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Posts Tagged ‘Red Maple’

It has gotten cold enough now to start freezing up our ponds and rivers.  I’ve seen pancake ice on rivers many times and I’d expect to see it there; it’s the current that constantly moves circles of river foam or slush and makes them bump into each other and form rims, so that they start to look like pancakes. Most are about the size of a honeydew melon but they can be bigger or smaller. From what I’ve read pancake ice is rare outside of the arctic but I see it on the Ashuelot River almost every winter. What is strange about the ice pancakes in the above photo is that they were in a pond, not a river. Normally there is no current in a pond but we had very strong winds and I think they were what made the current that formed the ice pancakes.

In this photo you can see the ice ridge caused by the wind blowing across the pond. It blew all the slushy ice that had formed on part of the pond to this end and then spun some of it into pancakes.

On shore the ice kept piling up into higher ridges. In the arctic these frozen “pancakes” can pile on top of one another and in some areas 60 foot thick ridges of them have formed. In two days after it warmed up a little all of this ice had disappeared.

A milkweed seed was stuck on a very hairy branch of an American hazelnut (Corylus americana.) A good way to tell that you have an American hazelnut and not its cousin the beaked hazelnut is by the very hairy stem seen here. Only American hazelnut has hairy stems.

The male catkins of an American hazelnut are bigger in diameter and longer than those of the beaked hazelnut, from what I’ve seen. In spring they’ll slowly grow even bigger until finally turning golden yellow and bursting with pollen. I wait impatiently for it to happen.

If the male hazelnut pollen reaches a female ovary then there’s a good chance that hazelnuts like those seen here will be the result. In 1995 a large shallow pit in Scotland was found to be full of the remains of thousands of burned hazelnut shells and was estimated to be 9,000 years old, so man has been eating this nut for a very long time. In this country Native Americans used them to flavor soups, and also ground them into flour, most likely for thousands of years as well.

Here is a common sight in winter: milk white toothed polypore (Irpex lacteus) is a resupinate fungus, which means it looks like it grows upside down, and that’s what many crust fungi appear to do. This is a very common winter fungus that grows on the undersides of limbs. The “teeth” are actually ragged bits of spore producing tissue which start life as pores or tubes and then break apart and turn brown as they age.

If you pick up a fallen limb and touch something that feels cold and rubbery, it might be milk white, toothed polypore. They are very tough and can stand all the snow and cold that winter can throw at them. I’ve never seen the interesting patterns that this one displayed.

If two trees or parts of trees like limbs of the same species grow close enough together the wind can make them rub against each other, wearing the outer bark away. Once the outer bark wears away and the cambium or inner bark touches, the trees can become naturally grafted together. The process is called inosculation and isn’t as rare as we might think. I see at least a couple of self or naturally grafted trees each year.

If you thought you saw scratches on the bark of the maples in the previous photo you weren’t imagining it. Squirrels leave claw marks all over smooth barked trees and sometimes if you look closely you can see trails up the tree that they use over and over again. On those kinds of trails the scratches will appear thickly like those in the photo. I’ve known for a longtime that squirrels will nip off buds to make tree branches easier to travel on, but this is another of those bits of nature that I have never understood until just recently.

The beautiful color of a maple branch healing itself held me rapt for a time, and I remembered all of the times I’ve felt down when I walked into a forest, only to return having forgotten what it was that bothered me. The forest is such a loving place; a place full of miracles and one that reveals the secrets of creation, and it pains me to know that some people think it is a dark, forbidding place to be feared. Given a chance it will change you, and even heal you. If you spend enough time there first will come joy, and then a deep sense of gratitude and finally, after a time that might be weeks, months, or even years, a great love will well up inside of you. It is the love of all things; of creation, and at times it is so powerful it can bring tears to your eyes and make you want to kneel; not because someone tells you should but because of the love, gratitude and joy that you feel inside. You’ll begin to understand that you aren’t separate from all of this and you never have been. You are as much a part of nature as the birds that sing overhead and the leaf mold you might one day find yourself kneeling on.

Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata,) seed pods dry as thin and weightless as a sheet of paper, so though their spines are sharp at this point you can’t throw them at your friends. In the lower right quadrant of this example you can see a bit of the netting that is inside these seed pods. 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, when we used to throw the soft spined fruits at each other before they dried out.

Wild cucumbers have two large seeds that look like cucumber seeds but they’re at least 10 times bigger. The cavities seen here are where they grew. I’m seeing fewer and fewer of these vines each year and I can’t understand why. When I was a boy they were everywhere but now I have to search, often for days or even weeks, to find them.

Last year I saw a very strange pouch like cocoon on a tree. It wasn’t very big; about the diameter of a pencil or maybe a little bigger. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it and couldn’t find anything that looked like it online so I wrote to a local insect expert who explained that it was a tussock moth cocoon, probably made by the white marked tussock moth. The caterpillar constructed it incorporating its own hairs into the design. Now here was another one, almost exactly a year later.

