Tag Archives: the motions of the serpent tribe

Vital signs

Some of early spring’s usual pioneers are unmistakably showing themselves above ground. There is skunk cabbage, thermoregulating its way up, and hardy Siberian squill. Looking just about ready to flower are significant patches of cut-leaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata):
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
Also, some clumps of leaves that I think will shortly become Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica):
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
Ready to take advantage of this new growth there are a multitude of tiny flies, and a few bees, all keeping down near the ground; one fly obligingly settled on my sleeve:
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
… and, alas, already roving and prepared to take advantage of more active mammals, ticks:
UW Arboretum, Wingra & Gallistel Woods
By the looks of it, Sister Tick here has already had a pretty good meal.

There was even a garter snake basking, which I startled into taking cover under dry leaves before I could get a good picture. Well, it’s not like I don’t have plenty of garter snake pictures already posted.

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Brown snakes, red wings, white tails

Rolling into Governor Nelson Park on the second weekend in June, my first thought was how, well, un-prairie-ish the prairie seemed. When I went there for the first time last year, it was mid-July, and the vegetation on either side of the trail rose over my head, with a multiplicity of flowers and long-stemmed grasses. At this time of year, though, the grasses and flowers were no more than knee-high, except from the yellow sweet clover soaring a foot or two higher; of the spring flowers, few were left except for a couple of stands of shooting-star (Dodecatheon meadia):
Governor Nelson State Park, 6/8/14

Even in the middle of winter, a forest is still recognizably itself; the imagination need not do much more than line the branches with leaves to call up how it appears in summertime. A prairie, on the other hand, packs flat. As energy starts to pour in after the spring equinox, it gradually expands and unfolds to its full intricacy, and then begins to die back to not much more than seeds and mulch under snow. That process was still in its early to middle stages.

All the same there was plenty going on. In an earlier post this season, I lamented only ever having seen garter snakes in the wild; I can now report that I have seen what I’m fairly sure is a De Kay’s brown snake (Storeria dekayi). There’s no photographic proof, though, and here is why: I saw a flash of pale colour in the undergrowth, and bent down to see what was definitely the skin of a small snake, light brown with grey, along with some flesh that I soon determined was the body of an earthworm in the process of being eaten by the snake, but for the first few seconds I feared that it the snake’s innards; aftermath, maybe, of an encounter with a mower or careless walker. I have a strange reluctance to photograph deceased animals. It feels disrespectful. In the time it took me to realize the actual situation and lift my camera, the snake had abandoned its meal and scarpered into deeper grass. The earthworm carried on with its business of making the whole ecosystem (and all of human civilization, come to that) even possible in the first place, aplomb scarcely dented by this brush with annihilation.

The De Kay who gave his name to the snake – James Ellsworth De Kay – was an early New York naturalist. In his youth he was expelled from Yale for threatening a college tutor with a club; later he completed a degree in medicine at Edinburgh, and travelled with his father-in-law as a ship’s physician before settling down as a gentleman naturalist; though he did take up his stethoscope (or whatever they had then) for a time during a cholera epidemic, despite hating medicine. I really don’t know what to make of this Leader of the Pack/Stephen Maturin/Médécins sans Frontières biography, or how to sum it up, but he did find this little brown snake on Long Island one fine day, and it still bears his name.

The various clovers were patronized by a considerable number of Northern crescent butterflies (Phyciodes sp.):
Governor Nelson State Park, 6/8/14
I have more than a few pictures of crescents, and will probably amass many more; I never get tired of their coarse-brushed wing patterns, like appealingly drunken calligraphy from altogether elsewhere. There were dragonflies and damselflies as well:
Governor Nelson State Park, 6/8/14

The dragonflies, mostly white-tailed skimmers as best I could tell, were all moving at great speed; when the breeze would rise, they would reel wildly off course and then right themselves. What to me was a cooling touch of wind was to them a gale to be ridden out with verve and gallantry.

Also aloft was a red-winged blackbird which seemed either deeply fascinated with me, or able to sense Clif bars at the bottom of my pannier, through waterproof cloth, notebook, and wrapper – it flew back and forth over my head for some time, calling intermittently. It followed me until the trail went into the trees. A few paces beyond, a shadow flitted across the trail – a swallowtail butterfly in the canopy, distant and untouchable as a satellite.

