On Hands and Knees to Wonder

When I invited Jinny Mae to join me at Loon Echo Land Trust’s Bald Pate Preserve this afternoon, she eagerly agreed. And three hours later, I know she had no regrets. Though we never reached the summit, neither of us cared. Our minds were boggled by all that we had noticed.

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Somehow we managed to beeline our way to the Foster Pond Lookout. And then we slowed down. To a stop.

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And so we got rather personal with the rock substrate as we took a closer look. At lichens. For what seemed like ever, it was thought that lichens were symbiotic life forms consisting of Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae, who took a liken to each other and their marriage formed a single organism. Sometimes, cyanobacteria or blue-green algae was tossed into the mix. The fungus provided shelter (algae can only live where they won’t dry out and so being surrounded by fungal cells meant Alice could live outside of water), while either of the photosynthetic partners, algae or cyanobacteria, produced food from the sun.

It’s no longer just a story about Freddy and Alice living together, however. New scientific research deems another partner in the mix–yeast, which also provides protection. I feel like just stating that puts me way out of my league.

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Our goal wasn’t to understand those relationships per say. We just wanted to spend some time looking and developing an eye to recognize these structures while appreciating their life’s work that often goes unseen.

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Some grow at an especially slow rate–think hundreds of years rather than decades. That in itself, should stop us in our tracks. And yet, as we stand 5+ feet above those that grow on rocks, we hardly notice them.

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The  dark brown fruiting bodies, called apothecia, are where spores are produced and life continues. Walk tenderly, my friends.

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Jinny Mae’s excitement over the toad skin lichen was contagious. Notice its warty projections–much like the skin of an American toad, which varies in color.

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I spied this toad a few days ago, but its skin certainly helps qualify the lichen’s common name.

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If you look in the center, you can see the point where the lichen attached to the rock–the belly button of this particular lichen making it known as an umbilicate lichen.

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And among the favorite finds of the day, Jinny Mae was the first to spy this. It had rained this morning and everything was dry by the time we hiked, but some signs of moisture remained. In this case, it’s wet toad skin contrasted by dry toad skin. If you are willing to give up some water from your water bottle, you can create the same contrast. And note the black dots–its fruiting bodies or apothecia where its spores are produced.

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The more we looked, the more we saw.

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British soldiers were topped by their brilliant red caps–forever announcing their presence.

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Pixie-cup lichen stood like goblets, ready with magical potions.

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Some were filled to the brim and almost overflowed with life.

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We marveled at the green,

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gray,

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and foam-like structure of reindeer lichen. These are treats for reindeer and caribou, neither of which frequent our region except for one night a year.

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And then we looked at the next layer in succession on a rock. Once the lichens have established themselves, mosses move in. Did you ever think about the fact that mosses don’t have flowers, stems or roots? Instead, they feature tiny green leaf-like structures and microscopic hair-like structures. They send their “hairs” into the crevices created by the lichens and anchor themselves to the rocks. Today, we found a moss neither of us remember seeing before.

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To us, it offered a square presentation and we debated its identity. While we thought it may be yellow yarn moss, I’m now leaning toward medusa moss–though their leaf edges are smooth and these are obviously toothed.  Do you know? Which ever it is, we were wowed.

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We finally moved on, hiking to a false summit to take in the western view.

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The late afternoon sun and breeze played havoc with our views, but we eventually reached the rock tripe wall, where common polypody took advantage of the living conditions.

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The lichen covered a ledge, some of it green from the morning rain, but surprisingly much of it still brown. Like the toad skin lichen, rock tripe are umbilicate and attached to the rock at a single point. They reminded me of elephant ears flapping in the breeze.

From there, we headed down. Our pace on the slow side all afternoon.

And sometimes we had absolutely no pace at all, unless you consider the motion (and grunts) as we got down on our hands and knees and even our bellies to take a closer look. It was all worth a wonder. And we did.

 

 

The Wonders of Wilson Wing

A wander at Wilson Wing Moose Pond Bog Preserve is the perfect way to celebrate the start of snow season. The 20.7 acres of land near Horseshoe Pond that was donated by the Wing family combined with the twelve acres surrounding Sucker Brook that The Nature Conservancy previously owned create the Preserve, which is a Greater Lovell Land Trust property.

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My friend Jinny Mae and I donned our snowshoes and headed off on the trail, not sure what we might find. It was snowing lightly when we started, so we didn’t expect to see any mammal tracks.

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Thus we were delighted with our finds–especially this one which was rather fresh. A look at the formation and we knew we had a member of the mustelid or weasel family. A few measurements of prints, straddle and stride–and we determined it was a mink.

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In true mink fashion, it enjoyed a slide into the brook. We also saw mice, red squirrel, deer, bird  and domestic dog tracks–some were blurred by the snow, but the pattern and behavior helped us come to a conclusion. Well, the bird stumped us at first. It wasn’t clear at all. But then we saw juncos. And under the platform were clear prints beside some muted ones.

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Though we neither saw nor heard any red squirrels, their presence was well pronounced. I was surprised to see a midden. All fall, I searched for caches. Usually cones are piled in various places, but this year I found only a few. Were they fooled by the warm weather?

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I don’t know if it’s because it is winter and everything seems more pronounced or what, but the ash bark appeared chunkier and corkier than ever. Of course, the snowflakes added to the scene.

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We were beside Sucker Brook, which flowed with winter magic.

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And ice. Its many forms of presentation always fill me with awe and wonder.

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And whimsy. Check out these gigantic feet and

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the hemline of this snowy skirt.

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Another favorite (oops, I forgot, everything is my favorite, but these really do stop me in my tracks–or snowshoes) is hobblebush. In any season this shrub provides an incredible display, but its the winter buds that are especially astounding. (OK, wait until it blossoms and I’ll be saying the same thing.) While most buds have waxy scales that protect the leaves, hobblebush is naked. The same is true for witch hazel buds. What you see in these photos, is miniature leaves clasping each other. And embraced within, the flower bud. Here’s hoping the snow provides warmth until spring.

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Another “favorite” display adorned a rock hidden beneath the snow.

poly 3Common polypody ferns seemed to hold the snow tight between their curled blades. That made us pause and wonder once more.

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And because we did so, we realized that clusters of sporangia were ready to catapult their spores into the world.

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They look like miniature clusters of balloons waiting to broadcast the arrival of a new year. But, why were the pinnae curled inward? It’s certainly not a stance that would protect the spores–those are to be spewed outward in order to further the population. We know that the blades curl up if conditions are dry, but it’s hardly been dry the past few weeks–lots of rain and now snow. My research turned up little, but I wonder if it’s a protective measure similar to the rhododendrons in our front yard. As nature’s thermometers, they let us know what the temperature is based on the behavior of their leaves–about 40˚ they extend outward, about 32˚ they droop and in the low 20˚s the rhodies’ leaves curl. I’m always sure they will die and drop off, but that’s not the case. Could it be the same for the polypody? Do their dense covering of scales located on the underside prevent the loss of moisture? Now I need to keep track of the temperature and see if it follows the same pattern.

Worth a wonder. Worth a thanks to the Wing family (and especially Dr. Wilson M. and June Wing) for helping to make the Preserve a place for all of us to wander.