Posts Tagged ‘Winter Hiking’

Last week’s nor’easter sat up north and just spun in one place for days after it buried parts of New England, and clouds and snow showers filled the air all week. And then finally on Sunday the sun came out. The temperature shot up to a relatively balmy 40 degrees F., and I decided to get into the woods. The plan was to climb the High Blue trail in Walpole to see if any of the coltsfoot that live along the trail were blooming, but Walpole got a lot more snow than I did in my yard and everything was snow covered.

I stopped to admire a snow curl on a branch.

The new way of colleting sap is used here. Or at least it was; this tubing wasn’t being used and these maple trees hadn’t been tapped. The black bit on the left at the end of the blue tubing is the part that would be in the tree if it had been tapped.

Normally I would have taken a left turn and followed the high blue trail to the overlook but nobody else had been here and my trail breaking days through a foot of snow are over. I was really surprised that there was no trail though, because this is a popular spot. I had to come up with a plan B.

Plan B was simply bypassing the left turn onto the high blue trail and staying on the old logging road that leads to it. The snow on the old road had been packed down by snowmobiles but it was still slow going. At the pace I usually walk though slow is the norm, so slipping and sliding in the snow wasn’t really a problem.

There were a few paper birch trees (Betula papyrifera) along the trail and some gray and golden birches as well.

A small stream ran alongside the road and bubbled and gurgled as I walked. Even though I couldn’t sense it the rushing water told me the snow was melting fast.

The little stream slowed and opened up into quiet pools every now and then.

I was hoping to find some evidence of amphibian activity like frog eggs, but all I saw were stones.

When two trees grow close enough together like these two sugar maples did the wind can cause them to rub together enough so their outer bark is rubbed off. If the trees are the same species, when the cambium layer just under the bark touches the two trees can grow together. This process is called inosculation and trees naturally grafted together like these two are called “husband and wife” trees or “marriage trees.” Rarely, trees of different species like red and sugar maple can become grafted, but I’ve never seen it.

I hope I never get too busy to admire a beech tree (Fagus americana) caught in a sunbeam. They’re so beautiful at this time of year.

I looked at many beech buds but I didn’t see any signs of bud break. I didn’t really expect to because it’s really too early, but the warm February could have confused some trees as well as shrubs and other plants. Like the striped maple buds I mentioned in my last post, beech buds breaking is an event I look forward to all winter.

The reason I look forward to tree buds opening in spring is because many of them are as beautiful as any flower. I’ll start looking for them in earnest starting in Late April and early May.

One of the theories of why beech trees hold onto their leaves throughout winter says that deer and moose are afraid of the sound of the papery, dry, whispering leaves and wont browse on the buds.  Deer have bottom incisor teeth that meet a hard pad of cartilage on their upper jaw, so they can’t bite through a twig cleanly. Instead they have to tear it, and this torn twig tells me that this beech bud was taken by a deer so papery leaves or not, deer do indeed browse on beech trees.

The trail opened into a large clearing that offered a few choices of where to go. The snowmobile tracks that went off to the left might circle around and go up to the overlook but they might not, and I might do a lot of trudging through the snow for nothing.  There was already a long walk ahead of me to get back out again, so I had to be careful that I didn’t get tired out walking in. While I thought about it I decided to explore the clearing.

The spore bearing fronds of sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) told me that the soil here was wet. Sensitive ferns like damp, sunny places like wet meadows and the edges of forests. Fossils that closely resemble sensitive fern have been found dating back to the time of the dinosaurs, so they have been here for a very long time. Early American settlers gave this fern its common name when they noticed how sensitive they were to frost.

Native river grapes (Vitis riparia) grew up and into the sugar maples and judging from the size of the vines they’ve been doing so for a very long time. I see these grapes growing in wet soil quite often so I think it’s safe to say that they also like damp sunny spots.

River grapes don’t seem to have as many tendrils as other grapes but they have enough to help them climb. This vine’s tendril had wrapped around this maple branch long enough ago so the branch had been growing around it. I see this often with tough vines like oriental bittersweet but this is the first time I’ve ever seen a grape vine do this. The tendrils must be a lot stronger than I thought.

The second way out of the clearing involved climbing a steep hill, so I passed on that option.

The third way out also involved a hill. Less steep but still a hill and I had no idea where the trail went, so in the end I decided to turn around and head back down the old road. I knew a lot more about this area than I did when I started and I got to walk in the winter woods on a warm sunny day, so my time certainly wasn’t wasted.

