Forever a Student

Once the rain let up, I donned my Boggs and headed out the door in mid-afternoon, not sure where exactly I was headed. But after reaching the snowmobile trail, I decided to turn south. Since the spring, I’ve been to the vernal pool on the neighboring property numerous times, but not much beyond in that direction.


Part of the reason was that a local industry, of which we now have so few, was constructing a new building and had cut off the trail. Oh, I could have bushwhacked around the project, but the other part of the reason is that it’s a heavy tick zone and I normally avoid it come warmer weather. Given the new building, I wasn’t sure what to expect today, but as I passed through the stonewall, I discovered they’d added a bridge over a new water diversion and the trail was open. I’m glad for the small industry, but simultaneously sad that the willows are gone. No more pussy willows in the spring. Or willow galls, though I suppose that’s good news. And who knows, perhaps some viable willow seeds will spring forth in this place–a hypothesis to be tested.


After crossing behind the building, I moved through an opening in the next stone wall, and felt right at home again–in one of my local classrooms. This is one where I’m often the solo student, as was the case today.


I revisited an old stump, where art class was about to begin. The underside of the artist’s conk welcomed a sketch, but I left the canvas blank for another day.


In social studies class, I took a look at former land uses. The wall opening and split stone gate bars helped me envision the fields that once were cleared. I followed several walls, which switched from single to double and even double-double, or so it seemed as one section was at least six feet wide and a football field long (The New England Patriots are winning in CA right now!). Barbed wire indicated the need to keep animals out and flat land with trees not a hundred years old spoke to the land’s former plowed use.


A few minutes later, I moved over an old rock mound and stood before my science teacher–another vernal pool. As I recalled, this one dries out early in the season and grasses and other vegetation grow prolifically here. But unlike the smaller pool closer to home, this one held some water from the recent rain.


As any student should, I stepped through the door and sunk my feet into class.


Cinnamon ferns reminded me that they keep their fuzziness right up to the end.


I wondered about strips of paper birch dangling from a young sapling and then realized I was looking at the remains of a nest–maybe a vireo.


I questioned how the long-beaked sedge seedheads came to be bent over–by weather or wildlife or just because their time had come?


While bulrushes (actually a grass) offered flowing fountains pouring into the future, their seeds still clung–as did a spider web.


And more spiders eluded me, though their webs stood strong among the steeplebush capsules.


A few raindrops dangled like ornaments from a holiday decoration.


And bead-like spore structures on sensitive fern’s fertile stalk waited for another day to spread their good news.


I finally left the vernal pool, but before heading back down the hallway, small salmon-colored growths stopped me. Lichen? Fungi? I didn’t think I’d ever seen it before and so it was a new lesson.


My first thought–lichen. In a way, it resembled the tops of British Soldiers that grow prolifically here. But my latest thought is red tree brain fungi (Peniophora rufa) . I may be wrong, but that’s what being a student is all about.


With each new lesson, I was also thankful for those that were reinforced, such as the chisel-like and shredded works of pileated woodpeckers. I used to think such trees were the result of bear activity.


I’m always awed by the resulting sculpture left behind by those powerful birds–their strong beaks stabbing away at the bark until they’ve consumed a meal of carpenter ants and beetles. Thankfully, their skulls are thick and spongy–allowing their brains to absorb the impact of such repeated drilling.


At a field, I paused to admire the layers–a testament to field succession. These woods are constantly changing.


One thing that doesn’t change is the signature of a Tom Turkey–usually offered in straight or J formation.




At another wetland, I poked around and then my eye focused in on something decorating a fallen tree. A slime mold perhaps? Red raspberry slime? In one rendition it seemed to have a crater-like surface, while another was more flower-like with petals spraying from a center.


At last I entered a hemlock forest where the cinnamon inner bark stood out on the wet trees. If not for the scales, I realized it would be easy to confuse this bark with that of red oak, but a quick look up the trunk and the answer was obvious.


As I walked back toward home, I looked along parts of the trail I’d skipped while exploring in the woods. And I wasn’t disappointed when I discovered one of the few striped maple trees–still bearing the seeds it produced last year. Why did they cling still? When released, will they be viable?


And then, a sight I was hoping for presented itself when I returned to our woodlot. Froth at the base of a pine tree. It’s not unusual and occurs following a rain event such as we’d had all night and morning. I had hoped to see some foam today, and felt rewarded for my efforts. So what causes the tree to froth? Well, like all lessons, there are several possibilities. Maine Master Naturalist Science Advisor Fred Cichocki recently had this to say about it: “I’ve noticed this phenomenon often, and in every case I’ve seen it’s associated with white pine, and always after a dry spell followed by heavy rain. Now, conifers, especially, produce hydrocarbons called terpenes (it’s what gives them their lovely pine, balsam and fir scent). These hydrocarbons are hydrophobic by nature and form immiscible films on water. During a heavy rain, water running down the trunk of a white pine picks up terpenes on the way. Air (having accumulated in bark spaces, channels, etc. perhaps under slight pressure) then “bubbles” through terpene-water films producing a froth. Recall the cleaning products PineSol, and the like. They are made from terpenes, and produce copious bubbles when shaken. One could get the same result directly by shaking terpentine in water, or by bubbling air through a terpentine-water mixture with a straw  . . .  Of course, it may be that other substances (salts, etc.) enhance the frothing.”

No matter how much I have learned on this life-long course, there’s always more. I certainly don’t have all the answers and for that I am thankful. I’m forever a student.





4 thoughts on “Forever a Student

  1. Curious I took a walk out this way myselves and also got confused by the bridge and loss of trail. Had to walk/work back to find opening in the wall before following the now well defined trail arcing behind hospital over to Willet. Had northern back here in a long time n was surprised by the buildings sizw

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  2. Yeah, DB, I had no idea about the building until I saw the roofline. I knew they were moving the earth last spring, but hadn’t paid attention since then. BTW–thanks for the book. I started reading it this past weekend. 🙂


  3. Hi Leigh, I’ve wondered about that white froth for a long time. Thanks so much for the explanation. I may not remember it, but I’m glad to know there is a plausible answer. We are finally getting some rain here in Sedona. I’m tired of walking in dust! There will be some tracks for a week or so for David’s annual visit. Keep up the good work.

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  4. Yippee, Kevin! I get to explain something to you! As for remembering, everything is a new encounter each time we meet it. So glad you are finally getting rain. We’ve also received a lot lately, which I hope bodes well for a snowy winter. Say hello to David and Happy Thanksgiving to you and Rita.


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