Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Railroad Tracks’

 1. Rail Trail

Last weekend really felt like spring with warm sunshine and warm southwesterly breezes blowing, so I decided to walk an old rail trail that runs right behind the house I grew up in. When I was a boy there were railroad tracks here and I spent many hours walking along them. Now snowmobiles get the most use out of the area. I appreciate them packing the snow down so you don’t need snowshoes, but it means that there is far less solitude here than there used to be.

 2. Wild Cucumber

There are many things along this old rail bed that take me back to my childhood, including the wild cucumbers (Echinocystis lobata) that we all used to throw at each other. This is one of the plants that made me want to know more about why and how plants grew the way they did. I had lots of questions and since nobody I knew could answer them, when I got a little older I turned to books like Asa Gray’s Manual of Botany.

 3. Black Raspberry First Year Cane 

By reading Gray’s Manual and other botany books I was able to answer many questions, like why do some plants have this bluish white coating on them? I learned that, in botanical terms, a plant part that looks like this is said to be glaucous, which describes the color. The coating is called bloom and is a wax which can protect the plant from sunburn, prevent moisture loss, or help shed excess water from the leaves.  I see it mostly on plums and blueberries.

In the case of the plant in the above photo the bloom on the cane (along with the prickles) taught me that it was a black raspberry, rather than a red raspberry or a blackberry. I also learned that bloom on canes means that they are first year vegetative canes (primocanes) that would bear no fruit until their second year. There were plenty of others that did bear fruit though, and I used to eat bellyfuls of them.

 4. Winter Woods

At one time there were large fields of corn growing along the rail bed but now some of the land has started reverting back to forest.  Most of the trees seen here can’t be more than 40-45 years old. Knowing that I’m older than the trees brings on kind of an odd feeling.

I learned how badly corn plants can make you itch can be by running through the cornfields that were once here. Each corn leaf has tiny, saw tooth serrations on its edges that can cause quite a rash on exposed skin. Of course I could have prevented it by wearing a long sleeved shirt, but you would have had to have hog tied me to get long sleeves on me in the summer.

 5. Virgin's Bower Seeds

My grandmother taught me about the wind blowing pollen from one corn plant to another, but here on the tracks is where I learned how other plants use the wind. Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) for instance, grows long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. Botanically speaking these “seeds” are achenes, which are fruits with one seed. This is a common plant seen draped over shrubs and climbing into trees all along these tracks.

 6. Feathers-2

Every time I see a feather stuck in a bush I wonder what bird left it there. I usually come away scratching my head and this time was no different.  It’s odd that the wind can send clematis seeds flying, but feathers seem to stay stuck fast to whatever they land on.

 7. Ash Swamp Brook in Winter

Ash Swamp brook meanders lazily through Keene before finally meeting the Ashuelot River here.  I spent many happy hours exploring this place as a boy. Coming this far south down the tracks was quite an excursion but it was always worth it. Very near here the banks of the river are high and sandy and bank swallows used to nest there. Watching them come and go was always good for an afternoon’s entertainment.

 8. Willow Branches

Spring never came by the calendar here. I learned early on that plants could tell you more than the calendar ever could. Willows for example, take on a golden hue when they feel spring coming on.

 9. Pinecone Gall on Willow 

The coming of spring wasn’t the only thing willows taught me to see.  Willows often have pine cone galls on them, caused by a gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides). The midge lays an egg in the terminal leaf bud of a willow in early spring and the larva releases a chemical that tricks the willow into creating this gall instead of leaves. The midge spends winter inside the gall and emerges in the following spring, so the entire cycle takes a full year. It is fascinating things like this, found all along these railroad tracks, which let nature get its hooks into me early on.

10. American Hazelnut Catkins

This is where I also started paying attention to things like catkins; though half a century later I still struggle with the identity of some of the shrubs and trees I find them on. American hazelnut (Corylus Americana) catkins are easy because of the hairy young twigs they often hang from. These hairs are called stipitate glands. Botanically speaking a stipitate gland is a gland on the end of a stalk (stipe).  If you find a hazelnut that doesn’t have hairy young twigs and leaf petioles, it is a beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta).

11. Elderberry Buds

We used to make small “pipes” by hollowing out an acorn, putting a hole through the side of it, and then inserting a pipe stem. The choice for the pipe stem was always elderberry because it has soft pith that is easily pushed out of the stem with a hardwood twig.  American elderberry (Sambucus Canadensis) pith is white and spongy, so when you pinch its twigs between your thumb and forefinger they will deform. If it doesn’t deform it isn’t elderberry.  It’s a good thing that we kids never smoked anything in these pipes because elderberry is toxic, especially to kids who make whistles and pipe stems from its parts.

