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Posts Tagged ‘White Pine’

In 1889 George A. Wheelock sold a piece of land known as the Children’s Wood to the City of Keene for a total of one dollar. This area was eventually combined with an additional parcel of land purchased from Wheelock, known as Robin Hood Forest, to form Robin Hood Park. It’s a 110-acre park located in the northeastern corner of Keene and it is a place that has been enjoyed by children of all ages ever since. I decided to go there last weekend because it had been quite a while last time I had been there. On this day the pond surface was so calm it was a mirror, showing me twice the beauty.

In March I come here to see the coltsfoot that grow along the shoreline and in July I come to see the pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata) that grows just off the shoreline. Who needs a calendar? Or a clock for that matter; it’s the same here now as it was 50 years ago. Native Americans washed and boiled the young leaves and shoots of pickerel weed and used them as pot herbs. They also ground the seeds into grain. The plant can form huge colonies in places and it gets its name from the pickerel fish, which is thought to hide among its underwater stems.

Meadowsweet (Spirea alba) also grows along the shoreline, along with many other plants. In fact if I listed all the plants that grew here the list would be very long indeed. For a nature nut coming here is like visiting paradise. There are interesting things to see no matter where you look.

I once worked in a building that had outside lights on all night and in the morning when I got there the pavement would be littered with moth wings of all shapes and sizes. The wings were all the bats left after they ate the moths, I guessed. On this day I saw many wings floating on the surface of the pond. This was the prettiest. Bats eat many insects during the night, including mosquitoes and biting flies.

A frog meditated on an old plank. This told me that there were probably no great blue herons here this day. I see them here fairly regularly though, along with cormorants, and one winter there was an otter living in the pond.

There were many dragonflies here on this day, flying up out of the tall grass by the pond. I think this one is a widow skimmer but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

There is a trail that follows all the way around the pond but it gets rocky in places and there are lots of tree roots to trip over, so you have to watch your step. The trail wasn’t as empty as this photo makes it seem; I saw a few people walking. Some were fishing, some were sitting on benches and some, the littlest ones, were running and laughing, bursting with joy.

In two places seeps cross the trail. This one looked like a beautiful stream of molten sunshine. Hydrologically speaking a seep is a wet place where water reaches the surface from an underground aquifer and this one stays just like this winter and summer. It never freezes solid and it never dries out.  

I saw many broken trees here. This red maple must have just fallen because its leaves weren’t wilted yet. The woodpecker hole tells the story; most likely the tree is full of insects and, if it had stood, it would probably have had fungi growing on it as well. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes fungi to appear on what’s left after it’s cut down.

A young white pine grew in the arms of a much older tree. Some of these pines can be hundreds of years old.

An older white pine has very thick, platy and colorful bark. But these are very common trees in these parts and I think few people notice.

Robin Hood park is a great place to find mushrooms and slime molds and with our recent rains I thought I might find a fungal bonanza but no, this was one of only two I saw and it was in sad shape.

By far the biggest mushroom that I’ve ever seen is Berkeley’s polypore (Bondarzewia berkeleyi.) This example was easily 2 feet across at its widest point. They grow at the base of hardwoods in the east and in the west a similar example, Bondarzewia montana, grows at the base of conifers. It causes butt rot in the tree’s heartwood. The wood turns white before rotting away and leaving a standing hollow tree.

Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are white and ghostly and grow in the dark places in the forest but they aren’t fungi. They can get away with doing that because they don’t photosynthesize, but they do have flowers and when the flowers are pollinated they stand straight up toward the sky.

This is what the flowers look like once they’re pollinated. The seeds are fine like dust and I think the flower standing up straight must have something to do with rain being able to splash the seeds out of the capsule. Many plants and mosses use the same strategy for seed and spore dispersal. Fresh Indian pipe plants contain a gel that Native Americans used to treat eye problems, and the common name comes from the plant’s resemblance to the pipes they smoked.

This might not look like much but it is a rare sight. American chestnuts were one of the most important forest trees, supplying both food and lumber. An Asian bark fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) was introduced into North America on imported Asiatic chestnut trees and the disease all but wiped out over three billion American chestnut trees. New shoots often sprout from chestnut roots when the main trunk dies so they haven’t yet become extinct. I’ve seen photos of the trees blossoming on other blogs but I’ve never seen it in person. Unfortunately the stump sprouts are almost always infected by the Asian fungus by the time they reach 20 feet tall but since some trees do bloom maybe these particular examples are growing from chestnuts. Many botanists and other scientists are working on finding and breeding disease resistant trees. This forest must have once been full of them because I’ve found three or four young trees growing here. Though the leaves resemble beech leaves they are much bigger with very serrated margins.

This tiny fern would easily fit in a teacup. It has been growing in a crack in this boulder for years, never getting any bigger. It gets a gold star for fortitude.

Something I’ve never been able to explain is the zig zag scar on this tree. I’ve shown it here before and blog readers have kicked around several ideas including lightning, but none seem to really fit. The scar is deep and starts about 5 feet up the trunk from the soil line. If it were a lightning scar I would think that it would travel from the top of the tree into the soil. I happened upon a large white pine tree once that had been hit by lightning very recently and it had a perfectly straight scar from its top, down a root, and into the soil. The bark had been blown off all the way along it. This tree shows none of that.

There are lots of stones here, some huge, but this one always catches my eye because it has a spear of either quartz or feldspar in it. I think, if I remember my geology correctly, that it would be called an intrusion or vein. Granite itself is considered an intrusive igneous rock.

For over half a century I have visited this place. I learned how to ice skate here and swam in the pool and fished in the pond. I listened to band concerts and camped in the woods and now I walk the trails and sit on the benches. It’s a peaceful place full of life and since the 1800s generations of children have come here to play and enjoy nature and many like myself have never really left. Time means little in such a place and this day might have been any of the other days I’ve spent here in the last 50+ years. I’ve done and seen much here but now I think I come here more for the serenity than anything else. I hope all of you have a place like this to go but it doesn’t matter if you don’t; bliss is a fruit always ready to be harvested, no matter where we happen to be.

When was the last time you spent a quiet moment just doing nothing – just sitting and looking at the sea, or watching the wind blowing the tree limbs, or waves rippling on a pond, a flickering candle or children playing in the park? ~Ralph Marston

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If you’ve spent much time in the woods you know that there is an incredible amount of stuff falling from the trees. What is it? It is made up of everything from the lichens and mosses that perch on the trunks and branches to the trunks and branches themselves. Where does it all go? Thankfully the decomposers clean all of it up. If it weren’t for them we’d be up to our noses in forest litter. Bears, woodpeckers and other animals shred larger logs into smaller pieces and then the termites and ants make the pieces even smaller. Bacteria, slugs, snails, worms, centipedes, microbes and many insects all have their shot at cleaning up the forest and then there are the fungi and slime molds. Between them all they can clean up a forest floor in a surprisingly short time, but since there is always more falling, their work is never done and their menu never exhausted.

