December 27, 2014

Tempering December's Expectations

Today, began with a perfect December sunrise, full of winter clarity and color.  All year, I look forward to the quiet insulation of snowfalls, the crystalline transformation of the land and waterways, the freezing over of wetlands that invites deeper exploration of their secrets. But as the holiday whirlwind subsides, I am startled by the strength of my own longing for a wintery December walk and how that brings disappointment in the unusually warm weather we're having.

I head out to Great Meadows and join a swarm of holiday visitors along the Dike Trail, who are basking in the warmth of the mid-day sun.  Inside, I'm grumbling about the absence of ice and snow, the chatter, the flatness of the light on the monochromatic landscape.  Then I catch my thoughts.  When I lead each monthly walk here, I ask all participants to set aside their expectations and preoccupations in order to fully receive what this special place has to offer in the moments that we pass through it.  And so, I do now, and the day becomes a revelation.

First, I pass through small clouds of Chironomids (non-biting gnats) pulsing up and down over the expected encounter during ice-out on warming spring days, but not in December.  I notice the joy on passing faces, in appreciation for this unexpected, post-holiday warmth, and turn to see shimmering ribbons of light in the marsh with a muskrat lodge hovering above the twinkles like a mirage.

Once at the river, remnants of pumpkins float by and their orange brilliance stands out against the drab shorelines.  Unusually high water this month, swept them from the lower fields at Hutchins' Farm across the way.  While chuckling at the pumpkins, a rooster's midday crowing catches my ear, followed by another, and then another (in baritone voice) from neighboring farms.

Where I stand, the river's rise has nearly reached the trail's edge, filling the floodplain forest with a rare winter inundation.  Minding my expectations, I'm still hoping that this high water will freeze solid in the coming months to form a "dance floor" through the forest filled with flash frozen treasures and ice skirts around the trees as waters recede.

Moving more deeply into communion with the light, temperature, and gentle breeze of the day, I realize that this a more perfect day for baby spiders to hatch and balloon than we had in all of November.  Sure enough there are shimmering gossamer strands trailing out from the cattail heads and tiny spiders crawling about on their tips.


Crackling sounds from deep within the tangles of cattail stalks along the trail, catch the attention of some visitors passing by.  I point out chickadees who are diligently shredding these dried reeds looking for insect larvae.  In November, they spent more time up in the seed heads, gleening out tiny black seeds while helping to loosen the tension-packed bundles. 

At the far eastern turn in the dike trail, there was a surprising and baffling scene...a beaver-cut branch dangling from a leaning silver maple tree.  Imagine the beaver who climbed this tree, likely at night, to nibble and cut this woody stub five feet above the water's surface!

In my final stretch along the dike trail and through the woods, I enjoy the company of an adult bald eagle.  Bald eagles have been visiting the refuge almost daily this winter, drawn by the presence of many coots who have chosen to stick around this winter.  This hunter made a few circles over the eastern end of the lower impoundment.  Then while I and a visiting couple are walking along the edge trail, the eagle comes in for several close passes over them and then me.  It appears that it is curious about our movements in the woods, and perhaps the bright red coat that the other young woman is wearing.

With my expectations tempered by today's welcome surprises, I return home for the afternoon.  At dusk, while returning some borrowed tables and chairs up the road, I stop by Thoreau's birthplace to enjoy the sight of the waxing moon and wisps of pink clouds hanging over it and to catch the somewhat uncertain call of a white-throated sparrow.

Following the color home, I watch the daylight fade in clarity and color as it began.

November 3, 2014

November's Gossamer Day

On a warm, blue-skied, mid-November day with gentle breezes stirring, thousands of young spiders launch themselves on silken threads above Great Meadows.  Sailing up over the cattails and buttonbushes, some are carried high on the thermals, over the Concord River and out of sight.  Others arrive to festoon the marshes with their gossamer parafoils, which catch the low afternoon sunlight.

The Middle English word gossamer means 'goose summer,' that time around St. Martin's Day (November 11) when the weather briefly warms, the geese are fat for eating, and silken threads drape the land.  The French call these delicate spinnings Fils de la Vierge and in Germany it's Spinnfaden. 

In temperate regions across the world, young spiders take to the autumn sky, surprising, baffling, and delighting observers with their floating filaments and silk-draped landscapes. 

At Great Meadows, this annual spider migration is conjoined with the annual flocking of the marshes with cattail fluff.  The autumn-whipped winds shake bales of downy cattail seeds into the air and all this fuzz catches on the newly draped gossamer, flocking the landscape like a 1960's Hallmark card.

On November 13, 2013, these gossamer events coincided on the day of the full moon and caught me in their spell as I walked the evening trail.

October 20, 2014

Walden Circumambulation - Autumnal Moments

Chasing autumn's splendor, I embark on a morning walk around Walden Pond, the iconic, deep watering hole for the soul, that I choose to avoid in the warmest months.  Thanks to Thoreau's musings, millions come here on pilgrimage to circumambulate this 100' deep kettlehole pond hoping to touch a wilder side of themselves or to find their own moments of insight and meaning along its shore.  But for me it is neighborhood and part of the natural and cultural fabric that defines my community, its history, and my small place in that continuum.

As I walk along the shore, I overhear two teachers on the nearby trail reflecting on Thoreau, above the chatter of a long line of high school students behind them, "He made such a point of his living the self-sufficient life out here, yet he still took his clothes home to be washed...what an imposter!"  (I hide my smile and the urge to comment.)  Despite this momentary disillusionment, the throng continues on their dutiful rounds to visit the cabin site and take a group photo against the backdrop of the pond.  Still, every time I come here I wonder about visitors' expectations and the impressions they take away. 

