Friday, June 21, 2013

Turtle Time of Year

May 29, 2013
Meadowbrook Road, Queensbury NY

Now I see a snapping turtle, its shell about a foot long, 
out here on the damp sand,
with its head out,
disturbed by me.
   HDT Journal, June 7, 1854

Like Thoreau, I am thinking of turtles at this time of year. Around the first of June, turtles of all types have one thing on their minds – nesting.
Memorial Day weekend, all the conditions were right, except for one. It had finally rained (a lot) after a long dry spell, and the moon would be full. The only factor that might dissuade them was that it suddenly turned cold again. There were even frost warnings that weekend !
Turtles have been out basking for some time now.  Painted Turtles have probably dug nests close to their ponds, undetected.

For four years now, I have seen Wood Turtles right in my own yard -- but only at this time of year. These critters spend 90 percent of their time in the woods, and are as elusive as they are uncommon.
If you are lucky, you might just happen upon one digging a nest to lay eggs.

This girl has been using the flower beds of the Girl Scout office as her nursery for at least  four years now. 

 I can say this with a fair amount of confidence,  because I have taken a photo of the underside of her shell, which has a distinctive pattern that varies for each individual.



One of them was killed by a lawnmower last year. It was good to see this other one, in her usual spot, creating future generations.

It was the snapping turtles I was really watching for, however. There’s one in the slough out back, who makes her way each year to her preferred place --  across the road.
You might say, Why not pick a site where she doesn’t have to cross the road ? Not very smart of her !
But turtle time is not our time.
She and her mother’s mothers were making that trek each season,
long before this building -- this road -- or this town-- was ever here.

This week, I drove around to all the usual spots – culverts and bridges near various creeks – and saw no sign of diggings.  Perhaps turtles, being reptiles, were waiting for warmer temperatures to venture forth and deposit eggs into the earth.
Many of those spots, including one right here at my apartment, were near busy roads.
Each year I see dead turtles, smashed by cars. These creatures have survived whatever killed off the dinosaurs, but have no defense against the automobile.
I had toyed with the idea of making “Turtle Crossing” signs, but had never gotten around to it.
Well, maybe next year.

The first of June, it turned warm again. We had a steady rain, and bad storms were forecast for the afternoon.  I was home after my Vermont trip, and heard a long low rumble of thunder in the southwest.
Looking out my window – I saw a familiar dark shape out in the lawn, near the road.
It was our resident snapping turtle, spurred to action by the rumbles of the storm!

I don’t do storms. Lightning scares the heck out of me. But I ventured outside, to “help” this turtle get across the road.
More thunder, closer now.
She crouched down and stopped, as I approached. Hmm. What to do?
Standing there was only going to prolong this.
She's crossing that road, and certainly isn't afraid of a little thunderstorm.

The sky darkened as I drove to a Lowe’s store nearby. I hastily grabbed some metal sign stakes, and a piece of bright green blank plastic for a sign.  Hustled through the self-service checkout, and back out to the car, as rain began to fall.

The turtle was still on my side of the road when I got home, but edging closer to the white line.
I grabbed a raincoat and a broom (with a metal handle !) and ran back outside, and used the bristles to urge her to walk a little faster across the road.
More thunder, above us now.
Cars approached, slowed down, and went around us.
If I pushed too hard with the broom, the turtle stopped, braced herself and pushed back. This was going to happen at turtle speed if at all.
Finally, she made it to the grass on the other side of the road. I figured she would be heading back across the road after her digging, and I had a little bit of time.

Back to the apartment. I nervously made a crude handmade Turtle Crossing Sign as lightning flashed.
Outside again, with the signs (and metal stakes !), to place them fifty yards to either side of where I thought she might make her return crossing.

I parked my car nearby, to wait out the rain, and make sure the turtle didn’t double back.

An SUV pulled over, it was a father who wanted to show his daughter a turtle. Ah, another turtle fan! We talked  about turtles for a little while. Momma turtle headed for cover in some nearby bushes, so it was up to Fate from here on.
If she chose to cross back at night - well, maybe drivers would see those signs and slow down a little.
The rain was easing up.
An hour later, the sun ventured out.
And so did I, going a short distance up the road --
there to see a rainbow, rising like the curved edge of a Cosmic Turtle.