This is a common sight in this region. These little scales are what’s left of a white pine (Pinus strobus) cone after a squirrel has eaten all the seeds from it. Each scale has two reddish-brown winged seeds and they’re a favorite of gray squirrels. Pine cones can close their scales to protect the seeds from the cold and animals but squirrels have figured that out. Native Americans also ate these seeds, which are said to be sweet and nutritious.

The amount of cones a tree will produce varies from year to year but every now and then we’ll have a mast year and what seems like billions of cones will fall. That happened a couple of years ago and the squirrel population seemed to explode. I’ve read that cone production peaks every 3 to 5 years but it seems longer than that. In any event, thanks to the squirrels pine cones disappear quickly.

White pine needles are 3 to 5 inches long, bluish green on top and whitish underneath and grow in bundles of 5. They are pointed, soft and flexible and the tree sheds them every 2 years. In the fall they’ll turn brown and fall off but this doesn’t hurt the tree like some people fear. A mature white pine can be 250 or more years old and each one drops an incredible amount of material each year. There is nothing better to build a camp fire with than fallen white pine limbs. A fire built with them will be hot and will burn down quickly. They are also the tallest trees in eastern North America; the tallest trees living are just under 200 feet tall.

I’m guessing that this piece of wood was hacked out of a tree by a pileated woodpecker. I’ve seen these birds cut standing, rotten trees right in half and have seen large piles of wood chips many times at the base of various trees.

This wood was soft and rotted, and I think fungi had been having their way with the tree it came from. Of course if woodpeckers were after it the tree was also full of insects. I’ve cut down trees and found them full of carpenter ants, which make tunnels all through the tree like termites.

I must see hundreds of fallen branches each week but I don’t see many from the poplar family like this one. Poplar trees (Populus) are in the willow family and their opening buds remind me of giant spring pussy willows. North American poplars are divided into three main groups: the cottonwoods, the aspens, and the balsam poplars. If the buds aren’t sticky then the tree belongs in the aspen group. These weren’t. Aspen buds begin to swell during the first warm period in spring, when minimum temperatures are still below freezing. Air temperature rather than day length determines when their buds will break, so it can vary from year to year.

The flat seed pods of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) are a common sight in winter. These dark brown pods stay attached to the tree and their color lightens during the winter. Finally as spring nears they begin to fall and, though they are light and can be blown long distances, many can be found under the tree on top of the snow, as this photo shows.

The tiny brown seeds of a black locust look like miniature beans and that’s because they are in the same family. Their coating is very tough and they can remain viable for many years. They’re also very toxic and should never be eaten.

Eastern or Canada hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) are messy trees that shed their smaller branches, needles, and cones all winter long but they provide plenty of seeds for the smaller birds like black capped chickadees. The 1/2 inch long eastern hemlock cones are among the smallest of all the trees in the pine family but the trees usually produce so many of them that the ground is completely covered in the spring. The needles and twigs of hemlocks are ground and distilled and the oil is used in ointments, so the next time an ointment helps your sore muscles, thank a hemlock.

The white stripes on the undersides of the flat hemlock needles come from four rows of breathing pores (stomata) which are far too small to be seen without extreme magnification. The stripes make the tree very easy to identify. They look like racing stripes.

Arbor vitae (Thuja occidentalis) is another messy evergreen that sheds small branches by the cartload some years but they provide great cover for birds and I usually have at least one family of robins living in the ones in my yard.

The tiny leaves of arborvitae are flat and scale like. Arborvitaes are in the cedar family and are used extensively in commercial landscaping. The Native American Ojibwe tribe thought the trees were sacred because of their many uses, and maybe they were. They showed 16th century French explorer Jacques Cartier how to cure scurvy with its leaves and bark, and he was so impressed that he named it Arborvitae, which is Latin for Tree of Life. He had trees with him when he returned to Europe, and that’s how Thuja occidentalis became the first North American tree to be introduced there.

The stiff, woody seed pods of arborvitae look like tiny carved wooden flowers. robins, common redpolls, pine siskins, and dark-eyed juncos eat the seeds. Many small birds use the trees to hide in.

Sometimes what falls out of the trees onto the snow is more snow, and sometimes it falls by the bucket load. All of the holes you see here were made by falling snow.

Of course leaves fall from trees but some trees like oak, hang onto many of theirs throughout winter. In the fall shortening day length tells most deciduous trees that it’s time to stop growing, so the tree forms a layer of waxy, corky cells at the base of each leaf. This is called an abscission layer, and it slows and finally stops the flow of sap to the leaf. Once the sap stops flowing to the leaves they lose chlorophyll and the reds, yellows and oranges that the green chlorophyll was hiding finally become visible.

In some trees like oak (Quercus), beech (Fagus), and hornbeam (Carpinus) , this abscission layer forms much later, so even though the leaves might freeze dead and turn completely brown they still cling to the branches. Pin oaks (Quercus palustris) don’t form an abscission layer until spring, so their leaves stay on the tree all winter. This retention of dead leaves is known as marcescence.

Beech is another hanger on. What oak and beech leaves tell me is when spring is near. When I see them falling in large numbers in March I know that the new buds are taking up sap and swelling. Nobody really seems to know for certain why trees retain dead leaves but some believe that one reason might be to ward off foraging moose, deer and other animals. Animals will eat the bud bearing twigs from the lower parts of older trees and from nearly all parts of younger trees. One theory says that they don’t like the taste or texture of the dead leaves so they stay away from the trees, which means the buds stay safe and can grow on.

It’s very common to be walking through the woods and find twigs and branches with large, leafy (Foliose) lichens like the one pictured growing on them. These lichens can be difficult to identify because they change color drastically when they dry out. I think this one is in the Tuckermannopsis group, but I can’t pin down the species.  They’re very pretty and easy to see and I often find them on birch and white pine branches. This family of lichens is probably the one I see having fallen from trees more than any other.

The second most common lichen I see falling from trees is the beard lichen. Though this example was small they can get quite large. Bristly beard lichen (Usnea hirta) like this one is often found on the ground after a wind or rain storm. Many lichens like sunlight and grow in the tops of trees where there is less shade from the leaves. Native Americans used lichens medicinally for thousands of years and lichens in the Usnea group were described in the first Chinese herbal, written about 500 AD. Today scientists estimate that about 50% of all lichen species have antibiotic properties.

We keep seeing things all our life, yet seldom do we notice them. ~Avijeet Das

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Stone walls, it is said by author Robert Thorson, are much easier to explore in January when the leaves are off the trees and bushes. “Like a negative to a photograph,” he says, “walls are most visible when life is most invisible.” I agree, and that’s why I do these stone wall posts in winter. But as you can see by the above photo, this post was made even easier by the lack of snow. Not only did a January thaw melt it all but the huge old pine trees overhead keep much of the snow off this particular wall, even in mid-winter.

