Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bog at Lake Desolation

I was just remembering the day I went with naturalist Ruth Schottman to tour a bog at Lake Desolation, in the foothills of the Adirondacks; this was quite exciting because one doesn’t come across a bog everyday in these parts, and they are such unique and interesting habitats. Lake Desolation is a kettle hole bog. The original depression was formed by a retreating glacier, which deposited gravel, salt, and sand. When a block of the glacier became lodged in this sediment, its movement ceased, and when it melted, the depression, or “kettle hole” was created. Bogs are marked by the fact that they have no inlet, or outlet, of fresh water; this means that there are very low levels of oxygen, which severely limits the ability of plants to grow; as such, only certain plants, capable of adapting to this harsh, and poor nutrient condition, can survive here. Sphagnum Moss is one such plant. As it grows, it eventually drops down and fills in the bottom with decaying material called peat moss. Over thousands of years, the edges around the lake eventually fill in, and create a wet, spongy mass, on which other plants can grow.
Because there is very little decomposition of organic matter, the soil and water are a very acidic ecosystem. Due to the poor nutrients, and high acidity, only similarly adaptable life forms can take hold. One of the amazing examples of adaptive behavior is that of the carnivorous plants, which have done well in this environment. In response to the poor nutrients in the soil, these plants eventually began to supplement their diets with insects. The lovely diminutive sundew, for instance (Drosera rotundifolia) attracts insects with its bright red color and a glistening, sugary substance that covers its leaves. When insects become stuck to its glandular tentacles, it uses enzymes to extract nutrients, such as nitrates, from their bodies. Carnivorous plants also obtain phosphorous and nitrogen, both necessary for plant growth, from the bodies of their prey, as well.
The Northern Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea) another plant commonly found in bogs, uses brightly patterned leaves which exude a chemical (attractive to insects) to entice its prey. It adds the additional lure of water, which can be found in its six-inch long, tube-like leaves, partly filled with rainwater. Once the insect has found its way down to the water, it cannot escape, as the inside of the leaf is covered with downward-pointing hairs, and a waxy, slippery substance that comes off onto the insect’s feet, and prevents it from ascending. The rainwater also contains digestive enzymes, which allow the plant to digest all but the exoskeleton. But not all reach their demise when they fall to these depths, some creatures, such as a particular species of mosquito, has adapted to this environment by producing anti-enzymes that allow it to lay its eggs in the pitcher plant!
Sheep Laurel, High Bush Blueberry, Bog Laurel, Leather Leaf, Labrador Tea, Cypress Spurge, Choke Berry, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and another carnivorous plant, Bladderwort, are some of the other interesting plants that can also often be found in a bog.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Saratoga Spa

I wandered yesterday amongst the paths of the Saratoga Spa State Park, and wondered at our great fortune to have such a jewel in our midst! I went by myself, so I was free to roam wherever the impulse pulled me, and I found myself drawn to my old favorites once more. My most favorite path is a very short one, that climbs a gentle hill through a dark and damp wood, and it always put me in mind of a primeval forest. The many exposed roots are gnarly; a giddy brook babbles down the hill, leaving rounded boulders glossy with moss; the trees lean in over the path, as though to whisper their secrets. Though it has been recently groomed (the beginning of the path has been widened, and the area at the bottom of the hill, cleared) for the most part it, has been allowed to remain entirely as nature has left it, and that’s what always makes me wish that the path was longer, for it inspires such elemental feelings of connection to the earth!
But, all of the park is lovely, and even more, it is awe-inspiring for its many expressions of geologic magic. Saratoga has long been known for its healing waters, and the early settlers to this country were not the first to appreciate the waters’ benefits. Native Americans from the 14th century were first aware of the springs, having discovered them during hunting excursions; the game that they were pursuing were attracted to the springs, due to the high salt content; in following their prey, they inevitably discovered the springs as well.
At first, the springs were kept as a highly guarded secret, the Native Americans who visited the springs, regarded them as sacred, a gift from the Great Spirit. But eventually, they began to share their secret with early settlers, and as the years, and centuries, passed the area became renown for the healing powers of the waters. The unwell, lame and infirm flocked here from, literally, all over the world, to bathe in and drink the waters.