Nature does not forget the beauty of outline,
even in a turtle’s shell.
   HDT Journal, May 16, 1854

Post Script – Two days later, just around the corner, I drove by a little house along the brook. There were the unmistakeable signs of turtle-digging at the end of their driveway.
And, there, made by hand and evident love -- was another Turtle Crossing sign.
My smile was a mile wide.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

A Tale of Two Orchids

May 30, 2013
[Somewhere in the Adirondacks]

The bulbous arethusa out a day or two – probably yesterday.
Though in a measure prepared for it,
    still its beauty surprised me;
 it is by far the highest and richest color yet.
 Its intense color in the midst of the great meadow
    made it look twice as large as reality;
it looks very foreign in the midst of our plants –
    its richly speckled, curled, and bearded lip.
   HDT Journal, May 28, 1853

On our final day of orchid-hunting with Andrew, there was a last-minute change of plans.
Evelyn was back from a trip, and contacted Jackie, wondering  if we would like to go to a secret bog to see if the Arethusa was in bloom. Would we ever !
We are sworn to secrecy as to the location. It’s the sort of excursion that Hornbeck boats were made for – and my very first carry-in with my new boat.
My new Blackjack is pretty shiny compared to those of my friends, who have made many such carries into isolated ponds.  It was just a short walk in with it slung over my shoulder, but it certainly helped that the boat weighs a grand total of twelve pounds.
We put in  at one end of the pond, where there was a short portage around a beaver-dam.

                                                                   An Adirondack traffic-jam.

Once on the other side, we paddled about, going here and there in our buoyant shell-boats, like ducklings exploring a new place.
Evelyn meanwhile, was up ahead, checking on the Arethusas – they were up, and beginning to open. She observes this population carefully, with the blessing of the landowner. 

[She returned a week later, and took a careful count, finding over a hundred of them.]

Floating log-gardens bristled with Sundews

Bunchberry, White Violets,  and Calla Lily grew on the wooded  shore

And then we came to the bog mat – a floating mass of sphagnum – where you could get out  and walk (carefully) to see other wonders.
(As long as you didn't mind hearing wierd sucking noises with every step.)

Here grows Buckbean, blooming with enthusiasm.

Jackie pointed out a female Elfin Skimmer dragonfly, whose tiger-striping made her disappear from sight if you took your eyes off her.

As usual, it was fun to see Andrew’s delight in finding many plants new to him.
And to witness his photographer's frustration !
Standing ankle-deep in sphagnum, waiting for a cloud to pass.

Whoever says a swamp is a dreary grey place – has never been to one ! 
Everywhere you looked, it was a riot of color.


As if a morning filled with Arethusas was not enough, we had one last adventure planned for that afternoon.
Andrew would be leaving for Ohio the very next morning, so the pressure was on to find one last treasure.
We were hoping to see a plant that perhaps even Thoreau had never seen in the wild.  
I could find only one reference to it in his Journal:

June 12, 1856: Sophia [Thoreau’s  sister] has sent me,
in a letter from Worcester, part of an orchis in bloom,
apparently Platanthera Hookeri (?), or smaller round-leafed orchis, from the Hermitage Wood, so called, northeast of the town; but the two leaves are elliptical.

June 13. Friday.  To Worcester.

June 14. Walk to Hermitage Woods with Sophia and aunts.
[Heh. Sounds like he surely tried to find one !]

After lunch, we met Bob Duncan, who kindly offered to take us to actually SEE a Hooker’s Orchid.
There are, perhaps, five known individual plants of this orchid in New York State – and we were going to a place where three of them grow.
Bob had scouted the spot earlier, and cautioned us that he had seen only one small flower-spike. (Wild orchids produce flowers very unpredictably; some years, not at all.)

