Friday, January 29, 2021
So here it was at last: that quintessential January day in Saratoga Springs: Fresh snow, bright sun, and a sky of almost unimaginable blue! When I stepped out to get the newspapers this morning, I gasped -- at the beauty and clarity of the day, yes, but also because the air was so cold I could hardly breath it in. The thermometer read about 5 above zero, which some years ago I would have considered rather balmy for a winter day. But that was before the chronic ailment called COPD had stiffened my lungs, especially when my lungs fill with frigid air. Sadly, it was too cold for me to go outdoor adventuring today.
Happily, even though the day had been cloudy, the air had been warmer two days before, a day of soft fresh snow that enticed me out for a walk at Saratoga Spa State Park, just a mile or so from my home.
By the time I reached the park in the early afternoon, the snow still clung to every branch and twig of the these towering White Pines that line one of the park's plowed trails.
Spa Park has several miles of plowed paths, which offer easy walking even as the snow grows deeper everywhere else. This was perfect for my desire this day, which was for a good brisk walk, but not a slog on snowshoes. The path pictured here parallels the road called the Avenue of Pines.
The same path curves around the edge of the golf course, the wide meadows of the course criss-crossed on this snowy day by the tracks of many Nordic skiers.
As I walk beneath a stand of Red Pines, I notice a feature of this species that allows me to identify it from a distance. As this species of pine grows tall, it sheds its lower branches, leaving dark scars on the reddish bark where the branches once grew. These scars cause the trunk to appear to be decorated with polka dots!
Some of the younger Red Pines still have branches that hang low. This would have allowed me to examine how its sturdy stiff needles are arranged in bundles of two, if the needle clusters had not been piled with snow today.
Raising my eyes, I noticed these catkin-tipped slender branches dark against the white sky, and I thought it looked like a beautiful ink drawing. I also surmised that those catkins most likely belonged to a species of birch.
And so they did! A Yellow Birch, to be exact. This species was suggested, first, by the tight curls of rather glossy bark of a faintly yellowish cast, and then confirmed when I chewed on a tender twig and tasted the tell-tale flavor of pepsin. Black Birch twigs also taste of pepsin, but the bark of that species looks quite different: very dark and separating from the trunk in thick plates, not thin curls like these.
There's a wide-open low-lying spot in the park where a speed-skating oval had once been created but which now has reverted to a cattail marsh -- or rather, a battleground where native cattails and invasive Phragmites canes struggle for dominance. Having observed this battle for more than 20 years, I believe the cattails are gaining an edge on the Phragmites. I was struck today by the way the cattails appear to have been battered by what looks to be swirling winds, since the stalks were bent in several different directions. Even on this still day, the swirling cattail stalks conveyed a sense of dynamic movement, as if battalions of cattails were assaulting the patch of Phragmites that remains in this patch of the marsh.
As I continued my walk, I soon heard joyous shrieks and laughter from children happily sledding down one of the few hills that occur in this part of the park. What fun they were having!
As I stood watching this fun-filled activity, I was struck not only by the sounds of their delight, but also by the vivid colors of their clothing and their sleds. How monochromatic the day had seemed until I happened upon this sledding scene! Until now, the most colorful item I'd happened upon was an only mildly vivid patch of lichens covering a snow-capped tree limb.
And then, just as I was returning to my parked car, this colorful orb caught my eye. It appears that somebody hung a Christmas ornament from a twig along the path. Normally, I would resent such a gaudy intrusion into a natural area, but today it seemed like a happy sign. And also an invitation: come on outdoors and have some fun! (Which I will again, when it warms up enough for me to breathe.)