when they dry out like many other lichens. When wet it is pliable and pea green and when dry it becomes crisp and ash gray like the above example. Toadskin lichens get their common name from their many “warts.” They attach themselves to stone at a single point that looks like a belly button, and that makes them umbilicate lichens.

I left the beach and went down the road just a bit to the boat launch. I used to fish here with my daughter and son when they were younger and I still see many people doing the same in the summer. We always hoped for lake trout but got sunfish instead.

The black line on that boulder shows the normal water level. I’d say it was down about a foot and a half which, when spread over the surface of the entire lake, is an awful lot of water lost.

I was surprised to see water still flowing over the dam but it was really just a trickle when compared to a normal water height.

Someone built a fine new bridge over the spillway. I stood on it to take that previous photo.

Mallards didn’t mind the low water level. In fact it probably made it easier for them to find food. There was quite a large group of them and I was surprised that they didn’t fly away when they saw me. Mallards are often very skittish in these parts, I think because nobody feeds them.

There is a large grassy area where people can sit and picnic. I sat here for awhile and enjoyed the sound of the waterfall while I watched the ducks. To sit by the water on a green lawn in the warm sunshine without a coat on in November while listening to the birds sing is a great gift.

What I think was a winter oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) grew on a tree. Its upturned gills made them easy to admire. This example was dying but I often find that mushrooms are often as beautiful in death as they are in life. The color and movement that this one showed were beautiful.

On another stump there was quite a crop of them. You have to watch what you’re doing at all times when foraging for mushrooms but especially the “winter mushrooms”, because the cold can change their color. We’ve had nights in the teens and I’m sure these examples had probably been frozen and had darkened because of it. They might have also been the late oyster mushroom (Panellus serotinus).

This one looked very fresh. I think it was a late oyster because of the yellow orange gill color. Late oysters aren’t considered as choice as winter oysters here but the Japanese consider them a great delicacy.

And this little mushroom had found a place to get out of the cold winds. I’m not sure what it was but I admired its pluck.

The strangest thing I saw this day was this willow shedding its bud scales and showing its “pussies.” The only guess I have is that it was fooled by the warm weather after the cold we had. Plants can be fooled by such things and they usually pay for it by not being able to produce seeds the following year.

If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. ~Tecumseh, Shawnee

Thanks for coming by. I hope everyone has a safe and happy Thanksgiving Day. 

A few of the many things I have to be thankful for this year are:
The neighbor’s rooster. I love hearing him crow each morning when I leave for work.
The wonderful smell of woodsmoke I smell each day on the way home as I drive by a barbecue restaurant.
The time change; the sunrises have been beautiful on my way to work.
And I’m most thankful for the fact that nobody I know has gotten sick. I do hope all of you can say the same.

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Back when I started this blog I found a little peninsula of land jutting out into the Ashuelot River. It can’t be more than a few yards wide but the variety of nature found there is really astonishing. There are deer, woodpeckers and other birds, a wide variety of plants, and even beavers. It’s amazing what can live on such a small piece of land. I’ve had what I thought was a fair understanding of nature since I was a boy but this is where nature really took me by the hand and said “Come with me, I’ve got something to show you.” So, going there last Sunday was like going home again, even though the place had been rearranged by nature somewhat.

One of the first thing I noticed was this delicate fern moss (Thuidium delicatulum) changing into its bright green fall color. Many mosses will grow on wood, stone or soil and delicate fern moss is one of them. It’s is a beautiful little thing that isn’t as delicate as its name implies, but it certainly is fern like. The leaves of this moss are often dull rather than shiny. It is fairly common and easy to find because it often forms very large mats. Orchid growers use this moss in orchid cultivation.

I saw a couple of frost rimmed little brown mushrooms on a log. It was cold this morning.

This one growing nearby showed what the previous mushrooms looked like when they were younger. Though the shape isn’t quite right I thought they might be deadly galerina mushrooms (Galerina autumnalis) which are, according to mushroom expert Tom Volk, so poisonous that eating even a little bit can be deadly. They are common on rotting logs in almost all months of the year and can fruit in the same spot several times. If you collect and eat wild mushrooms deadly galerina is one that you should get to know very well.

An old red maple tree had fallen, and I knew it was a red maple by the target canker still showing on the small piece of bark still left on it. Target canker doesn’t harm the tree but causes its bark to grow in circular patterns of narrow plates which helps protect it from the canker. According to Cornell university: “A fungus invades healthy bark, killing it. During the following growing season, the tree responds with a new layer of bark and undifferentiated wood (callus) to contain the pathogen. However, in the next dormant season the pathogen breaches that barrier and kills additional bark. Over the years, this seasonal alternation of pathogen invasion and host defense response leads to development of a ‘canker’ with concentric ridges of callus tissue—a ‘target canker.’” Apparently the fungal attacker gives up after a while, because as the tree ages the patterns disappear and the tree seems fine. I doubt it had anything to do with this tree’s death.

By the way, speaking of red maples, I hope everyone knows that buds are set in the fall and don’t magically appear in spring. All the plants you see out there have already made their plans for spring, as these beautiful red maple buds show. All they need now is a little rest first.

This little spit of land is where I found witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) blooming in January one year. This day was cold enough to feel like January but it didn’t stop them.

I love the deep browns of witch hazel leaves. So warm on a cold day.

The underside of a witch haze leaf tells a different story. There is something that eats all of the tissue between the leaf veins and before long it will be a skeleton.

There was a good size burl on this witch hazel. Burl is an abnormal growth that grows faster than the surrounding tissue. Scientists don’t fully understand why it happens but burls 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. Woodworkers make some very beautiful things from burl and prize burls highly. Bowls and other objects made from it can sometimes sell for thousands of dollars.

The dark spots of frullania liverworts could be seen on many trees  It’s a leafy liverwort but each leaf is smaller than a house fly. There are about 800 species of frullania liverworts and many grow as epiphytes on the bark of trees where the humidity is high. Epiphytic plants take nothing from the host plants they grow on; instead they simply perch there like birds. Mosses and lichens are also epiphytes. A frullania liverwort’s tiny leaves are strung together like beads, and change from green to deep purple in cold weather. Frullania liverworts can cause a rash called woodcutter’s eczema in some people. It’s an annoying, itchy rash but doesn’t cause any real harm, and it disappears in a week or two if you stop handling logs with liverworts on them.

Sometimes when the river floods parts of this little bit of land can be almost completely underwater, and it’s slowly washing the soil from the roots of this big maple. You can see the whitish, very fine silt it has deposited at the tree’s base. It’s a bit scary out here when the water is that high.

Here is a gravel bar complete with grasses that wasn’t here the last time I came out here. This river has changed a lot over just the last 10 years.

In 2010 a 250 year old timber crib dam was removed just upstream from here and the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services “landscaped” this section of river bank by planting native trees and shrubs. One of them, an arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) showed off its fall color. It is said that this plant’s common name comes from Native Americans using the straight stems for arrow shafts. They also used the shrub medicinally and its fruit for food.

I walked down to the river’s edge and saw a stone with so much iron in it, it seemed to be rusting. Iron rich stones are common here but I think they were brought in from elsewhere by the state.