The springs in this area are a result of a geologic fault; carbonated mineral water is pushed up from as deep as 1,000 feet below ground level. They originate from a layer of dolomatic limestone, which lies below the shale. The salts in the water are leached from the dolostone, and are infused with carbon dioxide, which causes the characteristic bubble.
This fizziness was nearly the un-doing of the springs, for in the early twentieth century, carbonated drinks had become so popular, that over twenty private companies had drilled wells in the area, to capture the carbon dioxide. In the process, the water table was significantly lowered. Advocates came to the defense of the springs, and eventually the park was formed, the wells capped, and the water table rebounded.
Another of my favorite paths is the one that runs along the geyser, where mineral salts have been mounded into hills; nearby streams glisten red from the high iron content; and close by, a meandering stream filled with small boulders ambles under several bridges.
I barely scratched the surface of the park’s 2,200 acres, and yet my outing was rich and full of images to inspire, and renew, and refresh the spirit!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Yesterday, Jackie and I went on an adventure in the woods that line the banks of her beloved cove, on the Hudson River. I’ve heard her speak of this place many times, mostly about her outings there by canoe, but today, we decided to walk along the banks, and take in its mysteries from shore. I immediately saw what her great love of this place was about: it was a secret little cove with a magical atmosphere. It inspired in me a sense of what it must have been like here, hundreds of years ago, undisturbed, and left entirely to the workings of nature’s hand.
This place stands on the fringes of the Adirondack region, so that, though we were only as far north as the town of Moreau, one, brought there blindfolded, might swear that they were much farther north.
We clambered over rocks, and shimmied between trees, delighting over trees which had literally grown around, and straddled, boulders, which had stood in their way; and gingerly picked our way over swampy patches of mud, making our way, one by one, to the many points that projected into the water. We stood on the great boulders, looking down into the waters below, and scrambled over them, finding them covered with multiple species of lichen and moss; and here and there, we found plants that doggedly grew out of rock crevices: Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) Corydalis (Corydalis sempervirens) and Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) some of which, resolute in life’s purpose, despite the many frosts, were still producing blooms!
As we continued along, we saw Meadowsweet, truly ablaze in color; every warm color one could name was represented in its many hues; creating an effect that caused it to virtually glow, as though with its own inner light.
Not far from the stand of Meadowsweet, I noticed an evergreen plant with which I was not familiar, and Jackie told me that it was Goldthread (Coptis trifolia). She overturned one of the plants and showed me the slender, golden rootstock from which its common name is derived, and then carefully turned it over, and patted it back in place. When I got home, I looked it up in Andrew Chevallier’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, and found that the plant was a traditional herbal medicine, used for canker sores, sore throats, and other problems in the mouth.
We noted, in one area, in particular, red was the overriding color: even things that were normally green, such as winterberry, here, on these rocks, were burgundy; and those things that were normally red, such as blueberry buds, were very red, indeed; even the rocks themselves had a pink hue in places, and we wondered if the particular mineral content of these rocks was effecting the color of the plants that grew around, and upon it.
So many questions! So many mysteries to be solved! So little time! Indeed, it is the awareness of the shortness of time that makes me all the more grateful for days such as these!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Hoary Frost

I went out on an adventure yesterday morning: my friend, and fellow naturalist, Jackie D. invited me to join her, and her friend, Sue P. who is also a fellow blogger. They were headed out on a hunt for frostweed (Helianthemum canadense) which is a member of the Primrose family; this is a very special plant, indeed. It has large (up to 1 ½ inches long) yellow flowers, that bloom in June; but the “special” part comes in, not when it is in bloom, but rather, in the fall, when frosts start to occur. When temperatures are cold enough, the sap of the plant is drawn up from the roots, the stem splits open, and out pours the sap, in vapor form, which instantly freezes into a solid when it hits the frosty air! The result is something that looks like a frozen waterfall! It is truly magical and quite ephemeral, for you must come early to see it; and once the sun begins to warm things up, the frozen moisture is gone! We delighted in the frost, which clung to all of the plants around us, creating ice crystals and a dreamy atmosphere. We moved from plant to plant taking in the beauty, which was so magical, yet so fleeting.
