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Posts Tagged ‘White Pine’

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

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Quite often I get an irresistible urge to be in the woods and, since I’m lucky enough to be able to find woods in any direction I travel, getting there is no work at all. The thought hit me the other day that I hadn’t been to Goose Pond in Keene since last year, so that’s where I went last Sunday. I also wanted to see how deep the snow was in the woods and since this is a five hundred acre wilderness area I would certainly be able to see plenty of woods. As the above photo of the trail to the pond shows, there was no snow in this area.  Odd since Goose Pond isn’t that far from Beaver Brook, where I saw plenty of snow in the woods just the day before.

The pond was still mostly frozen over. It’s interesting how ponds and lakes start melting at the shore and work toward the middle, and rivers start in the middle and work toward the shore.

Goose Pond was called Crystal Lake and / or Sylvan Lake in the early 1900s. The pond was artificially enlarged to 42 acres in 1865 so the town of Keene would have a water supply to fight fires with. Wooden pipe fed 48 hydrants by 1869 but the town stopped using the pond as a water supply in the 1930s, and in 1984 it was designated a wilderness area. The vast forest tract surrounding the pond has been left virtually untouched since the mid-1800s. The deciduous trees over on the left shoreline are red maples. You can just see some red in the branches from the opening flowers.

Even in the winter the trail darkens quickly due to all of the pines and hemlocks.

There are stone walls here and there along the trail around the pond. They tell the history of the place. It’s hard to believe that much of this land was cleared for sheep pasture by the early 1800s, but it was. These walls have most likely been here for over 200 years.

I’m reading the book The Hidden Life of Trees and in it author Peter Wohlleben speaks of how much strain a tree that is bent like the one in the above photo is under. As he explains it a curved trunk has trouble simply standing upright because “The enormous weight of the crown isn’t evenly divided over the diameter of the trunk but weighs more heavily on the wood on one side.” He also explains that “Evenly formed trees absorb the shock of buffeting forces, using their shape to direct and divide these forces evenly throughout their structure.” If you are interested at all in trees, this is the book for you.

I saw lots of trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) along the trail. This creeping evergreen is also called Mayflower, though it often blooms earlier. It was one of my grandmother’s favorite flowers.

Some of the trailing arbutus plants were well budded. These small white flowers are extremely fragrant and were once collected nearly into oblivion for nosegays. It is one of those plants that has a close relationship with fungal hyphae in the soil and will not grow unless the fungus is present, so digging it up to transplant somewhere else is a waste of time. It’s also illegal in some areas.

There are many streams flowing down off the surrounding hills to the pond and in two spots there are bridges, but in many places you have to cross by hopping from stone to stone or simply walking through the water. I always wear good water proof hiking boots when I come here. On this day I saw some college age people going down the trail wearing bright white sneakers. I can guarantee that they weren’t white when they came out of the woods, and they probably weren’t dry either.

This bridge was chained to a nearby tree, not against theft but flooding. There has been severe flooding here in the past. It would be an awful lot of work hand carrying enough lumber to build a bridge all the way out here so I don’t blame them for not wanting to have it washed away and smashed on the rocks.

I could have sat here all day just listening to the chuckling and giggling of the stream and the joyous, excited birdsong but it wasn’t warm on this day and there was a stiff wind coming off that ice, so I had to move on after too short a time.

I saw the pine tree that was hit by lightning last year. The bolt blew the bark right off the trunk in strips, and pieces of the strips still lay by its roots. It also followed a large root right into the ground, leaving the same trace on it.

A birch polypore (Formitopsis betulina) was coated with ice. Someday I’m going to try drying one of these mushrooms and sharpening a knife with it because another name for it is the razor strop fungus. Even more useful than its ability to sharpen a knife though, is its antiseptic, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It contains betulinic acid, which is a compound that has shown to also promote the death of cancer cells. It has been used medicinally for thousands of years.

Soon the island will be surrounded by water again instead of ice. I’d love to be able to explore it to find out what kind of plants grow there. I’m guessing that they aren’t much different than those that grow here on shore, but you never know.

Great long ice crystals grew in the cold night and were melting now. That’s how this entire winter has been; cold enough to snow one day and then warm enough to melt it all over the next few days. Then comes another storm, but that cycle seems to have finally been broken now.