All of the gypsy moth egg cases I’ve seen have been smooth and hard, like this one. European gypsy moths were first brought to the U.S. in 1869 from Europe to start a silkworm business but they escaped and have been in the wild ever since. In the 1970s and 80s gypsy moth outbreaks caused many millions of dollars of damage across the northeast by defoliating and killing huge swaths of forest. I remember seeing, in just about every yard, black stripes of tar painted around tree trunks or silvery strips of aluminum foil wrapped around trunks. The theory was that when the caterpillars crawled up the trunk of a tree to feed they would either get stuck in the tar or slip on the aluminum foil and fall back to the ground. Today, decades later, you can still see the black stripes of tar around some trees. Another gypsy moth population explosion happened in Massachusetts recently and that’s why foresters say that gypsy moth egg cases should be destroyed whenever they’re found.

This little moth was on the door of the maintenance shop where I work one morning and it stayed there all day. Since it was about 30 degrees that day I thought it was odd behavior, but then I looked it up and found its name is the Winter Moth. It is a European species that was first noticed in Nova Scotia in the 1930s and now is found coast to coast in the U.S. It’s a very destructive insect, especially to apple and blueberry crops because its caterpillars eat the emerging buds in spring just as the bud scales open. They also feed on maple, oak, ash, crabapple, cherry, and many deciduous shrubs. According to the University of Massachusetts “The eggs are green at first, but turn red-orange soon thereafter. In March, prior to hatching, the eggs turn a bright blue and then a very dark blue-black just before hatching.” They sound very pretty but I think I’d rather not find any.  

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) berries are ripe and red. These berries don’t get anywhere near as hairy as staghorn sumac berries do but the plants still look alike and are easy to confuse if you don’t look closely for the hairy stems of staghorn sumac. Smooth sumac leaves turn bright red in the fall and produce a rich brown dye. Birds supposedly love them but the berries are usually still there in spring until the migratory birds come through.

Staghorn sumac berries, like the rest of the plant, are very hairy. They are said to be an important winter emergency food for many types of birds including Robins, Evening Grosbeaks, Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Scarlet Tanagers in other parts of the country but like the smooth sumac berries seen in the previous photos, staghorn sumac berries aren’t usually eaten until spring here. That could be because we have so many other native fruits and berries for them to eat. After a thorough soaking and washing, the berries were made into a drink resembling pink lemonade by Native Americans. In the Middle East they are dried and ground into a lemon flavored spice.

Even on a cloudy day the stems of staghorn sumac glow, and they really do resemble deer antlers. (Antlers are not horns, by the way, and a stag has antlers.) If this were a smooth sumac this branch would be as smooth as a maple branch.

Many things in nature will turn blue when it gets cold enough. Ice can be blue and so can the sap of the white pine tree. I’ve also seen the white striations that give striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) its name turn blue. This is the only maple tree in New England that has bark that is striped like this. Other names for the tree are snake bark maple, moosewood maple, goosefoot maple, Pennsylvania maple, and whistle wood, because the soft pith makes the wood easy to hollow out and make whistles from. Native Americans used the bark of the tree to treat many ailments including coughs and colds.

I like the flowers of thimbleweed but I never see many of them. Until recently, anyway; I stumbled into a forest of them and for the first time, saw them going to seed. The plant gets its name from the seed head that grows to look like a thimble and I’ve seen those, but until now I’ve never seen one actually producing seed. The seeds are on the sticky side and before I was through trying to get a photo I was covered with them, so I might find them growing in my own yard one day.  

Here is a beautiful turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) for your Thanksgiving. If you walk off that big meal on a wooded trail you might see some in person. They’ll be far more beautiful there than they are here.

I thought I’d end this post with one of the things I’m thankful for; this view of Mount Monadnock I see every morning on my way to work. If you click on it you’ll see a larger version and then you might be able to see the snow on the summit.

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

I hope all of you have a safe and happy Thanksgiving day. Thanks for coming by.

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In 2010 Keene built a new middle school at the edge of a 500 acre wetland called Tenant Swamp and the building sits on a high terrace that overlooks the swamp. To create an “outdoor classroom” for the students a boardwalk leading into the swamp was also built. I frequently drive by tenant swamp at this time of year and note the beautiful fall foliage that can be seen from the road and I’ve always wondered what the fall foliage would look like from inside the swamp. That’s what this trip would be about on this beautiful day.

A sturdy bridge built over a seasonal stream leads into the swamp.

An 850 foot boardwalk meanders through the swamp. It’s sturdy and well-built and about a foot or two off the ground. When it was being installed 9-12 feet of peat was discovered in some places. Two feet of peat takes about a thousand years to form so this peat has been here for a very long time. I’m tempted to call this a peat bog because of these discoveries but technically because it is forested, the correct term is swamp.

I was happy to see that there was some nice fall color here inside the swamp in addition to the beautiful colors I had seen on the outer edges.  

The swamp is left to itself as much as possible and when trees fall they lie where they fell.

I saw lots of New England asters in sunny spots and I’m guessing that this swamp must be full of them and many other plants that I’d love to see.

There were lots of blueberry bushes here as well, and most were wearing their beautiful fall red.

Black raspberries are also plentiful here.

I’ve never seen so many winterberries growing in a single place before and every bush was loaded with fruit. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is a native plant in the holly family and is toxic, but birds love the berries. This plant loves wet feet so if you find it you can almost always be sure there is water nearby. Native Americans used many parts of it medicinally but they knew how to prepare it so it would cure and not make them sick.

