November 3, 2014

November's Gossamer Day

On a warm, blue-skied, mid-November day with gentle breezes stirring, thousands of young spiders launch themselves on silken threads above Great Meadows.  Sailing up over the cattails and buttonbushes, some are carried high on the thermals, over the Concord River and out of sight.  Others arrive to festoon the marshes with their gossamer parafoils, which catch the low afternoon sunlight.

The Middle English word gossamer means 'goose summer,' that time around St. Martin's Day (November 11) when the weather briefly warms, the geese are fat for eating, and silken threads drape the land.  The French call these delicate spinnings Fils de la Vierge and in Germany it's Spinnfaden. 

In temperate regions across the world, young spiders take to the autumn sky, surprising, baffling, and delighting observers with their floating filaments and silk-draped landscapes. 

At Great Meadows, this annual spider migration is conjoined with the annual flocking of the marshes with cattail fluff.  The drying seeds and autumn whipped winds shake bales of cattail down into the air and all this fuzz catches on the newly lain gossamer, flocking the landscape like a 1960's Hallmark card.

On November 13, 2013, all of these seasonal events coincided on the day of the full moon and caught me in their spell as I walked the evening trail.

October 20, 2014

Walden in the Moment

Chasing autumn's splendor, I embark on a morning walk around Walden Pond, the iconic, deep watering hole for the soul, that I choose to avoid in the warmest months.  Thanks to Thoreau's musings, millions come here on pilgrimage to circumambulate this 100' deep kettlehole pond hoping to touch a wilder side of themselves or to find their own moments of insight and meaning along its shore.  But for me it is neighborhood and part of the natural and cultural fabric that defines my community, its history, and my small place in that continuum.

As I walk along the shore, I overhear two teachers on the nearby trail reflecting on Thoreau, above the chatter of a long line of high school students behind them, "He made such a point of his living the self-sufficient life out here, yet he still took his clothes home to be washed...what an imposter!"  (I hide my smile and the urge to comment.)  Despite this momentary disillusionment, the throng continues on their dutiful rounds to visit the cabin site and take a group photo against the backdrop of the pond.  Still, every time I come here I wonder about visitors' expectations and the impressions they take away. 

To be in the moment at Walden (or in any wild place), receptive to its offerings, requires some practice, or a practice.  Its landscape does not offer singularly awe-inspiring vantage points.  It is often crowded with visitors, with hoped for silences broken by chatter, traffic sounds, and the scheduled clamor of passing trains.  Indeed many photographers, including Annie Liebovitz, have lamented that it's vistas lack inspiring focal points or ready compositions in its natural features.  But this humble visage is also its gift, requiring us to focus and delve deeper for its inspirations.

And so, as I approach Walden's shore today - with the sun already high, the breeze stiffening, and the silence and solitude waning as visitors multiply - I take a few deep breaths, let go of expectation, note all of the liveliness around the pond, and surrender to the inspirations of light, patterns, color, and intersecting time as I walk.

I come away with images of moments that reveal Walden to be the sum of its facets and their interplay at any given point in time.

Walden's legendary clarity is both message and metaphor for the seeker.

Warm reflections in Thoreau's Cove, where ice first melts in the spring, flanked by Wyman's Meadow, parched by the late summer drought.

Returning to my starting point near the esker trail, autumn light dapples the rolling terrain, a characteristic image in Walden's autumn woodlands.

September 27, 2014

Early Autumn Morning at Great Meadows

The clear warm days and cooling nights of autumn give way to dazzling morning dew and rising vapors with each sunrise.  Some daybreaks are more bejeweled and mist shrouded than others, and this weekend I encounter one of those.  As the morning sun clears the treetops at Great Meadows on Saturday, the marsh view is softened by light fog.

Backlight accentuates thousands of drying plants and seeds along the trail edges.  Showy tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) seeds "Velcro" themselves to passing cattail down, making striking silhouettes against the softly focused dewy sparkles of the marsh behind.

Milk parsley (Peucedanum palustre) seeds on beautiful, umbel-shaped armatures, join the weedy tangle, promising continued vitality for this rare northern European immigrant at Great Meadows.

In the fall, spiders are particularly obvious along edges of wetlands, fields, and trails and the lowered light angles of dawn, dusk, and the season in general highlight their gossamer weavings.  This morning these dew-studded webs catch the light, creating infinite beauty along the dike trail.

As the marsh awakens, thousands of many-eyed lotus pods catch the light on their dew-dappled surfaces, evoking primal feelings as I gaze back at them.

And finally, a surprise greeting from another early riser as I encounter a young Cooper's Hawk scanning the marsh from its high perch on the observation deck railing.

Much of the morning's magic melts away by 8 am as the sun climbs higher above the marsh.  Temperatures warm, surfaces dry, birds quiet, and eyes squint as autumn color becomes more vibrant across the marsh.  With sunrises coming later each morning, it will be easier to revisit these early morning wonders in the weeks ahead.

