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Posts Tagged ‘Swanzey New Hampshire’

There I was last Saturday before I climbed Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey, admiring some daffodil shoots. I was surprised to see them because it’s very early for daffodils here. These bulbs made the same mistake last year and paid for it with heavily frost bitten (and killed) leaves. Since bulbs rely on their foliage to make enough energy for the following year’s bloom I’m guessing that they must be in a weakened state.

I even saw green grass.

Insects were flying about. I think this one was a winter crane fly. They look like a large mosquito but don’t have the blood sucking beak that mosquitos do. I’ve read that females spend most of their time in the leaf litter of the forest floor where they live, so I’m guessing this one was a male.

You might have been fooled into thinking it was spring until you woke up Sunday morning. This is what I saw in my backyard on Sunday; 3 or 4 inches of fresh snow. Parts of the state got 7-8 inches, so we were lucky to get what we did. Just another nuisance snow storm and more a conversational snow than anything, but it still had to be shoveled and plowed.

The weather people said we would see temperatures in the mid-40s F later that afternoon so I got out early and walked around the neighborhood. It was pretty enough but I find that I’m getting tired of snow and cold and ice. We had a sunny 70 degree day on Wednesday, and after that small taste of summer snow is even harder to take.

I like the colors in this shot of the local wetland; what I call the swamp.

The forest was, as William Sharp once said, “Clothed to its very hollows in snow.”

William Sharp also said scenes like this were “the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.” And it was, but the sun was shining brightly and was warm on my face, and as I walked a breeze began to pick up, so I didn’t think the still ecstasy would last long.

It had gotten down into the 20s the night before so the fluff factor came into play. The colder it is the fluffier the snow, so if this was a heavy wet snow instead of dry powder we probably wouldn’t have gotten more than an inch.

Red always seems to look redder alongside white, as these staghorn sumac berries show.

I started to walk down the old road but the breeze picked up and I could see the snow starting to fall from the trees up ahead. It’s what I call snow smoke, and it was coming at me.

Before I knew it I was in the midst of the blowing, falling snow and, though it was only falling from the trees it was like being in a blizzard, and I got a good soaking.

By noon the snow was melting fast and what didn’t melt this day fell to the record 70 degree warmth we had on Wednesday. By Thursday afternoon the ground was nearly bare, but then it snowed again and we got another 1-3 inches. Between Wednesday and Thursday we saw a 40 degree temperature change and we’re still on a weather roller coaster. All the rain and snow has kept the Ashuelot River very high for far longer than I’ve ever seen. It will often rise and then fall within a few days but it has been as it is in this photo for weeks now. Getting heavy rain now wouldn’t be good.

Beaver ponds are also filled to bank-full and these beavers will have their work cut out for them when it warms up. Their dam was breached and water was flowing out much faster than they would have allowed if they’d been able to do something about it. There will be plenty of work for us all in spring, I think.

Winter lies too long in country towns; hangs on until it is stale and shabby, old and sullen. ~Willa Cather

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I’ve been itching to climb a hill for a while now but the weather has kept me away. It has warmed up enough to rain several times this winter and then it has gotten cold immediately after and ice has built up just about everywhere. Finally for the last 3 or 4 days of last week it warmed up and didn’t rain so I thought I’d climb Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey last Saturday. It was relatively warm at about 36 degrees F. and the trail of footprints through the pasture showed that I wasn’t the only one with an itch to climb.

As I thought there might be there was ice on the trail, but at the start it was only in spots and I had my Yaktrax on, so I didn’t worry about it.

Other parts of the trail were snow covered. I stopped to admire a beech tree that was caught in a ray of sunshine.

I saw a curious stone with moss growing in concentric rings around it. I’m guessing depressions in the stone gather water and stay wet longer than the rest of the stone, and the moss is attracted to the moisture. The same happens vertically when the natural channels in tree bark become small streams when it rains. Mosses grow along these vertical streams, and so do lichens and algae.

I almost turned back when I saw this much ice but after scratching my head for a moment or two I decided I’d climb in the woods beside the trail for a while, and once there was no more ice I’d return to the trail.

Just so all of you who wear Yaktrax know; you can slip and fall with them on. I almost went down in this spot.

The forest didn’t look too bad to walk through. It was snowless and open in many areas but here is another warning about Yaktrax: sticks can get in between the Yaktrax and the sole of your boots and get caught there, so when you try to move forward your trapped foot stays where it is and you go down face first. The solution is to walk slowly, which I do ayway. Walking slowly is the only way to see those interesting “hidden” things in a forest. Walk at a toddler’s pace and you’ll see some amazing things. Hurry along to the end of the trail and you’ll see nothing.

I saw quite a few interesting things, including this cocoon attached to a beech bud. I’m calling it a cocoon instead of a gall because it was attached to the bud with silk. I don’t have any idea what insect made it or why it would be so exposed, out at the tip of a branch on a terminal bud like it was. It seems like a poor choice to me, but I could be very wrong. Maybe the sunshine in that spot keeps it warm.

Some things I saw were’t so quite so interesting, like this fallen hemlock I had to find my way around.