After stopping for a moment to wonder at the mechanics of another snow curl, off I went.

The world is as large as I let it be. Each step I take into the unknown reveals a thousand more steps of possibility. Earth may not be growing but my world certainly does with each step I take. ~Avina Celeste

Thanks for stopping in. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day!


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The weather people are saying we’re in a “very active pattern” right now. The rest of us are saying “enough.” It wasn’t that long ago when the ground was bare except for plowed up snow piles, but then winter decided it wasn’t finished and we’ve had one nor’easter after another ever since. The first was rain, the second was snow, and the third is snow. Snow at this time of year doesn’t usually stay long but the cooler temperatures of late mean that it’s melting slower than many of us would like.

Despite the storms spring is definitely close at hand. Canada geese have returned and have taken up residence in the Ashuelot River. Soon they’ll be choosing nesting sites.

Willows are shouting spring. I love how they take on this golden color in the spring. It seems unusual that a tree’s branches rather than its foliage would change color, but there they are. Forsythia bushes sometimes do the same thing.

The willow in the previous photo isn’t a “pussy willow” but I did go and visit some. The fuzzy catkins hadn’t changed much since last week but they can grow into yellow flowers quickly. It happened so fast last year that I never did get a good photo of a willow flower. This year I’ll be keeping an eye on them.

The vernal witch hazels have just about bloomed themselves out I think, after blooming for two or three weeks now with storm after storm thrown at them.

It isn’t the cold or snow that will finish their blooming though, it is simply time. You can see in this photo how almost all the petals are brown on their tips. If the winter moths have done their job and pollinated them there will be plenty of seed pods next year. After a year on the bush witch hazel seed pods open with explosive force and can hurl the seeds for many yards. It is said that you can hear them snapping open but it’s a case of being in the right place at the right time, and so far I haven’t been.

Hollyhocks were a surprise. At least I think they’re hollyhocks. I don’t remember them coming along so early, and I used to work for people who grew them. Now I wonder if they aren’t evergreen.

I’ve remembered that the extremely early tulips I’ve been telling you about are actually hyacinths. I remembered their wonderful scent from last year as I was taking their photo. There will be deep blue and pink blossoms here before too long.

Maple syrup makers won’t want to hear this but the red maple flower clusters (Acer rubrum) have opened. You can just see the first flowers peeking out on the right in this poor photo. It’ll still be a while before the flowers unfurl, but they’re on the way and they’re beautiful to see in spring. There are so many red maple trees that the forest comes alive with a red haze when they all bloom together.

I also checked on striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum) but didn’t see any signs of bud break. This is one of those tree buds I most look forward to seeing open, because the pink and orange buds are beautiful when they first open.

Here’s a preview of what those striped maple buds will look like in late April or early May. A tree full of them is really something to see.

I found this mountain of snow when I went to visit the skunk cabbages. It will be a while before it and what was added to it yesterday disappears.

The swamp where the skunk cabbages grow is also home to thousands of spring peepers. On a warm spring day you can often find this part of their swamp filled with floating, chirping frogs, but this was not a warm day and in any event I haven’t heard the frogs singing at night yet. I also still haven’t heard red winged blackbirds or seen any turtles, but spring is moving forward so it shouldn’t be long.

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) were melting their way through the snow. I’ve seen a surprising number of insects flying around on warmer days so if the plants can stay uncovered they have a good chance of being pollinated.

I went to see how the alders were doing and got this shot of both male and female catkins on the same branch. This doesn’t happen often so I was happy to finally get them both in the same frame. The longer lower ones are the male catkins and the smaller ones at the top are the female catkins. When they’ve been pollinated the female catkins will become the small cone shaped seed bearing strobiles that I think most of us are probably familiar with. I was hoping to see pollen on the male catkins, but not quite yet.

While I was poking around looking at alders I noticed a bird’s nest. I wondered if it was a used red winged blackbird’s nest, because they vigorously defend this area when they’re here.

I checked the female buds of American hazelnuts (Corylus americana,) but I didn’t see any flowers yet. Last year they bloomed near March first but this year the weather must be holding them back. Any time now though the tiny scarlet threads that are the female stigmas will appear.

The daffodils still hang on even though winter has thrown everything it has at them. Last year they came up too early and their leaves turned to mush, so it’ll be interesting to see if they have enough strength left to bloom this year. I haven’t seen any flower buds yet.