I saw many spruce trees here and that immediately told me something about this place was different, because I don’t see many spruce trees in the wild. Spruce trees like it cool and they prefer the boreal forests further north. There are at least two species here and I think they were probably red spruce (Picea rubens) and black spruce (Picea mariana.) Neither one minds boggy ground.

Cattails (Typha latifolia) were an important food for Native Americans. Their roots contain more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice, and native peoples made flour from them.  They also ate the new shoots in spring, which must have been especially welcome after a long winter of eating dried foods. They are very beneficial to many animals and birds and even the swamps, ponds and lakes they grow in by filtering runoff water and helping reduce the amount of silt and nutrients that flow into them.

Before the new middle school could be built here an archaeological sensitivity assessment had to be done, and by the time the dig was completed it was found that Native Americans lived here at the end of the last ice age, approximately 11,000-12,000 years ago. The dig also found that the Ashuelot River once ran through here; about a half mile east of where it now flows. Since the site evolved into a swamp it was never farmed or built on so it was valuable enough archeologically to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are a few diagrams like the one above placed here and there on the boardwalk to help people understand exactly what went on here 12,000 years ago.

I thought this was interesting.

500 acres of swamp boggles my mind and I know that if I hopped off the boardwalk and bush whacked my way into the swamp, I’d probably be lost in under an hour. Once you get turned around and start wandering in circles it’s all over, and in November of 1890 that’s exactly what happened to George McCurdy, who died of exposure. I’ve heard stories about another man who went into the swamp and was never found. I’ll stay on the boardwalk but the swamp is very enticing and I’d love to explore it.

There are lots of birds in the swamp and benches are placed here and there along the boardwalk for people who like to sit and watch them.

It’s not hard to find evidence of woodpeckers here. This hole was made by a pileated woodpecker sometime in the past.

This hole was fresh and was probably made by one of the smaller woodpeckers, like the downy woodpecker.

There are lots of cinnamon ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) growing in the swamp. They like wet feet and I usually find them near water. The common name for this fern comes from its upright reddish brown fertile fronds which someone thought looked like cinnamon sticks. It often turns bright pumpkin orange in the fall.

There were many fallen leaves on the boardwalk.

The fallen leaves made me look up, and when I did I was surprised to see bare branches on some of the maples already. Fall must pass quickly here.

A black birch (Betula lenta) showed how beautiful it could be. This tree is also called sweet birch and its numbers were once decimated because of its use as a source of oil of wintergreen. The bark looks a lot like cherry bark but chewing a twig is the best way to identify it; if it tastes like wintergreen then it is black birch. If not then it is most likely a cherry.

Royal fern (Osmunda spectabilis) has a strong presence here and this one was very beautiful in its fall colors. Royal fern is one of the most beautiful of our native ferns in my opinion, but often fools people by not really looking very fern like. Royal fern is in the family Osmundaceae, and fossils belonging to this family have been found in rocks of the Permian age, which was about 230 million years ago. There is also a European species of royal fern called Osmunda regalis.

Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps. ~Henry David Thoreau

Thanks for coming by.

 

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Fall came early this year I think, but for what must be the first time I’m noticing how dependent on temperature and weather the foliage colors are. We had some quite cool nights a week or two ago and that started things off but then it got hot again; it was 80 degrees and humid on the day of this writing, and the foliage changes seem to have slowed. This view of the Ashuelot River north of Keene in Gilsum is bright enough but other than a spot of yellow or orange I think it’s mostly made up of varying shades of green. But since I’m colorblind I’m the last person you should choose to believe when it comes to color. I’ll let you make your own decisions.

One thing I’m sure of by these photos is how little water is actually in the river bed. Normally I would have been very foolish to try to stand where I was when I took this one but it’s been so dry there was nothing to worry about on this day. They say we’ve had the 18th driest September since records have been kept over the last 150 years.

Something that struck me as odd and interesting was this dog lichen, which was growing on a stone that is submerged for at least a few months in spring. I’ve seen mosses stand it but this is the first lichen I’ve seen put up with being underwater. But they do love water; evidenced by their color changes and their increased pliability after a rain.

This is another scene along the Ashuelot River in the northern part of Keene. There wasn’t really more water in this part of the river, just fewer rocks.

Sometimes highbush blueberries will take on a plum color in the fall as this one has and sometimes they’re bright red.

An ash tree burned brightly at the edge of the woods. Ash trees are among the first to turn and you can often see green hillsides with spots of bright yellow here and there.

And this young ash turned a beautiful deep purple. This is a white ash (Fraxinus americana,) I believe.

One of the scenes I look forward to each fall is this one, where birches grow out of the bedrock.

Many ferns are putting on their fall colors and one of the prettiest is the cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum.

And a forest full of them is even prettier.

Another plum colored blueberry with a yellow maple caught my eye on the way to work one morning.

I actually learned the secret of photographing purple grasses from taking photos of purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis.) As a nature photographer you never stop learning, and nature itself is often the best teacher. You try and try and then try again, and eventually you hit on the right light, or the right background, or the right perspective and then finally you have it, and then you can show the plant or any other bit of nature at its best. In my line of thought, this is how you get people interested enough to want to get out there and see nature for themselves; by showing it at its most beautiful. This beautiful little shin-high grass grows on sandy roadsides and flowers in late summer and early fall. Its purple flower heads will eventually turn a tannish color and break off. They are often seen rolling and floating along the roadsides like tumbleweeds in the fall.

