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Posts Tagged ‘Winter Woods’

Last Sunday I decided it was time to give my tired lungs a little more exercise by climbing 962 foot Mount Caesar in Swanzey. This is the longest climb that I do these days. I’ve done it many times, but not lately. The COPD I have makes it a little more difficult but I believe lungs are just like any other body part; they need to be used. This photo shows the start of the trail. The end of the trail at the summit is also granite bedrock. In fact after you’ve climbed it you realize that you’re on a huge granite outcrop with a little bit of soil on it.

Did you see that depression in the granite in that first photo? For years I’ve wondered if it was natural or man-made. “Man” would have been the red man; Native Americans had been here for thousands of years before Europeans and according to the town history of Swanzey, they are said to have used this mountain as a lookout. The Native Squakheag tribe (I think) burned the town to the ground in the 1740s but it was rebuilt some time later.

There are lots of reindeer lichens (Cladonia rangiferina) here. Huge drifts of them line both sides of the trail at its start. These lichens are quite fragile and should never be walked on.  Reindeer lichen is very slow growing at about an eighth to three eighths of an inch per year and if overgrazed or dug up, it can take decades to reappear. I’m guessing the large colonies found here must be hundreds of years old. The Native American Ojibwa tribe was known to bathe newborns in water in which reindeer lichens had been boiled.

I was surprised to see that native evergreen goldthread had melted its way through the ice in a shaded spot. Goldthread (Coptis trifolia) gets its common name from its bright yellow, thread like roots. Native Americans showed early colonists how to chew the roots to relieve the pain of canker sores and that led to the plant being called canker root. It became such a popular medicine that the Shakers were paying 37 cents per pound for dried roots in 1785 and people dug up all they could find. At one time more goldthread was sold in Boston than any other plant, and of course that meant the plant came close to being lost. Two centuries of being left alone have brought healing to Goldthread though, and today I see the tiny but beautiful white flowers quite regularly in April.

When I see soil configurations like this I know what to look for…

…Ice needles. I just talked about them in a previous post so I won’t go into great detail but as they grow up out of the soil they push up and lift any soil in their way, and you can tell you’re walking on them by the crunching sound the soil makes.

Quite often you’ll find a place where the ground looks like it has heaved up and around stones. The stone sits at the bottom of a hole that is usually shaped exactly like it is, so it also looks like the sun has heated the stone enough for it to melt down into the frozen soil. I doubt that is the answer though because the sun would heat the surrounding stones as well and often only one stone has done this. I think the ground must have heaved up and lifted all the soil that surrounded it. I saw that this had happened in several places along the trail. It’s a common sight in the spring.

It was a beautiful day to be in the woods. I saw many friendly people (and their dogs) and we all said the same thing; We were glad to see the end of winter.  

The beeches backlit by the sun made me want to just sit and admire them. They’re so beautiful at all times of year but especially in the spring and fall.

I didn’t see any signs of movement in beech buds but it won’t be long. By mid-May the newly opened buds will be the most beautiful things in the forest. It’s something I look forward to all year.

The old stone walls that line the trail tell a lot about the history of the place. At one time the flanks of this mountain were cleared of trees, most likely for sheep pasture. When the industrial revolution came along and farmers went to work in the mills all of that hard won pasture reverted back to forest. This means that most of the trees here aren’t much older than the mid-1800s, if that. They may have been cut again and again since that time.

There are still a few big trees left though; pines and an occasional oak. This huge old white pine was emptying itself of all the rotted wood within. I’m guessing that it’s probably full of carpenter ants but it can still stand and live for years, even when completely hollow. I wouldn’t want to be near it in a windstorm.

These seed heads at the edge of the trail caught my eye.

I moved a few leaves aside and found the orchid the seed heads were attached to; downy rattlesnake plantain orchids (Goodyera pubescens.) There are about 800 different species of Goodyeara orchids and telling them apart can be tricky because they cross pollinate and create natural hybrids. These leaves look fragile but they’ll remain green throughout winter. They’re a very pretty but also very small plant. Many aren’t more than two inches across.

In places the trail gets steep and an occasional side trail veers off, but all in all it’s an easy trail to follow. I’ll never forget the day I saw a high school aged boy run up the trail to the top and then he ran back down, all before I could even reach the summit. I think that I could have done it at his age but not now.

Signs help show you the way.

There is a an old , very large log near the summit and I often pretend that I’ve seen something interesting on it so I can stop and catch my breath. On this day I didn’t really have to catch my breath but I did see something interesting on it.

The green bits in the photo are eastern hemlock needles. If you know that tree that should give you an idea of how small these unusual growths were. A lichenologist friend looked at this photo and he said he’s quite sure they aren’t lichens. I’ve looked through every one of my mushroom books and haven’t found anything there either, so if you should happen to know what they are I’d love to hear from you. I used to collect cacti and succulents and they remind me of the succulent called “living stones” (Lithops) but of course they aren’t those.  

NOTE: A kindly reader has identified this mystery being as the Ceramic parchment fungus (Xylobolus frustulatus.) Many thanks to all of the kindly readers out there. You’ve been a lot of help over the years!

The views were hazy on this day, a good illustration of why I don’t climb for the view.

I was surprised to find that I had no fear of falling when I took this shot. Since I fell out of a tree and fractured my spine when I was a boy I haven’t been a great fan of heights, but I thought this cliff face was interesting enough to chance a couple of shots. I didn’t look down but if you look over to the bottom left corner of the photo you’ll get an idea of how high this was. You don’t want to go back down that way.  