And then I saw this; almost every oak and ash tree that the state planted 10 years ago had been cut down and dragged off by beavers. There had to have been 12-15 trees gone, and at anywhere from $150-$500 per tree depending on size when planted and species, these beavers had an expensive meal.

Most of what they took were oaks. They had reached probably 4-6 inches in diameter since they were planted. To be honest when I first saw these trees had been planted here I wondered what the state was thinking. They are an open invitation to beavers, which swim right by here all the time. It took them a while but they’ve answered the invitation and they’ll most likely be back night after night now until every tree is gone. You can trap and re-locate them yes, but that’s like closing the barn door after you’ve see the horse running down the road. And they’ll just come back anyway.

You could see the drag marks in the sand where they had dragged branches.

They left an oak top at the water’s edge, but they’ll be back for it.

They didn’t just cut trees and drag them off though; they sat here and had a fine meal. You can tell by how every last bit of bark has been stripped from these branches.

And weren’t the oak leaves beautiful?

A beaver is a rodent that has to continually gnaw to keep its teeth from growing too long, and this is what their gnawing sometimes looks like. Their teeth are extremely sharp.

Now that they’ve taken most of the oaks and ash tees they’re going for the maples, which are native trees that weren’t planted. Beavers will often chew through a tree half way like this and leave it. It’s very dangerous to be walking among trees that look like this in a high wind, so I wish they’d simply drop the tree. I have a feeling that something scared them off when they do this.  

Well, this post wasn’t supposed to be about beavers; there was no part two planned for the original “Leave it to Beavers” post that I did a week ago but as you can see, the beavers made me do it. When I left off with that post I told about all the marvelous things beavers do for the ecosystem (true) and only hinted at the damage they can do. Now you’ve seen it, but don’t blame the beavers. You can’t expect a beaver to leave your trees alone. They’re just doing what comes naturally; what they’ve been doing for millennia, and they don’t know or care if it’s a “weed tree” or a rare specimen tree that costs thousands of dollars. They get hungry and they’ll eat, and in this spot it was like someone had set the table for them. Planting a tree near fresh water in New Hampshire is like having dinner invitations printed up.

It wouldn’t be right to end a two part beaver post without a photo of a beaver, so here is one I got a few years ago of a beaver swimming down the river with a mouthful of what look to be sensitive ferns. Sensitive ferns are toxic to humans but it might be that beavers can eat them, or maybe this beaver cut the ferns to use as bedding in its lodge. Beaver lodges can be quite big, with the floor a couple of inches above the water level. On the floor they scatter a 2 or 3 inch deep bed of dry leaves, grass, shredded wood and other materials to keep the floor dry, so using ferns would make sense.

Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from. ~Terry Tempest Williams

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From Winchester to the south of Keene to Westmoreland to the north the Cheshire Rail Trail covers about 40 miles, so I’m not surprised that I haven’t hiked the entire thing. One leg I’ve wondered about for quite a while is the piece that goes from Pearl Street in Keene to Whitcomb’s Mill Road. On this day I decided to stop wondering and hike it, and this is what I saw at the outset; a wide, packed gravel trail with street lights and park benches. It was the busiest rail trail I’ve ever been on and this is the only photo I was able to get without people in it. There were hikers, runners, bike riders, dog walkers, elderly couples and small children in strollers, and I wondered what I had done. I’m used to being kind of “right here, right now” when I’m in nature, and there usually is nothing else. When you find yourself continually having to say “hello” or “good morning”, or to explain why you’re taking a photo of an old dead tree, it’s harder to be there.

The trail crosses another one of Keene’s busiest highways and this bridge was built here after a homeless man was killed trying to cross. This bridge reminds me of the other one like it near Keene State College but this one isn’t as sturdy. A jogger ran over it while I was crossing it and the entire thing was bouncing up and down. For someone who doesn’t get on well with heights it was a little disconcerting. Speaking of heights, this is very near the place where I fell out of a tree a fractured my spine some 50 years ago. That thought just happened to pop into my mind when the bridge started bouncing.  

It had rained the day before so everything, including this greater celandine (Chelidonium majus), was still damp. On this day we were promised full sunshine and strong winds. The wind prediction kept me out of the forest but we had no wind at all, and no sunshine either.

There were plenty of reminders that this was once a railbed, including this pile of old railroad ties and the drainage channel behind. The railroad took up all the rails and ties and left them in piles all along the rail corridor. My question has always been, if they weren’t going to re-use them why did they remove them?

I wondered what kinds of mosses could grow on creosote soaked rail ties so I looked closer. One of them was one of my favorites, white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata). It is also called medusa moss because of  the way this moss looks like a bunch of tangled worms when it dries out. This moss is fairly common and I find it mostly growing on stones in sunny spots. It always seems to be very happy and healthy. This example had spore capsules, which I’ve rarely seen on this moss.

A tangle of black raspberry canes made me think of Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up In Blue”. I was happy to let it play in my mind as I walked on.

Honey mushrooms (Armillarea mellea) once grew on this elm tree and I know that because their long black root like structures called rhizomorphs still clung to the dead tree. Honey mushrooms are parasitic on live wood and grow long cream colored rhizomorphs between the wood and its bark. They darken to brown or black as they age, but by the time we see them the tree has died and its bark is falling off. The fungus is also called armillarea root rot or shoestring root rot. It causes a white pulpy rot in the wood and kills many species of both soft and hardwood trees. Fallen logs and standing dead trees will often still have the black rhizomorphs attached to them.

I’ve never paid attention to the inner bark of an elm tree but I will from now on because it is beautifully colored. This piece brought the thought of Jupiter’s great red spot, the anticyclonic storm that has been raging for hundreds of years on that planet.

Off in the distance there was still some color.

And above me hung crab apples. Though we think the apples we’re eating are native, crab apples are really the only apples native to North America. The apples we know originated in Central Asia, where its wild ancestor, Malus sieversii, is still found today. Apples are thought to be the first cultivated tree and have been grown for thousands of years in Asia and Europe. North American apple cultivation began 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Settlers had come prepared with seeds, cuttings, and small plants from the best European stock and the trees grew well here; by the end of the 19th century 14,000 apple varieties were being grown. Many were inferior varieties and for one reason or another fell out of favor and have been lost to the ages. Today 2,500 varieties of apples are grown in the U.S. and 7,500 varieties of apples are grown worldwide.

Thank you to Tim Hensley and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden for the article A Curious Tale: The Apple in North America, for some of the information used here.

Bracken fern made me think of the spines and rib cages of ancient fossilized creatures.

I came to a large field. Since it wasn’t fenced I’m guessing it was a hay field. A strange thing to find out here I thought, even though I was only a stone’s throw from suburbia.

And the Keene Country Club’s golf course proved how close I was to suburbia. I was happy to get out of here without getting whacked by a golf ball. How strange that green looked.

Instead of worrying about stray golf balls I kept my mind on the beauty that surrounded me here on the trail. There was plenty of it.

I saw what I first thought was a dead tree and then I looked up and saw a cross brace and realized it was an old railroad pole that once held the glass insulators that telegraph lines were fixed to. It showed great age and I loved its weathered surface and many knots. I’m guessing it must have been locust because no other wood I know of can stand in the ground for two hundred plus years without rotting. It’s a great choice for fence posts.