Here is a closer look at purple love grass. It’s very pretty and I’m lucky enough to see quite a lot of it along roadsides.

Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) also chose to wear purple for fall. Pretty, but it contains solanine, which is the same toxic substance found in many members of the nightshade family including deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna.)

Virginia creeper vines (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) are beautiful this year.

Red leaves and blue berries on pink stems make Virginia creeper really stand out in the fall, and sometimes whole trees are draped in it.

Winterberries, one of our native hollies, also ripen in the fall and if the birds don’t eat them they’ll persist well into winter. Photos of winterberries with snow on them have become so common they have become almost a cliché, like raindrops on roses. Still snow on these berries is a relatively difficult shot, only because you have to be in the right place at the right time. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) is toxic, but birds snap up the berries fairly quickly after they’ve been in the cold for a while. This plant loves wet feet so if you find it you can almost always be sure there is water nearby. Native Americans used many parts of it medicinally but they knew how to prepare it so it would cure and not make them sick.

There must be many millions of acorns falling this year; I would guess enough to call it a mast year. In a mast year the trees grow a bumper crop and produce much more fruit than in a non-mast year. Scientists believe that by sometimes producing huge amounts of seed that at least some will survive being eaten by birds and animals and grow into trees. Having been outside most of my life I can say that many acorns survive intact until spring in a mast year. I’ve spent a good deal of time raking them up.

Native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) often lose their chlorophyll in an odd way. Sometimes in winter you see these leaves wearing a warm, rosy brown which is very beautiful against the snow. 

Red maples (Acer rubrum) aren’t always red in the fall, but they’re almost always unbelievably beautiful and we have many millions of them here in our 4.8 million acres of forest. Over the years I’ve heard  different people say that these tree colors “can’t be real,” and that there must be some kind of camera trick involved, but I’m here to tell you that they are indeed very real and there is no trickery involved. This photo is exactly how it came out of the camera, so if you feel that what you see here is some kind of trick I would suggest that before determining the reality of a thing you might want to experience it for yourself. Many millions of people from every country on earth come here to see the autumn foliage each year. Maybe you should too.

This view of the Ashuelot River in Keene was another that held more varying shades of green than anything else but I thought it was so beautiful and peaceful I had to include it. I hope you think so too, and I really do wish you could experience it for yourselves. At this time of year you can find people who have lived here their entire lives just standing and staring, and I think that’s because when you see something like this for a time you’re taken away to a higher place. I stood and stared for a while myself, forgetting that I was supposed to be taking photos for you.

The first act of awe, when man was struck with the beauty or wonder of nature, was the first spiritual experience. ~Henryk Skolimowski

Thanks for stopping in.

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I know of only three places to find gentians and only one place to find bottle or closed gentians, and that place is along the Ashuelot River in Keene. Last year I got upset when I went looking for them and found that the Keene Parks and Recreation Department had sent someone out here with a weed wacker, and that person had cut down countless beautiful wildflowers all along the trail, including the gentians. I didn’t know what I would find this year but last Saturday down the trail I went.

One of the first things I noticed was how ripe the false Solomon’s seal fruit (Maianthemum racemosum) was getting. It goes from mottled to solid red and many of these were red. They’re very pretty berries that are said to taste like molasses.

Virginia bugleweed (Lycopus virginicus) bloomed all along the trail. This is a close relative of water horehound (Lycopus americanus) and looks much like it except for its purple tinged leaves.

It was a beautiful day for a walk in the woods and I petted dogs, talked to strangers, and was happy to be in a place I’ve known since I was about 10 years old. To think I was walking a trail which was, in high probability, a Native American fishing trail which has probably changed little in thousands of years. Remains of settlements dating back 12,000 years have been found very near here and it boggles the mind to think about all that might have gone on in this place.

I always seem to see something I haven’t seen before out here, even though I’ve walked this trail for over 50 years. On this day it was a nice colony of one of our prettiest native orchids, the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule.) I wonder if I’ll remember where they are next June when they’re in bloom.  

One of the lady’s slippers still had last year’s seed pod on it, and on that was a spider’s egg sac.

The branches of this fallen tree always make me think of the ribs of an ancient sunken ship. Indeed, at one time sections of this river were dredged so that river boats could navigate it, but the railroad coming to town put a stop to that.

Other trees might add to the hazards in the river; I could see right through this hollow red maple (Acer rubrum.)

There was lots of duckweed on the backwaters where the current is almost nonexistent.

Mad dog skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) grew on the sunny parts of the riverbank. The skullcap part of the common name comes from the calyx at the base of the flower, which is said to look like a medieval skull cap. The plant was once thought to cure rabies, and that is where the “mad dog” part of the common name comes from. There is powerful medicine in many skullcap species and when Native Americans wanted to go on a spirit walk or vision quest this was one of the plants they chose. The small blue and white flowers always grow in pairs in the leaf axils on mad dog skullcap but you have to look closely because sometimes one bloom will fall off before the other, which is what has happened with this example.

The seed pods of fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) are unusual and hard to confuse with any other plant. I saw hundreds of seedpods but only one flower left, growing out of reach down the river bank.