When the light is right there’s a good view of Mount Monadnock over in Jaffrey from up here. Of course the best photos are found where you have to dance a little closer to a cliff edge than I like.

All in all this day was as close to perfect as one could get. Full sunshine, warm temperatures, easy breathing and getting to see a whole solar system in a toadstool lichen no bigger than a penny would be hard to beat. I hope all of you will have such a day in your near future.

Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve; they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion. ~Anatoli Boukreev

Thanks for stopping in.

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Last Sunday I decided to skip climbing and walk a familiar rail trail instead. Though it had been a warm week it was a cold enough weekend to have ice on the trails and I left my micro spikes at work, so climbing was out. I was still happy to be on this trail though because I’ve walked here since I was just a boy. At that time trains ran through here though, so it’s always a different feel. 

Right off I saw the beautiful blue of black raspberry canes. I think I must have been 12 or 13 before I got serious enough about plants to begin reading botany books but before that I read anything by Henry David Thoreau because I loved how he was so interested in nature. I suppose I loved that about him because I was interested in the same things, and it was here along this trail that I began to wonder about the things I saw, just like he did in Concord, Massachusetts. I wondered for instance, why these canes were blue, and I found that they had a waxy coating that protected them from getting too much sunlight. You could wipe it right off the cane, and like any wax it would melt and disappear in the summer heat. That’s why this beautiful color is seen more in winter than in summer. It’s my favorite shade of blue.

The wind roars over the hills to the west and blows through here with what is sometimes quite a strong wind and these virgin’s bower seed heads (Clematis virginiana) were blowing all around when I took their photo. Of course this is just what the plant wants, because it grows those long feathery filaments called styles on its seeds (fruits) so the wind can carry them long distances. This is a common but pretty native clematis that drapes itself over shrubs and climbs into trees all along this trail.

Bright yellow fringed candle flame lichen (Candelaria fibrosa) grew on an old black cherry. People worry that lichens will hurt a tree but they simply use tree bark as a roosting place much like a bird would, and don’t harm the tree in any way. A tree’s bark will often grow in ways that allow the tree to shed any rain water quickly in what I think of as vertical streams, and you’ll often find lichens growing right alongside these streams, as these were. This particular lichen is said to be very sensitive to air pollution, so seeing it is a good sign that our air quality is good.

Some of the trees that might have been saplings when I first came through here 50+ years ago are already dying. I’d guess they’re American elms, which are still falling to Dutch elm disease. Keene was once called the “Elm City” but no more. There are very few left.

There are grape vines in the trees everywhere out here and this was the first place that I ever noticed how much the forest smelled like grape jelly on warm fall days, thanks to the overripe fruit. There were lots of different kinds of native fruit out here and I suppose that was why I used to see so many Baltimore orioles.

I checked the hazelnuts (Corylus americana) to see how spring was affecting the catkins. They’re taking on a more golden color, as these show. You can also see the edges of bud scales, and that means they’re starting to open. Before long we’ll see strings of golden male hazel flowers everywhere. Then I’ll start looking for the tiny female flowers. A male hazelnut catkin more or less, is a string of flowers which will open in a spiral pattern around a central stem. The pollen these flowers produce will be carried by the wind to the sticky female flowers and we’ll have another crop of hazelnuts.

I’m seeing maples hanging onto their leaves more these days than I have in the past. At least it seems that way.

I don’t remember ever seeing smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) growing here when I was a boy but they’re here now, though not in the same numbers as staghorn sumac. These berries don’t get anywhere near as hairy as staghorn sumac berries do but the plants still look alike and are easy to confuse if you don’t look closely for the hairy stems of staghorn sumac. Smooth sumac leaves turn bright red in the fall and produce a rich brown dye. Birds supposedly love them but the berries are usually still there in spring until the migratory birds come through.

I was going to say the same thing about staghorn sumac berries (Rhus typhina) not being eaten but I happened upon a flock of robins that were gobbling them up. You can see one sitting on a sumac in the center of this photo. My camera doesn’t have enough reach to do birds the right way, so you might have to hunt a bit. Evening Grosbeaks, Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Scarlet Tanagers also eat these berries.

The seed eaters haven’t hardly touched the black-eyed Susan seeds (Rudbeckia hirta,) which seems odd. In my yard they go fast.

The tiny, seed-pearl like seeds of curly dock (Rumex crispus) were going fast. This little bit was all that was left on a three foot tall plant. Once these seeds mature they can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The leaves are rich in vitamins A and C and can be eaten raw or cooked. The plant’s common name comes from their curly edges.

I’m seeing lots of pussy willows now. I found a new spot where there were lots of bushes.

But I haven’t seen any of the yellow willow flowers coming yet. Maybe this weekend.

 Willows often have pine cone galls on them, caused by a gall midge (Rhabdophaga strobiloides). The midge lays an egg in the terminal leaf bud of a willow in early spring and the larva releases a chemical that tricks the willow into creating this gall instead of leaves. The midge spends winter inside the gall and emerges in the following spring, so the entire cycle takes a full year. It is fascinating things like this, found all along these railroad tracks, which kept me interested in nature when I was a boy. I saw something new almost every time I went out, and I still do.

Here was an icy spot on the trail but most of it was easy walking.

