Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Finds in the Late Autumn Woods

At first glance, the woods looks pretty dull this time of year. The wildflower season's long past, the trees are bare, the migrating birds have flown away with their songs, and there's no snow yet to reveal the woodland residents' whereabouts. Ho hum! Nothing of interest, right? Well, actually, there's plenty of neat stuff out there in the woods right now, but you might have to hunt around to find it.

This moss, for example, with its long fern-like runners, can be found on lots of rotting downed trees. But you probably wouldn't notice its delicate structures unless you bent down to peer close, because it's so small.

The same could be said for this dainty green lichen, growing amid the moss.

Because I have very poor eyesight, I never noticed these fruiting stalks growing among the green leafy structures of the lichen, until I took a macro photo and blew it up.

When I saw these brown clumps amid the dead leaves, I assumed at first they were some creature's feces, although I couldn't recall any critter that left piles this blobby in shape.

I reached for a stick to poke the feces apart to see what food remnants were in it, but the stick was attached to more of the same brown blobs. They were hard and woody, with no detectable odor.

Then I looked up, remembering that this was the area where last year I found large blobby galls infesting the Bitternut Hickories. And there they were, dozens and dozens of them, caused by some kind of phomopsis fungus. Not very pretty, but hey, a fascinating find, nevertheless.

Here are some more blobby things that are maybe not so pretty but still kind of fascinating. These are the dried fruits of Wild Cucumber, a pretty but rather pestiferous vine that swarms over roadside shrubbery in late summer.

And here's the insides of one of those fruits, with the external membrane worn off, although the thorns remained intact. So intricate and lacy!

As the sun headed down, it lit up these streamside plants -- yellow willow, green ground cover, and bright Red Osier Dogwood stems -- revealing a landscape as colorful as an Italian flag.

Quite an unexpected burst of color for late on a late-autumn afternoon.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Frozen Over!

Mud Pond, frozen over from shore to shore

Mother Nature must have heard my prayer. After a whole week indoors preparing for and enjoying the holiday, I just HAD to get outside today, and she gave me the perfect day for doing so: sunny and calm, with frost in the morning but the promise of warming through the day. Up early, I hurried up to Mud Pond in Moreau, hoping to catch the curling petals of frozen vapor on Frostweed stems, but too late, the plant has spent its vapor supply, so I missed it this year. (For photos of what it looked like last year, click here.) What I did find, though, much to my surprise, was the season's first ice on the pond -- all across the pond, from shore to shore, with crinkled plates of thin ice where waves had lapped against the beach.

I walked around the pond and through the woods to Moreau Lake and found that the ice was also covering the back bay of the lake -- except where beavers had kept open a channel by swimming again and again from their lodge to the woods.

So winter is definitely on its way. But nobody told these baby St. Johnsworts, so tiny and pretty and pink, sprouting all over the muddy flats at the edge of Mud Pond. They look so fragile, but I imagine they will winter over quite happily under the snow, then get a head start on the growing season come spring.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Saratoga Stroll

What with holiday cooking and cleaning, I didn't get to the woods this week, and I was beginning to feel kind of cranky about it. I need a dose of sky over my head every day, or I start to go nuts. So today, when the last pie came out of the oven, I was out the door to enjoy what was left of a gorgeous blue-sky afternoon. No time to run off to the woods, but a nice long walk around town would suit me fine. And what a town I live in! I step out my front door, and just see what splendid houses greet me right across the street.

Both of these mansions were seedy rooming houses when we bought our house in 1971, then were abandoned to pigeons and rot for many years, until they were finally restored to their former glory. They are currently single-family homes for folks who live in them maybe three or four weeks each summer. Nice quiet neighbors, that's for sure.

At the end of my block I turn toward downtown, and only one block away is this magnificent public library.

Right around the corner from the library are great places for food and live music. Hattie's restaurant won a fried chicken "throw down" against Food Network's Bobby Flay, and Caffe Lena is the oldest continuously running coffee house in the country, where folks like Bob Dylan once got their start.

Just a stone's throw from Caffe Lena is another venue for live music of the rowdy rock-and-roll variety. In just a few weeks, my son's band The Figgs will be playing here to promote their new record. December 11. Don't miss them!

Broadway, the main street of downtown Saratoga Springs, is lined with many beautiful old 19th-century buildings, and is just three blocks from my home.

One of my favorite stores downtown is G. Willikers, a really terrific toy store that sells the kinds of toys you don't have to compromise your principles to buy -- and spares me from ever having to go to a mall for the kids' birthday presents. (And they even give me a grandma discount, now that I shop there for so many grandchildren.)