I couldn’t find the stump that the hemlock had broken off from until I looked up. It was actually the top of a huge tree that had broken off way up there. I was glad there was no wind on this day.

Before the hemlock lost its top it made sure that many children would follow, as this grove of young ones beside it revealed. It was as hard to get through it as it was to get over the broken tree top.

And then the ice came up off the trail and into the woods and I began to question my judgement in doing this. I almost threw in the towel and called it a day in this spot but instead I moved further into the woods for a while.

Finally, after climbing nearly the entire trail in the woods, just before the summit the ice was gone and I walked comfortably on frozen soil again. This is the steepest part of the trail so I was very happy to see it ice free. The reason for so much ice on is because the trail never sees direct sunshine and when it rains all the water runs down it as if it was a stream. Layer by layer the ice builds in thickness each time it rains and the only thing that will get rid of it is a few days of 50 degrees or more. We reached 61 degrees Tuesday and are supposed to reach 70 degrees today, so all of the ice you’ve seen here is probably gone now.

With a nod and a tip of my hat I passed the 40 ton glacial erratic called Tippin Rock that lives on the granite slab that is the summit. It’s called that because you can indeed tip the behemoth and watch it rock slowly back and forth like a cradle. I’ve written about it several times so if you’d like to know more about it, just type “Tippin Rock” in the search box there on the upper right of this page.

The trail passes Tippin Rock and leads to the granite overlook where the views are seen. I saw that there was a big old maple tree slowly falling over. When it finally makes it all the way down it will block the trail. There were many fallen trees here on this day. I just went aroud this one.

There were ice falls on the ledges. This ice was as clear as window glass and there was a lot of dripping going on. You don’t realize just how much groundwater is in a place until you visit it in winter. Though it seems dry in summer there is seeping groundwater everywhere in this forest.

The view on this day was hardly worth taking a photo of because the sun always shines directly at you in the afternoon in this spot, but I did want you to see what you’re faced with when you look out at it: a vast forest, too big to even comprehend. Though it couldn’t really be called unbroken it seems like it is, and waves of lonesomeness can ripple through you when you see it. It’s as if you’re the only person within many miles and that must have been a very sobering thought for the people who settled this land, because except for the Natives they really were the only ones here. They had nothing and no one to rely one except themselves and what they carried, so looking out over something like this must have made them wonder exactly what they had gotten themselves into.

But as far as this day went I knew that as soon as I climbed back down I wouldn’t be the only one anymore, and since I believe that solitude is good for the soul I love to spend time in high places like this where there is nothing except you, the land, and the breezes. Any troubles you may have in life look much smaller from up here, and you can be emptied of them while you relax into the silence.

It seems like it has been a very long time since I last visited my little friends the toadskin lichens (Lasallia papulosa) so I was happy to sit with them for a while. This one was partially covered by ice but it had water dripping on it so it was very happy, and I know that because of its color. When everything is going right a toadskin lichen will be pea green and pliable, like an ear lobe. The dark spots on the body of the lichen are its disc shaped apothecia, where its spores are produced. A fruiting lichen is a happy lichen, because when you’re a lichen it’s always all about making more lichens.

When toadskin lichens dry out they get crisp like potato chips and turn an ashy gray like this one. They’re not very happy at this stage but if nothing else lichens are patient beings, and they will just wait until it rains or snows so they can become pea green and rubbery again. Toadskin lichens are umbilicate lichens, which means they attach to the stone at a single point, and this one displayed what I call its belly button beautifully; it is the sun at the center of its solar system. Though they aren’t at their happiest I think these little lichens are at their most beautiful when they’re dry like this one, and I’ve lost myself inside that beauty many times.

I went a little further along the trail and visited the ledges where the rock climbers climb. I thought I might find some big ice here but instead I found a small pile of slush at the base of the ledge, so that means the sun is warming this huge mass of stone. To give you an idea of how big it is; that pine tree is probably about 75-100 years old. Someday I’m going to go up there and see what I can see.

But for now it was time to head back down Hewe’s Hill and, though climbing down is almost always harder than climbing up, on this day it was doubly hard and I think I’ll wait until it warms up before I climb again. But I made it up and down without falling and I saw some amazing things, so it was great day to be in the woods. I went home happy on rubbery legs.

The splendor of Silence,—of snow-jeweled hills and of ice. ~Ingram Crockett

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We haven’t been seeing a lot of sunshine yet this year but I did see a bit of it caught in the Ashuelot River recently.

By the time I pointed the camera at the sky though, it was gone.

We’ve seen slightly above average snowfall for the season and to show you how deep it is now I took a shot of this fire hydrant, which actually should have been shoveled out in case of fire. Anyhow, the snow is melting again now and by the time you see this quite a lot of it should be gone.

The weather hasn’t been all snow and cold all the time. We’ve had very up and down temperatures and a few days that were warm enough to send me out looking for witch hazel, which is our latest (and earliest) blooming flower. I found some color, but it came from what looked like two or three blossoms that had lost the battle to the cold. That was probably the last chance I’ll have to see our fall blooming witch hazel flowers (Hamamelis virginiana,) but the spring blooming vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) will be along next month.

