New tree! Friday, Oct 12 2012 

Well, not really.  At the south end of the Yellow Mountain swamp, really a bog, I have often watched various birds.  The bog is caught at the top of the watershed and perched on the top of the hill, it actually drains to the north, in between two steep ridges.   While cold, the ridges protect the area from the wind, and most of the surface water is collected, unable to penetrate the bedrock of the ridges.  This protected habitat shelters birds, while the bog prevents tree cover leading to an impenetrable tangle of blueberry, dogwood, and ilex.

In any case, I haven’t paid much attention to the trees I was under.  About twenty feet tall, with the overall appearance that many understory tree/shrubs take on: incredibly slow growing trunks only a few inches in diameter but decades old, arching and bending to reach the light.  But I noticed them this time.  Instead of the ubiquitous yellow of witch-hazel (the dominant, next to laurel, understory tree), these were a fluorescent orange shading to red. 

So I look a bit closer, poke at the bark a bit, ponder this….grab a leaf for further identification.  I thought I knew, but I wasn’t sure… continue on my way.  Note several more trees of this type, some a bit larger, all in the protection of the ridge but at the sunny edge of the bog.

My initial, ‘but it can’t be’, identification turned out to be right: Nyssa Sylvatica, also known as Black Gum, Tupelo, or Pepperidge.  A bit farther south this is a spectacular and immense tree, rivaling oaks in stature.  It has beautiful fall colour, birds and bees Love it, and it is as tough as the proverbial nail*; but while I have two nursery grown babies that are beginning to take hold…now that I have moved them out of the wind…I thought that Fairfield County was its northern natural extent, with maybe a few in the major river valleys farther to the north.  But on further research, it turns out that ‘cold mountain swamps’ are another of its natural habitats, extending its range to Ontario, if there is enough water and enough wind protection.  I feel a bit stupid, but very happy!

*Naturally, it has been completely ignored by the nursery trade in favour of invasive and/or far less elegant species

Foggy woods Wednesday, May 16 2012 

I don’t like sun very much, you’ll not catch me sunbathing or even wearing a pair of shorts anytime soon.  I do, however, love foggy days.  This morning was an especially pleasant one, just right for a hike up the mountain.  After several days of rain, the deerflies and mosquitoes hadn’t dried out yet but the birds, especially the migrating warblers, were making up for lost time.*  Meanwhile the saturated ground muffled my steps entirely, so I could hear the other animals and they continued their business unbothered by the clutzy human.**   Forests in dense fog spook a lot of people; and I can understand why, it is easy to get lost or to misjudge just how much longer it takes to go from one point to another while navigating a laurel hell.  Yet, I find them beautiful, especially at this time of year when there are so many spring ephemerals, mosses, lichens, and trees in full growth.  The bog, of course, was full of frogs and salamander eggs and nicely full of water, the early drought clearly didn’t bother it; it does have a spring (s) in it, but it also takes the runoff from the surrounding hilltop.  The laurel, especially along the clearcut, where it is regrowing nicely, is about to bloom.

And back just in time, as the temperature is going up and the sun is coming out.

*Don’t ask me to identify them.

** the clutzy human was doing a complicated dance around the umpteen orange newts, which absolutely refuse to move when something large comes along.

Energy Transfer or Snow on the Mountain Wednesday, Mar 7 2012 

It is always interesting to take a walk up on Yellow Mountain.  Currently, although we have had a dry winter with only a little snow, it is quite wet.  It is also unusually quiet, with only a few deer tracks and some coyote tracks.*  What is particularly interesting, however, is that the snow (all of a few inches) is a solid blanket in the woods.  However, it has melted almost completely off of people’s lawns, fields, and other areas of human activity.  The fields with the most snow are those that weren’t cut last year, our hay field has largely melted, a neighboring, uncut, field with a similar exposure has more snow.  It is well established that areas of concentrated human activity, such as lawns and intensively used agricultural areas, have much higher levels of storm water runoff.  What I don’t know is whether any one has looked at their temperature changes. 

The woods in March have about the highest amount of sun levels hitting the floor that they will get all year.  Yet, the limited amount of shade that does exist, combined with the changes in air movement, must substantially lower the temperature.  Thoughts anyone?

It is also rather interesting to observe what plants are making effective use of the sunlight, despite the snow.  In particular the Princess Pine, a small evergreen in the club moss family, has just the right shape to pop up through the snow, while its dark stems effectively melt the surrounding snow quickly.  It therefore can absorb huge amounts of light and water for a few weeks, before the other plants start leafing out.