This is just an abstract shot of puddle ice that I saw. I was fascinated by the perfectly round “jewel” that grew in the ice.

Last year’s grasses were on ice and I liked their stained glass look.

Mosses were glowing in the sunshine. We think of mosses as shade lovers but everything needs sunlight, even if it’s only an hour each day.

I wanted to walk on this trail not only for the memories but also to see the Frosted comma lichen (Arthonia caesia) that lives here. I looked and looked for a dime size white spot on a maple tree but I couldn’t find it. It’s a beautiful thing and this photo taken previously shows the only example of it I’ve ever seen. I’ve found it twice, but today wasn’t the day. The only other lichen I know of with blue fruiting bodies is the smoky eye boulder lichen and that one has blue apothecia only in a certain light. The spherical fruiting bodies on this lichen, called ascomata, are blue in any light and they don’t change color when they dry out. They are also very small; each blue dot is hardly bigger than a period made by a pencil on a piece of paper, so lichen hunters need to carry a good loupe or a camera that is macro capable.

Instead of the beauty of the lichen I settled for the more stark beauty of the moon. In made me remember how, in the summer of 1969 I ran outside after we had landed on it. I thought I might see the lunar orbiter going around and around it, but I never did.

My soul can find no staircase to Heaven unless it be through Earth’s loveliness. ~Michelangelo

Thanks for stopping in. Stay safe, everyone.

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In my last post I said I had never seen a dandelion blooming in February but never mind; this one was blooming on Leap Day. Now I’ve seen them bloom in all of the coldest months of December, January and February. They’re a hardy plant, and pretty too.

The morning sunlight caught in the trees always makes me slow down on my way to work but on this day it was so beautiful I had to stop. There is little else like a spring morning; cool but with a hint of the warmth that the day will bring. Even as a young boy a morning like this one made me so happy I felt like I could become part of it; maybe I could float up into the trees with the birds and sing their praises along with them. I know just how they feel on such beautiful mornings, and I’ve known for a very long time. It’s about what a joy it is to be alive.

I was splitting wood at work and picked up a log and found these winter oysterling mushrooms (Panellus ringens) growing on it. At least I think that’s what they are after comparing them to photos and descriptions I’ve found online. I can’t find them in any of my mushroom books but I did see some examples found in Connecticut online. They’re small and said to be reddish brown but my color finding software sees more orange than red. They are a true winter mushroom that doesn’t mind the cold and they were as limber as my ear lobe. They’re said to be bioluminescent, but I have no way of confirming that.

Winter oysterlings have an off center stem. It seems odd how they grow with their gills up but in my experience mushrooms want their spore bearing surfaces pointed toward the ground and what I saw as up might have been down while they grew on the log. I didn’t see them until their log reached the wood splitter so it was hard to know how they grew. This photo does show how they’ve erupted out of a flattish mass.

When I split open another log I saw future fungi in the form of mycelium. For those who don’t know, mycelium can be compared to roots in the way that they reach out from the fruiting body of a fungus to search for moisture and nutrients. Botanically it is the vegetative structure of a fungus and the mushrooms we see above ground grow from it. They can be tiny or as large as a forest. The largest one known covers 2,385 acres in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. Unfortunately it is from the Armillaria ostoyae fungus, which is parasitic on tree roots and will kill trees.

If you strip the inner bark (phloem) of an oak log you can find fibers that are useful in the making of lashings and cordage. Once the fibers are twisted together to make cordage they are quite strong and can be used for anything we would normally use string or rope for. The outer bark had fallen off this oak log naturally due to weather, exposing the fibers underneath. The phloem carries food to the rest of the tree so normally these fibers would run parallel to the length of the log but the weather must have had its way with these because they were all in a jumble as you see here. Native Americans turned tree fibers into threads and cords and made ropes, fishing lines, nets, mats, baskets and even shoes out of them.

Another red oak log just happened to split just right to reveal an insect’s egg chamber deep inside. When you see a woodpecker pecking at a tree this is what it’s looking for. I’m not sure what the insect was but before I split the log open there were about 30 larvae in this one chamber. Lots of protein for a hungry bird.

This is what a pileated woodpecker can do to a tree when it looks for those larvae in the previous photo. It had almost cut this dead beech right in half and wood chips littered the snow.

A beech log when cut revealed spalting. Spalted wood is evidence of fungal damage. Sometimes woods affected by fungi can become very desirable to woodworkers, and spalted wood is one of them. Spalting is essentially any form of wood coloration caused by fungi but there are 3 major types; pigmentation, white rot and zone lines. Sometimes all 3 can be present as they are on the end grain of the beech in the above photo. Pigmentation is the blue gray color, which is probably caused by bluestain or sapstain. White rot is in any areas that look soft or pulpy, and the zone lines are the dark, narrow lines found radiating randomly throughout the log.

This is what a spalted log looks like when it has been split. They can be very beautiful and when sawed into planks can be worth quite a lot of money.  

I’m seeing lots of orange crust fungi on the logs I’m splitting. I think they’re one called Stereum complicatum. It’s color is so bright it’s like a beacon in the woods and it can be seen from quite far away on fallen branches. The complicatum part of its scientific name means “folded back on itself” and that is often just what it does.

