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Posts Tagged ‘Things Found in Trees’

There is an old stone wall in Swanzey that I like to follow in winter because it has a southern exposure, and that coupled with evergreen branches overhead usually means that very little snow is on the ground. This year though, I got there to find that all the pine trees along the wall had been cut so there was snow right up to the wall. It’s still a great place to explore, so the bit of snow I got in my hiking boots didn’t really bother me. The reason the stones look like they do in this photo is because they are almost completely covered by rock greenshield lichens (Flavoparmelia baltimorensis).

Rock greenshield lichens are very common in this area and are another of those bits of nature that you see so often they no longer register, but when you take the time to look closer you find that they are quite pretty. They must like it here because they cover entire lengths of this wall. It had rained all day the day before so all the lichens I saw were at peak beauty.

The bushy rock lichen (Ramalina intermedia) I first found here a couple of years ago has grown quite a lot and there are even smaller ones growing under it now. Lichen communities grow in succession with many varieties of crustose lichens as pioneers. Foliose lichens come next as intermediary species and finally fruticose lichens like this one are considered climax species. What I don’t know is, how much time is between pioneer and climax? Climax communities of lichens are considered “old growth” communities.

The sun tried to come out but the clouds won the battle.

I believe there must have been animals kept here in the past because holes were drilled into stones and steel rods inserted into them to increase the wall height by about a foot and a half. Each rod has a flattened tip with a hole in it and the hole most likely had wire passed through it. It was fairly common practice in New England.  Stone walls were usually too low to be effective and cows and other farm animals often jumped right over them, so their height was increased by adding wire or other materials. You had to pay a fine if your animals escaped and were caught roaming free. They were brought to the town pound and the owner had to pay to get them back plus the cost of feeding them.

As the steel ground against the granite over the years the holes were made bigger so cut nails were driven in beside the rods to keep them straight. The cut nails seen here date the steel rods to sometime between 1800 and 1900, but the wall itself has been here I think since the mid-1700s.

Because it’s so warm near stone walls in the winter plants like to grow along them. Common speedwell (Veronica officinalis) thrives here. This European native is common here and has been used medicinally for centuries. Its leaves have also been used as a tea substitute and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the early settlers brought it with them.

Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) also does well here along the wall. In fact there is an amazing variety of plants growing on or near this wall. Native Americans used tea made from mullein’s large, gray green furry leaves to treat asthma and other respiratory ailments. It is also said to be useful as a relaxant and sleep aid.

This is a shot of one of the roots of a very old pine stump. They looked to be slowly rotting away but the wave pattern in this one caught my eye. You don’t see things like this every day.

Pixie cup lichens (Cladonia asahinae) grow all along the wall. The tiny little golf tee shaped parts are the fruiting bodies of this lichen. Spores produced in them will be splashed out of the cup by raindrops.  Pixie cups almost always produce large groups of fruiting bodies like these.

Scattered rock posy lichens (Rhizoplaca subdiscrepans) grow all along the wall in sunnier spots. They are quite small and difficult to see without magnification, but it’s worth looking for them because they almost always have their bright orange apothecia showing. They like to grow on stone, especially granite, in full sun.

All of the sudden I’m seeing lots of chipmunks, and here was a chipmunk burrow. These little rodents, bigger than a mouse but smaller than a squirrel, store food for winter in underground chambers and stay underground until spring. In spring they’re usually very hungry, hence all the activity. They love to run along stone walls as well and often follow me through the woods that way, chirping and chucking the whole way.

Some of the stones here are like quilts with such a patchwork of lichens on them.

The most common stone walls in this area are “tossed walls.” Farmers worked from dawn to dusk in Colonial New England and tossed walls required the least amount of time and effort because smaller stones were literally tossed or thrown on top of one another. In the early years getting rid of the plentiful stones quickly and efficiently was more important than enclosing the fields, but this farmer took the time to build a seat into this wall. It’s at the perfect height to sit on (I tried it) and wide enough for two people.

Near the stone seat is an iron ring in the wall where a horse could be hitched. Both the stone seat and hitching ring are in the shadiest part of this property so it makes perfect sense that this would be the place to sit and have lunch.

The farmer could even have had black raspberries for lunch, in season. They grow in several places along the wall.