Here was a newer concrete marker post. I’ve tried to look up what 93-24 means but I haven’t had any luck.

There was a small homemade bridge crossing the drainage channel and I’d bet if I had crossed it I would have come to a secret hideout. Every child has one.

The other day on my way to work a red fox ran across the road in front of me and this grass reminded me to tell you about it.

The intense red of the inner bark of a staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) caught my eye. Native Americans used the pulp of the stems and the inner bark to make dye, and after seeing the color I’m not surprised. You have to be quick to find the red color though because it’s only there for a short time right after the tree dies. I’ve read descriptions that say the inner (live) bark is “light green and sweet to chew on,” but no reference to its changing color when it dries, so it is a mystery to me. The plant is said to be rich in tannins and I do know that dyes in colors like salmon and plum can be made from it.

When I was a boy we always carved our names into trees with a pocket knife but as Brittnie shows us, these days it’s done with a marker. Better for the tree I suppose.

From a distance I thought a hawk had gotten a bird but no, the scattered “feathers” were just wet milkweed seeds.

I could sit down and write out a very long list of all the plants and trees one could expect to find along our rail trails but yew wouldn’t be one of them. Canada yew (Taxus canadensis) is native from Newfoundland west to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Iowa, but in this region I rarely see it. Though all parts of the yew plant are poisonous several Native American tribes made tea from the needles to ease everything from numbness to scurvy. A man in England died not too long ago from eating yew, so I wouldn’t advise trying to make tea from it. Natives knew how to treat poisonous plants in ways that made them beneficial to humans, but much of that knowledge has been lost.

Well, this was an interesting hike on a very well maintained trail but it was a bit too busy for my liking, so I doubt it will be a regular in my book of hiking spots. In fact at times it seemed as if I might have been hiking in downtown Keene. I enjoy less traveled trails where solitude is one of the most precious things to be found because, as Marty Rubin once said: “Solitude is where one discovers one is not alone.”

It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

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I needed to be in the woods for a while so I chose Yale Forest in Swanzey. The forest is owned by Yale University and is where the students in the forestry program get some hands on experience.

The trail used to be one of the roads north into Keene and you can still see pavement here and there.

The beeches and oaks were still hanging on so there was some fall color to enjoy.

There was also still some snow left from the first snow storm that dropped about 4 inches. First snows almost always melt away because the ground hasn’t yet frozen.

Evergreen ferns don’t mind snow. In fact they’ll stay green even under feet of it. That’s an evergreen Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) on the right and a spinulose wood fern (Dryopteris carthusiana) on the left.

Unlike the spore producing sori on the marginal wood fern (Dryopteris marginalis) which appear on the leaf margins, the sori on spinulose wood ferns appear between the midrib and the margins. Spinulose wood fern cross breeds the with both the marginal wood fern and the Intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia) so it can get confusing. This one was producing spores and as usual it made me wonder why so many ferns, mosses, lichens and clubmosses produce spores in cold weather. There has to be some way it benefits the continuation of the species but so far I haven’t discovered what it is.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is a common evergreen groundcover that grows along the trail. Small, heart shaped leaves on creeping stems grow at ground level. In spring it has white trumpet shaped flowers that grow in pairs and in the fall it has bright red berries which are edible but close to tasteless. I leave them for the turkeys, which seem to love them. My favorite parts of this plant are the greenish yellow leaf veins on leaves that look as if they were cut from hammered metal. I have several large patches of it growing in my yard.

Here was a downed tree; the first of many, I guessed. There have been lots of trees falling across the road this year and in some cases they are almost impossible to bypass.

I always stop to look at the branches of newly fallen trees to see what lichens lived on them. This one had a lichen garden in its crown. Mostly foliose (leafy) lichens, which were in fine form due to the recent wet weather. Lichens don’t like dry weather so I haven’t bothered them much this summer.

The big light colored lichen you saw in  the previous shot was I believe a hammered shield lichen (Parmelia sulcata), so named because it looks like it was hammered out of a piece of metal. These lichens are on the rare side here but I see them occasionally, always on trees. Hammered shield lichen is said to have a large variety of named varieties and forms, so it can be tough to pin down. Fruiting bodies are said to be rare and I’ve never seen them. It is also said to have powdery, whitish soredia but I’ve never seen them either. Soredia are tiny packages of both fungus and alga that break off the lichen and they are simply another means of reproduction.

NOTE: A lichenologist helper has written in to tell me that this lichen is actually a crumpled rag lichen (Platismatia tuckermanii) which I’ve been searching for for years. I hope my misidentification hasn’t caused any confusion. I know there are lots of lichen lovers out there.

Though in photos the road looks very long in reality it’s probably only a couple of miles out and back. But it was a nice warm day and there is usually lots to see, so I wouldn’t mind if it was longer.

And here was a huge downed pine that had taken a few maples down with it when it fell. Its root ball was also huge.

Orange crust fungus (Stereum complicatum) is so bright it’s like a beacon in the woods and it can be seen from quite far away on fallen branches. The complicatum part of its scientific name means “folded back on itself” and as can be seen in this photo, that is often just what it does.

I saw some mushrooms squeezing out between the bark and wood of a stump.

I’m not sure what they were; possibly one of the wax cap Hygrocybe clan. In any event they were little and brownish and life is too short to try and identify little brown mushrooms. Even mycologists are too busy for them and toss them into a too hard basket labeled LBMs.

These larger examples on a different stump might have been late fall oyster mushrooms (Panellus serotinus) but I didn’t look at their undersides so I’m not sure. My color finding software sees salmon and coral pink, while I see orange. An orange mushroom in clusters on wood at this time of year often means the Jack O’ Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus illudens), which is toxic. That’s why you should always look at their undersides and other features if you want to eat them.

And the mosses were so beautifully green!

Finally you come to the small stream you have to cross if you are to go on. I made it without falling once again, but I always wonder if this will be the time. Some of those stones are tippy.

Once I crossed the stream I saw that a new beaver dam had appeared since the last time I was here.

Recently chewed alders told me the beavers were very active. On small trees like these they leave a sharp cut that looks like someone has cut the tree with loppers. Their teeth are very sharp.

The beaver pond had grown deeper and wider.

You can tell the beaver pond wasn’t here when this land was farmed, probably in the 1800s. You don’t build stone walls under water.

The pond banks had breached in several places and if left to their own devices the beavers will flood this entire area.

I don’t worry about what beavers are doing because they do a huge amount of good for the ecosystem, but since all of this is very near a highway the highway department will eventually destroy the beaver dam so the highway isn’t flooded. I didn’t worry about that either; it has become part of the cycle. Instead I admired the beautiful red of the winterberries (Ilex verticillata). They are a native holly that love wet feet and the beavers are making sure that they get what they love. By doing so you can see that the beavers, in a round about way, are providing food for the birds. They also create and provide habitat for a long list of animals, amphibians and birds. This area would be very different without them.