I picked up a log and put it on the wood splitter and saw what I thought was a leaf fluttering in the wind, and then I saw the legs and realized it was a butterfly. A butterfly in February? Apparently, and the closest I can come with an identification is the question mark butterfly (Polygonia interrogationis.) According to what I’ve read September laid eggs develop into the winter form of the butterfly, which appear in late fall and spend the winter in various shelters. This one had no shelter and hung onto this log for dear life in a strong wind. When I took  photos the log it was on was vibrating on the log splitter so this is the best of a bad lot. Its long white legs reminded me of the Rockette dancers.

Whenever I see spruce gum on a tree I always wonder who the first person was to peel it off the tree and chew it. When I see it I don’t think of chewing it, but someone did. If you gently heat the resin, which is called spruce gum, of the black spruce tree (Picea mariana,) it will melt down into a liquid which can then be strained and poured into a shallow pan or other container to cool. After about half an hour it will be hardened and very brittle, and when broken into bite sized pieces it can be chewed like any other gum. Spruce gum is antiseptic and good for the teeth. It has been chewed by Native Americans for centuries and was the first chewing gum sold in the United States.

Sweet gale (Myrica gale) is also called bog rosemary. It likes to grow on the banks of acidic lakes, bogs and streams. Touching the foliage releases a sweet, pleasant scent from its resinous leaves which have been used for centuries as a natural insect repellent. Though it is a native plant here it also grows native in Europe, where it is used as an ingredient in beer making in some countries. It is also used in an ointment used to treat sensitive skin and acne. Its buds are very pretty, but also very small.  They will open and flower in spring.

Two or three years the white pines (Pinus strobus) in this area had a mast year and tens of thousands of pine cones fell. This year strong winds have stripped branches from the trees and every one I look at is loaded with tiny undeveloped cones like the one in this photo, so it looks like we’re headed for another mast year for white pines. Mast are the fruits, seeds and nuts of trees and shrubs, which are eaten by wildlife. Hard mast is made up of nuts, seeds and cones and soft mast are berries, apples and such. A mast year means lots of food for wildlife like the white footed mouse, which carries Lyme disease, so they do have an impact on humans as well. This cone was about an inch long.

Here is something I’d bet most people never see; the open spore cases of the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis.) This fern is a good wetland indicator and they grow all alongside streams and rivers in the almost always wet soil. Their shin high, spore bearing fronds full of round black spore cases make them very easy to see in winter but I rarely see them opened as these were.

This is what sensitive fern spore cases usually look like. Early colonists noticed that this fern was very sensitive to frost and they gave it its common name. It has toxic properties and animals rarely eat it, but some Native American tribes used its root medicinally.

A mud puddle had evaporated but it left these long ice crystals behind. Puddle ice is an endless source of fascination and beauty.

In my experience I’ve only seen ice needles in spring or fall before the ground freezes or after it has thawed, so these examples that I saw recently were a good sign of spring. When the air temperature is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit right at the soil surface and the soil and groundwater remains thawed, hydrostatic pressure can force the groundwater, sometimes super cooled, out of the soil where it freezes instantly into a “needle.” As more water is forced out of the soil the process is repeated over and over, and each needle grows in length because of more water freezing at its base. From what I’ve seen the needles almost always freeze together and form ribbons, but few of these did.

Though this photo of Mount Monadnock may not look very spring like, down here in the lowlands most of the snow is gone and what’s left is melting quickly. The record keepers at the state capital say that February was 3.5 degrees above average, and that makes for a short winter. Flowers are starting to bloom and the red winged blackbirds have returned. The furnace runs less each day and grass is greening up in places, so though the calendar might not say spring yet all signs are certainly pointing to it.

The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; be not discouraged – keep on – there are divine things, well envelop’d; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.  ~Walt Whitman

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It certainly appears that spring is upon us but those of us who have been around for a few decades are always wary of a false spring. A false spring, for those who don’t know, is a period of unusual warmth in late winter or early spring that can last long enough to bring plants and animals out of dormancy. When the normal cold temperatures return, sometimes weeks later, the plants and animals that have woken early are taken by surprise and can suffer. I haven’t seen any alarming signs of plants waking early but the bears and skunks are awake, and they’re hungry. The Fish and Game Department has been telling us to stay out of the way of the bears, which is surely good advice even if it is common sense. One of the signs of spring that I’ve always enjoyed is the way willows turn golden, as the one in the above photo has. There is a species of willow from Europe and Asia called golden willow (Salix alba vitellina) but I have no way of knowing if this tree is that one.

Another tree I always love seeing in spring is the red maple, with all of its globular red buds standing out against a blue sky. Each season seems to have its own shade of blue for the sky. A spring sky isn’t quite as crisp as a winter sky but it is still beautiful. The level of humidity in the air can make a difference in the blue of a sky because water vapor and water droplets reflect more of the blue light back into space. This means we see less blue than we do when water vapor is at a lower level. The scientific term for this phenomenon is “Mie scattering.” The sun’s angle can also make a difference in how much of the blue we see.

I found these red maple buds near the Ashuelot River in Keene and was surprised to see so much red on them. The purple bud scales slowly open to reveal more and more red and soon after this stage the actual flowers will begin to show. The flowers open at different times even on the same tree, so the likelihood of them all being wiped out by a sudden cold snap is slim. Early settlers used red maple bark to make ink, and also brown and black dyes. Native Americans used the bark medicinally to treat hives and muscle aches. Tea made from the inner bark was used to treat coughs. 

We have sugar maples where I work and someone broke a twig on one of them. The other day I noticed it was dripping sap, so syrup season is under way.