I went to see if there was any sign of willow buds swelling but instead of seeing furry gray catkins I saw furry gray willow pine cone galls. These galls appear at the branch tips and are caused by a midge (Rabdophaga strobiloides) laying eggs on them. Once the eggs hatch the larva burrow into the branch tip and the plant reacts by forming a gall around them. The galls are about as big as the tip of a thumb.

I saw this spider indoors at work one day and took a couple of photos and then let it be. Hours later at home it felt like something was crawling on my lower leg so I stamped my foot hard and out fell a spider that looked exactly like this one. I doubt very much that a spider could have been on my leg all day without my knowing it, but I still had to wonder where and when it had decided to hitch a ride with me. It’s possible that it was in my car but that sounds doubtful too. Maybe it was right here at home and I just didn’t see it. I guess I’ll never know. I haven’t had any luck identifying it, so if you know its name I’d love to hear from you.

A waxy coating called bloom on juniper berries reflects the light in a way that makes the deep, purple black berries appear to be a bright and beautiful blue. This waxy coating is common on fruits like blueberries, on black raspberry canes, and even on some lichens. Though the fruit is called a berry botanically speaking it is actually a seed cone with fleshy, merged scales. Birds love them and I was surprised to see them so late in the season.

Many gin drinkers don’t realize that the flavor of gin comes from the juniper plant’s berry. It is the unripe green berry that is used to make gin. The ripe berry is the only part of a conifer known to be used as a spice. Whole and / or ground fruit is used on game like venison, moose, and bear meat, and man has used juniper for a very long time. The first record of usage appears on an Egyptian papyrus from 1500 BC. Egyptians used juniper medicinally and Native Americans used the fruit as both food and medicine. Stomach disorders, infections and arthritis were among the ailments treated. Natives also made jewelry from the seeds inside the berries.

The maple leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) in my yard had a single, dark purple berry left on it. I was surprised how textural it was when I saw the photo. Birds seem to love these berries and most of them go fast, but I always wonder why they leave the ones that they do. They obviously know something that I can’t fathom. The shrub is also called arrow wood and some believe that Native Americans used the straight grained wood for arrow shafts.

This is the way the rest of the maple leaf viburnum looked; picked clean.

There are plenty of coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seeds left so the birds must be happy. I always let plants go to seed in my own yard because I don’t use bird feeders due to occasional visits from bears, and they feed a lot of birds. Speaking of bears, state biologists say the acorn crop was large enough to feed bears through the winter, so many of them aren’t hibernating. I can’t say that was wonderful news, but at least the bears aren’t starving.

The motherwort seeds (Leonurus cardiaca) have all been eaten now. A helpful reader told me that she has seen goldfinches eating the seeds of motherwort, so they must be doubly happy because they eat the coneflower seeds too. I hope one day to be able to see them doing so. They must come when I’m at work because I never see them.

I saw a young, beautifully colored hemlock varnish shelf bracket fungus (Ganoderma tsugae) growing at the base of a young hemlock tree. This mushroom has been used medicinally in China for centuries and is considered the most important of all the herbs and substances used in Chinese herbal medicine, including even ginseng. In China it is called the Reishi mushroom and scientists around the world are researching its anti-cancer potential. The number of beneficial things growing in the world’s forests that we know nothing about must be mind boggling.

Honey mushrooms (Armillarea mellea) once grew on this 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 will often still have the black rhizomorphs attached to them.

A couple of posts ago I talked about poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and how it can grow as a shrub, creep along the ground, or climb like a vine. When the plant climbs as a vine it holds onto what it climbs with masses of roots all along the stem, but the example I showed in that post had only a few roots showing. The example above is more typical of what I see, with matted roots all along the stem. I can’t think of another vine that does this so I think it’s a good way to identify poison ivy.

It’s a good idea to leave any vine that looks like this one alone.

I saw this yellow something on the bark of a dying black cherry tree and at first thought it might be a large lichen colony, but it didn’t look quite right for lichen. I knew it wasn’t moss either, so that left one possibility: algae. A few posts ago I showed a hemlock trunk that was all red and another helpful reader helped identify it as a red algae growth, so after some research I found that there is also yellow-green algae, and this example is possibly one called Desmococcus olivaceous, which is also called Pleurococcus vulgaris.

Pleurococcus algae grow on the shaded sides of tree trunks, and on rocks and soil and sometimes even on walls if they’re damp enough. Their closest relatives grow in lakes and rivers but they can withstand dryness. There is fossil evidence of algae colonies existing even 540 million years ago so they’ve been here much longer than we have, and they haven’t changed much in all that time.

Raccoons, so I’ve always thought, are nocturnal animals rarely seen during the day, so my first thought when I saw this one was that it might be sick. Unfortunately they can and do get rabies and it isn’t all that uncommon in this area to hear of people or pets being attacked by rabid raccoons. But this one was eating and after I thought about it I didn’t think if it were sick it would be eating with such gusto. After a little research I found that raccoons often go out in search of food and water during the daytime, especially nursing mother raccoons, usually in the spring.