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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This will most likely be that last of the fall color posts for this year, even though many of the oaks are still beautiful. We’ve had freezing temps and even snow and pretty much all of the maple leaves have now fallen. And that’s what you see in the above photo, which shows one of my favorite fall scenes. It’s one of my favorites because it always reminds me of swishing through the leaves on the way to school as a boy and smelling that sweet, earthy, caramel and burned sugar fragrance. That fragrance never leaves you; it returns every fall, and so do all of the memories associated with it.

The maples were so beautiful this year.

But I’m guessing this view of one of the hillsides surrounding Keene doesn’t have a maple leaf in it. Most of what you see are oaks but I’m not sure about the bright yellows. They could be beech, poplar or birch. Some oaks do turn yellow but I’m not sure they get quite that bright.

Here is the other end of that hillside. Hickories also turn yellow and so do chestnuts, but of course the American chestnut has been all but wiped out. Elms also turn yellow but they’re not usually quite so bright as these trees are. Ash is another tree with yellow leaves in the fall but most ash leaves fell a month ago, so it’s anyone’s guess.

Here was a beautiful oak.

An in this overlook of the city of Keene you can see many more oaks. I didn’t know there were so many in the town center.

The ferns have also been beautiful this year. I can’t remember another year when they’ve been so colorful. You’d think it was a bouquet of flowers.

Here is another hillside up in Surry, which is north of Keene. It’s usually a good place to see fall color.

Here’s a closer look. My camera didn’t seem to like some of the colors.

And another close look at some oaks and what looks like a poplar in yellow.

I went to see Mount Monadnock in Jaffrey back when the maples still had leaves.

There were lots of people up there on this day. Mount Monadnock is one of the most climbed mountains on earth, second only to Mount Fuji in Japan. Even Henry David Thoreau found too many people on the summit when he climbed it in the 1800s. He, like myself, found the view of the mountain much more pleasing than the view from it. He said “Those who climb to the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. It is remarkable what haste the visitors make to get to the top of the mountain and then look away from it. I came not to look off from it but to look at it. The view of the pinnacle itself surpasses any view which you get from the summit.” I agree.

I saw some bright yellow plants off on a hillside but I couldn’t tell what they were. Since the spot where they grew had been mowed I’m guessing that they were invasive oriental bittersweet vines. They grow very fast.

These were poplars in the sun.

Birch leaves usually turn bright yellow but sometimes a tree will have hints of orange.

I took so many photos of the forest at Willard Pond when I was there I still have some to show. This beautiful forest is mostly made up of beech, oak, and maple.

Here is another look. It’s one of the most beautiful forests I’ve ever been in.

Here is what the Ashuelot River in Swanzey looked like one recent evening when the setting sun made the light beautiful. The trees there on the right are oaks.

The burning bushes (Euonymus alatus) along the Ashuelot River in Swanzey have changed to their pink / magenta color. Just before the leaves fall they’ll turn a soft, very pale pastel pink but when this was taken they were still quite dark. The leaves on the trees above them seem to help regulate how quickly the burning bush leaves change color by keeping frost from touching them. In years when the overhanging branches lose their leaves early there is a good chance that the burning bushes will also lose theirs quickly. There have been years when I’ve seen hundreds of bushes all lose their leaves overnight.

And we have had some frosty mornings, and cold days and nights.

I loved the way the sun shined through this frosty silky dogwood leaf.

And the beautiful symmetry of these multiflora rose leaves.

And then of course, it snowed. But only three or four inches, and after a couple of days it was gone. Lately we’ve been enjoying sunshine and 70 degree F. weather, so we’re still on the weather roller coaster.

Why is it that so many of us persist in thinking that autumn is a sad season? Nature has merely fallen asleep, and her dreams must be beautiful if we are to judge by her countenance. ~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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I’m feeling a bit cheated this year because I haven’t seen enough mushrooms to do a mushroom post. Normally by this time of year I’d have done two or three posts dedicated to mushrooms, so I’ve decided to show you the mushrooms that you can expect to find here in a normal, drought free year. These are all mushrooms that have appeared in previous posts, like the wrinkled crust fungus (Phlebia radiata) seen above. It seems to radiate out from a central point, hence the radiata part of its scientific name. They grow on logs and have no stem, gills or pores, and they don’t seem to mind cool weather. In fact every time I have seen them it has been in the colder months of the year, like right now. It’s a beautiful thing.

This little group of butter wax caps (Hygrocybe ceracea) appeared in August one year. They’re one of my favorites. I hope these and the other mushrooms that you see in this post will convince you that they can be every bit as beautiful as flowers. You just have to look a little closer to see them, that’s all.

I found this reddening lepiota (Leucoagaricus americanus) in August also, growing in a sunny meadow that had been logged. It was big; the cap must have been 4 inches across, and it was a beautiful thing. It is called reddening lepiota because it is said to turn red wherever it is touched, but since I didn’t touch it I can’t confirm that.

Young purple cort mushrooms (Cortinarius iodeoides) are very purple but lighten as they age. Squirrels and chipmunks won’t touch this one, possibly because it’s covered with a bitter slime. This slime often makes the young examples look wet. Slugs don’t have a problem eating it and I often see white trails on the caps where they have eaten through the purple coating to the white flesh below. You can just see that on the left side of this one’s cap.

Purple corts often develop white or yellow streaks as they age and this is a good way to identify them. This example looked positively psychedelic. I usually find purple corts near the end of August into early September, but this year I didn’t see a single one.

Bear’s head or lion’s mane mushroom (Hericlum americanum) is a toothed fungus that looks like a fungal waterfall.  Soft spines hang from branches that reach out from a thick central stalk. This is another color changing mushroom that goes from white to cream to brown as it ages. I find it mostly on beech logs and trees. This one was large-probably about as big as a cantaloupe. This is a late cool weather fungus. I’ve seen them in October and I’ve also found them frozen solid.

Another of my favorites is the orange mycena (Mycena leaiana.) They like to grow in clusters on the sides of hardwood logs. Its stems are sticky and if you touch them the orange color will come off on your hand. I think this is one of the most visually pleasing mushrooms. This is another late summer / early fall mushroom.

An animal had knocked over what I think was a Marasmius delectans and I found it backlit by the very dim light one cloudy afternoon.  This mushroom is closely related to the smaller pinwheel mushrooms. This one was close to the diameter of a nickel. The Marasmius part of the scientific name means “wither” or “shrivel” in Greek, and refers to the way these mushrooms shrivel in dry weather and then rehydrate when it rains. I found it in September one year and I’ve never seen another one.

One of my favorite fungal finds for this post is called the tiger’s eye mushroom (Coltricia perennis.) One reason it’s unusual is because it’s one of the only polypores with a central stem. Most polypores are bracket or shelf fungi. The concentric rings of color are also unusual and make it look like a turkey tail fungus with a stem. The cap is very thin and flat like a table, and another name for it is the fairy stool. They are very tough and leathery and can persist for quite a long time. I find them in August through October.