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Spell of the dark woods

“… hushed stony slopes and low ivied cottages in the lee of huge boulders in Rhode-Island’s back country. Scent of the sea and fragrance of the fields; spell of the dark woods and joy of the orchards and gardens at dawn.”
-H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”

This mode of viewing Nature in the universality of her relations is no doubt adverse to the rapidity desirable in an itinerary…
-Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative

A wooded slope fell away steeply from the path where I stood, and then curved more gradually towards a surface of sparkling water I could only vaguely see as bright flashes through the trees. Through a trick of perspective it looked like a vast ocean far below, even though it was only a pond that began its existence, humbly enough, as a reservoir for the town of Lincoln in Rhode Island. This was Lime Rock Preserve, home of:

Red oak, hickory, a diversity of ferns, red and white baneberry, horse balm, violets, bellwort, nodding trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, trout lily

I don’t know whether they gave up on enumerating all the different ferns, or if they just didn’t have an accurate list; but there were a great many. Being still very much a novice at identifying ferns myself, I haven’t keyed them out either, but there was a great diversity of form to be seen every few paces. These large, stiff fronds I’m reasonably confident are Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides):
Fern, Lime Rock Preserve
but am still working on these (among others):
Fern, Lime Rock Preserve
Fern, Lime Rock Preserve

A big limestone boulder was covered in a lichen with huge apothecia:
Lichen, Lime Rock Preserve
and mushrooms lurked in the shadows of the bigger ferns:
Mushroom, Lime Rock Preserve
As I was almost back to the gate, a toad sprinted across the path and a little ways up a tree-trunk:
Frog, Lime Rock Preserve

Initially I’d thought – well, let’s be honest, hoped – it was a gray tree-frog. Experts on iNaturalist gently let me know it was in fact the ubiquitous American toad; an old friend rather than a new acquaintance. As a boy I collected them down by the river, and sometimes even out back of the house, by the compost heap. But I never saw them climbing a tree, so that was new.

This was the day-trip I took while in Providence for NecronomiCon (see previous report, “The Gate of the Silver Key“). With only one day, the rapidity desirable in an inventory meant narrowing down on basically one thing to see. Going along the Blackstone River via Lime Rock meant not really seeing any ocean – Touisset Marsh, a salt-marsh, was another possible choice – which I regret a little, but it was a beautiful ride, and, as I later discovered, the hills and forests north of Providence were also haunted by the young Lovecraft on his bicycle. So really it ended up as part of the fabric of the whole experience, rather than being a digression! Even the life-cycle of ferns found its way into his stories:

“It reproduced like the vegetable cryptogams, especially the pteridophytes; having spore-cases at the tips of the wings and evidently developing from a thallus or prothallus … How it could have undergone its tremendously complex evolution on a new-born earth in time to leave prints in Archaean rocks was so far beyond conception as to make Lake whimsically recall the primal myths about Great Old Ones who filtered down from the stars and concocted earth-life as a joke or mistake…”
-H.P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness

The Blackstone River Bikeway itself runs to the town of Woonsocket which is right on the Massachusetts border. I didn’t go all the way through town to cross the border, which, again, is a slight regret, but I don’t imagine anything is radically different on the other side, and anyway I can take the Badger State Trail to Illinois if I want to enjoy the arcane thrill of riding across an imaginary line. Though the Blackstone Valley was ground zero for industrialization in the US – the first textile mill was built there in 1790 – it’s back to quiet and picturesque, except at the dams, which are loud and picturesque. A considerable amount of wetland has been restored, where I saw a vivid green dragonfly:
Dragonfly, Blackstone River Bikeway
and some sensitive-fern (Onoclea sensibilis):
Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Blackstone River Bikeway

Garter snakes crossed the path in a relaxed manner, although they were a little touchy if you got close:
Snake, Blackstone River Bikeway

and altogether it was a pleasant cycling experience, nice and flat on an old rail-bed, almost more like being on a carnival ride than actually exerting any effort. The milestones were even real stones, which I thought was a great touch.

The bike was a rental, incidentally, and so my thanks go to the extremely nice folks at the North Providence location of Providence Bicycle, who set me up with a comfortable fat-tired Raleigh and a helmet to fit my long Irish head.

