Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Roadside Ramble

Nobody loves a good walk in the woods more than I do, but sometimes a walk along the road holds just as much delight.  That's especially true when forested mountains climb steeply above one side of the road and a majestic Hudson River flows by the other,  as happens along my favorite stretch of Spier Falls Road at Moreau.  It was here I walked on Monday, when the weather was still balmy enough that tiny rills carried melting snow down the mountainsides and the sun felt warm on my back, even in late afternoon.

As I strode along the curving road and up and down the hills, I could hear the rushing of water every few feet, and I'd stop to enjoy the sparkle and splash of wee little rivulets plunging from rock to rock.

There was music in the roadside boulders, too, as spring-fed icicles added their drip, drip, drip to standing pools in the rocks.

As I approached the huge dam that interrupts the flow of the Hudson here, I moved off the road and into the woods, encountering areas where whole mountainsides had been blasted away to provide the rocks for building this dam back in the earliest years of the 20th Century.

Here, the cliffs rise to impressive heights, the sheer walls dripping with water from springs within the rocks, as well as from melting snow.

As winter grows colder, the water from these springs will freeze to form tier upon tier of cascading blue ice, creating a scene of fantastic crystalline beauty, as this older photo shows.

No ice on this day, with above-freezing temperatures all day long, as well as for several days before.  But the springs were dripping down the rock walls, and in this case, watering a carpet of bright green moss on the floor of a shallow cave.

The damp rock walls were alive with mosses and lichens and, here and there, rosettes of the pretty pink leaves of Early Saxifrage.

On a drier wall, Rock Tripe Lichen was ornamented with tiny blue icicles.

Bright green fronds of Rock Polypody sprouted from cracks in the boulders, adding to the charm of this winter garden.

Almost directly across the road from the Spier Falls Dam, a little brook comes bounding down the mountain side.  Often dry at this time of year, this day it was splashing and dancing as if it were spring, thanks to recent rains and days of melting snow.

I climbed up the course of this brook, leapt across its rushing water at a narrow point, and continued on, only now I walked through the woods higher up on the mountainside, instead of along the road.

After pushing along through thick shrubs and tangled vines, I drew to a halt when I came upon these old stone structures high up in the woods directly across from the dam.

What on earth could these be, I wondered.  I occasionally come across old building foundations and well holes in these woods, but these structures were shaped like none I had seen before.

Huge iron bolts protruded from the stones, which should provide some kind of hint as to what these structures were built for.  I am guessing that perhaps these were part of some kind of conveyer system that carried rocks hewn from the mountainside out over the river, where they could then be put in place as the dam was built.  But that's just a guess.  I will have to do some research and see if I find an answer.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Outdoors Again At Last!

Just as I craved all those Christmas cookies I enjoyed this past week,  I now crave getting back outdoors, and not simply to walk off those cookies' calories.  Just as food sustains my body, nature sustains my soul, and I was so happy on Sunday, when my friend Sue was free to join me for a lovely long walk all around the shore of Moreau Lake, our favorite place of pilgrimage.

The last time we had walked here together, we had discovered a small stand of young poplars whose bark had been pulled off in narrow shreds, and we made sure to reexamine those trees this time, trying to guess what kind of creature had wreaked this debarking.

At first sight, we had thought it might be from a buck deer rubbing his antlers on the trunks, but then we noticed the bark had been stripped all the way to the very tops of several saplings.  No deer could have done this, but perhaps it could have been done by a mouse or a chipmunk, tearing off tiny strips of bark to create a cozy nest underneath the ground.  If any of my readers has a better suggestion, I sure would love to hear it in a comment.

This  small hoarfrost-lined hole we found at the base of these stripped saplings contributed to our suspicion that some little creature might have created a cozy underground nest composed of fine strips of bark.

As we continued our walk, we enjoyed the quiet darkness of the forested shore and the beauty of Paper Birches reflected on the water-topped ice of the lake.

Although the day was chilly and gray, we delighted in finding bright splashes of color here and there, such as the vibrant red of these Winterberries.

A dark muddy section of shore was punctuated by the bright pink leaves of some tiny infant plants (Dwarf St. Johnswort?) and the yellow-green grassy wisps of another plant, which we could not identify.  Since this section of shore is usually under water, these are definitely plants that don't mind being submerged.

Even when there are no flowers to be found, we can count on finding a fascinating variety of evergreen plants, such as these tiny Pixy Cup lichens, which appear to have sprouted one minuscule lipstick-red fruit.

We love to revisit a fallen log we know of along the shore, one that has sprouted a veritable miniature forest of lichens, mosses, and liverworts, all of which can be found any time of year, even in the middle of winter.  Here on this little section of that log, about the dimensions of a playing card, we found some Broom Moss and a Cladonia lichen with powdery gray-green stalks with brownish tips, both growing out of an underlying carpet of a glossy-brown liverwort called Ptilidium pulcherrimum.

