Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Beech Falling

Yesterday brought the second morning in a row of that new fall moment – the moment of the first frost warning. In this weird new era, the first frost warning has almost as much impact as the first frost, but not quite (no frost so far). It was cool on Cricket Hill at 6:20 a.m. and as we walked into the woods there was that sound of fall happening, beechnuts falling from way up high in the trees. It’s a plink… plink …. Plink-plink… plink… plink-plink-plink … plink all around you. Drives Suzy and Petey a little wacky (nuts?) and it happens when the temperature gets to a certain low point in the early fall.

All the beech trees in these woods are not coincidental with the high bear population – the bears enjoy the beechnuts mightily, evidently.
“Beech trees are one of the largest producers of nuts in a hardwood forest but they only bear fruit in the autumn and this is when bears gorge on them to build up fat reserves before hibernating for the winter.” http://sectionhiker.com/2009/05/21/black-bear-territorial-displays/

“The fruit of the beech, also called "Beechnuts" and "mast", are found in the small burrs that drop from tree in autumn. They are small and triangular, are edible, have a sweet taste and are highly nutritious. (~ 20% protein and also ~ 20% oil content). Traditionally beech woods were highly valued in western Europe for the grazing of pigs, which fed on fallen beech mast. However, they do contain organic substances which are slightly toxic (it has been reported that eating approx. 50 nuts may make you ill) so that they should not be eaten in larger quantities.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beech accessed 8/30/09

I, for one, have no plans to eat them in quantities larger than 50.

Here are the remains of the outer casings after someone has eaten the nuts.

One of the interesting things about the beeches on this hill is that the leaves stay on the trees over the winter, drying up and bleaching out but not falling. They don’t fall until the new growth begins in the spring.

Beech-Nut could also be interesting (at least to those of us over what? 40? 50?) as a memorable trade name. Turns out that the name has had a kinda “loose” corporate history over the centuries, starting out 1890 as the Beech-Nut Packing Company on the Mohawk River in Canajoharie, New York, marketing the home-smoked hams perfected by one of the dads of the original five young partners. (Was there beech wood in the fire used in the smoking? Did the lucky porkers feast on the nuts?) At any rate, the name got passed around to quite the who’s-who of the corporate world over the decades -- Life Savers Corp, Squibb, Nestle, Ralston-Purina, Milnot, Hero.

The gum arrived well after the meats so it’s unlikely chewing on the nuts was part of the gum’s history (only the pigs’). After passing through corporate purgatory with the apple juice scandal (hmmm maybe it really wasn’t apple juice after all…) of the 1980’s, it has now recast itself as a producer of ‘better’ baby food. Definitely no nuts in that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Efts Efts Everywhere

Our fecund forest is full of efts. Baby newts. Juvenile salamanders. Adolescent amphibia. Pubescent Salamandridae.

Some summer days they are everywhere, especially after a warm rain. L. likes to count them on her walks on the hill, one day noting 33 or 34 in a one-hour walk (this is a woman who keeps track of where and when she finds coins on the ground and can show you year-over-year trend information from the results. FY ‘08 was a particularly good one she reported). I sometimes start a hike up the hill with the intention of counting the efts but never get past 9 or 10 before I forget and then get mixed up –- does that make ten or eleven… or was it nine? -- guess who’s the financial wizard in our family?

Anyway, these lovely orange/red creatures are Notophthalmus viridescens, or Red-spotted newt, a.k.a. Eastern newt. These pictured here are the efts, the newts in their childhoods. They live on the forest floor dining on fly larvae, spiders, mites and other delicious tidbits until, after 3-7 years as happy orange children, they grow up and turn in to full-fledged aquatic salamanders and lose their lovely orange glows in favor of reptilian olive green with red spots.

These clever efts evidently exude a nasty secretion from their skin that kills predators. That would be quite a surprise, ehh… just when you’re enjoying a nice mouthful of newt, poof! you’re dead… I myself have never touched one and Petey and Suzy blessedly show no interest.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Now Blooming on a Hill Near You

Jewel Weed, Michaelmas Daisy and Joe Pye Weed. Three late-season wildflowers, the last two of which are members of the Aster family.

Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium purpureum, Queen of the Meadow, gravel root, kidney root, mist-flower, snakeroot and purple boneset. A plant that successfully straddles the divide between wildflower and garden cultivar. Either location, it’s a butterfly favorite and a type of aster. Being that I have a personal stake in the matter, I tried to find out more about the name… Alfred C. Hottes‘ Book of Perennials states the name Joe Pye Weed "is derived from Joe Pye, an Indian herb doctor of Pilgrim days in Massachusetts. He is reputed to have cured typhus fever from a decoction of the plant." (New York, A.T. De La Mare Co., Inc., 1937, p. 150.)

Jewel Weed always reminds me of snapdragons though for no scientific reason at all. Unlike snapdragon, Jewel Weed is a species of impatience: impatiens capensis. It’s also known as “touch-me-not” and is often discussed in the same breath as poison ivy. It’s said to be a useful treatment and preventative – evidently freezing ground leaves in ice cubes and applying it is thought to work. (Anybody try this or other methods and have comments?) Me old ma, on the other hand, says that the usefulness of Jewel Weed to counter the dreaded PI is in its ability to actually crowd out the poison ivy plants on the ground and keeps them from flourishing. As both a sufferer from PI for more decades than imaginable and an outdoorswoman I suppose she should be taken seriously. Or at least as someone who sounds like they should be taken seriously (a family trait?)

Michaelmas Daisy came to bloom – back in the old country (some old country, anyway) -- around the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, September 29 (October 11 formerly). To quote my dear old friend W. Pedia “According to an old legend, blackberries should not be picked after this date. This is because, so folklore goes, Satan was banished from Heaven on this day, fell into a blackberry bush and cursed the brambles as he fell into them. In Yorkshire it is said that the devil had spat on them. According to Morrell (1977), this old legend is well-known in all parts of the United Kingdom, even as far north as the Orkney Islands.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michaelmas, accessed 9/11/09)

It strikes me that Wikipedia is like certain very authoritative friends and relations who always sound like they know what they are talking about no matter the accuracy…

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Maps, part 2

This satellite image is from MassGIS and looks straight down on the L. farm dead set in the middle of the image. Whately Road appears as a line from southeast to northwest on the right side of the map. The beaver pond in back of the cemetery can be spied in the vertical middle slightly to right of center.
MassAcorn! Such a terrific resource. Lots of possibilities on the site -- this particular map is centered on (of all things) our house, on the north slope. I chose to show roads (yellow lines), water (blue lines), state-owned land (turquoise horizontal striping) and private land with conservation restrictions (red vertical striping).
Ah, MassCAPS -- Conservation Assessment and Prioritization System, the brainchild of a few inspired I'm-proud-to-be-their-colleagues at the university. This is an "IEI" map -- Index of Ecological Integrity -- for Cricket Hill. I've included the key below. Different colors represent different types of landscape with greater integrity shown by increased darkness of color. These maps are available on the site for many Massachusetts communities and are powerful tools for planning and motivating conservation. See the site for more information on the methodology.


This twentieth-century map shows the names of the original settlers of the town. (Note that north is to the right on this map and that the roads are shown as the modern roads.) The three farms at the top of Cricket Hill are listed (from left to right) as Nathaniel Marble, Capt. Abel Dinsmore and William Gates. On the northwestern slope, site of the Town Farm and Maynard Cemetery, are Solomon Goodale and Malachi Maynard’s farms.

This map is from 1858 and has a “t” added in error to Cricket. Hard to discern much beyond the developing road system.

By this 1871 map, things are more recognizable. The names associated with the three farms at the top now include “Lee,” still an important one today. The map notes roads from Cricket Hill directly to both of the primary villages of the town, a schoolhouse and the cemetery. Also, note the solid north-south line veering slightly westward as you head north. When looking at the map in its entirety, you can see that this line is labeled Proposed Rail Road. The top edge of the map shows the more-than-proposed Troy and Greenfield Rail Road running along the Deerfield River on the town’s border with Shelburne. The proposed route would have joined up with the existing route and run northwest along the river as well.

This joined-together view of Cricket Hill on the edges of two quadrangles from the 1887 topo survey shows how rapidly the road system had been evolving . Also how all those hills speeded the water through all those mills. The town had over 200 mills in its first 200 years. On or near Cricket Hill there were sawmills on Roaring Brook, Avery Brook and Poland Brook.

Capt. Dinsmore’s headstone is prominent in Cricket Hill Cemetery.

Thanks and credit to: Town of Conway, Gordon E. Ainsworth Associates (settlers map), and to Conway 1767-1967 by Deane Lee, 1967.