The daylilies also made it through the last storm, but I wonder if they’ll make it all the way.

Crocuses are coming up and trying to bloom where the snow is thin. Unfortunately it isn’t thin in many places at the moment.

The biggest surprise on this day was a blooming dandelion. It wouldn’t win a prize in a flower show but it was a flower, and the plant had many buds. No matter what the calendar says this dandelion says spring is here. That along with the fact that we now have an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day is enough to bring on a good case of spring fever.

It’s spring fever, that’s what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want — oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so! ~Mark Twain

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Two of my great loves are history and botany and one of the best ways I know of to get a good dose of both is by following stone walls. This particular wall is in Swanzey, New Hampshire and surrounds what I believe is the oldest cemetery in town. Revolutionary war soldiers are buried here so it certainly has some age.

Right off I spotted some sulfur dust lichen (Chrysothrix chlorina.) It’s very 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.

Sulfur dust lichens are kind of granular in texture. If you’re lucky you can sometimes find them with fruiting bodies (apothecia) but more often than not I see them when they aren’t producing spores.

There are stone walls called “lace walls” which are built of a stack of stones just one stone wide, and which are full of holes that make them look like lace, but this is a tossed wall sometimes three or four stones wide and it was built to keep animals, probably sheep, out. There were no holes when it was built but there are now, as this photo shows. I can’t explain how it happened but I’ve built enough dry stone walls to know that building a hole like this one into a tossed wall would be close to impossible. In a tossed wall the stones are literally just tossed on top of one another. The object wasn’t to build a pretty wall; it was to get rid of the stones as quickly and efficiently as possible. I think a stone must have fallen or been taken out of the wall to create such a hole.

There are a lot of tree stumps along the wall and some of them, like the one above, are very old. Not only was this one covered with moss and lichens, it also had birch trees growing out of it. Stumps like this are always worth a second look.

The old stump had more British soldier lichens (Cladonia cristatella) growing on it than I’ve ever seen in one place. Old rotted logs and stumps are the perfect spots to find them.

Even I can see this shade of red, and I’m colorblind.

A large pile of sand at the base of another hollow tree stump meant that something was living under it. Possibly a ground hog, but I didn’t see a single paw print.

This old maple tree was covered on its sunny side by whitewash lichen (Phlyctis argena.) This is a tough, crusty lichen that is fairly common on hardwood tree bark. They can cover quite a large area and make the tree look as if it has been painted, hence the common name. They can be greenish white, silvery, or bright white.

As time passed barbed wire was often added to stone walls to keep animals in or out. Stone walls were usually too low to be effective and cows and other farm animals often jumped right over them, so their height was increased by adding wire or other materials. You had to pay a fine if your animals escaped and were caught roaming free. They were brought to the town pound and the owner had to pay to get them back. This wire grew out of the very center of a pine tree, so it has been here for quite a while. Running their saw into steel wire is one of a wood cutter’s worst nightmares come true but many things have been found inside trees, from axe heads to gravestones to even bicycles.

Every time I see rusty old barbed wire stapled to a tree I think about a book I read by a man who lived in a cabin in the Massachusetts woods. He said that one of his favorite things to do was run through the woods at night. He wouldn’t want to do that here. I wouldn’t even run through these woods in broad daylight because much of what is now forest was once pasture, and there is a lot of barbed wire out there.

Peppered rock shield lichen (Xanthoparmelia conspersa) likes to grow on stone in full sun and I find a lot of them on stone walls. They’re a good introduction to lichen study because their brown apothecia, where their spores are produced, are large and easy to see without aid.

Scattered rock posy lichens (Rhizoplaca subdiscrepans) on the other hand, are quite small and difficult to see without magnification, but it’s worth looking for them because they almost always have their bright orange apothecia showing. They like to grow on stone, especially granite, in full sun. They don’t seem to change their color when they dry out like many other lichens do.

Sometimes it isn’t what is on the stone that interests me, it’s the stone itself. I’m not sure if this pattern was on the stone or part of it but it was very interesting. Also interesting was how it had absolutely nothing growing on it when all of the stones around it had mosses and lichens growing on them.

I never knew my grandfather but I do know that he made his living as the town blacksmith in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, and this old horse hitching ring brought thoughts of him to mind. If he was lucky a blacksmith might make a dollar a day 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. In the early 1800s blacksmiths charged anywhere from 2 cents for an axe wedge to $5.50 for all of the ironwork on a new wagon. That would include springs, axles, brakes, and rims for the wheels. I have a photo of my grandfather working on a wagon wheel in his blacksmith shop. The wheel sits on top of a big wooden keg that he probably made the iron hoops for. I hope he was paid more than they were in colonial times.