To be in the moment at Walden (or in any wild place), receptive to its offerings, requires some practice, or a practice.  Its landscape does not offer singularly awe-inspiring vantage points.  It is often crowded with visitors, with hoped for silences broken by chatter, traffic sounds, and the scheduled clamor of passing trains.  Indeed many photographers, including Annie Liebovitz, have lamented that it's vistas lack inspiring focal points or ready compositions in its natural features.  But this humble visage is also its gift, requiring us to focus and delve deeper for its inspirations.

And so, as I approach Walden's shore today - with the sun already high, the breeze stiffening, and the silence and solitude waning as visitors multiply - I take a few deep breaths, let go of expectation, note all of the liveliness around the pond, and surrender to the inspirations of light, patterns, color, and intersecting time as I walk.

I come away with images of moments that reveal Walden to be the sum of its facets and their interplay at any given point in time.

Walden's legendary clarity is both message and metaphor for the seeker.

Warm reflections in Thoreau's Cove, where ice first melts in the spring, flanked by Wyman's Meadow, parched by the late summer drought.

Returning to my starting point near the esker trail, autumn light dapples the rolling terrain, a characteristic image in Walden's autumn woodlands.

September 27, 2014

Early Autumn Morning at Great Meadows

The clear warm days and cooling nights of autumn give way to dazzling morning dew and rising vapors with each sunrise.  Some daybreaks are more bejeweled and mist shrouded than others, and this weekend I encounter one of those.  As the morning sun clears the treetops at Great Meadows on Saturday, the marsh view is softened by light fog.

Backlight accentuates thousands of drying plants and seeds along the trail edges.  Showy tick-trefoil (Desmodium canadense) seeds "Velcro" themselves to passing cattail down, making striking silhouettes against the softly focused dewy sparkles of the marsh behind.

Milk parsley (Peucedanum palustre) seeds on beautiful, umbel-shaped armatures, join the weedy tangle, promising continued vitality for this rare northern European immigrant at Great Meadows.

In the fall, spiders are particularly obvious along edges of wetlands, fields, and trails and the lowered light angles of dawn, dusk, and the season in general highlight their gossamer weavings.  This morning these dew-studded webs catch the light, creating infinite beauty along the dike trail.

As the marsh awakens, thousands of many-eyed lotus pods catch the light on their dew-dappled surfaces, evoking primal feelings as I gaze back at them.

And finally, a surprise greeting from another early riser as I encounter a young Cooper's Hawk scanning the marsh from its high perch on the observation deck railing.

Much of the morning's magic melts away by 8 am as the sun climbs higher above the marsh.  Temperatures warm, surfaces dry, birds quiet, and eyes squint as autumn color becomes more vibrant across the marsh.  With sunrises coming later each morning, it will be easier to revisit these early morning wonders in the weeks ahead.

September 24, 2014

Brilliant Deceiver - Poison Sumac

Late September view of Heywood Meadow, an acidic fen in Walden Woods, with touches of orange poison sumac in the mid-ground

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) conceals itself in our local wetlands until its distinctive orange color blazes forth from bog mats and damp swampy shorelines in late September.  A more toxic relative to poison ivy, its compound leaves light up when its fruits ripen, signaling to foraging birds that another autumn feast is ready.  I've encountered poison sumac in a number of wetlands throughout Concord - Gowing's Swamp, Moore's Swamp, wetlands in Estabrook Woods, and here in Heywood Meadow, just south of Walden Pond - and expect that it thrives in many more.  It's easiest to spot when its compound, sumac leaves first emerge in spring and when it flashes its color early in the autumn foliage parade.  It's a brilliant deceiver...look but don't touch!

Poison sumac growing with tawny cotton sedge
Poison sumac's flaming color reveals its location across this boggy expanse

August 7, 2014

Summer's Journey into Twilight and Wonder

I begin my twilight foray, at Great Meadows, in search of groundnut blossoms (Apios americana) and am greeted by backlit strands all along the beginning of the Dike Trail.  Groundnut, which is prolific along moist edge habitats in Concord, is a native vine that produces both edible beans and starchy tubers and was a prized food of indigenous inhabitants for millennia.

In the evening light, showy tick-trefoil flowers have given way to thousands of velcroed seed pods, which catch the light and our clothes, if we pass too near.

The vastness of sky always captures my attention in this place, and in August this expanse is met by a great carpet of American lotuses.  Tonight's raking light illuminates passing thunderheads and the creamy blossoms below, the two joined in communion by gray, showery curtains.

Further down the Dike Trail, our native wild rice (Zizania aquatica) is coming into seed and only reveals itself boldly in spotlighted moments such as these.  These grassy sprays are highlighted by this year's unusual abundance of purple loosestrife, which revels in these cooler summer temperatures.

Also abundant this summer, is one of Great Meadows' rarest plants...milk parsley (Peucedanum palustre).  A relative of Queen Anne's lace and other members of the carrot family (Apiaceae), milk parsley was introduced to North America from northern Europe more than a century ago and is known now only to grow at Great Meadows and two other Mass. locations.

Tumble of milk parley under tumbling clouds
As the sun sinks below the horizon, I step into the shadows of the floodplain forest seeking late summer's most brilliant blooms. Tucked away in these darkest corners along the river, cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) seem to glow from within, especially as daylight fades.

Rain starts falling gently on the river, and as I emerge from the forest canopy, there the gibbous moon shines high over the marsh veiled by showery curtains that suddenly catch the steep rays of the setting sun.  Another celestial miracle at Great Meadows unfolds as a rainbow appears, arching just over the ripening moon.  I walk by a visitor silently gazing up and holding her heart.

Chasing the rainbow down the trail, I come to the inlet channel in time to behold this perfect Bierstadt vision of the marshes just as the rain passes away.

Lotus leaves are left bejeweled...and all is washed and radiant for the night.