G. Willikers' window is always a delight, and never more so than at holiday time.

Our downtown post office is a splendid old building, with beautiful architectural details and murals by French-American painter William Pene du Bois, who is probably best known as the author-illustrator of such children's books as The Three Policemen and Twenty-one Balloons.

Heading north on Broadway, I pass many beautiful old "cottages" that were once the summer homes of prominent thoroughbred racing families, although many are now occupied year-round by Saratoga residents.

Our bank's president lives in this lovely white house.

I don't know who lives in this house now, but it used to belong to Penny Tweedy, owner of the famous racehorse Secretariat, a Triple Crown winner who lost to a longshot named Onion in Saratoga's Travers Stakes. There was a major-studio movie this year about Secretariat, but I don't think the script included anything about that Travers loss.

I keep heading north on Broadway, which, just beyond where this photo was taken, turns into a rutted dirt road impassable to autos but perfect for folks who love to walk in the woods.

Skidmore College is out here at the far end of Broadway. The college's many cultural offerings -- art exhibits, concerts, lectures, dance and theater performances -- certainly add to the quality of living in Saratoga Springs.

Heading home, I return downtown and stop in at the world's best coffee shop, Uncommon Grounds, to warm up and just smell the great coffee aroma from roasting beans.

From world's best coffee shop to world's best bakery: Mrs. London's. Why do you suppose everyone here is smiling?

Mmmm! I'll bet this is why. I often stop in here to just gaze at these pastries, almost too pretty to eat.

Home again. The aroma of fresh-baked pies greets me as soon as I open my door. They may not be as pretty as Mrs. London's cakes, but I know they'll taste mighty good. But I have to wait until tomorrow, when we go to our daughter's in-laws in Vermont for Thanksgiving dinner.

I have so much to be thankful for: my dear husband and children and grandchildren, above all, and also good health and contentment. And a beautiful place to call home.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Blue Moon, You Saw Me Kind of Confused

There's a great big old moon up there tonight, and in addition to being beautiful, it's also pretty unusual. In fact, this is the really unusual Blue Moon -- the third moon in a four-moon season -- instead of the more commonly defined Blue Moon, which is when two full moons fall within the same month. I learned about this in an article by Joe Rao, skywatching columnist for Space.com, and you can read all the details here. But the gist of what Rao had to say was this: There are two definitions for the term Blue Moon, and tonight's moon fits the older, more authentic definition.

So far this fall we have had three full moons, counting tonight's: September 23, October 22, and November 21. The next moon will turn full at 3:13 a.m. EST on December 21, beating the winter solstice by 15 hours and 25 minutes, thus becoming the fourth full moon of autumn. Typically, each season has three full moons, each with its own name: early season, mid season, and late season. When a fourth full moon occurs, the third one is designated "blue" so that the fourth and final one can continue to be called the late moon.

Rao never tells us why the word "blue" was chosen to designate this moon. He does tell us, however, that this extra full moon of the year created great consternation for the monks who had charge of a calendar based on three full moons for each season, 12 in a year. A year with 13 moons thus caused the monks scheduling confusion, and that may be how the number 13 came to be considered unlucky.

As for me, I felt pretty lucky to catch this moon in its rising, coming up through the trees across the street from my house. An hour or so later the clouds had thickened to where no moon could be seen.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Late November

Late November. The earth seems very quiet now, as it waits for winter. The green rush of summer long spent, the gaudy blush of autumn has faded to muted browns. A few passing waterfowl still coast in to rest on the lake, but all the other migrating birds are gone, along with their songs. The jays still call, and so do the ravens or crows, but mostly the forest is silent. A rustle of leaves now and then from a foraging squirrel, and that's about all.

I walk on the beach, seeking the sun to warm my face. But even by early afternoon, the shadows start to lengthen. For the first time this year, I wear a woolen scarf to comfort my ears.

Driving home from Moreau along Old Saratoga Road, I stop to take in this contrast of sunlight and shadow, mountain and plain.

Behind me, the late sun warms the siding of this lovely old barn, casting the shadows of bare-limbed trees on the weathered planks, while this trio of creatures gazes at me with curiosity.