*No people activity either.

The Poor Man’s Fertilizer Saturday, Feb 25 2012 

We finally got a few inches of wet snow on unfrozen, bone dry earth and the temperatures have meant that much of that snow has soaked into the ground.  This is particularly evident in areas with leaf, grass, or other organic litter.  Field grass, which was desiccated, has been softened, its light gold color picking up some deeper brown and ochre shades.  The same effect has occurred in the woods: walking in the woods a few days ago was a noisy exercise, more reminiscent of mid-fall, today the rustle of leaves is muted and replaced with either the muted footfall or the crunch of ice. 

Late winter or early spring snows on partially thawed ground have long been called the poor man’s fertilizer.  It turns out that there may be some validity to this, as (if the conditions are precisely right) the moisture and possibly some of the nitrogen compounds carried in the snow may be leached into the ground in a slower and more effective fashion.  Certainly, several rounds of spring snow is better than solidly frozen ground, large amounts of snow, and then an abrupt, fast thaw.  But that may have more to do with the amount of water which is effectively absorbed into the ground rather than running off, and less to do with the chemical compounds in the water.  Still no matter the science, the ground today has a kinder feel.

Fire on the Mountain Monday, Dec 5 2011 

Or the difference between a skidder scar and a fire scar on a tree.  Most people are aware of the science of dendrochronology: the interpretation of past events through the reading of tree rings; but we tend to associate this with long-past history.  We tend to forget that a living stand of trees can actually tell us as much, or much more, about the past century or so. 

The woods on Yellow Mountain are deceptive, the lack of invasive species tends to imply an undisturbed area.  And indeed, the numerous small woodland plants, such as the club mosses of all types, sheep laurel, the wintergreen family, etc., all are good evidence that the ground has not been compacted or disturbed in the last century or so.  But the preponderance of beech and the lack of fully mature oaks, or declining oaks, or other hardwoods in any quantity indicates logging in the last half century, and is correct to do so.  While the mountain has always been dominated by beech, hence its name; they oughtn’t be quite so dominate.  That oak is found on the hard to reach ridges but not on the flatter (within the meaning of the word) is also evidence for this disturbance.  The clincher is the occasional cleanly cut stump.

So, to skidder scars.  Three things leave similar marks on trees: deer, skidders and fires.  The deer scrapes are usually only on trees under about four inches in diameter, usually between six inches to four-five feet off the ground.  Deer scrapes are somewhat irregular in shape and not infrequently wrap more than 90 degrees around the trunk.  Skidders are at the same height, but they are sharp, they don’t wrap around the tree and are not oval.  Which makes sense if you consider how a heavy piece of machinery might be pulled past a tree.  Fires burn to the ground or below, leaving a rounded top and often wrapping around the trunk, they are highest and deepest on the uphill sides of trees, where forest litter has piled.  Skidders and fires tend to scar trees over five inches in diameter, under that the tree probably will not have survived, especially with skidders.

The mountain can seem like a place far from the crowded Connecticut landscape, an oasis.  Yet, it is also a testament for the ability of the forest to grow and change.  And in this growth, paradoxical as it might seem, trees remember.  They record everything that has happened to them.  A fully mature tree, standing above all others, will still indicate on which side the heavier tree cover was when it began growing, it will indicate prevailing winds, it will record all damaging storms.  A tree is a witness, an incorruptable witness, and this may well explain part of the reverence some cultures hold for them.  For this record, this decipherable record, is created apart from man but is readable and changable by him.

Squish! Thursday, Dec 1 2011 

Yellow Mountain is decidedly soggy this November.  The old Yellow Mountain Highway, now wood road, was either soggy, or running water, all the way to the north property line.  Witch’s corner and the vernal pool were passable only with a detour into the woods.  Interestingly, our great October snow did almost no damage.  Actually, this is absolutely not surprising.  Trees growing in a forest situation can not make either extravagent or unbalanced growth…ergo they can withstand much more loading than most trees people encounter.

This year there was little evidence of either deer or turkey, relatively speaking, which is not surprising for the acorn crop is poor this year in comparison to last year.  This may discourage my friend, who I was showing the property lines to so he might get at least a few days of hunting in before the end of rifle season.  I did mention that avoiding the bog was a good idea, since every time I go into that area I find sign of the black bear.