September 24, 2014

Brilliant Deceiver - Poison Sumac

Late September view of Heywood Meadow, an acidic fen in Walden Woods, with touches of orange poison sumac in the mid-ground

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) conceals itself in our local wetlands until its distinctive orange color blazes forth from bog mats and damp swampy shorelines in late September.  A more toxic relative to poison ivy, its compound leaves light up when its fruits ripen, signaling to foraging birds that another autumn feast is ready.  I've encountered poison sumac in a number of wetlands throughout Concord - Gowing's Swamp, Moore's Swamp, wetlands in Estabrook Woods, and here in Heywood Meadow, just south of Walden Pond - and expect that it thrives in many more.  It's easiest to spot when its compound, sumac leaves first emerge in spring and when it flashes its color early in the autumn foliage parade.  It's a brilliant deceiver...look but don't touch!

Poison sumac growing with tawny cotton sedge
Poison sumac's flaming color reveals its location across this boggy expanse

August 7, 2014

Summer's Journey into Twilight and Wonder

I begin my twilight foray, at Great Meadows, in search of groundnut blossoms (Apios americana) and am greeted by backlit strands all along the beginning of the Dike Trail.  Groundnut, which is prolific along moist edge habitats in Concord, is a native vine that produces both edible beans and starchy tubers and was a prized food of indigenous inhabitants for millennia.

In the evening light, showy tick-trefoil flowers have given way to thousands of velcroed seed pods, which catch the light and our clothes, if we pass too near.

The vastness of sky always captures my attention in this place, and in August this expanse is met by a great carpet of American lotuses.  Tonight's raking light illuminates passing thunderheads and the creamy blossoms below, the two joined in communion by gray, showery curtains.

Further down the Dike Trail, our native wild rice (Zizania aquatica) is coming into seed and only reveals itself boldly in spotlighted moments such as these.  These grassy sprays are highlighted by this year's unusual abundance of purple loosestrife, which revels in these cooler summer temperatures.

Also abundant this summer, is one of Great Meadows' rarest plants...milk parsley (Peucedanum palustre).  A relative of Queen Anne's lace and other members of the carrot family (Apiaceae), milk parsley was introduced to North America from northern Europe more than a century ago and is known now only to grow at Great Meadows and two other Mass. locations.

Tumble of milk parley under tumbling clouds
As the sun sinks below the horizon, I step into the shadows of the floodplain forest seeking late summer's most brilliant blooms. Tucked away in these darkest corners along the river, cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) seem to glow from within, especially as daylight fades.

Rain starts falling gently on the river, and as I emerge from the forest canopy, there the gibbous moon shines high over the marsh veiled by showery curtains that suddenly catch the steep rays of the setting sun.  Another celestial miracle at Great Meadows unfolds as a rainbow appears, arching just over the ripening moon.  I walk by a visitor silently gazing up and holding her heart.

Chasing the rainbow down the trail, I come to the inlet channel in time to behold this perfect Bierstadt vision of the marshes just as the rain passes away.

Lotus leaves are left bejeweled...and all is washed and radiant for the night.

May 21, 2014

Gnatty Plumes

Swarms of chironomid gnats in synchronous movement over the marsh

During last evening's sunset, the most amazing choreography unfolded just above the cattails, all along the Great Meadows dike trail to the river.  Golden plumes of hatching Chironomid gnats (tiny non-biting flies) were pulsing upward into the air, then swaying, bending, diving, and rising if to an accompaniment that only they could hear.  It was quite magical to watch for all of us taking one last stroll of the day.

April 16, 2014

Unexpectedly Rare Appearances

Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), an introduced and sometimes overzealous harbinger of spring, brightens the monochromatic April landscape with brilliant, sunny blossoms on leafless stems that hug the ground.  And though their presence is officially unwelcome in four states, they remain one of my favorite "naturalized" spring wildflowers.

Until 1984, Concord had no official record of coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) growing within the town.  Introduced to North America several centuries ago for its profound medicinal effect on lung afflictions, Tussilago may grow and spread vigorously in early successional areas that are disturbed, sunny, moist, and alkaline.  It is listed as a "noxious" or invasive weed in Massachusetts, where its sale and distribution is prohibited.

While intensively studying Concord's historic and still extant flora, Ray Angelo found the first recorded patch of Tussilago in 1984, 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.  In October 2013, I found the hoof-shaped leaves of the small patch shown, growing in oak-pine woods on a leaf-carpeted shoreline near the same abandoned RR bed further east in Concord.  This month, I set out with my homeschool students to look for the flowers.  Each of these small colonies may have been seeded some 40-50 years ago when trains still ran this line through town from Cambridge and the surrounding habitat was more open and freshly disturbed. These two locations are now densely covered with second growth forest and are undisturbed and densely shaded in the summer.  Coltsfoot is no longer apparent in the vicinity of the 1985 colony and it is quite possible that the mature habitat around this year's discovered colony will discourage further spread.

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. Due to the open characteristics of the site and potential for disturbance both by the elements and passers-by, this colony has the most conducive conditions for spreading.

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.  Then the plants die back to the roots for winter.

Because coltsfoot's adventitious roots are brittle and extensive and spread more vigorously when broken or damaged, experienced habitat assessment and care should be exercised in its removal and management to avoid unintended consequences of promoting its expansion.  The plant appears to be a "weak competitor" as invasive species go and it has been found to be self-limiting in stable, shadier, later succession habitats that may grow up around an initial colony.