The animals soon approach the road to eye me more closely, and I return their gazes. The little goat has silky black hair, and the horses are growing thick furry coats. For some reason, seeing this, I feel a great sense of kinship. We're all in this world together. We're all getting ready for winter. And all enjoying the last warming rays of the sun.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Warming Hut Opens at Moreau Lake State Park

Okay, Winter, you can do your worst. You won't keep me away from my beloved Moreau Lake State Park -- especially now that there's such a great place to find respite from the cold. Today, park officials welcomed visitors into a newly renovated Warming Hut, a cozy shelter warmed by a roaring fire that stands on the shore of the lake, adjacent to trails for hiking and cross-country skiing. From now until spring, the hut will be open seven days a week, from 9 in the morning until 4 each afternoon, offering a spot for snow-shoers and skiers and ice-fishing enthusiasts to come inside and thaw out.

A cheerful crowd gathered at the hut today for an opening reception that offered a bountiful lunch. In addition to a number of regional state park officials, the guests included members of the Comstock family, who lived in this cabin each summer for many years until it became state park property. Decorating the walls of the hut are photographs of the cabin when the Comstock family summered here. This photo shows the two boys, Keith and Jim. (Which one is which, perhaps someone will tell us in a comment.)

In this photo, Moreau Lake State Park Manager Peter Iskenderian cuts the ceremonial ribbon, officially opening the hut to the public. That's Mrs. Comstock seated in the chair behind Peter.

Mrs. Comstock is joined by her sons Keith (brown jacket) and Jim, while Alane Ball Chinian (blue sweater), regional director of the Saratoga-Capital region of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, cuts another ceremonial ribbon. (I confess I do not remember who is the gentleman in the tan jacket also cutting the ribbon.)

All the guests, including staffers from Moreau Lake State Park and other regional parks, enjoyed the feast provided by the park.

So okay, Winter. We're really ready for you now. I guess I'd just as soon you held off for a few more weeks (I'm still hoping for one more paddle), but then I hope you bring us lots and lots of snow.

Having a park as wonderful as this one, with over 4,000 acres of mountains and forest and river and lake and ponds and streams that are beautiful in every season, sure helps to make the long winter not just bearable, but eagerly awaited. And this cozy spot to get warm will make it even more so.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

New Trail in Town

It's a good thing I spent those few lovely days outdoors this past weekend. The past two days have been dreary and damp, not exactly the kind of weather that draws me out to the woods. But I did get out between rainshowers yesterday, wanting to check out a multi-purpose walking and biking trail just recently constructed on the northeast edge of Saratoga Springs.

Called the Spring Run Trail, this paved path runs along an old railroad bed that follows a fault line of steep banks and wooded wetlands between East Avenue and the Northway. During the Victorian era, a railroad operated from downtown Saratoga Springs to Saratoga Lake and beyond, and much of this railroad bed was left intact through all those years. Construction of this two-mile stretch of the path took about seven months and was funded by a $1.6 million grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. (Thankfully, our federal tax dollars were spent on something nicer than missiles.)

I personally prefer to walk on more rugged and woodsy trails, but I can understand what a pleasure this kind of smooth paving would be for a biker or a mom pushing a stroller or somebody rolling a wheelchair -- or just local folks who want to go for a brisk walk without breathing car exhaust or watching out for traffic. And the woodlands that line the trail do have their charms.

Small streams run along the full length of the trail as it passes below the cliffs that form a geological fault line, the source of many natural springs.

One of the streams was burgeoning with watercress.

Even on this damp dreary day, I found quite a number of folks using the trail for exercise.

With wooded and marshy areas lining the trail on both sides, I imagine this trail would provide a great spot for birdwatchers.

I actually found very little litter along the path, but this trash looks like it has been here for a long, long time. Let's hope a clean-up day is planned for removing it. I imagine the generations of folks who lived atop this bank, using the ravine as their personal dump, never dreamed that anyone would be walking for pleasure down here.

And I'll bet the folks who live in this posh pink house at the end of a dead-end road never dreamed that the public would soon be walking through their backyard. I wonder if the For Sale sign on their front lawn is a sign of their discontent with the trail's construction.

These old crumbling walls reveal that traffic once moved through here in a regular way.

Old stone walls like this create fertile nursery beds for all kind of mosses and liverworts, and even a tiny White Pine.

Here's where the trail ends: right at the edge of Interstate 87, the Northway. I understand that future plans call for the trail to be extended under the Northway to connect with Weibel Road, eventually providing access to city recreational facilities out there, as well as the commercial area surrounding Wilton Mall.
Saratoga city officials will be holding a grand opening ceremony for the Spring Run Trail on Thursday, November 18, at 2pm at the trailhead on the corner of East and Excelsior Avenues.
So check it out. You paid for it.