As time passed barbed wire was often added to stone walls to keep animals in or out. This wire grew out of the very center of a pine tree, so it was tacked onto the tree quite a while ago. Running their saw into steel wire is one of a wood cutter’s worst nightmares come true but many things have been found inside trees, from axe heads to gravestones to even bicycles.

This chain hook is one of my favorite bits of antique iron work that I find here. A link from a chain would have been hooked over it and then another link hooked over a similar hook a certain distance away. Chains were (and are) often hung across roads or driveways as a way to say “no admittance.”  What I like about this example is the way the blacksmith tapered the hook over its length and finally ended it in what looks like a dragon’s tail. You can still see the marks of the hammer all along its length. It’s a beautiful thing and if I owned it, especially since my grandfather was a blacksmith, it would be considered a work of art.

Even in silhouette pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) can be readily identified by the long stalks that held its berries. What surprised me by these plants is how they were still standing. Pokeweed stems weaken quickly at ground level and it doesn’t usually take much snow to bring them down. Native Americans used the plant medicinally and also used the red juice from its berries to decorate their horses. Recently scientists found that the red dye made from the berries can be used to coat solar cells, increasing their efficiency.

A small oak tree hung on to its fall color and was beautiful on this cloudy, wet day. I loved seeing its bright cheery colors.

The truth is not in the touch of a stone, but in what the stone tells you. ~Rene Denfeld

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Spring is happening, but ever so slowly this year. April showers have come along right on schedule and though they’ll take care of the remaining snow they’ll also enhance mud season, which has already been a bear. The ground froze deeply this year and the deeper the freeze the worse the mud. None of this has anything to do with the above photo of juniper berries but I love their color and I was surprised that the birds hadn’t eaten them yet.

From a distance I saw what looked like a patch of small yellow flowers. I couldn’t even guess what yellow flowers besides maybe coltsfoot or dandelions, would be blooming in March.

But they weren’t flowers at all. They were the fruit of horse nettle plants, hundreds of them. Carolina horse nettle (Solanum carolinense) isn’t a true nettle but instead is in the nightshade family, along with tomatoes and potatoes and many toxic plants. This plant is also toxic, enough so to be named devil’s tomato. It contains alkaloids that can make you very sick and which have caused death. There are also spines on the leaves which can break off and embed themselves in the skin. Skunks, pheasant, and turkeys are said to eat the fruit but it didn’t look to me like a single one had been touched. Nothing seems to eat the stems or foliage.

I saw these pretty buds on a small ornamental tree in a local park. It had a weeping habit and couldn’t have been more than six feet tall with many weeping branches. I thought it might be some type of elm but elm buds are flattened, not round, so in the end I’m not sure what they were.

This shows what happens when a sap spigot, actually called a spile, isn’t removed from the tree after sap season. The tree has almost grown completely over this one and has squeezed what should be round into a teardrop shape. The crushing power of the wood must be incredible.

This photo that appeared in a previous blog post shows what a spile looks like when the tree hasn’t grown over it. Things like this inside trees are a woodcutter’s nightmare. Spiles started out as simple wooden pegs which were hammered into a hole in the tree to direct the sap into the buckets which were hung from them but these days they are made from galvanized steel.

I found this mullein plant (Verbascum thapsus) growing up through the pavement in an old abandoned parking area. It’s in the process of shedding its large old, outer leaves from last year to make room for the its new leaves. This plant stays green all winter long under the snow and starts growing quickly in spring as soon as it melts. Another name for this plant is flannel leaf because of its large soft, fuzzy leaves. Pliny the elder of ancient Rome used the warmed leaves as poultices for arthritis and Roman legionnaires dipped the long stalks in tallow and used them as torches. The plant is originally from Europe and is considered invasive.

I see this plant in a flower bed every time I go looking for spring bulbs blooming at the local college, but I’ve never seen it bloom. I think it’s a hollyhock but I’m not sure, whatever it is it’s very tough and stays green all winter long. I like the pebbly texture of its leaves.