Here's a clearer photo of that Ptilidium liverwort, which has the most delightful common name of Lovely Fuzzwort.

Patches of Haircap Moss were as sprightly and green as if it were spring, and they will stay that way all winter.

Equally sprightly and green were these fuzzy stems of the clubmoss called Running Pine (Lycopodium clavatum).

A small log covered with Stereum fungus added a splash of bright orange to the forest floor.

Although wrinkled and brown, this jelly-like Wood Ear fungus looks about the same as the day it fruited last fall, or maybe even a year ago last fall.  It's a very persistent fungus, and also edible, a close cousin to the dark brown fungi often found in Chinese food.

Most folks could complete a circuit of Moreau Lake in only an hour or so.   But at the pace Sue and I took, stopping every few feet to examine many wonderful finds, we found ourselves only half way around as the sun began to sink behind the mountain.  Reluctantly, then,  we picked up our pace, but not until we stopped a while to marvel at the pearly glow of the sun's path across the shining water.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Shrines to Christmas Love

Today is the second day of Christmas, and our family has just begun to celebrate this special season, unlike the rest of America, which has been playing at Christmas since even before Thanksgiving, it seems, and now thinks Christmas is over.  Some Christmas trees have already appeared at the curb, while we have just put ours up two days ago on Christmas Eve. And it was only a few days ago that I brought our decorations down from the attic, adorning the mantel and breakfront and doorways with all the appropriate symbols of the season, using the long-loved ornaments from many Christmases past.

Just as I'm hanging the same shiny balls and glittering stars that we always hang on the tree, and setting up the same nativity sets in their usual places of honor, I am bringing back my Christmas posts from several years running. I have enjoyed re-reading these posts, and I hope that you, my readers, will enjoy revisiting them, too.

Each year at this time, I set up a little shrine to dear Santa and gather around him all the woodland creatures who live in the North Woods -- or at least as many creatures as I can find models of.  Of course, many of these creatures would be hibernating at Christmas time or would surely be prey for the predators among them, but we trust that Santa's love for them has cast its spell of warmth and peaceableness over them, so all would be safe and well. Since I last posted this scene on my blog three years ago, he's acquired a few new friends: otter, skunk, beaver, snowshoe hare, cottontail rabbit, bobcat, snowy owl, bald eagle, and (highly improbably!) one tiny little penguin, who must have hitched a ride on Santa's sleigh as it passed over the South Pole.   The penguin and the rabbit and the Mallard hen were all gifts last year from our friend Jennifer, who also gave me the canoe-toting Santa many years ago, when she lived next door to us and saw me toting my canoe to the river almost daily.  So this is a shrine to friendship, as well as to Santa-the-spirit-of-giving and also to all the woodland creatures who represent the amazing diversity of life on our fragile planet.

Of course, because it is Christmas, I also have another shrine set up to honor the birth of the Child whose entry into human existence has transformed human history.  I would guess you don't have to believe in Jesus' divinity to acknowledge he had such an impact.  Or to marvel at the stories that tell of his birth.  I composed the following meditation on these stories a few years ago, and I share it again this year.

Yes, Virginia, There Really WAS a Baby Jesus

Christmas Eve. The time has arrived to deck the halls and light the lights and arrange the creche sets in their places of honor. What a beautiful story they tell, even to those who cannot believe that Jesus was divine, or even to those Christians (like me) who turn to these infancy narratives more for their symbolic truth than for any historical fact.

Here's a tale about how God comes to us wherever we are and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Whether Mary actually gave birth in a stable or not, it doesn't matter. We who have endured the duress of childbirth can imagine how terribly stressful that would have been. My creche sets show Mary all clean and combed, with her flowing robes pristine. How was she able to take a bath in that barn? Our hearts go out to her -- and to all who suffer, frightened and filthy and far from home. And what does the image of baby Jesus, lying there where the animals feed, tell us about where God can be found? Right there (right here!) among the earthiest of all God's creatures, in whatever kind of shelter we can find.

Religion and its accretions have prettied up this narrative so, that I think we forget what low-lifes most shepherds were at the time when Jesus was born. Pretty much the dregs of society, no doubt, and they probably smelled bad, too. (Like the homeless guys who hang out in the library, getting warm.) The notion that God would send angels to them, that they would be the first to know about such a miraculous thing -- it's just too unlikely, isn't it, to be believed!? Unless God was trying to tell us something about the least of our brethren.

And what about those Three Kings? Can you imagine how surprised they must have been, to find not a prince in a palace but a little babe in a humble home? They came all that way for this? And what use could the infant Jesus have possibly had for gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Could it be they were symbols of the wealth and power and pomp that the grown-up Jesus had no use for, either?