Unusual about this spot are the parallel double walls with a space big enough between them for a horse drawn wagon or a cow herd to pass through with ease. None of the trees seen here would have been here when the wall was young. Tree seeds fell into or very near stone walls and grew and few people ever did anything about it.

I’m guessing that there were animals involved in the path through the double walls because holes were drilled into stones and steel rods inserted into them to increase the wall height by about a foot and a half. 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 since the mid-1700s.

Each steel rod has a flattened tip with a hole in it. The hole most likely had wire passed through it. This would have all been done by the local blacksmith.

If wire was passed through the hole in the rod it could have been used to hold up barbed wire. Barbed wire would have been used to keep animals from jumping the wall and it can be found strung all along it.

You can occasionally find cut stones on this wall. I think this rectangular example is a granite fence post that broke off at ground level and was thrown on top of the wall to get it out of the way. 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 and boy, did famers get rid of them. In 1872 there were an estimated 270,000 miles of stone walls in New England.

Rock greenshield lichens (Flavoparmelia baltimorensis) look like melted candle wax to me. They 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.

In the story books of my childhood the stones in stone walls were all colors including blue, orange and yellow, so I knew right off that whoever wrote the books had never seen anything built of stone because, as everybody knew, stones were gray. As I grew older and started paying closer attention to the world around me I realized once again that I didn’t know what I was talking about because, as whoever illustrated those books knew, stones could indeed come in many colors. Usually in this area only the oldest stone walls are colored in this way, and of course what grows on them depends on exposure, so they may not be as wonderfully colorful as this one.

The yellow color in the previous photo comes from sulfur dust lichen (Chrysothrix chlorina.) It’s a very soft, pale yellow and hides under overhangs so it doesn’t get rained on. At least I think that’s why I always find it tucked away like this, but this is odd behavior for a lichen because they usually like a lot of rain and sunshine.

The white on this tree is caused by a lichen called, appropriately enough, whitewash lichen (Phlyctis argena.) This lichen is usually found on the bark of hardwood trees and is fairly common. It makes the tree look as if it has been painted white, and that’s where its common name comes from. They can be greenish white, silvery, or bright white as this one is.

I saw a stone with a forest of pixie cup lichens (Cladonia asahinae) on it. 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.

I saw some pixie cup shapes that were unusual; the one on the left is a double one, with two cups grown together. The one on the right has one cup growing out of another. I don’t know if this is common behavior or not but I haven’t ever seen it.

Here was a large stone covered by a carpet of Hedwigia ciliata moss. This moss is common and is also called white tipped moss.

The white leaf tips drawn out to long, fine points help confirm the identity of Hedwigia ciliata moss. It’s one of those mosses that you almost have to run your hand over.

Because it’s so warm near stone walls in the winter many plants like this mullein (Verbascum thapsus)  like to grow along them. 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.

Bristly or swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) is a trailing vine blooms with white flowers that look a lot like strawberry flowers. The fruit looks more like a black raspberry than anything else and is said to be very sour. Its leaves usually live under the snow all winter but these exposed examples were beautifully colored purple. It is thought that staying green through the winter lets evergreen plants begin photosynthesizing earlier in the spring so they get a head start over the competition, and this plant certainly seems to benefit from it. Swamp dewberry looks like a vine but is actually considered a shrub. It likes wet places and is a good indicator of wetlands, but I’ve seen it growing in dry waste areas many times. It’s also called bristly blackberry because its stem is very prickly.

It was no surprise to find the European Vinca (Vinca minor) growing in the wall, because in the 1800s Vinca was a plant given by one neighbor to another along with lilacs and peonies, and I’ve seen all three still blooming beautifully off in the middle of nowhere. They grow thickly together and sometimes form an impenetrable mat that other plants can’t grow through. It has been here long enough to have erased any memories of it having once crossed the Atlantic on the deck of a wooden ship, and people like it. Another name for it is Myrtle.

The beautiful blue of first year black raspberry canes (Rubus occidentalis) is always a welcome sight in the winter. The blue color is caused by the way light is reflected off the powdery, waxy white crystals that cover the canes. The crystals are there to protect the young canes from moisture loss and sunburn and many other plants including blueberries, plums, grapes and blue stemmed goldenrod also use the same strategy. The color is often like that of a blue jay.

There are some very old white pine trees (Pinus strobus) here. I’d guess this one had to be approaching 300 years old. It was huge and had deeply furrowed bark. Sometimes I lay my hands against great trees like this one to feel their power. The power of creation just seems to hum through them like an engine.

My grandfather was the town blacksmith for years in Westmoreland, New Hampshire and the old wrought iron hardware I sometimes find in stone walls always makes me think of him. A blacksmith might make a dollar a day in the early 1800s but very little cash changed hands in colonial America, so he most likely would have been paid in food, charcoal for the forge, lumber, or something else he needed. I’d guess my grandfather made more than a colonial blacksmith, but probably not by much. The ring seen here most likely held a chain.

Since history and botany are my favorite subjects it all comes together for me here, and on the historical side of things 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. He didn’t have to make such a utilitarian object as beautiful as a dragon’s tail, but he did. It’s a beautiful thing which, if I owned it, would be considered a work of art.

Stones are all about time—time to find them, to move them, to place them, and time, occasionally, to chisel and shape them. And above all, time to see them, experience them, and fall under their spell. ~Charles McRaven

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Back pain led me to look for an easy place to walk, so I chose a familiar rail trail that I knew wouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Since I fell out of a tree and suffered a double fracture to my spine when I was a boy, back pain has been an old “friend” for most of my life. Usually it really isn’t that much of a problem but every now and then it becomes an issue, and I’ve found that the best cure for it is to simply walk it off.

It was a beautiful blue sky day with temperatures just above freezing, so walking was just what the doctor ordered. Actually in my experience the doctor will order you to go home and stay in bed for a week if you complain of back pain, but I’ve found that is the worst thing I can do. Keeping moving; that’s my cure.

I saw a log with some very strange looking branch collars on it. It was some type of evergreen, possibly spruce, but I’m not sure. 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 here, the tree leaves it behind naturally.

Private suburban land abuts this section of trail along parts of its length and over the years the homeowners have planted numerous nonnative trees and shrubs, trying to screen their yards from the trail that cuts through them. A homeowner who lived along the rail trail had long ago planted a privet hedge and then never trimmed it so the hedge grew to about ten feet tall, and it was covered with berries that the birds weren’t eating. That’s a good thing because privet is considered invasive.

Evidence of the ice storm I wrote about in my last post was still seen over a week later, sparkling in the sun.