Royal fern (Osmunda spectabilis) hasn’t changed into its fall yellow yet. When they are near a water source royal ferns can grow quite large and appear to be a shrub, but this one was young and on dry ground so it wasn’t very big. The royal fern is found on every continent except Australia, making it one of the most widespread of all living species. They are also thought to be one of the oldest living things, with fossil records of the Osmundaceae family dating back over 300 million years. Individual plants are believed to be able to live for over 100 years. Cinnamon and interrupted ferns are also in the Osmundaceae family and also grow here. It is thought that the genus might have been named after King Osmund, who ruled in the British Isles in the eighth century. Royal ferns are one of my favorites because they are so unlike any other fern.

I think, in the eight years I’ve been doing this blog, that I’ve only show beech nuts (Fagus grandifolia) one other time and that’s because I rarely see them. But on this day I stumbled onto hundreds of them that must have just fallen, because many of the kernels were still inside the prickly looking husks seen here. If you harvest beechnuts and then leave them alone for a day or two they will open and out will drop two kernels. Like many trees and other plants, beech trees will have a year of heavy production, known as a mast year, and then produce very few nuts for a few years afterwards.

I put a kernel on a penny so you could get a sense of scale. A penny is 3/4 of an inch in diameter. Chipmunks and squirrels and even bears love the kernels, so you usually find more empty husks than anything else.

As I’ve said so many times, spring and fall really begin on the forest floor, much earlier than many of us realize. This wild sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis) is a good example of that. It might be leafless before many of the trees it grows under have even started to turn color. The roots of the plant were once used to make root beer but the drink that was called sarsaparilla contained no part of the plant. It was made from birch oil and sassafras root.

There was a single blossom on what looked like an all but dead St. John’s wort plant (Hypericum perforatum.) I haven’t seen these blossoms for a few weeks now so I’m going to say this may be the last one I see this year. It’s a beautiful thing. This plant has been used medicinally for thousands of years. It likes to grow in open meadows in full sun but will stand some shade as it did here.

Wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata) climbed up over the shrubs along the trail. It likes to grow in sandy soil and prefers a bit of shade over full sun. The flower spikes (Racemes) grow to 6 inches or more all along the main stem.

When those maples on the other side of the river turn scarlet in the fall this is an awesome view, but it isn’t really so bad in green either.

I saw a single New England aster blossom (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae.) As I’ve said in previous posts, they are our biggest, most showy aster. Some tower up over my head but this one had bent down to about knee level.

I was very surprised to see turtleheads (Chelone glabra linifolia) blooming out here. I’ve never seen them here before this day.

And there they were; one of my favorite shades of blue is found on bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii) but I don’t see many because they are quite rare here. This is the only place I can find them so you can imagine my delight when I found that they hadn’t been cut down again. When they start to go by theses flowers become even more beautiful by turning very dark blue and then a kind of purple. They closely resemble narrow leaved gentian (Gentiana linearis) but that plant has much narrower leaves. Why anyone would cut such a rare and beautiful thing is beyond me.

I’ve been here enough times to know that the only thing beyond this bridge is a highway, so this is where I turn and go back. As I chose what photos to use for this post I was amazed that I saw so much on what is a relatively short walk of only an hour or so, and once again I was thankful that it hadn’t all been cut down again, because it’s a beautiful walk.

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring- these are some of the rewards of the simple life. ~ John Burroughs

Thanks for coming by.

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Last Sunday was a beautiful day for a change, with bright sunshine and relatively warm temperatures for November, so I thought I’d hike a rail trail I know of up in Westmoreland. This is the one I travel in May when I want to see the wild columbines in bloom, but I don’t know if I’ve ever come out here in the fall. That’s a shame; I’ve missed a lot of beauty.

I was a little dismayed but not surprised to see water on the trail. We’ve had a deluge of rain over the past few months and there is water everywhere. Usually though, you don’t find it on rail trails because the railroad built drainage ditches along the sides of the rail bed. They never would have put up with seeing this much water here. It’s possible the drainage ditches have failed because of fallen debris in them, but I don’t know for sure.

The forest that the rail trail goes through is mostly hardwoods like beech, oak and maple with few evergreens.

It’s hard to tell from this photo but these ledges are way up on the top of the hillside we saw in that previous shot. With all that stone warmed by the sun it looks like a great place for animals to den up.

Speaking of animals, this is a known bear area. I’m not sure if these marks were done by a bear but they were as big as my hand and they were on several trees.

The glimpses of sunlit beeches were enough to make me just stop and admire them for a while. Beeches are such beautiful trees, from bud break in spring until their leaves finally fall the following spring, they are year round friends.

There is an unusual box culvert out here that had a lot of water running through it due to heavy rain the previous day. I’ve been out here many times but this is the first time I’ve seen this much water here; usually there isn’t any. The box culvert is unusual because its joints are mortared. Almost every other one I’ve seen was laid up dry with no mortar.  The mortar could have been used in a repair years after it was built though, which is what I suspect. You don’t find much mortar in railroad stonework.

I saw some nicely colored turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor) decorating a log. There were hundreds of them. I think my favorites are the ones with blue or purple colors in them.

