April 16, 2014

Unexpectedly Rare Appearances

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is a true harbinger of spring, brightening the monochromatic landscape with brilliant, sunny blossoms on leafless stems that hug the ground.  And though their vigor is unwelcome in many states, they remain one of my favorite "naturalized" spring wildflowers.

Until 1985, Concord had no official record of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) growing within the town.  Though introduced to North America several centuries ago, likely for its profound medicinal value for the lungs, Tussilago typically grows and spreads in disturbed areas and is considered a "noxious" weed in many parts of the country.

While intensively studying Concord's historic and still extant flora in the 1970-80's, Ray Angelo found the first small patch of Tussilago alongside the long abandoned Reformatory Branch RR bed.  Minot Pratt recorded having introduced the plant back in the mid-1800's, but no traces were recorded by any of the local botanists who followed him.  I found the hoof-shaped leaves of this small patch last October, growing on an oak leaf carpeted shoreline near the same abandoned RR bed further east in Concord, and set out with my homeschool students last Friday to look for the flowers.  Both of these modest patches were likely seeded at least some 80 years ago when trains ran this line through town from Cambridge. 

This week while out exploring vernal pools with my students, a spontaneous bushwack from one trail to another serendipitously brought us to a third small patch of coltsfoot, some 1000' from an active trainline.  From a single town record to three, all in undisturbed and sheltered locations and all likely to have been historically seeded by passing trains.

Coltsfoot leaves distinctively resemble horses hooves, these photographed on 10.1.13.
Coltsfoot's hoof-shaped leaves emerge as the flowers go to seed creating a ground cover through to autumn. 

April Snow

A sigh, after our long harsh winter, co-mingles with relief for this cooler progression of spring that was the norm 25+ years ago.  Be glad that the shadbush, blueberry, and spicebush wait for the balmier breezes of May's debut to open, slowing the pace toward ever warming springtimes.
Red maple blossoms
Squirrel passing
Spring sparkle
Daylily promise

April 3, 2014

Ladybug Inundations

Native pink lady beetles (Coleomegilla maculata) escape the rising water
On April 3rd, this year's rising rivers crested in Concord and Great Meadows experienced a double inundation, one of water and another of pink lady beetles.  As I was wading...calf, knee, and then thigh deep along the water-covered dike trail, I encountered a surprising spring spectacle.  In two separate locations thousands of pink lady had climbed en mass onto shrubs, tree trunks, cattail leaves, and even lotus pods to escape the rising waters.  Each spring these brilliant, native predators emerge as adults from their winter slumber in the leaf litter and disperse to lay eggs, several hundred per female, just as the earliest flowers and leaves begin to open.  Their voracious larvae feed on aphids and many other plant-eating insects and are tremendously beneficial to wild and agricultural plants alike.  The notable abundance of lady beetles at Great Meadows may be due, in part, to its riverside proximity to Hutchins Farm, who release these beetles seasonally as part of their organic farming cycle.

While Great Meadows NWR lies squarely in the Concord River floodplain, helping to absorb and divert seasonal river rises, wildlife and visitors must adapt to temporary inconveniences...and opportunities.

Inundated dike trail
Beaver surfaces and explores new territories
Beaver surprised to see me wading along...tail slap!

Great blue heron keeps one step ahead, sharing the trail
Final notes of the day

March 20, 2014

Spring's Subtler Signs

Though the vernal equinox is here, frigid temperatures and ice covered waters show this winter's reluctance to yield to warmth and renewed life.  But spring's subtle signs include more than warming temperatures.  Needle ice forms when the ground temperature is above freezing (32º F. / 0º C.) and the air temperature is below freezing.  These delicate ice crystals can found on the soil and plants late in the autumn AND around the vernal equinox, when both of these conditions come together overnight.