I didn’t see any dandelions blooming but that’s only because I was late getting there. There were three plants in one small area with seed heads all over them. I’ve seen them bloom in January and March but never in February, so I would have liked to have seen them.

The skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus) are happy in their swamp. Bears that come out of hibernation early will sometimes eat skunk cabbages but not much else bothers them. There is little  for bears to at this time of year but a helpful reader wrote in and said that they also dig up and eat the roots of cattails. When I was taking these photos a small flock of ducks burst from the cattails not five feet from me. You won’t need a defibrillator when that happens I’ll tell you, but what struck me most about it was the sound of snarling just before the flock hit the sky. I wonder if they were being stalked by a bobcat when I came along and ruined its hunt. If so I never saw it but it was an angry snarl that didn’t sound like any duck I’ve ever heard.  

Through a process called thermogenesis skunk cabbages are able to generate temperatures far higher than the surrounding air. You can often see evidence of skunk cabbage having melted their way through several inches of solid ice. I saw plenty of the splotchy spathes but I didn’t see any that had opened to reveal the flower studded spadix within.

I went to one of my favorite places to find pussy willows and found that they had all been cut down. Luckily I know of more than one place to see them but I had to wonder why anyone would have cut them. Unless you get the roots they’ll grow right back, bushier than ever. I’ve seen willow shoots even grow from cut willow logs, so strong is their life force.

Another fuzzy bud is the magnolia, but I’m scratching my head over what is going on here. The bud scales of the magnolia are fuzzy and gray and they open and fall off when the flowers open, but here it looks like the bud scales have opened to reveal more bud scales. Could the open scales still be there from last spring? Hard to believe but possible, I suppose.

I saw some alder catkins that were still covered with the natural glue that protects the flower buds. Each brown convex bit seen here is a bud scale which will open to let the male flowers bloom. Between the bud scales is a grayish, waterproof “glue” that keeps water out. If water got in and froze, all the tiny flower buds inside would be killed. Many plants use this method to protect their buds.

You can see the same “glue” on the buds of American Elms. Also sugar maples, poplars, lilacs, and some oaks protect the buds in this way. I assume that the warming temperatures melt this waxy glue in spring so the bud scales can open.

In places with a southern exposure the snow pulls back away from the forest, and this happens because the overhanging branches have reduced the amount of snow that made it to the ground along the edges of the woods.

Though the grass in the previous shot was brown I did see some green.

I also saw some mud. They might not seem like much but green grass and mud really get the blood pumping in people who go through the kind of winters we can have here. When I was growing up it wasn’t uncommon to have shoulder deep paths through the snow drifts and 30 degree below zero F. (-34.4 C)  temperatures. In those days seeing mud in spring could make you dance for joy. But then mud season came so we put on our boots. Mud season turns our dirt roads into car swallowing quagmires each spring for a month or so.

One of the theories of why evergreen plant leaves turn purple in winter is because they don’t photosynthesize, they don’t need to produce chlorophyll. Another says the leaves dry slightly because the plant doesn’t take up as much water through its roots in winter. It is called “winter bronzing” and whatever the cause it can be beautiful, as these swamp dewberry (Rubus hispidus) leaves show. Before long they’ll go back to green and grow on without having been harmed at all.

The hairy, two part valvate bud scales of the Cornellian cherry are always open just enough to allow a peek inside. The gap between the bud scales will become more yellow as the season progresses and finally clusters of tiny star like yellow flowers will burst from the bud. These buds are small, no bigger than a pea. I’m not sue what the hairs or fibers on the right side are all about. I’ve never seen them on these buds before. Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is an introduced ornamental flowering shrub related to dogwoods. It blooms in early spring  and has a long history with mankind; its sour red fruit has been eaten for over 7000 years, and the Persians and ancient Romans knew it well.

Daffodil leaves that have been weakened by the cold will often be yellowed and translucent but these looked good and heathy and green. Even if the plant loses its leaves to cold it can still bloom but since it has to photosynthesize to produce enough energy to bloom it probably won’t do so the following year. It might take it a year or two to recover.

I didn’t expect to see tulip leaves but there were several up in this sunny bed.

I know I just showed some lilac buds in my last post but these looked like they had been sculpted by an artist. I thought they were very beautiful and much more interesting than the plain green buds I usually see. You can see all of life, all of creation right here in these buds. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent all of my life watching lilac buds in spring.

I’ll close this post with a look at another venal witch hazel blossom, because it is a very rare thing to see flowers of any kind blooming here in February. They’re tiny little blossoms but their beauty is huge.

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

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I couldn’t remember the last time I had climbed a hill or mountain so last Sunday I decided it was time. I chose Hewe’s Hill in Swanzey, for no particular reason other than that’s where the 40 ton glacial erratic called Tippin Rock lives. I set off across the meadow in wall to wall sunshine and a 46 degree temperature. This was no thaw, this was spring, and I was glad that I had worn a short sleeve shirt and a light jacket.

There is at least one basswood tree here and someday I’m going to find it. They aren’t common in this area in my experience.

The trail starts off level enough but it isn’t long before you’re climbing.

Someone lost a glove and someone else hung it on a tree.

There are lots of black birch here. I keep running into black birches (Betula lenta) with what appears to be a deformity in their buds. I wouldn’t call it witches broom but the buds grow in a tightly packed cluster which isn’t normal, judging by the other buds on the trees. I haven’t been able to find out anything about it from any source, so if you happen to know I’d love to hear from you.