Of course there were stone walls; there are always stone walls in New Hampshire. Property owners almost always built them along railroads to mark the place where their land ended and railroad right of ways began. The walls here are unusual because they were built largely of railroad cast off stone that had been blasted out of the ledges. If the railroad didn’t use it to build with they often simply dumped it in large piles throughout the woods and landowners picked from them. You can tell by the way there is hardly a round corner to be found in a wall.  The stones have square and angular corners and flat faces, though the section in this photo does have more rounded fieldstones than most of the wall did.

If you look closely you can see the hand of man in the stones. These finger size grooves were made by hand with a star drill or possibly a steam drill. You drilled your holes and then tapped small tools called feathers and wedges into them. The pressure exerted by the wedges would break the stone, leaving a flat face with finger shaped grooves. It was a huge amount of work but once the stone was cut the stone masons used it to build culverts, bridges, tunnels, walls and anything else they needed to get the tracks down and moving forward.

And they’re still building walls out here. They recently logged this land and the loggers built a road to where they had to be. The stones are used as a retaining wall to hold the road up and they’re big. They also have that “new” clean look that tells you they haven’t been there long.

We’re almost there. What looks like a dark tunnel up ahead isn’t a tunnel and it isn’t that dark, and that’s where we’re going.

I saw quite a few maple seedlings still hanging on to their colorful leaves.

I think the seedlings were red maples (Acer rubrum) and I think that because larger maples showed target canker which, if I understand what I’ve read correctly, only attacks red maples. It is caused by a fungus which kills the tree’s healthy bark and the patterns of platy bark seen in this photo are the tree’s response to the fungus. It grows new bark each year in the circular patterns seen here to contain the fungus. Usually the fungus will not kill the tree.

More signs of the railroad; a tie plate with a bent spike still in it was beside the trail. You can find a lot of railroad artifacts by walking rail trails.

And here we are at the ledges where the columbines grow, looking back the way we just came. The stone here is very dark but I have a feeling these ledges have limestone in them because of the lime loving plants that live here.

There isn’t much soil on the stones but there is enough to grow columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) and in some cases even trees. I was wishing I could have seen some of the beautiful red and yellow flowers but I’ll have to wait until next May for that.

I did see some asters scattered along the trail, and though I don’t know their name they were a welcome sight. Any flower is welcome in November.

I wasn’t expecting to find columbines blooming out here but I was hoping to find blue cohosh berries (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and there they were. I found this plant when I came out here in May to get photos of the columbines and a chance to see the beautiful blue “berries” is what brought me back on this day. The berries are actually brown seeds with a fleshy blue coating that protects them, and the seeds are what are considered the plant’s true fruit, so the plant is a bit unusual. Now that I’ve seen the foliage, flowers and fruit I need to come here in the spring, in April I’d guess, to see the beautiful dark blue spring shoots. They look like tiny blue hands reaching out of the soil.

Blue cohosh fruit is actually darkly colored like a blueberry and like a blueberry the “bloom” made up of waxy white crystals that cover the berries reflect the light in a way that makes them appear lighter colored. Some describe them as “blueberries dipped in confectioner’s sugar.” This plant is very rare in this area so I’m hoping these fruits will grow new plants, but deer love eating the plant so the odds are against it. I should mention that, though Native Americans used the roots of the plant medicinally and herbalists still use it today, science says that it has “poisonous properties” and the “berries” can make you quite sick.

Here is a photo of a blue cohosh flower that I took on May 12th of this year, so it’s an early bloomer. Each of the yellow green striped sepals of the flower contains a nectar gland to attract insects.  6 yellow stamens form a ring around the center ovary and the true petals are the shiny green parts that ring the center between the sepals and the stamens. The word cohosh is believed to be Native Algonquin name used for several different plants with different color fruit so in this case the blue refers to the fruit color, even though all parts of the plant including the leaves and stems have a bluish cast to them in the spring.

The trail went on, north to Walpole before crossing into Vermont, but I did not. I turned around, happy that I had now seen such a rare plant in three stages of growth. This is only the second time I’ve seen it and the first time all I saw were the blue fruits, so the hike was well worth the effort. I’m really anxious to see the dark blue shoots in spring, and that probably means that winter will pass slowly. But then I suppose that it always does.

If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things in nature have a message you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive. ~Eleanora Duse

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Last Sunday I woke with an urge to climb, so I headed 25 miles north to Stoddard where Pitcher Mountain lives. Since we have no snow in Keene I assumed there would be no snow there, but I was wrong. It was another one of those “what was I thinking?” moments.

But all in all the trail wasn’t bad because it was snow instead of ice. I stopped to get a photo of target canker on a red maple (Acer rubrum.) If I understand what I’ve read correctly red maples are the only trees that get this canker. It makes the tree’s bark form bullseye shaped raised plates that look like a target, but it doesn’t really hurt the tree. The circular plates are the tree’s response to a fungus that invades the healthy bark and kills it. During the next season the tree responds with a new layer of bark and cork (callus) to contain the fungus. In the next dormant season the fungus again attacks and kills more bark and on it goes, a seasonal alternation of pathogen invasion and host defense response which creates concentric ridges of callus tissue; a target canker. Finally the fungus gives up or dies off and the tree grows on. Red maples have beautiful deep red flowers and the trees often grow in large colonies, so I was hoping to see huge swaths of red from the summit.