One of the prettiest mushrooms in the woods right now are black chanterelles (Craterellus cornucopioides.) I met a mushroom forager once who told me that this mushroom was considered a choice delicacy and at that time restaurants were paying him $50.00 per pound for them, and they’d buy all he could find. But the trouble was finding them; mushroom hunters say they are very hard to find because looking for them is like looking for black holes in the ground. Some say they can look right at them and not see them but for me they seem very easy to find, and I think that’s due to my colorblindness. I’ve read that armies keep colorblind soldiers because they can “see through” many types of camouflage, and I think that must be why I can see these mushrooms so clearly when others can’t. It might be one of the few times colorblindness has come in handy. I found these on a south facing hillside in August.

Velvet stalked fairy fan mushrooms (spathularia velutipes) look more like leaves than mushrooms to me, but they are a form of spatulate mushroom that get their name from their resemblance to a spatula. They grow on conifer logs or in conifer debris on the forest floor.  These examples grew in the packed earth beside a trail. This was the first time I’ve noticed them. This is another summer fungus that I found in August.

A jelly fungus called Calocera cornea covered this log. This tiny fungus appears on barkless, hardwood logs after heavy rains. The fruiting bodies are cylindrical like a finger coral fungus and it looks like a coral fungus, but microscopic inspection has shown it to be a jelly fungus. This photo shows only part of what covered this log. The huge numbers of what looked like tiny yellow flames licking out of the log was quite a sight.

Calocera cornea is called the small staghorn fungus, for obvious reasons. Each fruit body comes to a sharp looking point. I found these in early August after a heavy rain.

The tough cinnabar polypore (Pycnoporus Cinnabarinus) is red orange on its underside as well as its upper surface. It is considered rare and is found in North America and Europe. This was only the second time I had seen it and both times were in winter or very early spring. It is said to grow year ‘round but I’ve never found it in summer. It is also said to be somewhat hairy but I didn’t notice this. They turn white as they age and older examples look nothing like this one. This were growing on black cherry logs but they also grow on beech and poplar. I have found them in early March, covered with snow.

If you happen to see a mushroom that looks like it stuck its finger in a light socket you’re probably seeing something rarely seen. Called a “mycoparasitic mucorale,” Syzygites megalocarpes pin mold has been found on about 65 different mushrooms, but it will only appear when the temperature and humidity are absolutely what it considers perfect. It has multi branched sporangiophores that make the mushrooms it attacks look like it is having a bad hair day. This pin mold can appear overnight and starts off bright yellow, but as it ages it becomes paler until finally turning a blue gray color. It looks on the whitish side in this photo because I had to use a flash. It’s best not to get too close to these molds because inhaling their spores can make you very sick.

Something else that is rare to see is a mushroom with another fungus feeding on it, like this bolete with a mycoparasite called Syzygites megalocarpus growing on its cap. A mycoparasite is essentially a fungus that feeds on other fungi. This one has also been found on over 65 species of mushroom. It can appear overnight if heat and humidity levels are just right, and that’s exactly what this one did. You can’t plan to see something like this, you simply have to be there when it happens.

Dead man’s fingers (Xylaria polymorphaare) are a type of fungi that often look like a human finger. This one growing out of a crack in a beech log didn’t, but that was because it was a young example. They change their appearance as they age. In the final stages of their life dead man’s finger fungi darken until they turn black, and then they simply fall over and decompose. These examples grew at the base of a maple stump. It doesn’t take a very vivid imagination to see what almost look like fingernails on a couple of them. I usually find them in July and August.

The gills on the split gill fungus (Schizophyllum commune) are actually folds on its underside that split lengthwise when it dries out. The splits close over the fertile surfaces as the mushroom shrivels in dry weather. When rehydrated by rain the splits reopen, exposing the spore-producing surfaces to the air, and spores are released. Split gills grow on every continent except Antarctica and are said to be the most studied mushrooms on earth.

I loved the look of the underside of this dead split gill mushroom. I’ve heard that the underside of this fungus could be reddish but until I saw this one I had only seen them in white. These are “winter mushrooms” and I often find them very late in the year, even when there is snow on the ground.

To see small things you need to re-train your eyes. (And your mind, somewhat.) Jelly babies (Leotia lubrica) taught me that; one day I sat down on a stone to rest and looked down and there they were. I was surprised by how tiny they were, but they helped me see that forests are full of things just as small and sometimes many times smaller. You need to be ready (and able) to flatten yourself out on the forest floor to get good photos of jelly babies. These tiny mushrooms are found in July and August.

Turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) are one of the most colorful fungi in the forest. They are also one of the easiest to find, because they grow in nearly every state in the country and throughout Europe, Asia. and Russia. They can also be found at any time of year, even winter.

Tiny little horsehair mushrooms (Marasmius rotula) grew on a log. These are very small things; the biggest one in this photo might be as big as a pea. Horsehair mushrooms are also called pinwheel mushrooms. Their pleated and scalloped caps always make me think of tiny Lilliputian parachutes. The shiny, hollow black stem lightens as it reaches the cap and is very coarse like horse hair, and that’s where the common name comes from. They grow in small colonies on rotting logs, stumps, and branches. Their spore release depends on plenty of moisture so look for this one after it rains. In dry weather they dehydrate into what looks like a whitish dot at the end of a black stem, but when it rains they rehydrate to release more spores. They can do this for up to three weeks. I find them anytime from July through September depending on the weather.

I think this one might be a golden coral (Ramaria aurea.) I don’t see many yellow coral mushrooms of this kind so I was happy to find it. Coral mushrooms get their common name from their resemblance to the corals found in the see. They can be very colorful.

Violet coral fungus (Clavaria zollinger) is easily the most beautiful coral fungus that I’ve ever seen. I found it in August of and the following year there it was, growing in the same spot again. Stumbling across rare beauty like this is what gets my motor running and that’s why I’m out there every day. You can lose yourself in something so beautiful and I highly recommend doing so as often as possible.

I hope you enjoyed this little fungal fantasy of things previously found. I’ve done it because I needed to see some mushrooms again and because I wanted others to want to see them too, especially the children who read this blog. The mushrooms shown here are a good representation of what you could easily find in the woods of New Hampshire. In the heat of summer, a day or two after a good rain, get into the woods and you’ll have a very good chance of finding them. If I found them you can too.

Nearness to nature keeps the spirit sensitive to impressions not commonly felt, and in touch with the unseen powers. ~Charles Eastman

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I was driving along an old road looking for fall color when I saw a barred owl in a tree. I stopped the car and got out and much to my surprise the owl stayed put.

A few years ago I came upon a barred owl sitting right in the middle of a trail and like this one it let me take as many photos as I wanted. This one was much bigger than that one but like that owl, this one sat perfectly still and watched me almost the entire time. In this shot you can see that it did look away, and I’d like to think that was because it sensed that I meant it no harm. After taking A few shots I got back in the car and got ready to leave, watching as the owl flew deeper into the woods. Being able to look a wild creature directly in the eyes for a while is a rare thing, and something you never really forget. I’ve stared into the eyes of everything from black bears to porcupines to chipmunks and each time it feels as if they’re giving you something of themselves, willingly. And you want to do the same.

Wilde Brook in Chesterfield was a little wild on the day I was there and it was good to see.

Many streams like this one have dried up completely and though we’ve had some rain this part of the state is still in moderate drought. Other parts of the state are seeing extreme drought so we’re fortunate.