Bob drove us in, along a road whose name I don’t remember, to the beginnings of a trail. From there, we walked through rich wet woods, trending upward to our destination. 
Just a short ways along, we stumbled upon Painted Trillium, still looking fresh.

Andrew had given up all hope of finding it on this trip, and was thrilled.
He’d never seen one before.
I had, but was surprised to see one of these elegant flowers with four petals instead of three – would that be called a Quadrillium??

We walked gingerly across a beaver dam, 
and crossed seeps filled with Marsh Blue Violets.

Amazingly, despite the warmth of the day, and the wetness of the trail, there were few mosquitoes.  Of course, after sundown, things could be different.  For now, we enjoyed a sunny, breezy day in the woods.

The place where Bob and Evelyn had found the Hooker’s plants was originally smack dab in the middle of an ATV trail, and they worked to get the trail re-routed, to spare the orchids.
Their efforts were not in vain.
As we approached the spot, Andrew whooped and got on his knees.
One single plant had sent up one single spike – which, today, was in bloom !

There would be time enough for each of us to take photos of this rare sight.

And for me to take one more of Andrew's happy face.

First, though … a moment just to admire and wonder.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


May 30, 2013
Dorset, Vermont

I keep a mountain anchored off eastward a little way,
   which I ascend in my dreams both awake and asleep.
Its broad base spreads over a village or two,
   which does not know it;
   neither does it know them, nor do I when I ascend it.
I can see its general outline as plainly now in my mind
   as that of Wachusett.
I do not invent in the least, but state exactly what I see.
I find that I go up it when I am light-footed and earnest.
It ever smokes like an altar with its sacrifice.
I am not aware that a single villager frequents it
   or knows of it.
I keep this mountain to ride instead of a horse.
   HDT, letter to Harrison Blake, November 16, 1857

Day Two of our adventures began with pouring rain.
As I ate breakfast, I resisted the urge to call Jackie and say, “are we still going?” – because I knew what the answer would be.

Today our destination was eastward, to Vermont. It has been my pleasure to have lived in southern Vermont for ten years, and to me, it always feels different on the other side of that state line.

It’s a compact yet very three-dimensional landscape.
And today we were going to go UP.
We met some of our friends from the Thursday Naturalists – Ed, Nan, Barbara and others -- who would be our guides to some interesting places on a special mountain.
On this mountain, there are old old marble quarries. We were going up there to see some plants that favor such soil environments. These plants were rare treats for us, as well as for Andrew.
We drove up and up, along marble-gravelled roads that took us to where the foot trail began.
Despite the rain, the TNs were out in full force. They chatted gaily at the trailhead, as if it was just another pleasant day.
Then we walked along the abandoned quarry road. 

Along the way, we saw a great assortment of plants --
Cohosh, Virginia Waterleaf, Maidenhair Ferns. Everything looking gloriously green in the drizzling rain.

After a while, we turned a bend on the trail, with Nan leading the way, and found ourselves in a dark corner – around us rose the walls of the abandoned quarry.

The humidity and dampness here gave things a Mayan jungle aspect.
Ah, but did the Mayans have Small Yellow Ladyslippers by the score? 

There were so many little fairy-lights at our feet,  that you had to step carefully.
We found Early Azalea (blooming,) Rosybells, and Red Efts galore.
And beds of Wood Betony -- some in bloom, others still young, but it’s thriving here.

On the seams of the rock walls, Slender Cliff Brake made interesting patterns.

If those hearty quarrymen could have seen us happily browsing their old work-place now – what would they think?

We lunched at the cellphone tower site, while I fretted about the forecast for thunderstorms.
Here we were, way up on a mountain, sitting at the base of a huge metal tower.
Andrew: “let me check the radar on my iPhone – hey, I’m getting great reception here !”
Another person chimed in, “don’t worry, Sue, I think this tower is well-grounded.”
Small reassurances to Worrywart Me.
Despite my fears, and the ominous forecasts,  the weather began to clear.
We were perhaps, only a quarter of the way up the hillside.
You could see the mist parting to reveal the valley below.