I also stopped to see a striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) that grew along the trail. The two large terminal bud scales had started pulling apart to reveal the bud within, just like they were doing 25 miles and over 1,600 feet lower in Keene. The pink and orange fuzzy buds are very beautiful and I’m getting anxious to see them. It won’t be long now.

I had to stop at one of my favorite places, which is the pasture about half way up the trail. I always imagine doors being thrown open and a great whooshing sound when I see this view because it’s so expansive compared to the close woods where I spend most of my time. It’s a peaceful, simple place with just the earth, sky, and you and you can step outside yourself for a while here.

The trail takes a turn after the pasture and gets steeper and rockier as it follows it uphill. On this day I had a choice; mud on one side or snow on the other. I chose the snowy side.

There is a fairly good view of Mount Monadnock from this leg of the trail but low haze often spoils it. It wasn’t too bad on this day.

There is a lot of black knot disease on the black cherry trees (Prunus serotina) here and I stopped to look at an example. Black knot is caused by the fungus Apiosporina morbosa which can also attack plums, peaches, and apricots. Spores from the fungus are spread by rain or wind and typically will infect trees from April through June on new growth. Infected stems swell up and produce hard black knots like those in the above photo. The disease can eventually kill the tree so infected limbs should be pruned off 2-4 inches below the knots and buried or burned before bud break the following spring.

This is what black knot can do to a fully grown black cherry. This is a wound that never heals and on a tree this age and size the disease is impossible to control and the trees should be destroyed so the fungus can’t release anymore spores. If this photo looks a little strange it’s because I had to use the flash because it was so shady here.

You can get a glimpse of the fire tower from a good distance away before the trees leaf out, but the glimpse signals the start of the steepest part of the climb. The trail had a little snow on it but the summit was snow free, bare granite as usual.

The old forest fire warden’s cabin still stands but each year it seems to lean into the mountainside just a little more. Staying up here must have been hard work no matter what time of year it was.

Pitcher Mountain is one of just a handful of places I know of where Mountain ash trees (Sorbus americana) grow naturally. These trees are easy to identify when they don’t have leaves by their big black buds. This example was just starting to turn green. Mountain ash is used ornamentally because of its white flowers in late spring and bright orange berries in the fall, but it is a native tree. Native Americans made a tea from the bark and berries of this tree to treat coughs, and as a pain killer. They also ate the died and ground berries for food, adding them to soups and stews. The berries are said to be very tart and have an unpleasant taste when unripe.

The fire tower was unmanned and so was the summit so I had the whole rock pile to myself, which is a very rare thing. You find people on most mountaintops in this area and popular ones like Mount Monadnock can at times seem as busy as a Manhattan sidewalk. I call the fire tower on Pitcher Mountain a monument to irony because the original wooden tower built in 1915 burned in April of 1940, in the most destructive forest fire to ever strike this part of the state. Twenty seven thousand acres burned, including the tower and all of the trees on the summit.

A couple of weeks ago we had strong winds with 60 mile per hour gusts and a lot of trees fell in certain areas, so it’s probably a good thing that the fire tower is fastened to the granite of the summit with several stout cables. The wind that day must have made it impossible to stand on the summit. I can imagine the cables vibrating like violin strings in weather like that.

The hill that I call the near hill might be the closest but it would still be quite a hike to reach it. I was surprised by the amount of snow still on it.

I love seeing the blue hills off in the distance and though I don’t climb for the view they do make it much more enjoyable. In case you’re wondering about my not climbing to see the view, if I did I’d be disappointed probably 80% of the time because you never know what haze, humidity, or weather in general will do to it. For instance on this day, though it looks like I could see clear to California, I couldn’t see the windmills over on Bean Mountain just a few miles away.

But I could see the shading on the hills and this is something I find very pleasing. I sat and admired them for a while.

I could also see ski areas on several distant mountains, none of which I know the name of. Skiers must be enjoying some fine spring skiing this year.

Common goldspeck lichens (Candelariella vitellina) grow profusely all over the bedrock up here. This crustose lichen is very granular and is often busy producing spores, but I didn’t see any of its fruiting bodies (apothecia) on this day. These lichens were once used to dye wool in Sweden but I can’t imagine how they got them off the rocks. Crustose lichens usually can’t be removed from the substrate they grow on without damaging it in some way.

I’m not sure what it was but the sun brought out golden highlights in this tiny insect’s wings. It was hanging on desperately trying not to be blown away in the strong wind, so I was able to get a shot of it. I’d guess that it was hardly more than a quarter inch long.

Tile lichens are areolate lichens, which are made up of many little lumps or islands. In the example above the black parts are its apothecia and the white parts are the body (Thallus.) The apothecia are even with or slightly below the surface of the thallus. Tile lichens grow on exposed rock in full sun and will even grow in winter if the temperature is slightly above freezing. I think this one might be Lecidea tessellata but with 136 species of tile lichens I could easily be wrong.

The natural depressions in the bedrock that I call birdbaths always have water in them, even when we had a drought two years ago, and that seems strange to me. What I think doesn’t matter though, because the birds do use them; last year I watched a dark eyed junco bathe in this small pool. I was a little disappointed at not seeing the large swaths of flowering red maples that I hoped to see from up here but even so I saw plenty of other beautiful things, and it was a great day for a climb.

Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve; they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion. ~Anatoli Boukreev

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The word “Ashuelot” is pronounced Ash-will-ot if you’re from this area or Ash-wee-lot if you’re from away. The word is a Native American one meaning “collection of many waters.” For years I read that the word meant “the place between” but that didn’t make a lot of sense. “A collection of many waters” makes much more sense because that’s exactly what the river is. Wandering the banks of the Ashuelot is something I’ve done since I was too young to even retain the memory of doing so, and I do it often. On this day I was happy to see that the ice shelves had melted and the sandy / stony shoreline was back. The river has been very high for over a month and it’s good to see it finally ready to absorb the next big rain storm, which should come sometime in April unless that month has gone haywire too.

I stopped to admire some ice formations and take some photos so I wouldn’t have to try and explain how cold it was. Actually it wasn’t bad in the sunshine when the wind wasn’t blowing but it was blowing almost constantly along this stretch of river, so it was a day to be wrapped up like you would be in January.

The ice had formed discs on every twig that was in the water and this was remarkable only because the ever splashing water usually forms icy tear drop shapes on the twigs. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen these disc shapes here before.

Here is what I’m more used to seeing. Ice baubles I call them, but there weren’t many to be seen. They happen because of the way the current makes the water constantly rise and fall along the shoreline, so one second the twig is in the cold air and the next it’s under water. The runoff freezes and layer by layer and an ice bauble is made. It reminds me of dipping a wick in melted wax over and over again to make a candle.

This is where I come to practice my wave catching skills but there were none to catch on this day because the water was too low. It has to be at just the right height for good waves to form. Too low or too high and there are no waves. I took some photos anyway though, because the water looked like satin as it poured over the unseen stones that cause the waves.

Oak leaves huddled together as if to warm each other in the chilly breeze. I love the warm, orangey brown color of last year’s oak leaves, but I won’t be sorry to see them finally fall.

The oak buds seemed to be swelling a bit but it was hard to know. Oaks are one of our latest trees to leaf out in spring.

I saw a chubby little bird in a bush which looked like it was hoping I wouldn’t see it. I think it was a dark eyed junco but I’m not 100% sure of that. I see these small dark colored birds feeding in flocks along roadsides where the snow has melted away from the pavement , exposing the soil and grass. I’ve read that dark eyed juncos come here as winter sets in and leave in spring, so they must like the cold. There are said to be about 630 million of them from Alaska to Mexico, and all across the U.S. from coast to coast.

I wondered if the juncos were eating the sumac seeds so I had to look it up. Apparently they eat smaller seeds like those of grasses, lamb’s quarters and the like, and in warmer months they also eat insects. Robins, blue jays, grosbeaks, ruffed grouse, cardinals and other larger birds eat the sumac fruit, but it never disappears here until spring.

I went to visit the Ashuelot Falls on West Street in Keene. I used to fish here quite often when I was a boy but back then the river wasn’t as clean as it is now so I didn’t catch that many fish. An occasional perch or dace was about it but that was fine, because my being here really didn’t have much to do with catching fish anyway. I’d let a forked stick hold my pole while I explored the river bank. Now they catch trout here, I’m told.

I wouldn’t have been surprised to see ice pancakes in January but this was March, so I was surprised.

Ice pancakes form when the river foam stirred up by falls or other turbulence comes together into a misshapen lump. As the current moves the misshapen lumps they bump and jostle each other until all the rough edges are shaved off and they’ve become round like a pancake. Then they begin to freeze and their edges build up into rims.

Here is what an ice pancake looks like when it starts life, before its friends smooth out all those angles.

Canada geese waded in the shallows. More and more of them are returning to nest and raise their young in the reed beds along the river. There is always one lookout standing tall while the others preen, sleep, or eat and they count on their lookout to sound the alarm. I wondered if most of these birds even knew I was there.

My pointing the camera at them was too much for one or two of the geese and they swam off quickly.

Normally a river gets deeper as you go toward its middle but a sandbar has grown here, so the water in the middle is quite shallow. Not good for navigation but the geese know they can stand here rather than swim and they take advantage of being able to rest while still in the water. The shading from dark to lighter brown in this photo shows where the sandbar is.

A maple tree had been pecked full of holes by an unseen woodpecker.

I didn’t have to see this woodpecker to know it was a pileated woodpecker, which is our biggest. Its holes are large and almost always rectangular. All of the holes in the previous photo would fit inside this one with plenty of room to spare.

The hole in this old red maple (Acer rubrum) was the biggest of all but I doubt very much that it was made by a bird or an animal. I think the river has washed the soil out from under it.

The hole was plenty big and roomy enough for me to comfortably sit in, almost like a hobbit.

I knew the old tree was a red maple by its buds. The bud scales in many of these examples had pulled back to reveal the many pinkish flowers inside. Those over on the left were even protruding a bit from the bud, but it was still too early to tell if they were male or female blossoms. It’s a good thing they hadn’t fully opened because the temperature fell to zero degrees on this night. The cold isn’t going to leave quickly this year but today is the first full day of spring, even if it doesn’t seem it.

I was born upon thy bank, river,
My blood flows in thy stream,
And thou meanderest forever,
At the bottom of my dream.
~Henry David Thoreau

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