I find tree roots like this one on well-traveled trails. How beautiful it is; like a work of art worn smooth by who knows how many years of foot traffic? It looks as if it had been made; sanded, polished and crafted with love. But how easily missed it would be for someone who was more anxious to see the end of the trail than what could be seen along it. I’m guessing that many thousands of people have rushed by it without a glance, and this is why when you ask them what they saw they will often say “nothing much.”

A piece of driftwood on a pond shore reminded me of the bleached bones of an ancient creature. It is, or was a tree stump and I liked the flow of its roots and its weathered silvery finish. It grabbed me and held my attention for a while.

Witch hazels are having a glorious year. I’ve never seen them bloom as they are now. Apparently drought doesn’t really bother them.

New England asters didn’t have a very good time of it this year but what I did see were beautiful. This is probably the last one I’ll see until next year.

Golden pholiota mushrooms (Pholiota limonella) usually grow in large clusters on dead or dying logs and trees, but this tiny thing grew alone. It’s cap was no bigger in a diameter than a penny. These mushrooms are toxic and are said to smell like lemon, garlic, radish, onion or skunk. They are said to taste like radishes by those unfortunate few who have tasted them. Note how it seems to be growing out of a tiny hole in the log.

Though jelly fungi grow at all times of year I think of them as winter fungi because that’s usually when I find them. I often see them on fallen branches, often oak or alder, and I always wonder how they got way up in the tree tops. Yellow jellies (Tremella mesenterica) like this one are called witch’s butter and are fairly common. We also have black, white, red, orange and amber jelly fungi and I’d have to say that white and red are the rarest. I think I’ve seen each color only two or three times. Jelly fungi can be parasitic on other fungi.

Puffballs grew on a log. The biggest, about as big as a grape, had been partially eaten and I would guess that a chipmunk had been at it. I never knew chipmunks ate mushrooms until I saw one doing so this past summer. I often see gray squirrels eating them as well.

A tree “marriage” happens when two trees of the same species rub together in the wind. When the outer bark is rubbed off the inner cambium layer of the trees can become naturally grafted together and they will be married from then on. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. This maple tree shows that even limbs on the same tree can do it, but this is the first time I’ve seen it happen this way.

Native little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) catches the light and glows in luminous ribbons along the roadsides. This is a common grass that grows in every U.S. state except Nevada and Washington, but is so uncommonly beautiful that it is grown in gardens. After a frost it takes on a reddish purple hue, making it even more beautiful.

It is the way its silvery seed heads reflect the light that makes little bluestem grass glow like it does.

I had quite a time trying to find out what was wrong with this blueberry leaf with big black, tar like spots and I’m still not sure I have but it might be blueberry rust (Thekopsora minima,) which is a fungal disease which infects the leaves and fruit of blueberries and other plants in the Ericaceae plant family. The disease can eventually kill the plant if left alone so it’s important to treat it if you have a lot of bushes. I don’t see many problems on wild blueberry bushes so I was surprised to see this. I wish I had thought to look at the underside of the leaf. That’s where the spores are released and wind and rain can carry them quickly to other plants.

This mullein plant was as big as a car tire and will most likely have an impressive stalk of flowers next year. Mullein is a biennial that flowers and dies in its second year. Native Americans used tea made from its large, gray green furry leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments. They also used the roots to treat coughs, and it is also said to be useful as a relaxant and sleep aid. The Cherokee tribe are said to have rubbed mullein leaves in their armpits to treat prickly rash and the Navaho tribe made an infusion of the leaves and rubbed it on the bodies of their hunters to give them strength. Clearly this plant has been used for many thousands of years. It is considered one of the “oldest herbs’ and recent research has shown that mullein does indeed have strong anti-inflammatory properties.

The spiny, 2 inch long fruits of the wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) have a watermelon shape and boys have been throwing them at each other for as long as I’ve been around. The fruit is not edible and the menacing looking spines are soft and pliable at this stage.

Inside a wild cucumber seed pod you find two chambers which hold a single seed each. These seeds look like giant cucumber seeds. A kind of netting is also found inside wild cucumber seed pods and once they dry the netting is even more interesting. A man wrote to me once and told me that he decorated pens that he makes with that same netting. For me these plants are like a time machine that always takes me back to my boyhood.

A friend’s tomatillos have ripened and are ready for salsa Verde. Tomatillo usage dates back to at least 800 B.C. when they were first cultivated by the Aztecs. Today they are also called husk tomatoes and they can be eaten raw or cooked. Scientists have found fossil tomatillos in Argentina dating back 52 million years, so they’ve been around a long time.

Here was another hemlock root, polished by thousands of feet. Do you see its beauty? Part of the beauty I see comes from knowing how much work would go into trying to create something like this in a wood shop, and part of it comes from the artistic bent I was born with. Much of what I choose to show you here I choose so you might see the beauty that shines out of those every day bits of life that we ignore so readily. Instead of stepping on a root without a thought maybe you could just stop and be still for a moment and really see what is there in front of you. It doesn’t have to be a root; it could be a blade of grass or a mountain or an insect. But just see the beauty in it. The more you let yourself see beauty, the more beauty you will see. Finally you will see beauty everywhere, in every thing, and you will become filled with a deep gratitude for being allowed to see the true wonder and beauty of this earth. This is not hard; all it takes is your attention, your contemplation, and a bit of time.

These are some of the things I have learned simply by spending time in nature. I make no secret of the fact that this blog’s sole purpose is to see you spending time in nature as well. It’s kind of like dangling a carrot before a horse, but why do I care what you do? Would you like an occasional glimpse of bliss? Would you like peace to wash over you like a gentle rain and comfort to cover you like a warm blanket? If you experienced these things would you want to harm this earth? Of course you wouldn’t, and that’s what this is all about.

Can we go from fall to winter just like that, with a snap of the fingers? Yes we can because this is New England and the weather can change that quickly here. Snow on Halloween is unusual but it isn’t unheard of; in 2011 we had a nor’easter come through that dropped close to two feet in my yard and cancelled trick or treating for that year. On the other side of the coin sometimes we don’t see any snow until well after Christmas. Nature seeks balance and we’ve had a several months long drought, so we might get a few surprises this winter.

This was a wet, heavy snow that stuck to everything and reminded me of the quote by William Sharp, who said: There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.

This blueberry bush with its red fall leaves did look radiant with its frosting of white snow.

The oaks were beautiful as well, but too much heavy snow when the leaves are still on the trees can cause major damage and power outages which can last for weeks. Luckily this storm was minor, with only 3-4 inches falling.

Still, leaves fell and autumn leaves in the snow are always beautiful. How beautiful this scene was with its simplicity and that amazing color. I couldn’t just walk away without a photo of it, and then I couldn’t stop taking them.

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
~Albert Einstein

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I could see some beautiful trees along the river in Keene from the highway but the only way I could get close enough for photos is to follow this rail trail to them. This is the rail trail I’ve walked since I was about 8 years old, so I know it well. Back then the Boston and Maine Railroad tracks ran through here, and I loved walking the tracks. Though you can see a lot of bare trees in this shot they weren’t all bare. I actually saw a lot of color out here.