An Oriental bittersweet vine (Celastrus orbiculatus) decided it would try to strangle a large white pine tree. If the tree lives another 50 years or so the bittersweet will most likely win and the tree will die, because these vines are like steel cables. They strangle many native trees by wrapping themselves around the tree’s trunk like a boa constrictor. I’ve seen vines as big as my arm wrapped tightly around trees so as the trees grew they had no room to expand and slowly died. 

Sometimes they even try to strangle each other.

The bittersweet berries are quite pretty but unfortunately they’re also quite tasty to birds, and of course that’s why they’re so successful at spreading throughout the countryside, and why they grow near trees and fences.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years of doing this blog is how windstorms are becoming more numerous and more severe, and I saw evidence of it everywhere out here. Though it’s hard to tell from a photo this pine tree was the diameter of a car tire and it snapped like a toothpick.

The pine tree wasn’t the only tree that had fallen. Downed trees were everywhere.

I saw a child’s footprint frozen into the ice.

Then I saw a lot more children’s footprints leading off the rail trail into the woods. It seemed I had stumbled onto the trail to a secret hideout off in the woods. It wouldn’t be secret for long though, with all those tracks coming and going. I was tempted to follow the prints but I thought about how I would have felt if an adult had appeared at my secret hideout, so I kept going down the main trail.  

They had marked their secret trail with a broken concrete base to an old birdbath. How in the world did they get that out here, I wondered. It must weigh 50 pounds.

The secret hideout was on Yale Forest land, which borders part of the trail. This sign marking the forest is slowly being eaten by a tree.

These oak leaves shining in the sunshine were beautiful, I thought.

This oak was full of galls. There are horned oak galls, gouty oak galls, artichoke oak galls, potato oak galls, and oak marble galls. The photo above is of marble galls and they really are about the size of a marble. These marble galls are usually near perfect spheres. Some galls form on the undersides of leaves, some on the tree’s roots and others, like the one shown, on the twigs and stems. All are caused by different wasps or mites which will only lay their eggs on the leaves, roots, or twigs of their favorite species of oak tree. Iron sulfate mixed with tannic acid from oak galls made ink that was the standard writing and drawing ink from the 12th century until well into the 20th century. Some still use it today.

I’m not sure what happened here but this oak gall was seriously misshapen.

My back felt much better by the time I reached the trestle but it didn’t last so I’m still trying to walk it off as of this writing. It takes longer to straighten it out as I get older, but it will happen.

Every time I see the Ashuelot River from one of these old trestles I’m very happy that I didn’t have to bushwhack my way through the woods to see it. We’re very lucky to have these trails.

When I was a boy I walked the railroad tracks to get to my grandmother’s house but before I got there I had to cross a street. This was the same street crossing that, twice a day, the big diesel Boston and Maine locomotives would slow for. Before they crossed they would blow their horns to warn the cars on the street, and you could hear those horns from either my or my grandmother’s house, so I heard them twice a day everyday while I was growing up. Knowing all that you would think I would know what the W on this post stood for but it has taken me years to learn that it simply means “Whistle,” as in “blow your whistle because there’s a road crossing up ahead.” Two longs blasts followed by a short blast and a final long blast of the train’s whistle or horn is a Federal law and every train crossing a road has to abide by it to warn passing traffic. These days you’re more likely to see a flashing light or some type of barrier, but back then I could tell time by the horns on those trains.

These trains are just like the ones that rumbled by (and shook) my house for so many years. Once the trains stopped running it was very hard to see them tearing up all the tracks in this area, and it took several years before I could walk the rail trails left behind. Though I’m very thankful that we have the rail trails, seeing photos like this one is like seeing a photo of an old friend who has died. They roll by only in dreams now, hauling boxcars full of memories.

Human history and natural history are visible from trails. The old railroad routes through a town can show a lot about how the town developed, what it was like long ago. When you go through a town by bicycle on an old railroad route, the place looks very different than from the customary perspective of the car and the highway. ~Peter Harnick

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The days have lengthened enough now so I can once again get outside after work and that’s always a relief. Having to take enough photos on a weekend for two blog posts can be a challenge, especially when it rains or snows on one of those weekend days. It gets dark at about 5:30 pm now and that means an hour or so to get into the woods. Not much time, but when you live in the woods you don’t have to go far. On this day I chose a bit of woodland near my house that has an old dirt road running through it.

The sun was low and the light was just right to show you the shiny ice that covers the snow. This ice makes breaking a trail through the snow difficult, at best. I can remember how hard it was even at 10 years old.

But someone had driven down this old road with a 4 wheeler or something and that broke the icy crust and packed down the snow, so walking here was a breeze.

A young white pine (Pinus strobus) had fallen across the road and someone had come along and cut it up. We’ve lost a lot of trees to the wind this year but most were dead or dying. This looked like a healthy young tree.

There is a small stream out here that feeds into a large swampy wetland. I was surprised to see it so free of ice.

It was obvious that a large flock of turkeys had been through here. Turkeys are very active in winter and I see them everywhere, but I always seem to be driving at the time so getting photos has proven harder than it should be.

Turkeys have big feet that they use to scratch up forest litter with as they look for food. They’ll get under a stand of evergreens where the snow is thin and scratch up large areas looking for acorns, beech nuts, grapes, or berries they’ve missed on previous hunts. When spring comes they’ll eat buds, fresh grasses, roots, and new leaves. In summer they’ll eat a lot of insects, including ticks.

Mosses look so delicate but they’re very tough and will weather the ice and snow like it wasn’t even there. This is one of my favorite mosses. I like the way its fingers reach out to find new spaces to grow in.

Though there may be snow everywhere you look winter can actually be a very dry season, and this moss was so dry it’s hard to tell what it is but I think it might be brocade moss (Hypnum imponens.) Brocade moss is often very shiny and can have an orange brown color. Its common name comes from the way it looks as if it has been embroidered on whatever it grows on.

As I stopped to take photos I could hear a pine tree creaking as a breeze blew it gently back and forth. It was easy to believe that the sound would be the same on the deck of a wooden ship but it would be the mast creaking there, rather than the tree that it was made from. When this land was first colonized tall, straight pines were prized by the Royal Navy, and cutting any tree marked with the King’s broad arrow mark meant certain death. The trees became known as mast trees and the practice of the King taking the best trees led to the Pine Tree Riot in 1772. In an open act of rebellion colonists cut down and hauled off many marked mast pines in what was just a taste of what would come later in the American Revolution.

I stopped to admire the structure of a beech branch that stood out so well against the snow. Each twig is placed perfectly so one leaf doesn’t block the sunlight reaching another.

A golden puddle on the road told me the sun was quickly getting lower in the sky. This time between day and night is when the night creatures take over. I know this area well and I’ve seen some big bears near here but, though I’ve seen skunks coming out of hibernation already I doubt the bears are awake yet. It won’t be long though.