As we walked the woods, we found partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) with its round, dark, glossy leaves, and nibbled on its scarlet berries; also, we found wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) another evergreen, this one with toothed leaves, and like partridgeberry, it too, has red, edible berries. We also found Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) berries, which Jackie was astute enough to recognize, though all it offered for clues as to its identity was a single, leafless stem bearing three berries!
We also found pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) that is another evergreen plant that has shiny, toothed, wedge-shaped leaves. This plant is a traditional medicinal, and was long used by Native Americans to treat fever and to induce sweating. One of the constituents of this plant is hydroquinones, which has a disinfectant effect on the urinary tract system. European settlers also used the herb for both rheumatism and urinary and kidney problems. It was listed in the Pharmacopoeia of the United States from 1820 to 1916!
Sue led us down a hill toward Mud Pond where she had previously spotted a small flock of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus) and we were thrilled to find them still in temporary residence. The males had their magnificent crests raised, and the effect was lovely and quite dramatic. As we stood there watching them, a flock of Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) flew overhead, and we thought sure they were coming in for a landing, but perhaps the wind was wrong, for they kept going.
While making our way back through the woods, we were intrigued by a sound that we couldn’t quite identify; I suggested that it might be wild turkey, but we couldn’t be certain. While Jackie and I lingered behind, with various things that caught our interest, Sue found the source of the “singing”: a tall Pitch Pine groaned and squealed. As the tree gently swayed in the wind, one limb hung over the limb of the white pine that stood beside it, each time it leaned in, a scratching, moaning sound was made, and as it pulled away, it produced a different pitch. As the wind moved at different rhythms, each note was of different lengths, and timbre, and tone, quite musical for sure, but also organic, and “alive”, like the singing of whales, or howling of wolves. As we listened, Sue moved in and placed her ear against the trunk, and I followed suit, only to discover that the sound reverberated through the entire tree, sending tiny shivers down the spine of the listener.
All of the elements of the morning worked together to create an overwhelming sense of gratitude: for the beauty that surrounded us; the spontaneity; the fleeting quality of life’s experiences, and the company of good friends!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Remembering and Forgetting

I walked in the Skidmore woods again yesterday and there were so many leaves on the forest floor that even though I walk there often, and I am quite familiar with some of the trails, I was a little disoriented; everything looked unfamiliar, and at several junctures I was unsure of the way to go. In fact, I’d planned to take a trail I hadn’t walked in a while, but decided against it because the unfamiliarity was somewhat intimidating. The woods are always a different experience each time we enter them, because that world is so rich and full of things to take in, that we couldn’t possibly absorb it all. Hence, each time we pass over a familiar trail, we see something we’d never noticed before. But this seemed as though it was that experience to the extreme, everything looked different, unfamiliar, even the trail was obliterated, because the carpet of leaves was so thick it obscured the path.
But, though I did falter here and there a bit, I finally tuned in to my inner GPS, and found my way intuitively, then I settled back into a certain comfort level, and was able to feel that I was home once more. All of the recent rain, and especially the high winds, had done their work, and many of the trees were bare. I noticed then, of course, how the conifers, still green and business-as-usual in their stance, took the forefront, and let their presence be felt, and I could not help but be grateful for their greenness.
This nakedness of the trees also makes us more aware of the forest terrain: rocks and boulders strewn by the glaciers’ retreat jump out against the stark backdrop, their mossy ridges inviting fairy feet to climb upon them; a black maw gapes in the flank of a tree, by its size, the work of a pileated, who worked here once only heard, or barely glimpsed, hidden as he was, amongst lush leaves.
In many ways, I think, my senses are renewed by the this state of the woods, I can see what had previously been hidden, and I have so much to take in, it can be a wondrous and inspiring experience, and humbling, too. I walked one familiar ridge yesterday only to be struck by the beautiful view of the Adirondacks in the distance; I get this glimpse each year when the trees shed their leaves, but each summer when this vista is hidden behind a wall of trees, I forget once more, only to be delighted again come Autumn.
I am grateful for this remembering and forgetting, this loss and renewal, this brushing away and starting again, it is like my life: I learn to retain what is good and worth keeping, but I learn too, that some things are best discarded. Though the letting go is sometimes painful, the acceptance of transformation brings healing, and renewal, and rebirth.