Needle ice found on oak leave and low clumps of grass at sunrise on 3/19/14 following above freezing daytime temps and an overnight dip into the low 20's.
Yesterday's sunrise cast its reflection across the solid icy surface of the marsh at Great Meadows NWR, but for those of us who have been watching it here year round, its position on the horizon announces spring's arrival.  On the vernal equinox, we note the sunrise comes half way between its most southerly position on the horizon on the winter solstice and it's most northerly position during the summer solstice.  These observances are famously marked by ancient astronomical monuments and structures identified throughout the world (eg., Stonehenge, pyramids of Giza, Chichen Itza, Orkney Is., Chaco Canyon, etc.)

Sunrise at Great Meadows on 3.19.14
Of course, the birds have been telling us since late February that spring is on the rise.  Chickadees and cardinals began singing their spring songs in mid-winter as the light shift became palpable.  Tufted titmice, song sparrows, and house finches broke their winter silence earlier this month.  And now the creaking choruses of returning red-winged blackbirds and grackles fill the air near every wetland in Concord.  At autumn's retreat and spring's approach, formations of Canada geese fill the air at dawn and dusk and red-wings swell and sway on weathered cattail heads around Great Meadows' marshy expanse.

Chickadee munches still tight flower buds on silver maples in the floodplain
Canada geese reposition themselves up and down the river as open water and ice shelves still compete for dominance
Perhaps THE harbinger of spring in our wetland-graced community

Have faith that warmer days and greener vistas aren't far behind.  Welcome, Spring!

February 22, 2014

Sugaring Off at Gaining Ground

In the teasing warmth of this afternoon, we visit the Gaining Ground sugar house for one of their first boils this season.  Like a bit of Vermont in our own neighborhood, the perfumed steam breathes out the door and roof vent, while visitors gather around the boiler to share stories of their sugaring memories and make acquaintances.  Gaining Ground currently taps 175 sugar maples on both public and private land in Concord and Carlisle. The finished syrup is distributed to local food pantries in the greater Boston area.  For more about Gaining Ground's farming mission and who they serve, see http://gainingground.org/our-mission.

With daughter Rosie and friend Sean Morris in the foreground

Farm coordinator, Kayleigh Boyle, stokes the fire and introduces us to the workings of their modern boiler.  Sugar boils are scheduled for Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons until mid-March, weather permitting, and are open to visitors.  The sugar house is located on the driveway into Gaining Ground and Thoreau Farm, at 341 Virginia Road.

Enjoying the steamy warmth while farmer Kayleigh Boyle gives us the story
Thoreau Farm in the background
Shafts of light, curls of smoke

Discussing maple syrup grades
Fetching wood
Stoking the fire
Completing the story...  The sap for the Gaining Ground sugaring operation is collected largely by community volunteers.  The trees that are tapped are mature individual, town-planted setback or park trees and small groupings of sugar maples on private property that were likely planted and nourished over the past century.  There is only one known location for a wild stand of sugar maples in Concord (see below).  The success of Gaining Ground's program should encourage the town to increase the inclusion of sugar maples in its municipal tree planting program to sustain Concord's maple sugar production long into the future.

Volunteers collect sap at our tree on March 9th this year
Stalking Concord's Rare, Wild Sugar Maples
Natural stands of sugar maples are a rare feature on the Concord landscape.  In 1851, Thoreau was alerted to the only natural stand that was known at that time, or since, behind Darius Miles' property near the "Corner" (Nine Acre Corner).  "Found a grove of young sugar maples (Acer saccharinum) behind what was Mile's.  How silently and yet startlingly the existence of these sugar maples was revealed to me... (Journal, Sept 24, 1851).  On November 8, 1860 he added, "The sugar maples occupy, together with oaks of the same size, about thirty rods, or say ten rods by three.  The largest about five inches diameter, but generally quite small.  They have sprung from quite small stumps, commonly not bigger than themselves at most."  Thoreau's description suggests that this copse of sugar maples, covering about .2 acres of woodland, had likely once been used as a woodlot.