The old road leads to and around a large swamp. The breeze blew stronger here in this big open space but it was still fairly warm for February. It’s easy to imagine voices on the winds in such a place, whispering softly. For me it’s a peaceful, comforting sound but sometimes it can be a lonely one. I’ve heard that the wind drove early settlers on the Great Plains to madness but I think it was the loneliness more than the wind. It was the voices on the wind, sometimes whispering and sometimes howling, that told them how alone they really were. With a phone in my pocket I could talk to anyone anywhere at any time but they could not. Marty Rubin once said solitude is where one discovers one is not alone, but solitude is experienced differently by different people. For me it is simply a part of who I am and it brings me great joy, but I can understand how it might seem like a burden to others.

The southwest side of this sugar maple had sunscald, which is very different than frost cracking. Sunscald happens when southwest facing bark freezes at night after high daytime temperatures. Direct sunlight or sunlight reflecting off the snow can heat the bark during the day and bring it out of dormancy, and then when it freezes at night the active tissues are killed, resulting in the kind of wound seen here. Cracking and peeling bark is a sure sign of what is also called southwest disease. If this were a frost crack the crack in the bark would be absolutely vertical. This one curves like a snake and the dead bark around it covers a large area.

I’ve never seen witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) blossoming out here but here was a large shrub with the telltale cup like bracts on it. It even had the petals still coming out of the bracts but they were still there from last fall and were frozen. Native witch hazels can bloom on a warm day in January but I’ve never seen one blooming this late. The spring blooming vernal witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) will be starting to bloom any time now.

Indian pipes (Monotropa uniflora) are white and ghostly and grow in the dark places in the forest. They can get away with doing that because they don’t photosynthesize, but they do have flowers and when the flowers are pollinated they stand straight up from the shepherd’s crook shape seen here. This tells me that the flower seen here either wasn’t pollinated or didn’t see any need to stand up straight like all of its cousins. The seeds are fine like dust and I think the flower standing up straight must have something to do with rain being able to splash the seeds out of the capsule. Many plants and mosses use the same strategy for seed dispersal. Fresh Indian pipe plants contain a gel that Native Americans used to treat eye problems, and the common name comes from the pipes they smoked.

This is what the stained glass looks like in the cathedrals I visit.

I followed my own footprints back down the old road and saw how they meandered from this side of the road to that; a puddle of footprints where I stopped to admire something. This is how it should be for one who studies nature; meander like a toddler and be interested in everything. You see all the small, hidden jewels of the forest that way.

And find joy in the beautiful, simple things that make you smile, like a stream of molten gold weaving its way through a forest.

All this beauty, all this wonder, is right there in my back yard, and it’s in yours as well. I hope you’ll have a chance to get out and see it.

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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We’re having a very strange winter here, with roller coaster temperatures falling to -10 degrees F one day and soaring to 60 degrees the next. In between we’ve seen more rain than snow and all that rain has frozen into ice, because it can’t seep into the frozen ground. I took this view of the Ashuelot River in Swanzey in one of the colder stretches. Now, a week later there is no white to be seen in this view.

A week ago there were ice skirts around the stones and now there are none.

An icicle had formed in a tree, which is a sight you don’t often see.

I had to catch a wave while I was at the river. When the sun is right they have such beautiful colors in them.

Frost figures danced across my windows one morning.

If you want to strike fear into the heart of any New Englander just tell them an ice storm is on the way. We’ve seen two so far this winter but they haven’t been bad enough to bring down trees and cause power outages. I’ve seen friends have to go for weeks with no power due to an ice storm in the past.

In an ice storm liquid rain falls on cold surfaces and ice coats everything. The added weight starts to damage trees like this birch and they begin to lose branches or fall over, bringing power lines down with them.

The more surface area exposed on the tree, the more weight the ice has. White pines (Pinus strobus) are particularly at risk of losing large limbs in an ice storm.

In spite of the crazy weather or maybe because of it, we’re having some beautiful sunrises.

I thought I saw some yellow on these male speckled alder catkins (Alnus incana) but that might be wishful thinking. Yellow or green would be pollen and pollen would mean they were flowering, and it’s too early for that. They’ll open in late March or early April after the maple sap has all been gathered, and then for a short time the bushes will look like someone has strung gold and purple jewels from the alder branches.

A bird’s nest fell off an outdoor building light where I work. It wasn’t very big but it was soft like a cushion, made mostly of mosses and grasses. It also had lichens and a few twigs in it. I think it was the nest of an eastern phoebe, which is a small gray bird about half the size of our robin. They nest all over the buildings where I work, but they don’t seem to be very smart because they will often fly into buildings when a door is opened. Chasing them out again can be a chore and it has taken two of us over an hour in the past. If you leave a door or window open and walk away they still can’t seem to find their way out again.

There was a lot of moss in the nest and it was easily the softest bird’s nest I’ve ever felt. I’ve read that eastern phoebes will take over the nests of swallows or robins but I don’t think this nest was built by either of those birds. They also re-use nests year after year, but this bird will have to re-build.

I think a lot of the moss used in the phoebe nest was white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata.) This is a very common moss that I find mostly growing on stones in sunny spots. It would be a very easy moss for birds to harvest.

I’ve seen lots of galls picked open by woodpeckers and other birds but I don’t see too many oak marble galls opened. I was surprised at the thickness of the walls on this one. There would be plenty to eat all winter long for the gall wasp (Andricus kollari) larva had it survived the bird.

I saw a milkweed pod where I didn’t know they grew and of course I immediately thought of coming back in summer to hopefully see some monarch butterflies. I’ve seen more each year for the last three or so, but that doesn’t mean whole flocks of them. I think I saw 6 or 7 last year.

The birds and animals didn’t get to eat all the river grapes (Vitis riparia) this year and now the ones that are left look more like raisins than anything else. I was surprised to see them because they usually go as fast as they ripen. It could be that the birds simply had enough to go around; we do have a lot of wild fruits. River grapes are known for their ability to withstand cold and have been known to survive -57 degrees F. That makes them a favorite choice for the rootstock of many well-known grape varieties. We have about 20 native species of wild grape in the U.S. and Native Americans used them all. The fruit is usually too acidic to eat from the vine so they mostly made juice and jelly from them. They were also used to dye baskets a violet gray color.

An oak leaf skittered across the snow as if it had feet. More and more oak and beech leaves are falling, signaling spring isn’t far off. I hope.

You could almost believe you were feeling the warm breath of spring when two days of 60 degree weather turned the top layer of ice on Half Moon pond in Hancock to water. Ice fishermen are having a hard time of it this year because we haven’t had a lengthy spell of really cold weather to thicken the ice.

Since we’ve had some warm days and since the groundhog said we’d have an early spring, I went looking for signs. The ice was melting around the skunk cabbage shoots but I didn’t see any of the splotchy, yellow and maroon flower spathes. They are our earliest flowers so it shouldn’t be too long before they appear. Shortly after they flower the spring blooming vernal witch hazels will start in.