From what I’ve read you can tell that a raccoon is sick because it will look sick. They’ll be lethargic and stagger when they walk and sometimes will even fall over. If they look alert and bright eyed and run and walk normally then you can be almost certain that they don’t have rabies. I saw this one walking around and it looked fine so I doubt that it was sick. I couldn’t tell if it was a mother raccoon or not but it sure was cute with its little hands looking as if it were begging for more food. For those who’ve never seen one raccoons are slightly bigger than an average house cat. Maybe a chubby house cat; males can weigh 20 pounds. I’m sorry about the quality of the photos of it. All I had for a camera when I saw it was the small point and shoot I use for macros so they aren’t great, but since they’re the only shots I’ve ever gotten of a raccoon they’ll have to do.

If you reconnect with nature and the wilderness you will not only find the meaning of life, but you will experience what it means to be truly alive. ~Sylvia Dolson

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Last Saturday was cloudy but warm with temperatures in the 40s. Rain was supposed come in the late afternoon so I headed out to one of my favorite places in Keene early in the day. It’s a trail through a small park at the base of Beech Hill and there is just about anything a nature lover could want there, including a mixed hard and softwood forest, streams, seeps, a pond, and a huge assortment of wildflowers, fungi, and slime molds in spring, summer and fall.

About 6-7 inches of nuisance snow had fallen a few days before but this is a popular spot and many other feet had packed it down before I got there. I find that my trail breaking days through knee deep snow have ended, so my strategy is to let others go first and then follow their trail. There’s plenty to see out there for everybody and it doesn’t matter who sees it first.

Two or three seeps cross the trail, which is actually an old road. As I said in a post last month, a seep happens essentially when ground water reaches the surface. They are like puddles that never dry up and they don’t flow like a stream or brook. In my experience they don’t freeze either, even in the coldest weather. They are always good to look at closely, because many unusual aquatic fungi like eyelash fungi and swamp candles call them home.

The small pond here has been a favorite skating and fishing spot for children for all of my life, and I used to come here to do both when I was a boy. I was never a very good skater though, so I spent more time fishing than skating.

Despite the thin ice sign in the previous photo there were people skating and playing hockey. The pond is plowed each time it snows and it isn’t uncommon for the plow truck to go through the ice, where it sits up to its windows in water until it is towed out. There is a dam holding back the pond and a few years ago it had to be drained so the dam could be worked on, and I was shocked to see how shallow the water was. I think I could walk across it anywhere along its length without getting my hair wet, and I’m not very tall. That gray ice in this photo looks very soft and rotten and with temperatures predicted to be above freezing all week there might be no skating ice left at all by next weekend.

I wanted to show how very clean the water in our streams are by showing you the gravel at the bottom of one through the crystal clear water, but just as I started to click the shutter some snow fell from a tree branch and ruined the shot. Or so I thought; I think this is the only shot of ripples I’ve ever gotten. There is a certain amount of luck in nature photography, I’ve found.

Snow builds up on the branches of evergreens like Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and when the weather warms it melts, and in a forest like this on a warm day all that melting snow could make you think it was raining. That’s how it was on this day so I had to keep a plastic bag over the camera.

Fresh snow once again covered everything. I’ve lost count of how many times it has snowed this winter but luckily it has warmed enough between storms to melt much of what has fallen before. Otherwise we’d be in snow up to our eyeballs. It was just a few years ago that I had to shovel snow up over my head because it stayed so cold between storms that none of it melted. I had pathways around the yard that looked like canyons, and I couldn’t see out over the tops of them.

Even in silhouette the thorns of hawthorn (Crataegus) look formidable. And they are; you don’t want to run headlong into one. Another name for the shrub is thorn apple because the small red fruits bear a slight resemblance to apples. These fruits have been used to treat heart disease for centuries and parts of the plant are still used medicinally today.

Something had eaten part of a leaf and turned it into something resembling stained glass.

A young dead hemlock tree’s bark was flaking off in what I thought was an unusual way. Sometimes the platy bark of black cherry trees is described as having a “burnt potato chip” look, but that’s just what the bark of this hemlock reminded me of.

For many years, long before I heard of “forest bathing” or anything of that sort, I’ve believed that nature could heal. In fact in my own life it has indeed healed and has gotten me through some very rough patches, so I really don’t know what I’d do if I could no longer get into the woods. But I recently read of a program where you go into a forest to “heal” by pasting leaves and pinecones to yourself and weaving twigs in your hair and I have to say that it is silliness like this that is driving people away from forests, not toward them. I hope you’ll take the word of someone who has spent his whole life in the woods: you don’t need to do anything, say anything, sing, dance, or anything else to benefit from the healing power of the forest. All you need to do is simply be there. If you want to sing and dance and weave twigs in your hair and paste leaves on your arms by all means do so, but it’s important to me that you know that you don’t have to do any of those things to benefit from nature. And please remember, if something sounds absurd it probably is.

What I think was powdery sunburst lichen (Xanthoria ulophyllodes) grew on a black locust tree. It was very small but thanks to my camera I could see that it was also very beautiful. It can be a real pleasure to find such colorful things when the whole world seems white.