As I said before, it's a wonderful story -- even better, I think, than the one about Santa Claus, the Santa that one little girl named Virginia was once reassured was real. Well, I love the story about Santa, too. So I have a little shrine set up for him as well -- albeit with a few accretions that reflect my own heart's desires: note his lightweight canoe and abundant woodland friends.
 * * *
May the peace and love that we celebrate in these Christmas stories be with you and yours not only at Christmas, but all through the year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Here Comes the Sun (and my son, too)

Oh gosh, I don't think I've ever gone a whole week without posting an entry, not since starting this blog on January 1, 2009.  But it's been hard to get outdoors this week, what with holiday preparations and a houseful of wonderful guests, namely, my son Peter and his beautiful family.  But as these photos show, we did get out on one sunny day for a walk along the shore of Moreau Lake, where the children discovered the delightful chirps a pebble will make when bouncing across thin ice.

I had imagined we might walk as far as the back bay, where the children could see the big beaver lodges back there (and maybe a beaver, too!). But it was cold and the kids' shoes and mittens had gotten wet playing along the shore, so we soon headed back to the warmth of our car before the discomforts could amplify into agonies for all concerned.  But we sure did have fun!

The coldest part of the year is yet to come, but at least we can now hail the lengthening of days, now that the Solstice has passed.  I certainly rejoice in the light and warmth of the sun, but I also cherish the dark and the cold of winter,  believe it or not.  Nature also needs her sleep, her time to rest and regenerate beneath the earth's blanket of snow.

With the noisy bustle of holiday celebrations now upon us, I look forward to when I might walk again through the silent snowy woods, the only sounds the sighing of pines, the cheerful chatter of chickadees,  and the almost un-hearable high-pitched peeps of kinglets high in the hemlocks.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Upriver Roads

Christmas is coming.  And with it a houseful of family members,  along with the need to feed them all.  An Oscar's Smokehouse ham will come in handy for that, so I headed up to Warrensburg to buy one today, and since I was that far north already, I went another few miles along the River Road, just to enjoy the view of the Hudson River.  Nice!

We've had some snow in Saratoga, but not nearly as much as fell on Warrensburg and on the surrounding areas.  The River Road along the west bank of the Hudson had been plowed (sort of), and here and there I passed private roads that still were covered in snow.  They looked so inviting, I wanted to turn off and follow where they went.  But I don't have four-wheel drive on my Toyota Corolla.

One of those private roads held a realtor's For Sale sign, so I did venture up it on foot, wondering what kind of house was hiding way back in these snowy woods.  Oh, what a perfect log cabin it was, tucked in among tall pines, and offering splendid views of the river.  Here was the house of my dreams!

Yep.  Dream on, my dear, for when I got home and looked it up on the realtor's website, I found they were asking around a half-million dollars for it.  Yes, that includes many acres of woods and over a thousand feet of river front, but still . . . .   Guess it will have to remain someone else's dream house.

Ah well, who needs to own private acres of river and forest land, when so many wonderful woodsy and watery spots are mine for the walking, any time I want?  In fact, I discovered a new place of remarkable beauty today, thanks to a tip from some friends, who told me about a spectacular waterfall just off the Wilton-Greenfield Road.  I stopped there on my way home from Warrensburg.

I could hear the rushing creek when I climbed out of my car, so I followed the sound as the rush grew into a roar, carefully planting my feet and clinging to trees as I clambered down the precipitous hillside.  Here the creek plunged steeply over a cliff before rolling and tumbling away at a gentler pace down the forested valley.  So beautiful!  So dramatic!  And mine, all mine, for FREE!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Snowy Day in Saratoga Springs

Once we got our sidewalk cleared and our cars dug out, the day was nothing but lovely.  I took all these photos behind the Dance Museum in the Saratoga Spa State Park.

Monday, December 8, 2014

A Winter River Walk

No more paddling on the Hudson this year, now that ice has covered the bays.   But the wooded shores are still wonderful places to walk.  That ice is much too thin as yet to support a human's weight, but it was obvious that other creatures had been walking -- and sliding! -- across it.  I couldn't get close enough to examine these skids and tracks, but since the animal that made them came right up out of the water, I have to assume it was an otter.  Or two.  Gosh, but I sure would have loved to see those amusing creatures frolicking on the ice!

Enough snow lay across the forest floor to preserve the tracks of all the creatures who inhabit these wooded shores: coyotes, foxes, porcupines, squirrels, deer, and mice and more.   I have yet to lay eyes on any Fisher who patrols these woods for food, but their tracks reveal their frequent travels here.

This very large bird came soaring and wheeling way up high in the sky.  Due to the breadth of the wings that do not taper until the tips, I believe it was an eagle, sailing up and down the river's course in search of food.

A Tree Club Moss resembled a miniature Christmas tree.

The carmel-colored leaves and yellow flower bracts of Witch Hazel added a splash of color to the wintry woods.

Close to the shore, where fluctuating water levels create patches of open water,  new ice had formed with patterns as intricate as Waterford cut crystal.

As the shadows darkened in late afternoon, a low sun broke through the clouds and cast a dramatic golden light on the river islands.  Beautiful!