You might think that seeing daffodil shoots would be a sure sign of spring but these bulbs grow in a raised bed and raised beds warm and thaw earlier, so these bulbs start growing earlier. But I’ve never seen them this early and I’m sure they are being fooled by the few days of unusual warmth. They often come up too early and get bitten by the cold, which turns their leaves to mush. I’m guessing the same will happen this year but I hope not.

When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest.
~Earnest Hemmingway

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We still haven’t seen much snow and the temperature would average out at about 35 degrees, I’d guess, so winter has been easy so far and that means easy hikes as well. Last Saturday I decided to go and see if the Ashuelot River had any ice on it out in the woods where nobody can see it, and to get there I had to use this rail trail.

White cushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum) lived up to its name with its perfect pin cushion shape. This moss gets its common name from the way its color lightens when it dries out. It often is a good example of how dry winter can be.

I saw a mushroom that looked like it had been painted by van Gogh. It was a beautiful thing; a painting and a poem, and was more beautiful in death than it would have been in life.

A tree decided to eat the small sign that had been tacked to it. As it grows the tree will grow out around it and finally engulf it so it can’t be seen. Many things are found in trees when they are cut down, including screws and nails, signs, pipes, fencing, cannonballs, bullets, beer bottles, hammers, handsaws, horse shoes, chains, ropes, stones, and one arborist even found a Chevy Corvette rim. Trees will grow around just about anything, and this doesn’t bode well for the wood cutter.

This sign was for the Yale Forest, which borders this trail. How it got into the tree in this way is a mystery, but I saw two or three of them doing the same thing.

Hard little oak marble galls had grown on a small oak. These are formed when a gall wasp called Andricus kollari lays its eggs inside a leaf bud. The plant reacts by forming these small spherical galls.

The wasp larvae live and grow in the gall by eating the plant tissue, but in this case they didn’t have a chance. A bird pecked its way into each gall and ate the insects.

The hard little wood-like seed pods of Indian pipes stood here and there along the way. Interesting in this grouping was how some of the seed heads pointed towards the ground. The stems usually become erect and point the flowers toward the sky once they have been pollinated.

This is how an Indian pipe seed head usually looks at this time of year. They look like little carved wooden flowers and when their seams begin to split open it is a signal that the seeds have ripened. The pods split open to reveal 5 separate chambers full of dust like seeds which will be taken by the wind. Each individual seed is just about microscopic at only 10 cells thick.

Blowdowns throughout our forests tell of the strong winds we had last summer. We lost many trees, and many houses, cars, and outbuilding as well when the trees fell on them.

Wood pulp where its heartwood would have been showed in one white pine that had been twisted off its stump by the wind. It was a huge old tree that was all but hollow. Carpenter ants had turned its insides to dust. It’s amazing how many trees there are just like this one, still standing and waiting for a strong wind to knock them down.

What looked like white animal hair was tangled on a bramble and quivered in the slight breeze. It might have been from a skunk or a dog. Lots of people walk their dogs here but skunks should be hibernating by now.

I think the bramble was a rose, possibly the invasive multiflora rose, but if so it was a young example. I can’t account for the two tiny black beads of liquid at the base of the bud.

An animal sampled this birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina) and apparently didn’t find it very tasty. They’re said to smell like green apples and I wonder if they taste the same. This common fungus is also called razor strop fungus because of its ability to sharpen knives when it dries out. It has also been used medicinally for thousands of years due to its antiseptic, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. It also contains betulinic acid, which has shown promise in cancer research.

I love these old trestles out here in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been playing on them since I was a young boy so they come with many great memories.

This is the last trestle I know of with its tell tales still in place. These are pencil size pieces of soft wire that hang down low enough to hit the head of anyone standing on top of a freight car. They would warn the person, or “tell the tale” of an upcoming trestle. I walked from the trestle to this one in under a minute, so whoever was on top of the train wouldn’t have had much time to duck before they’d hit the trestle, and that would have been too bad. Tell tales used to hang on each end of every trestle in the area, but this is the last one I know of.

I saw a few small bits of ice along the trail in shaded spots but there wasn’t any on the river. This is an unusual scene for January but it speaks of the mild temperatures we’ve seen so far. As I write this on New Year ’s Day at 11:00 am the sun is shining and it is already 37 degrees F, with an expected high today of 47. I might have to stop writing and get outside.

The high water mark on the river’s flanks showed the water had dropped what looked to be 5-6 feet. You can see the fine white silt the river deposited near the high water mark.

Pine bark beetles had penned abstract calligraphy on a fallen limb. Shallow channels like these are made by the female beetles and the males make much deeper channels. It’s all about having chambers to deposit eggs in and when the eggs hatch even more chambers are made.

The sun had lowered by the time I had turned around and it cast a golden light on the trail ahead.

The sun was also caught in the little bluestem grass across the way. It made the grass even more beautiful than it usually is. It, combined with all of the other interesting things I saw, made this walk very enjoyable.

In the winter, the world gets sharp. Beautiful things happen. Peter Fiore

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Actually stone walls can talk, but you have to speak their language to be able to decipher what they’re saying. Having built a few myself this one was relatively easy to understand. It told me that its builder didn’t have time for tight joint stone masonry and in any case most likely didn’t know how to build with stone anyway. He needed a field to plant crops in so he and his family could survive and these stones were in the way of the plow, so he tossed them in a long undulating pile, and that became what is now called a tossed or thrown wall, because the stones were literally just thrown on top of one another with no time or eye for intricacies.

The landowners on either side of the wall didn’t have time to patrol the wall and pull tree seedlings so many of them started growing down in the wall where their seeds fell. Some saplings were too close to stones to cut with an axe or saw so they grew to massive size, sometimes pushing the wall stones apart ever so slowly  to make room for the huge trunk. Now, over 250 years later they shade the wall and keep it from being covered in deep snow. Some, like the white pine shown above, still stand even after being struck by lightning. The old split in its bark runs from the top of the tree all the way down its trunk, following a root right down into the ground. I’ve found trees like this one soon after they were struck and the ground around them was covered with narrow strips of bark, blown right off the wood by the lightning bolt.

You can see many interesting things if you look at our stone walls carefully, like this blacksmith made hitching ring where someone would have hitched up a horse. The odd thing about it is its location in the wall. It’s in an empty place where it doesn’t look like there would have much going on but 250 years ago it could have been a community information hub, for all I know. Most likely it was simply a shaded place for the horse to rest while the rider did whatever they had to do here.  I’m guessing it involved a lot of work.

My grandfather was the town Blacksmith in Westmoreland which is to the north west of here, so I’m always fascinated by iron work. The chain hook shown here is one of the best examples of 18th century blacksmithing I know of. I like it because it shows hand hammered marks and shows the fine workmanship and talent of the smith. He didn’t have to make such a utilitarian object as beautiful as a dragon’s tail, but he did.