Some of the stones in this old wall are not natural, meaning they were cut or quarried. There is a large granite outcrop just up the hill from this spot and stone was taken from it using star drills and sledge hammers, I would imagine. The marks of the old hand drills are still easily seen on some of the stones. It’s unusual to see both natural and cut stones together in a wall; usually they’re made of one or the other but the farmer could have been trying to increase the height of his walls.

Some of the quarried granite was used for fence posts. Four posts were put in around certain family plots in the cemetery and chain hooks were added by drilling a hole into the top of each post and hammering a hook into the hole.  I’m not sure if friction alone held the hooks in the holes or if cement was added to hold them, but after over 200 years they are still solid and immovable.

Once chain was added the family plot was enclosed but still visible to anyone trying to find it. This chain looks like it was hand wrought.

Blacksmiths don’t cast iron; they soften it by heating it in a forge and then shaping it with a hammer, and I love how you can see all the hammer blows on this chain hook. I also love how the smith fashioned something as simple as a chain hook into what looks like a dragon’s tail. He didn’t have to do this; it was extra work that he probably wasn’t paid for, but he was good and would have wanted people to know his work. If I needed ironwork done and I saw this hook and the ones in the previous photos I would have chosen the smith who made this one. It’s a beautiful thing which, if I owned it, would be considered a work of art.

Sometimes these posts wander in unplanned directions and almost write themselves, and this is one of those; l felt as if I were just along for the ride instead of the one doing the writing. It began in the old cemetery and I just tagged along with the camera while the story wrote itself in my mind, so I hope you won’t mind that there is a little more history than botany in this one. Though I expected the post to be full of mosses and lichens for me the history I found was a refreshing diversion while I wait for spring flowers to appear, and thoughts of my hammer wielding grandfather ran all through the day. I wonder if he ever imagined that one of his grandsons would grow up to be a stone wall builder.

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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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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Days above freezing (32 °F) and nights below freezing get tree sap flowing from the roots to the branches, and that means a lot of work for maple syrup producers. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup and our season usually lasts only 4 to 6 weeks, so they’re very busy at this time of year. Sugaring season usually starts in mid-February but this year it was slightly ahead of schedule, so we might see a bit more than our average 90,000 gallons.

Of course flowing sap means swelling buds, so I had to go and see what was happening. The elongated buds on this red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) were a surprise because normally they’d be almost perfectly round at this time of year. I have a feeling that they’re opening too soon, but we’ll see. I heard on the news that this February was our second mildest on record, so that might explain a few over anxious buds. When these buds open beautiful deep purple leaves will begin to unfold and then they’ll quickly turn green, so I’ll have to keep my eye on them.

Red maple (Acer rubra) buds have just started to swell a bit, as seen in the bud at about two o’clock there on the right. The outer layer of bud scales have started to pull back on several other buds as well. Red and sugar maple buds tell syrup producers when their time is nearly up, because once the trees start to blossom the sap can be bitter.

Native Americans used to tap box elders (Acer negundo) and make syrup from their sap but I don’t think today’s syrup producers tap them. They’re in the maple family but it seems to me that I’ve read that it takes too many gallons of sap to make syrup, and that isn’t profitable for today’s producers. This example looked like the bud scales might have been just starting to open. The earliest known Native American flute, dating from 620-670 AD, was made from the wood of a box elder.

The daffodils that came up before the last snow storm didn’t seem to be hurt by it at all, and that’s probably because it was relatively warm when it fell. It doesn’t always have to be below freezing for snow to fall. Last year these bulbs lost almost all of their foliage to cold.

I saw that some reticulated irises had come up too. These are usually the first flowers to bloom, even beating crocuses and snowdrops. I’ve seen snow and ice on their blossoms, and they just shrugged it off.

Odd that I didn’t see any crocus shoots but I did see these tulips. It seems very early for tulips.

In just a week the willow catkins had emerged from their bud scales. When I last checked there was no sign of them.

Before long each “pussy” will be a yellow flower. Male flowers are always brighter yellow than the female flowers. Willows cross breed freely and it’s always hard to tell exactly which species you’re looking at. Even Henry David Thoreau said “The more I study willows, the more I am confused.” I know how he felt.