I’ve written about Edgewood Forest in past posts. It lies near the Keene airport and there always seems to be a controversy boiling over the trees there. The Federal Aviation Administration says the trees are tall enough to pose a hazard to planes, but the original documents that deeded the land to the city says that the land should be left as is, with no cutting of trees. What this has amounted to is trees being cut all around the deeded parcel called Edgewood Forest, leaving it a kind of forested island. The place shown in the above photo was forested until not too long ago but then all the trees were cut, all the stumps pulled and this-whatever it is- was built. Picnic tables were placed here and there. Apparently the higher powers thought that people would flock there and love it enough to even want to picnic there, but I’ve been by it hundreds of times and have never seen a soul there, picnicking or otherwise. Since there are hundreds of trees that are taller very nearby this seems like a total waste of effort and money to me.

This kind of thing is happening all over and town governments can’t seem to get the fact that people go to these places to enjoy nature. They stand and scratch their heads, wondering why the people don’t still flock to the same places after they’ve been “improved” like this one. Instead of attracting people they are driving them away, and I’m sure the income from tourist dollars is going to start reflecting that, if it hasn’t already. Meanwhile we’ll have monuments like this one to shake our heads at as we pass by in search of places that are more open and welcoming to nature lovers.

Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) is one of the plants that grew in that forest before it was turned into a lawn. Luckily I know where there are more of them. Native Americans showed the early settlers how to use goldthread to relieve the pain of canker sores and it became an extremely popular medicine. At one point in the 1800s more of it was sold on the docks of Boston than any other plant and that meant that it was severely over collected. Now, 200 years or so later It has made a good comeback and it will always be with us if we stop turning forests into lawns. It gets its common name from its bright yellow, thread like roots. It will bloom in late April with a pretty little white flower. I love its leaves, which look like they were hammered out of sheet metal.

When a sunbeam picks out something specific in nature I usually pay close attention, thinking that maybe I’m supposed to see that thing for whatever reason. On this day a sunbeam picked out this beech leaf, which was perfect and unblemished. It was a beautiful thing, as the things picked out by sunbeams almost always are. A sunbeam showed me how incredibly beautiful a red clover blossom was once and completely changed my opinion of what I always considered an ugly, unwanted weed.

A sunbeam also fell on this single turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) and its dominant blue color just happened to be my favorite. Turkey tails can vary greatly in color and I think I’ve seen them wearing just about every shade this year.

I’m hoping this is the last of this winter’s ice I’ll have to show here. Both day and nighttime temperatures are rising and ever so slowly the white is disappearing.


If you’ve never looked through a knothole this photo is for you. Knotholes like these happen when branches die and their wood shrinks faster than the surrounding wood of the tree. Eventually they fall off the tree, leaving a hole behind. The part of the tree that protrudes and surrounds the branch is called the branch collar and it should always be left intact when pruning. As can be seen, the tree leaves it behind naturally.

Other “improvements” I’ve seen lately involved cutting all the alders and other native shrubs from the banks of a small local pond, but since this pond is used as a water source in case of fire I can understand the thinking behind wanting to keep the brush cut back. I thought this stump, cause by two young alders growing together, looked like the face of an owl.

I had the face of this barred owl to compare the stump to. A few years ago I met a barred owl sitting in the middle of a trail. It just sat there, staring directly into my eyes while I walked to within 5 feet of it. I stood for several minutes, feeling as if I was being drawn into those big brown eyes that were much like my own, until I finally turned and left. The last time I saw that owl it still sat on the ground, which is a very odd thing for an owl to be doing. It was a strange experience and seeing this owl reminded me of it. This owl was much bigger than that one but sat quietly in the same way, letting me take as many photos as I wanted. The photos would have been much better had it been a sunny day but you can’t have everything, and being able to look into the eyes of an owl should be enough.

If you’d like to see what it’s like to stare into the eyes of an owl, look at the beautiful photo of a saw-whet owl that Montucky recently posted on his blog. You can see it by clicking on the word HERE. Its eyes are yellow instead of brown like a barred owl, but the effect is the same.

Just a note: This post is the first I’ve done on my new computer and I’m having trouble getting photos to look right on the new monitor, so if things look a little stranger than usual that might be why. It’s a nice big monitor that’s easy to see but it’s also very bright so photos look like they were overexposed. I hope you’ll bear with me.

I am grateful for the magic, mystery and majesty of nature – my loyal friend and companion – always there, welcoming and waiting for me to come; to be healed. ~Tom North

Thanks for coming by.

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