After lunch, we took a secret detour to see something really rare – Moonworts !
I had never heard of them – they are very primitive plants, a sort of fern.
They are also great hiders. The ones we saw first were just over an inch tall.

Other specimens were a whopping two inches tall. 

Caring botanists have flagged them so that they can be located, and avoided at the same time.

Another photo of Andrew in his Happy Place, taking portraits of this elusive plant.

Ancient folk tales say that Moonwort has magical qualities.
Names for the plant include Unshoe-the-Horse, Money-Plant and Lunary.
It was said to cure lunacy if gathered by the light of the moon.
Or that you could open any lock by inserting a sprig.
Well, we weren't about to pick it, no matter what it could do.
The science of the plant is just as strange - most of the activity of the plants takes place underground. Some plants exist belowground for ten years before sending up that little green hand. Some reproduce without it, somehow. Botanists are still learning new things about this one.

Our last wish-list plant for the day did not show itself until we were almost back at the cars. Just off the trail was Showy Orchis, a little past prime, but still quite elegant.
And another new plant on my list.

Something not on any list (and a complete surprise, since we saw nary a one in any of the usual places this spring):

We saw lots of these on our way back down.
(Guess what Jackie and Andrew enjoyed at dinner that evening?)

Many of my photos of this day did not come out well. I shoot from the hip, and often forget to check the lens for raindrops. No matter. It was still great to be out and about with an intrepid group of folks who know how to spend a dark & rainy day. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Sweetness

May 28, P.M.
Hudson River Ice Meadows, Warrensburg, NY

There is a positive sweetness in the air from flowers & expanding leaves –
a universal sweetness …
A river of lethe flows with many windings the year through –
separating one season from another.
The heavens for a few days have been lost;
it has been a sort of paradise instead.

   HDT Journal, May 9, 1852

Our first day of rambles continues after lunch.
We head upriver to the Ice Meadows.
First, the West Side –
This section of River Road was closed this spring, due to the massive buildup of river ice that backed up so far that at one point it came up the banks and blocked the roadway.

Months later, we are surprised to see some of that same ice, still lingering across the road.
It’s our own private mini-glacier.

Then we stop upriver to explore the unique mix of plant life in this special area.
Dwarf sand cherry is in full bloom everywhere along the sandy riverbanks.

This early in the year, one can’t help but notice the deep purple of the ovate-leaved Violets. They make up for their tiny size with intensity of color.

Another violet - of unknown variety. Sometimes they just refuse to be labelled.

The Blue-Eyed grass is heavenly, too.

There is lots to see, but we are growing a little weary. Time enough for one more stop, this time on the East Side of the ice meadows.
“The less interesting side,” I think to myself peevishly.
From the parking area the path winds through an obvious pine-plantation, toward the river.

But there stands Andrew, looking up, delighted to see pines of any size.
And I begin to appreciate what we have here. 

We leave the trail and walk among them, since Jackie thinks we might see a ladyslipper or two in there.
We did see one …

then another, and another … the sunlight angles through the trees and lights up dozens of the pink orchids.

Andrew walks (carefully) ahead, and we hear him stop & gasp.
He finds one of the flowers on his wish-list – Clintonia.  In prime condition.

Jackie and I marvel at this sight too – there were dozens of them.
Methinks the flowers are showing off, for Andrew’s sake.

Here and there, spring flowers – it is still spring at the ice meadows –
are spotlit under the tall pines.


We walk further on, and simultaneously, all notice a sweetness in the air.
Sort of like grapes … or lollipops. What could it be?
I remember reading Thoreau’s description of the sweet scent of the lady’s slipper.
Well, we get down on our knees, and test this theory, but none of us could smell anything there.
The only other blooming things nearby are …  the common May-Flowers. 

So common that we have hardly paid any attention to them.
There are LOTS of May-Flowers here. We take a sniff at one.

That’s what the sweetness came from!
They smell so wonderful, you just want to roll in them.
We spend our time here just wandering about, happily taking photos.
We did make it to the riverside eventually,
but it was our walk in that Magic Forest that I will always remember.