I’ve seen this enough times to know I should look up to see what’s been going on.

Woodpeckers, that’s what’s been going on. In this case a pileated woodpecker, judging by the large rectangular holes.

The snow inside this tree shows how deeply they can drill into the wood, though sometimes they find that the tree is hollow. I’ve seen huge, living trees fall that were completely hollow; it was only their bark and the cambium layer under it that kept them standing.

This tree has had it, I’m afraid. It’s never a good thing to see fungi growing on a living, standing tree and in fact most of them won’t. Many fungi will attack and fruit on only dead and fallen trees because their mission is not to kill, only to decompose. It’s hard to imagine a forest without the decomposers. You wouldn’t be able to walk through it for all the fallen limbs and other litter.

Some bracket fungi are annuals that live for just one year and they turn white when they die, and I thought that was what I was seeing until I ran my hand over these. They were perfectly pliable and very much alive, even after the extreme below zero cold we’ve had. They were also very small; no bigger than my thumbnail.

The small white bracket fungi were very young, I think, and I haven’t been able to identify them. The fragrant bracket (Trametes suaveolens) might be a possibility. This is a photo of the spore bearing surface on their undersides.

There are things that are as beautiful in death as they were in life, and I offer up this empty aster (I think) seed head as proof. Though it is dry and fairly monotone it looks every bit as beautiful as the flower it came from to me.

I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything. ~Alan watts

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Recently we saw nearly 2 inches of rain fall in one day and the placid stream, which is actually called Bailey Brook, that you see in the above photo flooded to cover all of the land seen in the photo and much more. Now that it had returned to normal I decided to follow it for a time and see what kind of damage the flooding had done.

I saw some delicate ice formations.

And stream ice made up of long crystals.

Large chunks of ice had found a place to rest when the flood receded and there they sat scattered here and there, reminding me of glacial erratics.

In some places I thought I was walking on land until my foot went through the ice and found water. From the ice surface down to the soil surface was about 6-8 inches with nothing but air in between, so the stream rose at least that much in flood.

There is a lot of drainage going on in this area and smaller streams meet the main stream in several places. Generally it’s a happy place and a great place to walk with the stream chuckling and giggling beside you, but it can also be a place of great danger when enough rain falls. I’ve seen it flood and go up and over roads in just a matter of a few hours, so you don’t walk here until you’re sure the stream has calmed down after storms makes it rage. First it happened once in ten years, then a couple of more times over the next five years or so, and now it seems to happen each year.

There are still plenty of beech leaves around and I’m glad of that because they add color to the landscape.

A single beech leaf fell and became frozen in the ice. It was a beautiful thing, and it looked like someone had painted it there. It would have been one of the impressionists like Monet or Renoir who would have painted it, I think. It was more light than leaf.

There was something I wanted to see but I had to climb a small hill to get to it. The hill ends right at the stream so there is no level land to walk on. I got up the hill without too much trouble by hugging trees and pulling myself up, but under those leaves was nothing but slippery, solid ice and the only way back down the hill was sitting down and sliding in what I’d guess was a very undignified manner.

But it was worth it because I got to see the horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) that grow along that section of stream. These are ancient plants that are embedded with silica. Another common name is the scouring rush because they are sometimes used to scour pots when camping, and they are also used for sanding wood in Japan. I like the way they look as if someone had knitted them fancy little socks.

There are lots of river grapes growing here along the stream and they are very easy to identify because of their peeling bark. Exfoliating bark is very common on the older wood of many types of grapevines and happens naturally. Older bark cracks from the growth expansion of the newer bark beneath it and eventually the older, cracked bark peels off in strips.

On warm days in the fall this entire area smells like grape jelly because of all the overripe grapes. Birds and animals get most of them but they missed a few, as this photo of a freeze dried grape shows.

I read an article recently that spoke of how we as a people are losing our connection to nature. As of 2008, according to the United Nations, half of all human beings lived in cities and in the U.K. a typical 8 year old child is better at recognizing video game characters than common wildlife. The article mentioned how, not that long ago, people knew trees as well as they knew themselves because they relied on them for heat, shelter, food, and many other things. The article suggested that getting to know trees would be a simple way for people to reconnect with nature, because there are very few people who don’t see trees every day. I suggest starting with easy ones or ones you already know, like the muscle wood tree in the above photo. It’s easy to see why it’s called muscle wood (Carpinus caroliniana.) See how its “tendons” ripple beneath its “skin”? Muscle wood is also called American hornbeam, and its wood is very dense and hard, but learning to identify trees by their bark isn’t hard, and it’s fun. Books like Bark by Michael Wojtech are a great help. You’d be surprised how quickly you would be able to name all of the trees in your neighborhood after a short time.

Here’s another easy one. Yellow or golden birch (Betula alleghaniensis) has peeling bark like a white birch but its bark is kind of reddish brown, which in the right light looks golden. They like cool, moist soil and are usually found near streams and ponds. They can also stand quite a lot of shade so growing here beside this stream in a cool, shaded forest is just about the perfect place for one.