There isn’t anything special about this photo, other than it shows that ice is melting from our streams and ponds, but I took it because this is where I felt that first warm breath of spring on the breeze. You can feel it and you can sense it and when you do you want to run home and throw open the windows or hug someone or dance in the street; anything to celebrate winter’s few last gasps. We might get more snow and more cold, but there is no stopping spring now.

The Ashuelot River is still alarmingly high and as I write this heavy rain is predicted Friday which, by the time you see this post, will have been yesterday. My plan is to go out today (Saturday) and see what if any damage was done. I grew up just a few yards from the river and each spring it used to do this, and it seemed that there was always a certain tightness in the air while everyone wondered if it would stay within its banks. It usually did.

Plenty of water was flowing over the dam but it wasn’t lowering the water level any. It has to flow down the Ashuelot and Connecticut Rivers before it reaches the Atlantic, and that takes time. I would guess that there are many obstructions between here and there.

At this time of year mud becomes first and foremost in many people’s minds, especially those who live on dirt roads. Mud season is our unofficial fifth season, and in mud season roads can become car swallowing quagmires. Many roads have weight limits imposed on them until the mud dries up, and any deliveries that involve heavy trucks are put on hold, usually until April or May. Some roads may even have to be closed.

According to Wikipedia Mud Season is “a period in late winter/early spring when dirt paths such as roads and hiking trails become muddy from melting snow and rain,” but that isn’t really it at all. Melting snow and rain do indeed make trails muddy, but in a cold winter like the one we’ve had the ground can freeze to a depth of 3-4 feet, and when things begin to thaw in spring they thaw from the top down. The top 16-18 inches of road thaws but all the meltwater has nowhere to go because it is sitting on top of the rock hard frozen ground two feet below. The soil at the surface then liquefies and acts like quicksand, and the above photo shows the result. Note that this car even had chains on the wheels when it got stuck.

Spring is when many animals like squirrels, skunks and raccoons get extra active. Skunks for instance eat grubs they find in the soil, so thawed ground is a magnet for them and you can often wake to a lawn full of small holes where they’ve dug. Unfortunately many people don’t realize that the skunks are doing them a great service by eating the grubs, because the grubs eat the roots of the grass and can kill it. The small holes they dig grow over quickly and by April or May you’d never know they had been there at all. The squirrel was also happy the ground had thawed and it was digging up acorns buried last fall.

Skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) came up quickly but when I saw them they looked like they had just come up, because the mottled maroon and yellow spathes hadn’t opened yet. Once the spathe opens you can see the spadix within, and that’s where the small greenish flowers grow.

You can just see how this one was starting to open down the split over its length. Since these photos are from last weekend I’m guessing that I’ll find quite a few open today. Hopefully I’ll be able to get photos of the tiny flowers.

Through a process called thermogenesis skunk cabbages can raise their temperature as much as 50 ° F above the surrounding air temperature and in so doing can melt their way through ice and snow. Why they want to come up so early is one of those mysteries of nature. There are very few insects out right now, but I do see them occasionally.

The spring blooming (Vernal) witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) were blooming in a local park. They are one of our earliest flowers and after a long winter much loved. I wasn’t surprised to see them because I’ve seen them blossom even after a foot of snow and near zero temperatures last year. Though they are native to the U.S. they don’t grow naturally this far north, which seems odd since they can stand so much cold.

Witch hazels are pollinated by winter moths which raise their body temperature as much as 50 degrees by shivering. This allows them to fly and search for food when it’s cold. I’ve never seen one but I’ve seen plenty of seed pods on witch hazels, so they must be doing their job. These flowers were very fragrant with a clean, spicy scent.

Spring is sooner recognized by plants than by men. ~Chinese Proverb

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It was a nice warm sunny Saturday when I set out for the Beaver Brook Natural Area in Keene and the weather people said it would be sunny all day, but as soon as I got there clouds moved in and decided to stay for a while. Actually the clouds stayed the entire time I was there and the sun didn’t show itself again until I left.

This was the only blue sky I saw the entire time I was there.

But the trail was well packed down and not really as icy as it looks here.

Beaver Brook was roaring. In the summer it giggles and chuckles along beside you but in the winter it roars, and that’s all you hear. Unless it’s covered by ice; when it’s iced over it whispers and is quieter than at any other time.

The brook hasn’t been completely iced over this winter that I’ve seen, but huge ice shelves had formed here and there. You can see how there is nothing under the shelf but air, so it walking out on it would be a foolish thing to do.