Oak leaves have been falling, and that’s a good sign of spring. The trees will make new leaves as they shed the old.

This trail is well blazed. Blazes are important because they keep people from getting lost out here. A trail is easy to follow at this time of year because you just follow the footprints in the snow, but in the fall when the trail is under a fresh coating of leaves it can disappear quickly for those who don’t know how to read the woods. The meaning of various blazes and how to read them is easily found online. This one means there is a right turn ahead. On a single out and back trail like this one blaze color has no real meaning.

The old way, a hatchet blaze, simply tells you that you’re on a trail.

I saw lots of freshly fallen trees out here; more than I’ve seen anywhere else. There must have been quite a wind storm come through here.

But there are plenty of hemlock seedlings waiting to fill in the gaps. Life is a circle.

There were icicles on the ledges. They weren’t that impressive at about three feet long but it shows how cold it has been up here.

I think the outcrop the ice was on was more impressive. It’s quite long.

I had reached the steepest part of the trail without any breathing issues, for which I was very grateful. I was also grateful that there was no ice on the trail. I did stop here to catch my breath and thought about how nice it was to be climbing through the winter woods again. Climbing is easy to get addicted to. The more you climb the more you want to climb and when you can’t you miss it. It calls to you, and it won’t stop calling until you climb again.

I noticed that captain obvious had put up new signs.

I call this mysterious person captain obvious because the sign in the previous photo is only a few feet from the behemoth called Tippin Rock. You couldn’t miss it if you were blind, so the sign is kind of useless. But how amazing that such a thing was dropped by a glacier onto this hilltop. Even more amazing is how it will rock slowly back and forth like a baby cradle when pushed in the right spot. Even after seeing it myself it’s hard to believe.

Some of the oldest striped maple trees (Acer pensylvanicum) I’ve seen grow up here. This one was probably 6-8 inches through, which seems big for them if I’m to go by the ones I’ve seen.

I learned a long time ago that if you climb solely for the view you’ll be disappointed most of the time. On this day it was hazy but not too bad. I like a good view as much as the next person but I never count on there being one because it doesn’t take much haze or humidity in the air to spoil them.

This view shows the haze in the distance. There was actually a warm breeze blowing and the snow had melted from the leaf covering in several spots so I sat, warm and dry, and looked out over the endless forest.

You can’t help but wonder, after seeing miles of unbroken forest from above, how the early settlers ever did what they did. I always wonder if I could have gone on after seeing this, or would I have turned back? There was nothing familiar out there, after all. No stores, no roads, no houses, nothing. It would have almost been as if they had landed on another planet. Personally I would have loved the emptiness and the solitude but you have to eat and you need shelter, so I’d guess that staying alive would have taken up almost all their time.

It’s a long way down from here so you want to watch your step. I always check to see how near the edge I am before I bring the camera to my eye. Once I’m looking through the viewfinder, I don’t move a step. Heights and I don’t get along well but up here you don’t know how high you are until you look down. Then you get the heebie jeebies.

Of course I couldn’t come all the way up here without checking on my little friends the toadskin lichens (Lasallia papulose.) This one seemed to whisper “Hey, look at me,” so I did and I saw how very different it was. It’s the first one I’ve ever seen that was brown. Usually they’re pea green when moist or ash gray when dry. You can see a hint of that gray in this one’s center. You can also see the point where it has attached itself to the rock in its center. It’s like a belly button and that’s what makes them umbilicate lichens. The many “warts” are what give it its common name.

When dry the toadskin lichens usually turn from their normal pea green color to the ashy gray seen here. They also become very brittle, like a potato chip. All those black dots are this lichen’s fruiting bodies, where it’s spores are produced. I’ve noticed that they often seem to form where the lichen stays wettest longer after a rain.  

The head of a pin is .06 inches (1.5 mm) in diameter and one of the toadskin lichen’s fruiting bodies (Apothecium) could easily hide behind one. The apothecium is where the lichen’s spores are produced. In this case it is tiny black disc with a sunken center that makes it look like a bowl with a thick black rim. The way that they sit on the body (thallus) of the lichen makes them look like they’d blow away in a breeze, but they are attached. This isn’t a great photo but it’s only the second time I’ve ever been able to get this close to this lichen‘s apothecia and it’s a pretty fair bet that you’re seeing something you’ve never seen.

Here is what a normal, healthy and happy toadskin lichen looks like, and this one looked like this because an icicle was dripping meltwater on it. It was about as big as a quarter and cute as a button.

I got back to my car and saw that a horse had been there. Horseshoes are supposed to be lucky but I’m not sure about a horseshoe print. I did feel lucky though, having gotten up and down the hill without any issues. The temperature even went up 8 degrees and it was a beautiful day, up or down. I’m already itching to climb again.

Perhaps there’s no better act of simplification than climbing a mountain. For an afternoon, a day, or a week, it’s a way of reducing a complicated life into a simple goal. All you have to do is take one step at a time, place one foot in front of the other, and refuse to turn back until you’ve given everything you have. ~Ken Ilgunas

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On Sunday, February 2nd Punxsutawney Phil, King of the weather predicting Groundhogs, didn’t see his shadow when he was removed from his burrow. Some might think that this simply meant that Phil woke under a cloudy sky, but it meant far more than that to The King; he immediately declared that we would see an early spring.  So, bolstered by Phil’s decree, I went off in search of spring. As you can see by the above photo, I didn’t find it; at least not right away. In fact all it has done is snow since Phil made his announcement.