There are a lot of insects after these trees along the stream, including bark beetles. These beetles excavate channels in the wood and when these channels completely encircle the wood the branch or tree has been girdled. Once girdled moisture and nutrients can no longer move freely through the cambium layer. When moisture and nutrients can’t move from the roots to the crown of the tree and back again the tree will die. I see a lot of fallen white pine (Pinus strobus) limbs with bark beetle damage.

Woodpeckers tell me that this standing dead hemlock tree is also full of insects. In large numbers, apparently.

Bittersweet vines twine around tree trunks; they don’t grow straight like this. There is no exfoliating bark, tendrils, or branching like a grape vine would have, so they can’t be that. Since there are no tendrils it isn’t Virginia creeper either. Those are the “big three” native vines that I would expect to find here but if the examples growing up this pine tree aren’t one of them what are they? Poison ivy, that’s what, and it’s a good idea to leave vines you don’t recognize alone until you’re sure of their identity. Poison ivy isn’t poison and it isn’t an ivy. Way back in the early 1600s Captain John Smith thought it looked like the English ivy he had left behind in England and, since it made him itch, thanks to him it became known as poison ivy. The urushiol the vine contains is considered an allergen and there is nothing poisonous about it, but is sure can make you itch and it will give you a rash that might last for weeks. You can get the rash from any part of the plant, including the naked stems seen here.

We’ve probably all heard the old “Leaves of three, let them be” saying about poison ivy, but the plant has no leaves in winter so “Hairy vine, no friend of mine” has to do when there is snow on the ground.  “Hairy rope, don’t be a dope” might work too. The roots seen in this photo are how the poison ivy vine clings to what it climbs, and there will often be a thick mat of roots all along the stem. But not always; poison ivy can grow as a vine, a shrub, or it can creep along the forest floor. It’s wise, if you plan on spending time in a New England forest, to study the plant and know it well. I usually get a small rash on my knees each spring from kneeling on unseen vines growing under the forest litter when I’m taking photos of early spring wildflowers, and I know it well. I’m lucky enough to be little bothered by it but I’ve known people who were hospitalized because of it.

Everywhere I go I see lichens that look like they’ve been chewed on and I’ve tried to find out why with limited success. Reindeer eat lichens but we don’t have reindeer in these woods, just white tails. I’ve seen squirrels eat mushrooms and since fungi are an important part of a lichen I thought that they might be the culprit, but I’ve never found anything in print about it until researching this post. According to a website called “What Do Squirrels Eat” http://www.whatdosquirrelseat.org squirrels have expanded their palates and will eat just about anything, including what we and our pets eat. It also says that they do indeed eat lichens, so I can finally put the chewed lichen mystery to bed.

But it’s rare day when you hike through a forest and do not come away with a mystery, and this was today’s mystery. From the opposite side this looked like a hard gray lump, smaller than the first joint on my little finger, on a poplar limb. When I looked at the underside I saw what appears in this photo. Though I’ve searched for a few days for an identification so far I have no idea what insect made and hatched from it. I’m guessing that it was some type of gall wasp. It might take a few years but one day I’ll find out more about it. In the end I went home happy, because I saw all kinds of interesting and beautiful things and surprisingly, saw no real flood damage at all.

Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants and trees – should be your teacher. ~Morihei Ueshiba

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Back a few years ago I had the luxury of working from home, telecommuting in a way. At times it could get slightly monotonous so to break up the monotony I took a walk at lunch time each day. Of course I had a camera with me and many of the photos I took on those lunchtime walks appeared here on this blog. The above photo shows the road I walked on, what we always called the “dirt road,” because it was a dirt road for many years until the town came along and paved it.

To the right of the road is a small pond where Canada geese used to swim but now it is home mostly to frogs, snapping turtles, and muskrats.

The muskrats eat the cattail roots. The snapping turtles eat the frogs, and the frogs eat up a lot of mosquitoes, for which I am very grateful. I’m looking forward to hearing the spring peepers start singing again in March.

To the left of the road is a large alder swamp where in the spring red wing blackbirds by the many hundreds live. They don’t like people near their nesting sites and when I walked by here they always let me know how disappointed they were with my walking habits. Just out there in the middle of the swamp was an old dead white pine I used to call it the heron tree, because great blue herons used to sit in its branches. Since it fell I haven’t seen as many herons fishing here.

The alders were heavy with dangling catkins, which in this case are the shrub’s male (Staminate) flowers. I believe that most of the alders here are speckled alders (Alnus incana) but I can’t get close enough to most of them to find out, because this swamp never freezes entirely.

The beautiful alder catkins, each packed with hundreds of male flowers, will open usually around the last week in March to the first week of April. When the brownish purple scales on short stalks open they’ll reveal the golden pollen, and for a short time it will look as if someone has hung jewels of purple and gold on all the bushes. That’s the signal I use to start looking for the tiny crimson female (Pistillate) flowers, which will appear in time to receive the wind born pollen. They are among the smallest flowers I know of and they can be hard to see.