12. Puddle Ice 3

Nothing takes me back to my boyhood at this time of year like the white ice on mud puddles. I remember, once the snow melted off the roads, riding my bike to school through the ice covered puddles that froze at night and melted during the day. I can remember how my spirit soared knowing that once the white ice appeared on the puddles it wouldn’t be long until summer because these were special puddles, not caused by rain but by snow melt. Soon the red sox would once again play at Fenway Park, school would be over until fall, and everything would be right with the world. There was as much joy in the anticipation of the event as there was in the event itself. Lately I’ve been feeling that same joy anticipating the arrival of spring.

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in tune once more.  ~ John Burroughs

Thanks for coming by.

 

Read Full Post »

When I was growing up we had railroad tracks running almost through our back yard, so some of my earliest memories include trains. Since they passed both my and my grandmother’s house, I was walking the tracks at a young age. Recently I’ve been hiking and biking on what are now the trails where the tracks once were, and it has been like visiting the past.

1. B&M DIESEL

Big, powerful Boston and Maine Railroad diesel engines rolled by the house each afternoon hauling a seemingly endless chain of boxcars behind them.  These trains, being so close, would shake the house to its foundation. In fact, we had an earthquake once and didn’t know it because the house shook just like it did when a train was going by.

I always wanted to hop a train but my grandmother’s stories of what happened to little boys who slipped and fell under trains while trying to jump onto them were so effective at discouraging me that I never once tried it, even though I often stood just inches away as they went rolling slowly by.

2.Tracks

Things like perspective and vanishing points began to gel in my mind and become real as I walked the tracks as a boy. No longer were they just vague, mysterious concepts read about in art class. I also learned to identify many of the plants that grew along the tracks and spent a lot of time eating the raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries that I found there.

 3. Tradescantia

Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana) was one of my first discoveries as a boy. I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old the first time I dug this plant up from beside the tracks and brought it home to plant in the yard.  That was about the same time my father started saying that he couldn’t understand why I kept “dragging those damned old weeds home.”  When I got a little older these plants got me interested in botany.

4. Rail Trail

By the time I came along the Boston and Maine railroad had been in business for more than 150 years, but things started going badly in the 1960s. By the 1980s it was over and the rails were being torn up. I didn’t mind when the trains stopped running, but it was hard to watch those rails being dismantled. Even though I never hopped a train the rails still took me places because I read about all of the places they went.

 5. Railroad Spike

Because I spent so many years of my life walking the tracks it seems very strange to walk these trails without them here. One of my first thoughts was that the kids of today would never be able to experience what I had, and that seemed like a huge loss. Before too long though, I found that there was still plenty for them to see and do on these trails. There is a lot of railroad history here, and if you do just a little bit of looking as you walk along you can see it all around you. The railroad spike in the above photo would be a worthy addition to any young boy’s treasure hoard.

 6. B&M Tie Plate

If that same young boy had a tie plate to go along with his rail spike he would be the king of show and tell. Not a whisper would be heard as he explained how a spike would be driven through each of the four square holes in the plate, deep into the hemlock ties by men with sledgehammers, to hold the rails in place.

 7. Ashuelot Trestle Winchester 9-2

Old rusty trestles  suddenly loom up out of the underbrush as you walk the trails. The Boston and Maine railroad crossed and re-crossed the Ashuelot River and groups of foolish young boys could often be seen performing very dangerous stunts on these trestles. It really is a wonder that none of us were ever killed. The trails and trestles are maintained by snowmobile and off road clubs now and have had safety railings built along their length.

 8. B&M Trestle Warning Wires

About 50 yards before each trestle on each of its ends, warning wires hung to warn anyone foolish enough to be on top of a boxcar that a trestle collision was imminent. These dangling wires are steel and about the same diameter as a pencil, so getting hit in the face by one while on top of a train going even 10 miles per hour would have hurt, badly. It would have been better than the alternative though, which was the steel crossbar of the trestle.

9. Timber Frame Bridge Support

Steel wasn’t the only material used for trestles and bridges. These twelve by twelve inch timbers still hold up the street bridge that passes over the rails. If I had known this was here when I was a boy I would have been climbing all over it, wondering how it had been built.

 10. B&M Stone Arch Bridge

This magnificent stone arch bridge is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built of granite quarried a half mile away from the site, it was dry laid with no mortar in 1847 and soars 38 feet above the river. The bridge is 27 feet wide with a span of 68 feet, and its arch has a radius of 34 feet. Evidence of the plug and feather method used to split the stones is still visible on the faces of many of them. It’s hard to imagine how it was ever built without the use of modern tools and equipment.

I don’t think I’ve been on these rail trails a single time without seeing kids walking or riding bikes along them, and that’s a good thing. There are still plenty of things here to want to learn more about. History, math, botany, model railroading, and engineering are just a few that come to mind.

And there is the headlight, shining far down the track, glinting off the steel rails that, like all parallel lines, will meet in infinity, which is after all where this train is going. ~Bruce Catton

Thanks for coming by.

 

Read Full Post »