There were some pretty trees and shrubs quite far off in the distance that I couldn’t identify.

This one was a poplar. They’re common out here now but I can’t remember seeing any when I was a boy.

Staghorn sumacs are also common. In the fall they have beautiful scarlet leaves but most had already fallen.

There are lots of sumac berries out here as well but I think these were smooth rather than staghorn sumac berries. They weren’t quite fuzzy enough for staghorn sumac fruit.

A large flock of robins was eating sumac fruit but there will still be plenty left in the spring. Usually nothing touches them until spring, but I don’t know why. I’ve always wondered if the migrating birds ate them when they came back. Of course robins used to be migrating birds so maybe it was they who ate them in the spring.

There are lots of many different kinds of fruit found along this trail, including the beautiful berries of Virginia creeper. This is where I first realized exactly how much natural food there was for birds. My grandmother always feared they would starve even though I told her there seemed to be plenty of food for fruit and seed eating birds.

I was surprised to find asparagus growing here so apparently humans can find food here too. There were two plants.

Blue wood asters were seen here and there but even they are coming to the end of their bloom time.

The always beautiful and always surprising blue of the black raspberry can be found all along the trail.

Here was some color; a huge maple. Unfortunately it was the invasive Norway maple (Acer platanoides.) These trees are native to Europe and hang on to their leaves longer than our native maples.

This tree had a lot of tar spot on its leaves. Tar spot is a fungal disease caused by three related fungi, Rhytisma acerinumRhytisma americanum and Rhytisma punctatum. Though it looks unsightly it doesn’t cause any real harm to the tree. It is usually found on Norway, silver and red maples.

The easiest way to check that a tree is a Norway Maple is to break a leaf stem (petiole). Norway maple is the only one that will show white, milky sap in broken leaf petioles. Native maples have clear sap.

A wasp nest had fallen out of a tree. I couldn’t imagine how long and how many wasps must it have taken to build such a thing. It was quite big and beautifully marbled. It looked like sedimentary stone.

This bridge was built in 2017 so it would be safer for people to cross one of Keene’s busiest highways. I haven’t used it much but a lot of people do, especially college students.

The patterns inside the bridge are a bit mesmerizing. Some of them are actually optical illusions. In fact if you see the bridge from the side it looks nearly flat and level.

I saw some beautiful oaks after the bridge. The color of them this year is beautiful enough to make you gasp.

But though it was hard to ignore the beauty of the oaks these are the trees that drew me here. They can be seen from the highway but I still couldn’t get close enough to be able to tell what they were. They could be maples, able to hang onto their leaves due to the warmth of the river water. I noticed all the red maples along the highway, which normally turn red in fall, turned this color this year. My color finding software sees orange but I see something that’s impossible to describe. More like tan.

There was a small grove of birches by the bridge. Gray birches (Betula populifolia,) I think.

I wondered how many times I had walked by this beech tree without seeing it. There was no missing it on this day.

Eventually you come to the old Boston and Maine Railroad trestle. When this was built there was nothing here; it was just another trestle in the middle of the woods, and it was a boundary for me when I was a boy. I grew up just behind and to the right of where I stood when I took this photo and back then there were no boards on the deck as there are now. There were railroad ties with gaps in between and if you fell through you’d be in the river, so it took a few years for me to muster the courage to cross it. I was probably 8 or 10 when I expanded my world by finally crossing it. Once across I thought, if I wanted to I could walk all the way south to Florida, but I made it only as far as the next town down the line.

The small wooded area I once played in was one of the more colorful places along the trail.

The Ashuelot River bank was colorful as well. This is a moody stretch of river; I’ve seen it quickly rise in spring to overflow its banks. Luckily our house was never flooded but each spring was a nail biter. I still get nervous when I see a river at bank full.

How strange was this? As soon as I crossed the river some of the maples still had their leaves, and some of the oaks were still green. It was like a jungle and totally different from when the trail started. If you scroll back to the beginning of this post you’ll see what I mean. I can’t explain it.

And mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) grew in great drifts here. I think I could cut arm loads of it without putting a dent in the huge colonies of it. I’m very interested in this plant but I don’t think I need armloads of it. Still, I’ll be back in the summer to collect a few plants. It’s a dream machine, this one.

I saw an old friend, still beautiful even though it was busy with seed production.

A bumblebee slept on a goldenrod blossom. If there is anything more true and right and good than a bee sleeping, or even dying on a flower I don’t know what it is. The flower needs the bee as much as the bee needs the flower and together, they are one.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
~John Muir

Thanks for stopping in. Have a safe and Happy Halloween.

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Over the nearly nine years I’ve been doing this blog the question I’ve been asked more than any other is “How do you find these things?” So this post will be about how I find them; I’ll tell you all the secrets, starting with the jelly baby mushrooms above. Do you see how small they are? They’re growing in an acorn cap. The first time I saw them I was feeling winded and when I sat on a rock to rest I looked down and there was a tiny clump of jelly babies, Just like this one. That day a side of nature that  I never knew existed was revealed and from then on I started seeing smaller and smaller things everywhere I went. 

You have to learn to see small by seeking out small things and training your eyes, and your brain somewhat, to see them. It also helps to know your subject. For instance I know that slime molds like the many headed slime mold above appear most often in summer when it’s hot and humid, and usually a day or two after a good rain. They don’t like sunshine so they’re almost always found in the shade. I’ve learned all of this from the slime molds themselves; by finding one and, not knowing what it was, looking it up to find out. I’ve learned most of what I know about nature in much the same way. If you want to truly study nature you have to be willing to do the legwork and research what you see.

Another secret of nature study is walking slowly. Find yourself a toddler, maybe a grandchild or a friend with one, or maybe you’re lucky enough to have one yourself. No older than two years though; they start to run after that and they’re hard to keep up with. Anyhow, watch a two year old on a trail and see how slowly they walk. See how they wander from thing to thing. They do that because everything is new and they need to see and experience it. You need to be the same way to study nature; become a toddler. Slowly cross and crisscross your line of progress. See, rather than look. Why is that group of leaves humped up higher than all the others? Is there something under them making them do that? Move them and see. You might find some beautiful orange mycena mushrooms like these under them.

So you need to train yourself to see small, to toddle and think like a toddler, and then you need to know your subject. All that comes together in something like this female American hazelnut blossom. I first saw them when I had toddled over to a bush to see the hanging male catkins, which are very beautiful, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash of red.

But all I could see was a flash of color because female hazelnut blossoms are almost microscopic. That’s a paperclip behind these blossoms. Even with eye problems I can find them though, because I know they’re tiny. I know they bloom in mid-April and I know they’re red and I know what shape the buds they grow out of are. All I need do is find one and the camera does the rest, allowing me to see its Lilliputian beauty.

That’s how I start the growing season each spring; by re-training my eyes to see small again. Most of what I see in winter is big so I need to get used to small again. Spring beauties like those above are as small as an aspirin, so they’re a good subject to start with. They’re also very beautiful and a forest floor carpeted with them is something you don’t soon forget.