The female alder flowers become the hard little cones called strobiles which I think most of us are probably familiar with.  These strobiles have tongue gall, which is caused by a fungus called Taphrina alni. The fungus chemically deforms parts of the ovarian tissue of the developing cone and causes long, tongue like galls called languets to grow from them. I’m guessing that the fungus benefits from these long tongues by getting its spore bearing surfaces out into the wind. They don’t seem to hurt the alder any. In fact most galls don’t harm their hosts.

Medieval writers thought witch’s brooms were a bewitched bundle of twigs and called them Hexenbesen, but witch’s brooms are simply a plant deformity; a dense cluster of branches caused by usually a fungus but sometimes by a parasitic plant like mistletoe. Witch’s broom can sometimes be desirable; the Montgomery dwarf blue spruce came originally from a witch’s broom. This example is on an old dead white pine (Pinus strobus) and is the only one I’ve ever seen on pine.

A colorful bracket fungus grew on a fallen log. Or maybe I should say that it was frozen to it, because it was rock hard. My mushroom book says that this fungus can appear at all times of year though, so it must be used to the cold. It’s described as hairy with ochre to bright rust yellow and rust brown banding and if I’ve identified it correctly it’s called the mustard yellow polypore (Phellinus gilvus.) That’s an odd name considering that it has very little yellow in it but even the photo in the book shows only a thin band of yellow.

This bracket fungus was very thin and woody and grew in several examples around the perimeter of a fallen tree. I think it’s probably the thin maze polypore (Daedaleopsis confragosa,) which is fairly common.

This photo is of the maze-like underside of the thin maze polypore. This is a great example of how some mushrooms increase their spore bearing surfaces. When fresh the surface is pale gray and turns red when bruised. This fungus causes white rot in trees.

Despite having more cold days than warm days the sun is doing its work and melting the snow in places with a southerly exposure. Our average temperature in February here in southern New Hampshire is 35 degrees F. so try as it might, winter can’t win now. It can still throw some terrible weather at us though; the average snowfall amount is 18 inches but I’ve seen that much fall in a single February storm before. We are supposed to see 10-12 inches later today, in fact.

The reason the area in the previous photo is so clear of growth is because a large stand of bracken fern grows (Pteridium aquilinum) there. Bracken fern releases release chemicals that inhibit the growth of other plants and that’s why this fern grows in large colonies where no other plants or trees are seen. Bracken is one of the oldest ferns, with fossil records dating it to over 55 million years old. Though they usually grow knee high I’ve seen some that were chest high.

Down the road a ways a large colony of American wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) grows. Since this was the first plant I learned to identify I’m always happy to see it. It is also called teaberry or checkerberry and those who have ever tasted Clark’s Teaberry Gum know its flavor well. Oil of wintergreen has been used medicinally for centuries and it is still used in mouthwash, toothpaste, and pain relievers. Native Americans carried the leaves on hunts and nibbled on them to help them breathe easier when running or carrying game. The leaves make a pleasant minty tea but the plant contains compounds similar to those found in aspirin, so anyone allergic to aspirin shouldn’t use this plant.

Common speedwell (Veronica officinalis) has also been used medicinally for centuries in Europe and its leaves were used as a tea substitute there. Though it isn’t really invasive it is considered an agricultural weed. It forms mat like growths like that seen in the above photo but sends up vertical flower stalks in May. Each flower stalk (Raceme) has many very small blue flowers streaked with dark purple lines. They are beautiful little things, but they aren’t easy to photograph.

Yet another plant found in large colonies along the road is yarrow (Achillea milefolium.) Yarrow has been used medicinally since the dawn of time, and bunches of the dried herb have been  found in Neanderthal graves. It is one of the nine holy herbs  and was traded throughout the world, and that’s probably the reason it is found in nearly every country on earth. I’ve never looked closely at its seed heads before. I was surprised to see that they look nothing like the flowers. If it wasn’t for the scent and the few dried leaves clinging to the stem I’m not sure I would have known it was yarrow.

In one spot a small stream passes under the road. Strangely, on this side of the road it was frozen over…

…while on this side of the road it was ice free. That shows what a little persistent sun or shade can do at this time of year.

This is the tree that first got me wondering why some Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) had red on their bark when most didn’t. I’ve never been able to answer that question so I don’t know if it’s caused by algae, or is some type of loosely knitted lichen, or if it is simply the way the tree’s genes lean.

My lunchtime walk sometimes found me sitting in the cool forest on an old fallen hemlock tree, with this as my view. Just over the rise, a short way through the forest, is a stream that feeds into the swamp we saw previously. This is a cool place on a hot summer day and one that I used frequently. Sometimes it was hard to go back to work but you need discipline when you work from home and I always made it back in time. It was fun taking this walk again for this post. So many good memories!

The walks met a need: they were a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and once I discovered them as therapy they became the normal thing, and I forgot what life had been like before I started walking.  ~ Teju Cole

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We had another couple of warm days last weekend with temps in the high 40s F, so I decided to go and check on the skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) to see how they were doing. They are our earliest flowers, often flowering in March, and they grow around the swamp in the above photo, which is one of only two places I’ve seen them.