This stone in this wall is only the second place I’ve found a beard lichen growing on stone. I’ve seen thousands of beard lichens but they were growing on wood 99% of the time. I think this one might be a bushy rock lichen (Ramalina intermedia.) 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.

As this stone shows stone walls absorb a lot of heat from the sun and release it slowly all night long until the sun shines again the following day.

Because it’s so warm near stone walls in the winter many plants like this mullein like to grow along them. In fact there is an amazing variety of plants growing on or near this wall.

There are many ferns growing along this old wall. Some are evergreen and others, like this one, are trying to be.

Many types of trees grow along the old wall including shagbark hickory (Carya ovata) which is named, not surprisingly, for its shaggy looking bark. These trees drop large amounts of hickory nuts each fall so I thought I’d find one and show it to you.

Unfortunately the squirrels had already found all the nuts and I didn’t see a single one.

I did see a lichen on the bark of the hickory that I’ve never seen before though, made up of a grayish body (Thallus) with tiny black fruiting bodies (Apothecia.) I think it might be the tiny button lichen (Amandinea punctata) which grows on wood and has a grayish, barely perceptible thallus and flat, disk shaped, black apothecia. Each black dot seen here is very small; about the size of a period made on paper with a pencil.

At the base of the hickory was a stone with a forest of pixie cup lichens (Cladonia asahinae) on it. 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.

Shield lichens have become kind of a ho-hum lichen for me because I see thousands of them, but the way this one seems to overlap like shingles and the way it grows in concentric circles is different, and I’m not so sure it’s a shield lichen at all. I’m leaning towards the zoned dust lichen (Lepraria neglecta) but I’ll have to go back and have another look to be sure. It also resembles the shingled rock shield (Xanthoparmelia somloensis.) Like any other part of nature, stone walls have their own mysteries.

Another lichen that I don’t see often is what I believe is the rosy saucer lichen (Ochrolechia trochophora) seen here. Its rosy or orange apothecia are large and pad like and I’ve read that though it usually grows on wood it can grow on stone as well. It could also be a scattered rock posy lichen but I don’t think so.

Sometime I can be fooled into thinking I’m seeing lichens when I’m really seeing something else. In this case I’m not sure what the green “something else” was but possibly algae. Why it was here in this spot and nowhere else along the wall, I’m not sure.

Common speedwell was enjoying the warmth from the wall and looked as good as it does in early June but of course it wasn’t flowering. This European native is common here and has been used medicinally for centuries. Its leaves have also been used as a tea substitute.

I think a lot of us believe that winter is a very wet season and it can be when the snow melts, but when it is cold and there isn’t any melting going on it can be very dry, and this white tipped moss (Hedwigia ciliata) reminded me of that. When dry it pulls its tiny needle like leaves in close to the stem and if dry enough it looks like strands of string or clumps of worms, and this gives it another common name of medusa moss. It hadn’t reached that point when this photo was taken but it was quite dry, even with snow on it.

Stone walls will give many gifts to those who walk slowly along their length and look closely. One of the greatest gifts they give me is green leaves in winter, even when there is snow on the ground.

Stones are all about time—time to find them, to move them, to place them, and time, occasionally, to chisel and shape them. And above all, time to see them, experience them, and fall under their spell. ~Charles McRaven

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Though we still have a lot of colorful foliage to see we are now just past peak color and leaves (mostly maple) are falling quickly. The birch trees clinging to this rock face still had plenty of their bright yellow leaves though. That beautiful blue color you see is caused by wet spots on the stone that reflected the blue of the sky.

Here is a hillside that’s considerably more populated than the one in the previous photo. Many of the trees were already bare when this was taken and by the time you see this post I’m guessing that the biggest part of this hillside will be bare. It’s amazing how fast it can happen, especially with rain and wind, and that tells me I’d better be climbing a mountain soon if I want to see the colors from above.

If you thought you saw plum purple in that previous photo you might have; white ash trees (Fraxinus americana) often turns purple in the fall.

White ash is also called American ash. Along with purple they’ll turn red, orange or yellow in the fall. They turn early along with the maples and are one of our most beautiful fall trees.

Another hillside with some bare trees. And cows.

The trees along the Branch River in Marlborough were showing some good color. Marlborough was settled in 1764 and before that it was a fort town known as Monadnock number 5. Marlborough grew to be an important quarry town and granite from here was used in buildings in Boston and Worcester Massachusetts. Today slightly over 2,000 people live there and I drive through it every day to and from work.

Up north of Keene in Surry the Ashuelot River can just be glimpsed through the trees. Surry is another small town. With a population of only 732 in 2010 in hasn’t grown much since the first census was taken in 1790. It had 448 residents then. It also has some beautiful fall foliage.

Surry also has Surry Mountain and it had quite a lot color on the day that I was there.

Surry Mountain has a lot of evergreens on it, mostly pine and hemlock, and they and the deciduous trees sometimes grow in wide swaths of one kind or the other without much mixing.

The mountain also had a few bare trees showing. Though they say that fall color was about 10 days later than average this year it seems like the maples aren’t hanging on to their leaves very long once they turn.

Our roadways still have plenty of color along them, either highways or back roads.

And so do our rail trails. This one is in Swanzey but they all look pretty much the same, bordered by a variety of trees. These happened to be maples.

Two ferns turn white quite early on in the fall; lady ferns (Athyrium filix-femina) like the one seen here are often first, and sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) usually just before a frost. In fact sensitive ferns got that name from early settlers who saw that it was very sensitive to frost and cold weather.

I’ve seen hundreds of royal ferns (Osmunda spectabilis) in the fall and they’ve all been yellow until I saw this one, which decided to be orange. I like it better than yellow but I may never see another one. Royal ferns are thought to live 100 years or more though, so I do have a chance.

There was quite a lot of red showing in Tenant Swamp in Keene. Most of the trees in this view are maples, I think, but there may be a yellow larch or two in there as well.

I took this photo looking into the forest so you could see what the woods look like at this time of year.

One of my favorite places to walk is on this trail around a local pond. On this day the trail was carpeted with newly fallen leaves and the sight, sounds, and smell of them made me 10 years old again. I used to love walking through leaves just like these on the way to school.

Many people don’t realize that certain evergreens lose needles in the fall just as deciduous trees lose their leaves. White pine needles (Pinus strobus) like those seen here first turn yellow and then brown before finally falling. These examples fell in the pond water and made interesting patterns. You can find huge amounts of fallen needles like these along our back roads.  I used to fill trash bags full of them each year for a lady who used them as mulch.

I know everyone likes to see the colors reflected in glass-like water but October is a windy month and undisturbed water is hard to come by. Luckily the pond is protected by a big hill on one side so some parts of it were sheltered from the worst of the wind.

This is about as good as it got for reflections this time around I’m afraid, but there should be more in future posts.