The ice shelves had teeth.

I have a lot of old friends living here along the brook, like this smoky eye boulder lichen (Porpidia albocaerulescens.) I see this lichen just about everywhere I go but nowhere else are its fruiting bodies (apothecia) so blue or its body (thallus) so golden. The gold color comes from the minerals in the stone I think, and the blue color comes from the way the light falls on the waxy coating that covers the apothecia. Whatever it is that causes the colors in this particular place, this lichen is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen and this is the only place I’ve ever seen it look like this.

I also stopped to visit the only example I’ve ever seen of stair step moss (Hylocomium splendens.) This is a boreal moss that grows quite far north into the arctic and I’ve seen it here covered with ice, but it isn’t as delicate as it looks and it always comes through winter unscathed. When it’s dry it has a shiny sheen and that’s most likely why another common name for it is glittering wood moss. New growth “steps up” off the midrib of the previous year’s growth and that’s where the “stair step” name comes from. It’s a beautiful moss and I wish I’d see more of it.

The rose moss (Rhodobryum roseum) came through winter looking fine and I was glad of that because this is the only example of it I know of. I did find another small patch on a stone in Swanzey once, but I can’t remember where. It’s nice to know there are more of them out there but I’d still have to call this moss rare. I love its little aspirin size rosettes of leaves that someone thought looked like roses. They look more like dahlias or chrysanthemums to me, but they’re beautiful no matter what we choose to call them.

There were some impressive ice formations on the ledges and I was surprised, because they don’t usually grow so big here. With the up and down weather we’ve had this year though, I probably shouldn’t be surprised by anything weather related.

Last time I came here the brook was flooding in places and it was a downright scary thing to see. The water mark on the far embankment showed just how high the water had been, and I’d guess that it was a good 6 feet higher than it was on this day. I met an old timer up here one day who told me that he had once seen the water over the old road. That’s something I hope I never see.

In places the snow had melted and revealed that there really wasn’t that much covering the road. Since we’re supposed to have warm days all week there’s a good chance that the road will be snow free this weekend.

Where the snow had melted you could see part of the old double yellow no passing lines.

Off on the side of the road a branch had fallen, and it was covered by what I thought at first was milk white, toothed polypores.

But the spore bearing surface of this fungus was more maze like than toothed, so that had me confused until I got home and was able to see the photos. After some searching I came up with what I think is a crust fungus called the common mazegill polypore (Datronia mollis.) It may be common in some places but I think this is only the second time I’ve seen it.

A little further up the road I found another fallen branch that was covered with inch in diameter, colorful crust fungi which I think were young wrinkled crust fungi (Phlebia radiata.)  These are winter mushrooms and that’s the only time I ever see them. They aren’t common; I’ve only found them three or four times. As they age the center of the fungus becomes very wrinkled, and that’s where their common name comes from.

There isn’t anything odd or rare about tinder fungi (Fomes fomentarius,) but a closer look at this one revealed something that was both odd and rare, at least in my experience.

There were squirrel teeth marks ( I think) all over one of the colored bands on it. Recently I’ve seen the same thing on a few lichens and have found that squirrels do indeed eat lichens, and I’ve seen them eating mushrooms but I’ve never seen them do this. It made me wonder if it was algae they were after, because algae grow on both lichens and fungi. I can’t imagine what else they’d get out of scraping their teeth over this fungus unless it was to keep their ever growing teeth in check. Tinder fungi are very tough and woody, so maybe the animal was simply trying to wear down its teeth.

Another fallen branch displayed what I thought from a distance were shield lichens but once I got closer I realized they weren’t anything I had ever seen.

They were obviously not lichens at all, but instead some type of hairy fungi.

They grew like bracket fungi and their spore bearing surfaces were maze like and faced outward. Each flower like cluster like the one shown above couldn’t have been more than three inches across, so they weren’t very big. They were pliable and rubbery to the touch, and felt much like an ear lobe. They look very pink to me but my color finding software tells me they’re mostly tan with some peach puff and dark salmon here and there.

They didn’t have to be big to be beautiful and I thought they were very beautiful things, but after looking through 4 mushroom books and spending several hours online I can’t find anything that even looks close to them, so they’ll have to remain a mystery for now. Maybe one of you knows their name. If so I’d love to hear from you.

A path well-traveled may still yield secrets that only one person may discover. ~Anthony T. Hincks

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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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