There are many side trails here and some are very easy to get onto without realizing it, but it would still be hard to get lost if you pay attention and stay on the trail that circles the pond. If the pond is on your right when you start it should be on your right all the way along the trail until it ends, because you have just walked in a circle. Maybe it took you a while to do it but it’s still just a big circle. Even so I have met people here that seemed to have no idea where they were or which way to go. It just goes to show that what seems simple to some of us might not be so simple to others. I’ve been lost in the woods before too, and it can be unsettling, to say the least.

I knew right off what the small black lumps all over this beech stump were.

Annulohypoxylon cohaerens fungus forms hard black lumps on beech bark. The fruiting bodies seen here are “cushion like round or flask shaped masses of fungal tissue with nipple or pustule shaped pores.” Each body is very small; less than half the diameter of a pea. They usually grow on fallen beech logs but these were on a standing stump. It originally took me three years to identify them.

The trail had ice on it here and there but this is mostly level ground so it wasn’t bad. Next winter I’ll have micro spikes, hoping all the while that I don’t need them.

I saw the unnatural stone that lives in the middle of the trail, toward the end if you go clockwise around the pond. Of course I can’t prove it isn’t natural but I’ve worked with a lot of stone and I’ve never seen such a perfect 90 degree angle and such smooth faces on a natural stone. I can’t imagine how it got way out here or why.

This is a special place for several reasons. First is because it’s the only place I know of where you can actually get a photo of the woods while you are in them. An old pine fell and opened a hole in the canopy and that lets in enough light for a shot of something I am rarely able to get on film. Taking a photo of a forest while you’re in it is a lot harder than you might think, because of all the trees. Another reason this spot is special is because the only example of a northern club spur orchid I know of grows here. I found it about 4 years ago and hope to see it bloom again in July. The final reason this place is special to me is because it’s so beautiful and peaceful here. If you feel the need to just sit and “soak” in the woods this is the place to do it. I hope you have a place like it.

It is very important to go out alone, to sit under a tree—not with a book, not with a companion, but by yourself—and observe the falling of a leaf, hear the lapping of the water, the fishermen’s song, watch the flight of a bird, and of your own thoughts as they chase each other across the space of your mind. If you are able to be alone and watch these things, then you will discover extraordinary riches which no government can tax, no human agency can corrupt, and which can never be destroyed. ~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

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We had a big storm here last Friday but we saw more rain than snow, and little wind. I’ve heard that upstate New York saw 2-3 feet of snow and in Pennsylvania semi-trucks were blown over by the wind, so we got off relatively easy. We did see flooding in places as this photo of a flooded forest shows, but not enough to cause any real damage. Things may change again today, because the weather people are saying we might see as much as 18 inches of snow from this afternoon through nightfall on Thursday.

The Ashuelot River spilled out into this pasture but this is expected in spring and there are no buildings within the flood zone.

I think it was just 2 weeks ago when I watched people skating on this pond. Now there is open water. I was hoping to see some ducks or spring peepers but I didn’t see either.

Though our days have been warm, mostly in the 50s F, our mornings are still cold enough for puddle ice. This ice is very thin and often white because of all the oxygen bubbles in it, and it tinkles when you break it. Nothing says spring to me quite like puddle ice, because when I was a boy I used to ride my bike through it in the spring as soon as the snow melted. You can see many things in this ice, but on this morning it was a simple starburst.

I noticed that the hairy bud scales on a Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) had opened to reveal the bright yellow flower buds they’ve been protecting. Once pollinated in mid-April the flowers will become sour red fruits that have been eaten by man for about 7000 years. In northern Greece early Neolithic people left behind remains of meals that included Cornelian cherry fruit and Homer, Rumi, and Marcus Aurelius all probably tasted the fruit. I would if I could ever find one but apparently the birds snap them up quickly, because I’ve never seen one.

I’ve been staring at this photo of a crocus blossom trying to figure out exactly what is going on, because you shouldn’t be able to see the central anthers in a closed crocus blossom. I finally realized that it has been cut in half lengthwise, so you can indeed see inside the blossom to the reproductive parts. Why or how anyone would do this while the plant was actually in the ground growing and blossoming is a mystery to me, but it is an interesting look at something rarely seen.

Another plant I was hoping to get a look inside was a skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) so I went to visit them in their swamp and saw that many of the mottled spathes had opened since I was last here. I could see the spadix covered with flowers in this one, but could I get a shot of it?

I was able to, barely. The spadix is a one inch diameter pink or yellow, stalked flower head from which the small flowers emerge. The flowers don’t have petals but do have four sepals. The male stamens grow up through the sepals and release their pollen before the female style and pistil grow out of the flower’s center to catch any pollen that insects bring in from other plants. The spadix carries most of the skunk like odor at this point and it is thought by some that it uses the odor to attract flies and other insects that might pollinate it. Sometimes the spadix is covered with pollen but this one hadn’t seen any yet so the male flowers must have just opened.

