Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Magical Day in the Marsh

Mid-20s, no wind, just the soft, silent snow wafting straight down in big starry flakes. It felt like a blessing falling on me as I walked out onto the ice in the marsh behind Three Pine Island. I stood there, not moving, just breathing and being, watching my footprints fill in with snow until, after a while, it looked as if no one had passed this way today. Or ever. I could even imagine that I was the first to ever set foot in this marsh, with pines and tupelos towering above me, tree-covered hills rising across the river. That's the magic of clean fresh snow. Everything looks brand new.

But of course, I've been to this marsh many times before. An amazing variety of native plants grow here, and part of the pleasure of winter walks is trying to name the stalks and twigs and pods that remain, long after the flowers have withered. I don't always get them right. I made a mistake a few blog posts back when I found these spiky pods on a Sweet Gale shrub and assumed they were staminate catkins storing up pollen to release next spring.

In fact, they were Sweet Gale fruits, filled not with pollen but seeds. When I touched one today, the seeds spilled out all over the snow. (Oh look! Up close, each seed resembles a tiny crown.) After touching the pods, my fingers felt sticky and smelled just deliciously fragrant. This shrub is called "sweet" for good reason. Its leaves smell wonderful, too.

Here's a plant that looks prickly but isn't. It's False Nettle and yes, it's leaves and flowers resemble those of its cousins, but it doesn't have the stinging hairs of true nettles. It's not particularly pretty in summer, but it does have a kind of stately grace when silhouetted against the white snow.

These little brown pods kind of look like miniature tulips. I'm pretty sure they're St. Johnswort of some kind. Marsh St. Johnswort thrives back here. So that would be my best guess.

Here are some close-clustering chubby pods on arching stems, with little hair-like things sticking out. (Apologies to true botanists, who know the real names of all these plant parts!) If I'd found these last year, I would not have had a clue what they were. But just this past summer I found lots of Ditch Stonecrop growing back here in the marsh: chubby little close-clustered greenish flowers on arching stems, with hair-like things sticking out. I'll bet that's what these are.

Going home, I drove along Spier Falls Road, enjoying the view of the Hudson River now open for quite a ways below the dam. When the dam was built (it opened in 1903), rocks for its construction were blasted out of the mountains that line the road, creating cliffs that can still be seen from the road. Each winter, these cliffs become sheer cataracts of ice, tier upon tier of massive icicles colored the most amazing blue.

I used to think that ice acquired that color from minerals in the rocks. Copper sulfate, for example, might color water that shade of blue. But sometimes we see that same color in snowbanks, with no copper sulfate around. A quick Google search set me straight. Turns out, it's a light scattering effect, similar to what makes the sky blue. Thick ice can act like a filter that absorbs the red and yellow parts of white light, leaving only the blue to be reflected toward our eyes. Or something like that. Whatever the physics, it still seems like magic. And certainly beautiful.


Ellen Rathbone said...

Ooo - very nice. I especially like that ditch stonecrop!

Pablo said...

Beautiful winter walk. I especially like the cascades of ice at the end!

squirrel said...

I really enjoy reading your blog. It seems to me lately your writing has been more expressive and reflective. Perhaps it is winter or just me or both, anyway I am savoring the writing as well as the information and the photos.

I love these photos, they remind me of Barbara Bash's water colors she posted in mid December. I bet you have a lovely collection of plant photos surrounded by snow that would make nice Christmas cards.

Cool fact about the ice.

I'm bracing for another 20 inches of snow tonight. :-)

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

To Ellen and Pablo and squirrel: Thank you, my friends, for stopping by with such kind comments. It's nice to know there are other folks who love winter walks as I do.