These wild sugar maples predominately grow down the steep sides of a south facing ravine, and "silently and startlingly make themselves known" to the seeker, as Thoreau describes, especially prior to peak foliage time.
The colorful canopies of sugar maples rising out of the ravine
According to botanist Ray Angelo, an authority on Concord's historic flora, Thoreau's contemporary Minot Pratt also knew of this site and identifyed the distinctive Orange-fruited Horse-gentian (Triosteum aurantiacum) nearby.  Richard Eaton (Flora of Concord, 1974) never found the stand, nor the Triosteum.  In the 1970's, Angelo was able to relocate both the sugar maple grove and the Triosteum, confirming Thoreau and Pratt's original records. In 2013, directed by Ray Angelo, I relocated, photographed, and marked coordinates for this obscured and relatively inaccessible sugar maple stand.  Fortunately, it now falls almost completely within Concord Land Conservation Trust's Anderson Woods property where it can be permanently protected.

Fall color reveals the sugar maples' location, but many trees do not turn due to the dense shading in this forested area.
Thoreau, undeterred by the shortage of sugar maples, tapped various other trees - including black and yellow birch and red maple.  On March 21, 1856 (10 am) he wrote, "To my red maple sugar camp.  Found that after a pint and a half had run from a single tube [tap] after 3 p.m. yesterday, it had frozen about half an inch thick, and this morning a quarter of a pint more had run.  It is worth the while to know that there is all this sugar in our woods, much of which might be obtained by using the refuse wood lying about, without damage to the proprietor, who use neither the sugar nor the wood."

February 17, 2014

February Light and Shadow

Mid-February brings winter into its fullest glory, perhaps having outdone itself for some this year. Abundant snows, sensually sculpted by piercing swirling winds, accentuate the smallest details in the landscape and create new topographies even in the flattest of floodplains.  

Yesterday, fifteen of my monthly walkers, still full of enthusiasm for winter's brighter side, set off through Great Meadows with me to explore this month's latest seasonal revelations. A fresh coating of snow, from the third storm in two weeks, sparkled with winter brilliance and swirled in icy wind gusts across the marsh.  But the warming February sun, dark running waters, and occasional spirited bird song all hinted of spring in the making.

The light and lengthening shadows of late afternoon inscribed abstract patterns across our path, making each step a moment of wonder.

A black-and-white photographer at heart, I revel in the contrasts, contours, and tonalities of this beautiful season!

January 30, 2014

Rivers & Revolutions Students Render Impressions

Bringing our attentiveness to place and cultivating our own sense of and relationship to that place lies at the heart of stewardship.  For the past few months, I've again had the pleasure of working with Rivers & Revolutions students from CCHS, our local high school, as a mentor in their community stewardship program.  This semester, we collaborated on an exhibition for the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, conveying the experience of Sense of Place from various vantage points.

My students (Charlotte Copp, Rosie Alston-Follansbee, James Henderson, Haley Proctor, and Will Royal) and I began by visiting three historic and distinctly different wetland areas that thrive on or near the Concord River floodplain -- Great Meadows, Gowing's Swamp/Thoreau's Bog, and Moore's Swamp.  While memorable moments marked each engaged exploration -- discovering the red-headed bush crickets behind the chorus of song at Great Meadows...

or harvesting autumn olives near Gowing's Swamp...

Haley picking autumn olives aided by James' shoulders below
it was a sun-warmed, barefooted, autumn afternoon exploring the primordial basin of Moore's Swamp, in the shadow of Author's Ridge, that inspired their beautiful, evocative renderings, shown at the end of this post, and on display in The Square at the deCordova from January 30 through March 30, 2014.

Our day exploring Moore's Swamp

James ventures out one of many red maple 'tip-ups' in the swamp, which was his "backyard" when growing up
Rosie experiments making inks from various wild berries

Charlotte rubs off jewelweed seed husks to reveal the beautiful blue kernals inside

Rosie finds a baby northern black water snake on the path
Below, each student's sense of Moore's Swamp, beautifully conveyed, is meant to inspire appreciation and thoughtful stewardship of this historic and special place.  Enjoy!