I saw some over-anxious daylilies. I hope they know what they’re doing. They could easily find themselves under a foot of snow tomorrow. March can be a fickle month with 50 degrees one day and snow the next and right now the forecast looks wild.

Ever so slowly the buds of red maple (Acer rubrum) are opening. The purple bud scales pull back to reveal the tomato red buds within. It probably won’t be long before they blossom, unless we get a cold snap with the coming storm.

The vernal witch hazels are blooming with great abandon now, even though this day was a cool one. We probably won’t see another display like this one until the forsythias bloom.

I couldn’t tell if this blueberry bud was opening or not but it showed me that spiders are active, even in winter.

It looked like this huge old mother white pine tree held her baby in her arms and it reminded me of the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. I’m reading it now and it’s a book that I’d highly recommend to anyone who is interested in learning more about nature.

If a forest is a cathedral, then this is its stained glass.

I saw some beautifully colored turkey tail fungi (Trametes versicolor.) Someday I hope to find out what determines their color. They seem to all be different so I would think that the wood they grow on must play a part in their coloration, but I haven’t ever been able to find anything written on the subject.

I was walking the grounds of the local college looking for blooming flowers when I came upon this Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata.) The vine has nothing to do with Boston and it isn’t a true ivy, but it is the reason colleges are called “Ivy League.” Boston ivy is actually in the grape family and originally came from China and Japan.

Boston ivy will climb just about anything by attaching itself with tiny circular pads that form at the ends of its tendrils. The vine secretes calcium carbonate and uses it to glue itself to whatever surface it grows on, in this case brick. The glue can support up to 260 times its own weight and if you’ve ever tried to pull Boston ivy off a building you know how sticky it is.

I’m not wild about stone walls that were built with mortar but sidewalk firedot lichens (Caloplaca feracissima) sure are. These bright orange lichens love the lime used in cement and can often be found growing on concrete sidewalks, and that’s where their common name comes from. When you find them growing on stone in the woods it’s a great sign that you’re in an area with a lot of limestone, and there’s a good chance that you’ll find other lime loving plants, like many of our native orchids.

Sidewalk firedot lichens appear very granular and often show fruiting bodies but this example was quite dry and I couldn’t see that it was producing spores anywhere.

A pile of fallen fern leaves reminded me of nautili swimming under the sea. It is interesting how nature uses the same shapes over and over, especially spirals. The spiral was considered sacred geometry by ancient civilizations and is still used today. Sacred geometry involves sacred universal patterns used in the design of everything in our reality. Spirals for instance, can be found in everything from the nautilus to the sunflower and from our own DNA to entire galaxies.

Despite the forecast, live like it’s spring. ~Lilly Pulitzer

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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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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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Last Sunday I decided to follow a rail trail in Swanzey that I knew had a trestle on it. History and botany are two of my favorite things and I knew I’d find a lot of both here. It was a beautiful warm, sunny day and hiking just about anywhere would have been pleasant.

Sometimes the sap of white pines will turn blue in very cold weather but it was warm on this day and the sap was still blue. I wonder if it stays blue once it changes.

I’ve never heard of bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) being evergreen but there were several plants along the trail, all wearing their winter purple / bronze color. If this plant looks familiar it’s probably because it is the smallest of our native dogwoods and the 4 leaves look like miniature versions of dogwood tree leaves. Bunchberry gets its common name from its bunches of bright red berries. It is also called creeping dogwood and bunchberry dogwood. Native Americans used the berries as food and made a tea from the ground root to treat colic in infants. The Cree tribe called the berry “kawiskowimin,” meaning “itchy chin berry” because rubbing the berries against your skin can cause a reaction that will make you itch.

Something unusual I saw this day was a Canada yew (Taxus canadensis.) It is native from Newfoundland west to Manitoba, south to Virginia, Tennessee, Illinois, and Iowa, but in this region I rarely see it. Though all parts of the yew plant are poisonous several Native American tribes made tea from the needles to ease everything from numbness to scurvy. A man in England died not too long ago from eating yew, so I wouldn’t advise trying to make tea from it. Natives knew how to treat poisonous plants in ways that made them beneficial to humans, but much of that knowledge has been lost.

A yew branch looks very flat and once you get to know what they look like you’ll never mistake it for any other evergreen.