This is what it looked like one morning on my way to work. Yes, it was cold too. Since Phil’s decree we reached 8 below zero F. one night; the coldest it’s been all winter. I’m voting we leave Phil in his burrow next year and let him sleep until he wants to wake up.

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight” the old saying goes, so this beautiful evening sky gave me hope that the weather would turn.

As of this writing we’re still getting a storm each week but they’ve carried little snow. What you see here amounts to maybe 4 inches at most. After every storm it warms up and melts a lot of the snow that fell. I read recently that scientists studying our dwindling snow cover have found that trees are suffering, because when the insulating qualities of snow are gone the soil can freeze deeper, and this can kill a tree’s feeder roots. Instead of expending energy of growing new leaves and branches trees have to divert their energy to re-growing their roots. Without the life giving energy from photosynthesis that more leaves provide a tree can weaken, and that increases the possibility of attacks from insects and fungi.

When you plow even 4 inches into a pile it looks like a lot more.

But it’s melting in the woods, as this patch of American wintergreen shows. All those plants and I couldn’t find a single berry. When I was a boy my grandmother often took me walking through the woods to teach me what she knew about wild plants. One of the first plants I remember getting to know is the Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens,) also known as checkerberry or American wintergreen. My grandmother and I would pick the small red berries from the plant she always called checkerberry until we each had a handful, and then we would have a refreshing, spicy feast in the forest. Chewing the leaves can also be refreshing when hiking on a hot day. In the past, the leaves were also chewed by Native Americans to relieve pain.

Lilac buds showed no signs of opening but they did look like they might be swelling some. We dug a hole where I work and found that the frost is only 5 inches down in the ground. It’s usually much deeper and can reach nearly 4 feet in very cold winters. That’s why all of our water pipes have to be buried at least 4 feet deep, otherwise they could freeze and burst.  

I always start checking American Hazelnut (Corylus americana) bushes early for signs of life. So far the male catkins aren’t doing much and I haven’t seen any of the tiny female flowers either, but it won’t be too long. I have a feeling they’ll be early this year. When the catkins open there will be a single bright, yellow-green, male flower peeking out from under each of those diamond shaped bud scales. They grow and bloom in a spiral down the length of the catkin.

I’ve always assumed that migrating birds ate the staghorn sumac berries because nothing touches them until spring. There are thousand of berries in this one photo and not one of them has been eaten, even though I heard robins nearby. I also saw black capped chickadees and dark eyed juncos.

Nothing had been eating the wild grapes hanging from this pine tree either. I was surprised because grapes usually do get eaten quickly.

I wanted to just sit by the river and think one day-I was in that kind of mood-but every stone was covered with ice and snow so there was no dry place to sit. This is what the shoreline looked like; a half inch of ice covered everything.

But the river itself remains unfrozen. So far it hasn’t frozen over in any of the usual places this winter.

Sometimes in spring the river fills itself from bank to bank but so far this year it’s shallow enough to walk across. You’d think it was August by this photo but since we’ve had so little snow to fill it with snowmelt I wasn’t surprised.

The trees in this photo are tipped with gold and that’s a sure sign that things are changing. I think they were poplars but I couldn’t get close enough to find out for sure. Poplar buds swell early and some species have catkins that look like pussy willows.

Red maple flower buds (Acer rubrum) are small and round or oval with short stalks and 4 pairs of bud scales. The bud scales are often purple like those seen here. They have a fine fringe of pale hairs on their margins and when they start to open a tomato red color can be seen between the scales. Red maples can be tapped and syrup made from their sap but the sap gatherers have to watch the trees carefully, because the sap can become bitter when the tree flowers. Seeing the hillsides awash in a red haze from hundreds of thousands of red maple flowers is a treat that I always look forward to. Unfortunately I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to capture that beauty with a camera.

Crocus leaves poked up out of the ice.

And daffodils poked up out of the soil in a raised bed. They were a surprise.

But the biggest surprise of all came in the form of spring blooming witch hazels (Hamamelis vernalis) blossoming. Until now the earliest I’ve ever seen them bloom was February 23rd but these bloomed a full week earlier. Their strap like petals can curl up into the bud if it gets cold and then unfurl again on warm days, so you don’t see too many that have been frost bitten.

There was a large building between me and the witch hazels but I could still smell their wonderful, clean fragrance. It’s so good to see them again; I was ready for spring a month ago so I’m glad the groundhog got it right.  

It starts with a gentle southerly breeze; a soft, warm breath. The sun grows stronger and its warmth penetrates the soil a little deeper each day, and as the soil warms the yearly miracle will begin. Once started it won’t be stopped; sap is starting to flow and soon buds will swell to bursting. An indescribable beauty will cover the earth and as usual I will be here, trying to describe the indescribable. I do hope you’ll be able to get out there and see it for yourself. It’s so much better than reading about it.

Spring is when you feel like whistling, even with a shoe full of slush.  ~Doug Larson

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One of the strangest things I’ve found in nature is when a normally roaring brook is muffled by ice, so last weekend I went up to Beaver Brook to see if it had been muffled or if it was still singing. As this photo shows, it was singing. Loudly.

There were places though, where the ice had almost grown from bank to bank. The ice doesn’t quiet it absolutely but very close, and it’s an eerie thing to know a brook is there and not be able to hear it.