Yet, being up there at sunset was very instructive.  I generally go up midday. However, towards sunset the light picks out the ridges, the bog and the varying tree cover with far more detail.  These are New England woods as they ought to be in the mind’s eye.  Semi-open, with the periodic impenetratable laurel/witch-hazel thickets, soaring beeches, oak and pine; hemlock groves hanging onto bedrock ridges, bogs of fern and moss.  It was an enjoyable hike.  But no deer!

Trace Sign Friday, Sep 30 2011 

I don’t know if anyone else has ever encountered those TV shows on ‘if humans suddenly vanished’; they always assume that everything made by man would vanish very quickly, cities engulfed in a few decades by lurid CGI jungles.  Anyone who has studied any archaeology knows that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  If neolithic fish traps can still be seen on Google Earth (if you know what to look for), it is rather unlikely that a modern city would vanish in a century.  Chernobyl has given us a fascinating case study on just how a modern city that is totally abandoned by man does or does not decay. 

Hard structures take millenia, some will probably take a timescale closer to geological time to vanish.  Yet even minor disturbances leave their traces.  Old abandoned roads in New England are legion, New Hartford alone has four major ones and an entire settlement.  These are easy to find, the stone walls, the parallel form of the depression, often enhanced by becoming a water course, the different types of vegetation willing to grow on compacted soil, old cellar holes, unusually massive trees or tree stumps, and so forth.  But even single use logging roads can be found decades later: unusually straight, wide paths in the forest, distinctive scars on trees. 

Sometimes, inadvertently, a single event remains recorded. Up on Yellow Mountain the other day with a state forester, we came across a beech tree that had a distinctive ’14’ cut into it.  Judging by the age of the beech tree and the style of the mark, that ’14’ was made by a CCC crew back in the 1930’s when they came through clearing gypsy moth infestations and removing gooseberry bushes (an attempt to stop the life cycle of a blister rust that damages white pine).  The ’14’ would have been a mark by the crew, presumably no. 14, that they had finished that quadrant to which they were assigned.   Nearly eighty years ago some one, probably a young man who is now elderly if not dead, made a quick mark on the tree. Eventually, that beech will fall; but for the time you can almost see the crew working what increasingly feels like a truly different century (it is, technically, I know!), and yet that tree is a physical connection across decades.

Headwaters Tuesday, Sep 27 2011 

Technically, the headwater is the end of the tributary stream farthest from the river’s end…the direction of the crow’s tail, on the tallest pine in the forest somewhere in Minnesota determines whether the water runs to the St Laurence or the Mississippi, as begins the story of Minn of the Mississippi.   Headwaters have a certain innate mythic weight, similar to that of a spring. 

Headwaters are also the furthest extant of a watershed’s boundary line.  Watersheds are almost fractal in nature and at their boundaries the matter of a few inches can shift the water’s path, by a mile or by a continent.  Yellow Mountain has a river watershed boundary running through it,  interwoven, like a series of fingers.  The east and west sides of the property drain south into the Nepaug river; the center drains north into the Farmington river.  At what exact point on the ridges does the water switch from one to the other?  Does the way the crow sit in the pine tree matter?  It can actually, and that such a small action can make such a difference is somewhat strange and wonderful to contemplate.

A Fungus Among Us (and a slime mold) Friday, Aug 26 2011 

Yellow Mountain’s woods, in the warm wet weather that happens just after a bit of rain in August, have an amazing variety of fungi.  There were a multitude of representatives for the classics: bright red, bone white, lichen grey, mahogany red, tan, fluorescent yellow and so forth of toadstools, along with a few Indian pipes.  There was also a profusion of bright purple toadstools, which quite frankly were rather a bit much. 

I think my favourite of the fungi, I have also seen this in vivid purple.

Much more purple in real life!

A happy slime mold, one has to have one!  Happily in the bog, not far from where I saw another this year.

Toadstool par excellence!

Think I can find it? Thursday, Aug 4 2011 

c.1883, Sarah L. Jones

“a very …. old… dilapidated house, well to the west/sic. should be east/ as the road turns …. to the north, indicates the former residence of Eli Merrill,Sr. and his uncle, Joseph Merrill, 2d…. Within the memory of Mr. Eli J. Merrill, who now owns this old farm, there stood, about twelve rods east of the house, a monument, set there at the early survey of the town to mark the geographical center of New Hartford. The monument consisted of stones laid up, with a stake in the center. It was the orginal intention to locate the meeting house near this point, but upon examination, the ground was thought to be too low and wet, so the stake was pitched on higher ground to the north, near the present Town Hill church.”

Somewhere up there, I have a dubious sketch map as well so I know about where it might be….in a very soggy tangled thicket I believe….

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