Snowmobile clubs have built wooden guardrails along the sides of all of the train trestles in the area to make sure that nobody goes over the side and into the river. That wouldn’t be good, especially if there was ice on the river. Snowmobile clubs work very hard to maintain these trails and all of us who use them owe them a great debt of gratitude, because without their hard work the trails would most likely be overgrown and impassable. I hope you’ll consider making a small donation to your local club as a thank you.

Years ago before air brakes came along, brakemen had to climb to the top of moving boxcars to manually set each car’s brakes. The job of brakeman was considered one of the most dangerous in the railroad industry because many died from being knocked from the train when it entered a trestle or tunnel. This led to the invention seen in the above photo, called a “tell-tale.” Soft wires about the diameter of a pencil hung from a cross brace, so when the brakeman on top of the train was hit by the wires he knew that he had only seconds to duck down to avoid running into the top of a tunnel, trestle, or other obstruction. Getting hit by the wires at even 10 miles per hour must have hurt some, but I’m sure it was better than the alternative. Tell tales are rarely seen these days; the above photo shows the only example I know of.

The Ashuelot River was full in places.

And over full in others. This happens regularly throughout this area and the trees survive it just fine. Many are silver (Acer saccharinum) and red maples (Acer rubrum.)  Another name for them is swamp maple because they often grow in the lowlands along rivers that flood regularly.

The large crimson bud clusters make the maples easy to spot at this time of year but I couldn’t tell if these examples were flowering or not. Many are, now that we’ve had some warmth.

There isn’t a lot of ledge in this section of trail but there is some and it shows the marks of a steam drill.  The railroad workers cut through the solid rock by drilling deep holes into the stone using steam powered drills and then poring black powder into them. Packing these holes with black powder and lighting a fuse was a very dangerous business and many were killed doing it, but dynamite wasn’t invented until 1866 so it was either black powder or brute force. Trains first rolled through here in the mid-1850s.

Maple dust lichens (Lecanora thysanophora) are beautiful and are definitely worth looking for. I’ve found them growing on maple, oak, beech, and poplars. They are usually quite a different green but the camera didn’t seem to be seeing green very well this day.

You can tell that it’s a maple dust lichen by the tiny fringe around its outer edge.

The trail goes on for many miles and it is wide, flat, and sometimes busy as it was on this day. I saw several people while I was here and I was happy to see them out enjoying nature. I hope they saw as many interesting things as I did.

There was snow for anyone who might want it. I didn’t.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) bud break begins when the normally straight buds start to curl, as in the above photo. The curling is caused by the cells on the sunny side of the bud growing faster than those on the shaded side. This creates a tension that curls the bud and eventually causes the bud scales to pull apart so the leaves can emerge. At the bud’s location on the tree branch an entire year’s new leaves and stems will often grow from a single bud. Beech bud break doesn’t usually start until mid-May, so I think the example in this photo is a fluke caused by early warmth. Others I saw had not curled yet.

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is one of the lowest growing evergreen plants on the forest floor, hardly growing more than 3 or 4 inches high. Plants have a vining habit but do not climb. Instead they form dense mats by spreading their trailing stems out to about a foot from the crown. Roots will often form at leaf nodes along the stems and start new plants. The 4 petaled, pinkish, fringed, fragrant, half inch long flowers appear in June and July. The berries remain on the plant for long periods unless eaten, and can often still be found the following spring.

Partridgeberry flowers are fused at the base. Once pollinated, the ovaries of these flowers will join and form one berry with 8 seeds. Partridgeberry plants can always be easily identified by the two indentations on the berries that show where the flowers were. Other names for this plant include twinberry and two-eyed berry. Native Americans ate the berries and made them into a jelly, which was eaten in case of fevers. Partridgeberry is still used in folk medicine today to treat muscle spasms and as a nerve tonic.

Apple moss (Bartramia pomiformis) grows along the sides of the trail and its thousands of tiny spore capsules were shining in the sun. Reproduction begins in the late fall for this moss and immature spore capsules (sporophytes) appear by late winter. In the spring the straight, toothpick like sporophytes swell at their tips and form tiny globes that always look like pearls to me, but someone thought they looked like apples and the name stuck.  Sometimes the capsules do turn red as they age, so I suppose the name makes sense.

Most of these spore capsules were not quite spherical and that means that they were still immature. When they become spherical the spores will begin to ripen and prepare for the wind to disperse them.

Human history and natural history are visible from rail 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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