Sometimes I’ll see something like this larch flower in a book or on another blog and I’ll want to see it in person. That’s what happened when I first found one, and I was surprised by how small they were. This is another example of my being able to only see a flash of color and then having to see with a camera. They’re just too small for me to see with my eyes but they’re beautiful and worth the extra effort it takes to get a photo of them.

I spend a lot of time looking at tree branches, especially in spring when the buds break. I’ve learned what time of month each tree usually blossoms and I make sure I’m there to see it happen. This photo shows male red maple flowers. Each flower cluster is full of pollen and the wind will be sure the pollen finds the female blossoms. When you see tulips and magnolias blooming it’s time to look at red maples. One of the extraordinary things about these blossoms was their scent. I smelled them long before I saw them.

Lichens aren’t easy to identify but there are easy to find because they grow virtually everywhere; on soil, on trees, on stone, even on buildings. But most are quite small, so walking slowly and looking closely are what it takes to find them. This mealy firedot lichen was growing on wet stone and that’s why the background looks like it does. You could spend a lifetime studying just lichens alone but it would be worth it; many are very beautiful.

Countless insects make galls for their young to grow in and the size and shape of them is beyond my ability to show or explain, so I’ll just say that I always make a point of looking for them because they’re endlessly fascinating, and you can match the gall to the insect with a little research. This one looked like a tiny fist coming up out of a leaf. Something else I like about them is that you don’t have to kneel down to see them. That isn’t getting any easier as time goes on. 

When young the female spore capsule (sporangium) of juniper haircap moss is covered by a cap called a calyptra, which protects the spore capsule and the spores within. It is very hairy, and this is what gives this moss part of its common name. Eventually, as the capsule ages it moves from a semi vertical to a more horizontal position before the calyptra falls off.  The spore capsule continues to ripen and when the time is right it will open and release the spores. When it’s time to release the spores the end cap (operculum) of the now reddish brown, 4 cornered but not square spore capsule will fall off and the spores will be borne on the wind. I learned all of that by studying the moss and reading about what I saw going on, and you can too. And you can do it with virtually anything you find in nature. To me, that is exciting.

A good memory isn’t strictly necessary for nature study but it can come in handy if you wish to see a plant in all stages of its life cycle. I knew where some rare dwarf ginseng plants grew in this area and I knew when they blossomed but I had never seen their seedpods, so I had to remember to go back to see what you see here. It might not look like much but it’s a rare sight and I doubt more than just a few have seen it. I often can’t remember my own phone number or where I parked my car but I can lead you right to the exact spot where this plant grows, so I seem to have two memories; one for every day and one for just nature. The one for nature works much better than the every day one.

Develop an eye for beauty. Give yourself time to simply stand and look, and before long you’ll find that you don’t just see beauty, you feel it as well, all through your being. This is just tree pollen on water; something I’ve seen a thousand times, but not like this. On this day it was different; it usually looks like dust on the surface but this pollen had formed strings that rode on the current. I wasn’t looking for it; I just happened upon it, and that shows that a lot of what you see on this blog is just dumb luck. But I wouldn’t happen upon it if I wasn’t out there. That’s another secret; you have to be out there to see it. You’ll never see it by staring at a phone or television.

This is another rarity that I just happened upon; a mushroom releasing its spores. Mushroom spores are carried by the wind so it is unusual to see them dropping to the forest floor like they have in this photo. I’ve only seen this happen three times and twice it was on a still, hot, humid day. Once it was on a cooler but still humid day, without a hint of a breeze to blow the spores away. This is why it’s so important to walk slowly and look carefully. You could easily pass this without seeing it.

Something else that is rare to see is a mushroom with another fungus feeding on it, like this bolete with a mycoparasite called Syzygites megalocarpus growing on its cap. A mycoparasite is essentially a fungus that feeds on other fungi. This one has been found on over 65 species of mushroom. It can appear overnight if heat and humidity levels are just right, and that’s exactly what this one did. You can’t plan to see something like this, you simply have to be there when it happens.

Do you know how many puddles there are with ice on them in winter? I don’t either, but I do take the time to look at them and I almost always see something interesting when I do. I’ve never seen another one like this.

Sometimes if you just sit quietly unusual things will happen. I was on my hands and knees looking at something one day and I looked up and there was a fly, sitting on a leaf. I slowly brought my camera up and this is the result. By the way, much of what I see comes about because I spend a lot of time on my hands and knees. If you want to see the very small, you have to. And before I get back on my feet I always try to look around to see if there’s anything interesting that I’ve missed.

I was crawling around the forest floor looking for I don’t remember what one day and saw something jump right in front of me. It was a little spring peeper. It sat for a minute and let me take a few photos and then hopped off. Another secret of nature study is to expect the unexpected. If you want to document what you see always have your camera ready. I have one around my neck, one on my belt and another in my pocket, and I still miss a lot.

I was in a meadow in Walpole climbing the High Blue trail when I saw a blackish something moving through the grass on the other side. Apparently it saw me because it turned and came straight for me. When it got close I could see that it was a cute porcupine. I thought it must have poor eyesight and would run away when it got close enough but then it did something I never would have  expected; it came up to me and sat right at my feet. I took quite a few photos and then walked on after telling it goodbye. I still wonder what it was all about and what the animal might have wanted. I’ve never forgotten how we seemed to know one another. It’s another example of why you have to expect the unexpected in nature study. You just never know.

Sometimes all you need to do is look up. When was the last time you saw mare’s tails in the sky? There’s a lot of beauty out there for you to see, and you don’t really have to study anything.

So, what you’ve read here isn’t the only way to study nature. It’s simply my way; what I’ve learned by doing. I had no one to guide me, so this is what and how I’ve learned on my own. I thought that it might help you in your own study of nature, or you might find your own way. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re out there having fun and enjoying this beautiful world we live in. I’ll leave you with a simple summary that I hope will help:

  1. To see small think small. There is an entire tiny world right there in plain sight but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it. Nothing is hidden from the person who truly sees.

  2. Don’t just look, see; and not just with your eyes. Use all your senses. I’ve smelled certain plants and fungi before I’ve seen them many times. I also feel almost everything I find.

  3. Walk at a toddlers pace. Cross and crisscross your path.

  4. Know your subject. You probably won’t find what you hope to unless you know when and where it grows, or its habits. When you see something you’ve never seen if you want to know more about it research it.

  5. Be interested in everything. If you’re convinced that you’ve seen it all then you’ll see nothing new. Run your eye down a branch. Roll over a log. Study the ice on a puddle.

  6. Expect the unexpected. I’ve heard trees fall in the forest but I’ve never seen it happen. Tomorrow may be the day.

  7. Develop an eye for beauty; it’s truly everywhere you look. Allow yourself to see and feel it. Appreciate it and be grateful for it and before long you too will see it everywhere you go.

  8. Let nature lead. Nature will teach you far more than you’ve ever imagined. It will also heal you if you let it, but none of this can happen if you spend all your time indoors.

  9. None of the things you’ve read here are really secrets. Nature is there for everyone and you can study it and take pleasure in it just as easily as I can.

  10. Have fun and enjoy nature and you’ll be surprised how quickly your cares melt away. Problems that once might have seemed insurmountable will suddenly seem much easier to solve.

To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long. 
~John Moffitt

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