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Palaeozoic Plateau

When one has seen Spring’s blossom fall in London, and Summer appear and ripen and decay, as it does early in cities, and one is in London still, then, at some moment or another, the country places lift their flowery heads and call to one with an urgent, masterful clearness, upland behind upland in the twilight like to some heavenly choir arising rank on rank to call a drunkard from his gambling-hell. No volume of traffic can drown the sound of it, no lure of London can weaken its appeal. Having heard it one’s fancy is gone, and evermore departed, to some coloured pebble agleam in a rural brook, and all that London can offer is swept from one’s mind like some suddenly smitten metropolitan Goliath.

When the hills called I used to go to them by road, riding a bicycle. …

-Lord Dunsany, “The Field”

Recently I did, in fact, go to the hills by bicycle – west along the Military Ridge trail, to Governor Dodge State Park in the Driftless Area. The Driftless is the part of the Upper Midwest – mostly Wisconsin – where the glaciers of the last Ice Age never reached. As a result, the terrain is rather more dramatic; West Blue Mound, 1719 feet above see level, is the highest point. Here it is from the trail:
Blue Mound in mist, 9/8/2013
The photograph flattens things out, somewhat, alas. Anyway, according to Wikipedia the Driftless is also called the Palaeozoic Plateau, although I have never heard anybody in Wisconsin use that term; it’s always been just “the Driftless”.

After a fifty-odd mile ride, as I was getting my bike up a considerable slope from Cox’s Hollow Lake to the park office, it did cross my mind that maybe the terrain was a bit too dramatic. But then I parked my bike, pitched my tent, and after several long minutes dozing on a surprisingly comfortable wooden picnic table, I swapped my helmet for a hat with a floppy brim and went wandering.

From the trails on offer I picked the Lost Canyon Trail; despite the romance of that name, one of the other options offered serious competition by boasting a Cave Trail. Due to time constraints, the Cave Trail remains a shadow-haunted mystery, its portals into unplumbed abysses of elder night waiting for another trip. The Lost Canyon Trail did not disappoint, though – it led first through prairie, then woodland, which was pleasant but had me thinking, you know, is this canyon actually lost? Like, they don’t know where it is?

But, no! Soon I could look down into it from the woods, full of pines and ferns and rocks. And before too long I followed a little stream to where it plunged over Stephen’s Falls into the canyon, and could walk a stony little switchback trail down the 80-odd feet to the base of the falls, where it was deliciously chilly after walking in sunshine and 31C. Half-way down I made not one but two of my best sightings of the trip. First bulblet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera) – unmistakable on turning over the frond to see the little bulblets:
Bulblet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera), Governor Dodge State Park, WI, 9/7-9/8 2013
and then walking fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum):
Walking fern (Asplenium rhizophyllum), Governor Dodge State Park, WI, 9/7-9/8 2013
It “walks” because the tips of the leaves, when they touch the ground, can take root and produce a new plant. Hence the tangled cluster seen here.

A number of people were at the foot of the falls, one of the park’s major sights, and I had an urge to run down and grab them and demand they look at these amazing ferns. This I resisted, but only with difficulty. So I just shared the moment with these survivors of two great extinctions. It was a personal Palaeozoic Plateau.

From there it was a cool, dim and beautiful ramble along the streamside, until the trail took a hairpin turn to climb back up, and return to its beginning. I had a head-lamp with me, and probably could have happily explored more trails for hours; but the length of the day and the work-week before it started to catch up with me like a thousand of bricks, and as the Sun sank I was more or less falling asleep on my feet. On the rambling I did manage to do, I caught an adorable – and also sleepy – baby garter snake (Thamnophis) leeching heat from the limestone gravel:
Governor Dodge State Park, WI, 9/7-9/8 2013
I worried that it was dead, actually, but a closer look showed its sides expanding and contracting with its breathing. Better ears than humans get would probably have picked up snoring.

Fighting with weariness I did stay out to see the Sun going down; more and more hidden by clouds, but still casting a last light on upland behind upland.
Governor Dodge State Park, WI, 9/7-9/8 2013
And so, to my sleeping bag. You know, I still can’t really sleep the night through when camping, but having an e-reader makes a huge difference. You’re never really roughing it with half-a-thousand self-illuminating books in one pocket of your cargo shorts. And, anyway, like Humboldt says:

… I experienced in my travels, enjoyments which have amply compensated for the privations.

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