I doubted I’d see any since it’s only January but there was a single green shoot, probably still there from last fall. This is not a flower bud though, it is a leaf bud. Skunk cabbage is an arum and the actual flowers are hard to see because they blossom inside a spathe. A spathe is a modified leaf which in skunk cabbages usually is colored a splotchy, mottled yellow and maroon. True leaves appear around mid-April when the plant is done flowering.

Do cattails (Typha latifolia) produce new shoots in the fall or in spring? I wondered when I saw these. When I looked them up I read that new shoots appear in spring, but this is January. I have a feeling they appeared last fall and are just biding their time until it warms up. Native Americans wove cattail leaves into waterproof mats and used them on their lodges.

The approach to the swamp is through the woods shown here and then down the steep embankment in the distance, so I was glad there wasn’t much snow to slip and slide in.

I saw a bird’s nest and wondered, because of the way it hung from branches, if it was a Baltimore oriole’s nest. It was about as big around as a coffee mug and hung in a shrub at about waist high, which seems much too low for an oriole’s nest. The ones that I’ve seen have always been quite high up in the trees. Maybe there are other birds that weave nests that hang.

This photo shows how the bird hung the nest in the V shaped crotch of a branch. It is hung from 3 points for stability. Grasses, cattail leaves and birch bark is what the nest was mostly woven from. I wonder if Native Americans first learned to weave baskets by studying bird nests.

The shiny evergreen leaves of goldthread appeared by the place where skunk cabbages grow and surprised me, because I’ve never seen them here. Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its name from its bright yellow, thread like root. Tiny but beautiful white flowers will appear in late April. Native Americans chewed the roots of goldthread to treat canker sores, which is why the plant is also called Canker root. The natives shared the plant with the English settlers and it became such a popular medicine that by 1785 shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for it dried, which meant people dug up all they could find. At one time there was more goldthread sold in Boston than any other native plant. Luckily after a couple of centuries the plant has recovered enough to be relatively common once again.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is a native plant that makes a good garden groundcover. Small, heart shaped leaves on creeping stems grow at ground level and you can mow right over it. 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.

The small blackish bead-like sori that make up the fertile fronds of the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) will open to release the spores soon. Sensitive fern is another good indicator of moist places, so I wasn’t surprised to see it here. Its common name comes from its sensitivity to frost, which was first noticed by the early colonials. I just read that turkeys will peck at and eat the sori, and that is why sometimes you find the fern’s spores lying on the snow around the plant.

These oak leaves were pretty amazing for January, warm day or not. I’m not sure how they did this; most other oak leaves I’ve seen this winter have been brown, or sometimes pinkish brown. Maybe these were flash frozen in November, I don’t know, but it was a pleasure to see them.

We saw more pine cones fall from the white pines (Pinus strobus) this year than most of us have ever seen and the squirrels are reaping the harvest. They pull the cones apart scale by scale and eat the seeds, and big piles of scales are a common sight in the woods. Squirrels like to sit up higher than the surrounding landscape when they eat and often sit on stones or logs.

This is what’s left of a white pine cone when a squirrel is finished with it. Not much.

There are plenty of goldenrod and other seeds to keep the birds happy this year as well.

American hazelnut (Corylus americana) catkins are a common enough sight in the winter but I’m not sure what these examples were doing. They usually hang straight down but a couple of these decided to be different. These are the male flowers of the hazel shrub and before long, usually in mid-April, they will begin to show pollen and turn golden yellow.

Turkeys, squirrels and many other birds and animals usually eat hazelnuts up quickly so I was surprised to see quite a few nut clusters still hanging from the branches. It could be that the bumper crop of acorns is keeping the animals busy.

Blackberry seed gall is caused by the blackberry seed gall wasp (Diastrophus cuscutaeformis.) These very small, round hollow galls look like seeds and form in clusters around blackberry stems. Each tiny gall has a stiff, hair like spine and together they form a hairy mass like that in the photo. They start out bright yellow-green and mature to brownish red. This one was about as long as your index finger.

I hoped the vine I saw up in a tree was American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), but it turned out to be just another invasive Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus,) which is quickly outpacing the natives. That’s mainly because its berries are more enticing to birds and its seeds germinate much faster. The easiest way to tell American bittersweet from Oriental is by the location of the berries on the vine; American bittersweet berries grow on the ends of the vines and Oriental bittersweet berries grow all along them. While both vines climb trees and shrubs, American bittersweet is less likely to strangle its host like Oriental bittersweet will.

I keep seeing this red inner bark on some dead staghorn sumacs (Rhus typhina) and each time I see it I try to find out why it would be red, but so far I’ve never found an answer. It’s always surprising that such a beautiful color would be hidden from sight. Or maybe it turns red as it peels away.

There are often ducks here in this part of the swamp but they probably heard me long before I could have seen them and swam off. Soon this will be a very busy, growing place full of nesting red winged blackbirds, snapping turtles, herons, ducks, and frogs but for now it is simply open water and quiet and for me, that was enough.  I hope you have a nearby swamp or wetland that you can visit, because they’re fascinating places that are full of life.

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

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