Icicles hung from the edges of ice shelves but they weren’t as impressive as in years past. This has been such a warm winter. It gets cool and snows but then it warms up and the snow melts, and then it happens again, so we have no real snow depth. The reason it has lasted here is because Beaver Brook flows through a shaded canyon between two hills.

I saw more ice on the ledges that line the old road than on the brook.

An evergreen fern waited patiently for spring.

What I call the color changing lichen had put on its lavender / blue coat. My color finding software sees more “steel blue” than any other color but in the warm months this lichen is ash gray. When I see it I always wonder how many other lichens change color. This one is granular and crustose and I’ve never been able to identify it.

I didn’t want to get too close to where the color changing lichen grew because the ledges here are unstable and large pieces have been falling recently. Cracks like this one are caused by water running into them and freezing. The expanding ice makes the crack bigger and bigger and eventually the stone falls, pried away from the ledge face by the ice.

On the hillsides above me there were many fallen trees. Since there are electric lines running through here they have to be cut when they fall on the wires.

I was sorry to see that one of the fallen trees was an old beech with hundreds of beechnut husks on it. These nuts are an important food source for many different animals but I hardly see them at all.

A maple leaf had such beautiful color it stopped me in my tracks and held me mesmerized for a time. I took far too many photos of it but colorful maple leaves are unexpected in February.

I think it has been over a year since I last saw the yellow jelly fungus (Tremella mesenterica) called witches butter, even though they’re fairly common. Though jelly fungi grow at all times of year I think of them as winter fungi because that’s usually when I find them. I often see them on fallen branches, often oak or alder, and I always wonder how they got way up in the tree tops. We also have black, white, red, orange and amber jelly fungi and I’d have to say that white and red are the rarest. I think I’ve seen each color only two or three times. An odd fact about jelly fungi is that they can be parasitic on other fungi.

There are lots of striped maples (Acer pensylvanicum) growing along Beaver Brook. They have colorful twigs and buds and are among the easiest trees to identify no matter what time of year because of the green and white vertical stripes on their bark. Their terminal buds have two scales and are valvate, meaning they have two bud scales. Striped maple is very fussy about where it grows and will not stand pollution, heat, or drought. It likes cool, shady places with sandy soil that stays moist. They bloom in June and have very pretty green bell shaped blossoms.

Hobblebush (Viburnum lantanoides) also does well along the brook. Their buds are naked, meaning they have no scales to protect them, so they have wooly hair instead. This photo shows that the flower bud in the center and the two leaf buds on either side are clothed more in wool than hair, but they come through the coldest winters and still bloom beautifully each spring.

The chubby little green and purple buds of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) are some of my favorites, but I don’t see them often. Lucky they grow along the brook in places so I could admire them on this day. Red elderberry buds have imbricate scales, meaning they overlap like shingles. Soon the buds will swell and the purple scales will pull back to reveal the green scales underneath.

Here was something I’ve never seen; the normally round buds of red elderberry had elongated. There were several that had done this and I can’t figure out why they would have. Maybe they can gather more sunlight with this shape and are evolving right before the eyes that care enough to watch.

When light rain or drizzle falls on cold snow it can freeze into a crust and that’s what had happened during the last storm. The shiny crust can be very hard to capture on film but here it is, on the other side of the brook. Crusty snow can be awfully hard to walk on because it acts like it will support your weight, but at the last minute it breaks and your foot falls through it. Having it happen over and over makes for a jarring and tiring walk.

A tree fell perfectly and wrapped its arms around another.

Native witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) also line the banks of Beaver Brook. This is a shot of the recently opened seed pods, which explode with force and can throw the seeds as far as 30 feet. I’ve read that you can hear them pop when they open and even though I keep trying to be there at the right time to see and hear it happening, I never am. Seeing the ice on the one on the left, I’m wondering if the pods hold water.

I like to visit my old friend the stair-step moss (Hylocomium splendens) when I’m here. It’s a very beautiful moss that grows on stones as far north as the arctic tundra. It seems fairly rare here; this is the only example that I’ve seen, and it doesn’t seem to be spreading. When dry stair step moss has a slight satiny sheen to it, and that’s probably how it came by its other common name of glittering wood-moss. The name stair step moss comes from the way the new growth “steps up” off the midrib of the previous year’s branch.  Each year a new branch grows from the old and this growth habit allows stair step moss to grow up and over other mosses. It is said that you can tell the age of the moss by counting these steps.

The liverwort called greater whipwort (Bazzania trilobata) was frozen absolutely solid. Even frozen it still reminds me of centipedes. It’s very easy to mistake this common liverwort for moss so you have to look closely. The root-like growths are new branches. They aren’t always present but sometimes there will be a lot of them as there were here. This was a happy liverwort, even though it was frozen.

This scene of green algae in a seep reminded me of spring. Hydrologically speaking a seep is a wet place where water reaches the surface from an underground aquifer. This seep is a warm one; in all the years I’ve known it I’ve never seen it completely freeze. Seeps don’t have a single point of origin like a spring, instead they form a puddle that never dries up and doesn’t flow. They’re an important water source for many small animals and birds and unusual plants and fungi can often be found in and around them.

The waters of the stream played the part of the orchestra, and the sunlight provided the dancers. Every now and then a crescendo of wind highlighted the symphony in the clearing by the creek.
~Edward Mooney Jr.

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