Like being inside a kaleidoscope, that’s what this season is. Here are more of those fallen leaves I used to love walking through so much as a boy. I wish you could smell them. There is nothing else like it.

The fallen leaves in the forest seemed to make even the ground glow and burn with light ~Malcolm Lowry

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Every now and then wonder if readers of this blog think that they have to go deep into a forest or climb hills to see the things that I see, so I make a point of doing posts from places like dowtown Keene, or my own yard, or the local college. I do this to show that nature is truly everywhere, even in the heart of a city, so all you really need to do to find it is go outside. This time I’ve chosen roadsides, because just about anyone can walk along a road. It doesn’t have to be a wooded road like the one in the photo. I needed a shot of a road for this post and that one happened to be the most photogenic, but it could be any road anywhere. In fact quite a few of the photos that follow were taken from a two lane blacktop while I waited for my car to be serviced.

I decided that I’d add restrictions and allow myself only a few steps off of whatever road I was on at the time. I thought the white bark of these roadside birches surrounded by all the different shades of spring green made a beautiful scene, and I didn’t even have to step off the road to see it.

Grasses always grow alongside roads and when they flower they can be truly beautiful. I haven’t been able to identify this one but it’s very early flowering for a grass.

In this area common chokecherry trees (Prunus virginiana) are blossoming everywhere along our roadsides and they’re very easy to see. Chokecherries are small trees that sometimes can resemble shrubs when they grow in a group as these did. It took just a few steps off the road to get this photo, but the real story is the incredible fragrance that was coming from the racemes full of flowers. If pollinated each flower will become a dark purple one seeded berry (drupe) which, though edible but can be bitter or sour. Many Native American tribes used the fruit as food and used other parts of the tree such as the inner bark medicinally. They also used the bark in their smoking mixtures to improve the flavor.

Honeysuckles grow mostly in shrub form along our roads, and they are almost always invasive species. I believe this example is Morrow’s honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) which rapidly invades sites that it likes. It grows to about 7 feet tall and is originally from Eurasia. Red berries follow the flowers and birds love them and that of course helps the shrub spread. They grow in large colonies and their dense canopy shades the forest floor enough so native understory plants can’t gain a foothold. Each plant can produce more than 20,000 seeds and seedling density can be nearly a half million seedlings per acre.

Sometimes I’ll be driving along and see something out of the corner of my eye that bears a closer look, and I’ll have to stop. This happened recently when I found some marsh marigolds, which I’d spent many years looking for. On this day it was the view off to my left, which I had to stop and get a photo of. It would have been far better on a sunny day but if there’s one thing you learn as a nature blogger it’s that you take what nature gives you or you find something else to do.

About 5 or 6 trees in from the right you can see a big old pine tree that has broken off about two thirds of the way up its trunk. We had a confirmed tornado tear through a large swath of the state a couple of weeks ago, and those who didn’t see a tornado still got very high winds. Many trees were broken and many fell.

Part of the undergrowth you can see in the previous photo of the forest is made up of cinnamon ferns (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) like that in the above photo. They often grow just a few steps from the edges of roads, particularly along stone walls, and are very common. This fern gets its common name from its orangey red fertile fronds, which someone thought looked like cinnamon sticks.

The fertile fronds full of sporangia have just appeared and are still green in these photos. As they ripen they will turn orangey red and when fully ripe will burst and release the fern’s spores. Each tiny sphere seen here is barely bigger than the head of a common pin. Native American used this fern medicinally to relieve joint pain but no part of it is edible.

Bluets (Houstonia caerulea) love to grow on roadsides that have been mowed and I see a lot of them.

I know of two places where white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) grows along roadsides. The club shaped flower heads stand above surrounding foliage, making them relatively easy to spot. Later on in the fall each white blossom will turn into a striking white berry with a single black spot where the stigma was. In size, color and shape the berries look like doll’s eyes, and that’s how the plant comes by its common name. All parts of the plant and especially the berries are very toxic and should never be eaten.

Flowers aren’t all there is to see along roads. Searching any old log will often turn up mosses, lichens and fungi like this gilled polypore (Lenzites betulina.) Though most polypores have pores there are a few with gills and this is one of them. It is zoned like a turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) but rather than different colors these zones are made up of different textures, like bumps and ridges. It is also very hairy and can turn green with age due to the algae that often grow on them. This example grew on a hardwood log just a few steps off the road I was on.

I saw a beaver lodge off to the side of this road and hardly even had to leave the car for a photo.

A male redwing blackbird watched me from an alder branch while his mate flew away from the nest. These birds are very defensive and they have no problem letting you know that you’re getting too close. I’ve had them flap their wings in my face and hover right in front of me, screeching all the while.

This one did plenty of screeching but luckily it didn’t fly toward me. I took the hint and moved on after a couple of bad photos. I’m not sure why he had a white and red patch rather than an all red patch on his wing. It could just be a blown out highlight because of the bright sunshine that day, but I’m not sure.

The poet’s daffodil (Narcissus poeticus) is usually seen in gardens but it has escaped and is naturalizing in some areas. I found this one just a few steps off the road in a field. This is such an ancient plant that many believe that it is the flower that the legend of narcissus is based on. It is one of the first cultivated daffodils and can be found in botanical texts from as early as 371 BC. It is hard to confuse with any other because of the red edged, yellow corona. It has a spicy, pleasing scent but its fragrance is said to be powerful enough to make some people sick when they are in an enclosed room with it.

Lilly of the valley plants (Convallaria majalis) had escaped someone’s garden and grew right at the edge of the road, and they were blooming far ahead of others I’ve seen. This European import grows naturally in shaded woodlands there but it doesn’t seem to mind bright sunshine. One of my earliest memories is running up the stairs to my grandmother’s house with fistfuls of wilted lily of the valley and apple blossoms. Though it has a wonderful fragrance lily of the valley is very toxic and no part of the plant should be eaten.

Since I work outside I see many thousands of dandelion blossoms each day and though I love seeing them it’s only occasionally that one will speak to me. This one spoke on this day. It said “I’m not like all of the others,” and it was right.

You can often find the dangling bell shaped flowers of striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) just up over your head on many of our less traveled roads. The tree gets its name from its striped bark and needs to be at least 10 years old before it will flower. They like cool, moist woods and their large hand shaped leaves mean they can stand a lot of shade. They’re mostly small understory trees but I’ve seen some get quite big.

Each striped maple flower has 5 green sepals and 5 greenish yellow petals with outward turning lobes that are a bit longer than the sepals. Male flowers have 6-8 stamens like the example above. They’ll never take first prize at a flower show but I think they’re pretty.

So in the end I hope I’ve shown that it isn’t the road that’s important; it’s what you see along it that matters. I hope you’ll have a chance to see what fascinating things there are along the roads near you.

You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world. ~William Hazlitt

Thanks for stopping in.

 

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