Winter Cold

Well it’s definitely been a traditional New England Winter with heavy snow and frigid temperatures. After several snow falls over a several week period of 8 inches of snow per storm an arctic blast came in immediately after Christmas plunging night temperatures down to 20 plus degrees below zero Fahrenheit followed by day temperatures making it up to a sullen 10 or so below zero with a brief spike up to zero.

It’s been a while since we have experienced such brutal temperatures here in Northern New England. Twenty below zero cold snaps were a frequent occurrence when I was a kid, usually about two or three times during the course of the winter, particularly in January and February. It was one of those things you just had to put up with. There’s the old joke about the Vermont farmer who lived right at the state border with New Hampshire. When told that surveyors had found his house was actually located on the New Hampshire side of the border, he exclaimed with relief:
“Thank God for that! I don’t think I could have survived another damned Vermont winter.”

The relentless rise of global temperatures has caused a moderation over the past twenty plus years here that makes the twenty below temperatures seem freakish now. It’s not unusual to hear the phrase “record lows” being tossed about over temperatures that once would have evoked an annoyed shrug. Now of course the newest name for what we always called a nor’easter is a bomb cyclone. Apparently nor’easter is too old fashioned now. Bomb cyclone better fits the histrionic climate reports breathlessly read to us by overwrought weathermen & women. But it’s really just the same old storm system, just glitzed up for a new audience.

But after years of living through the weather here in New Hampshire, the changes are unmistakable. Weather on the average is warmer than it has ever been. Storms either come rampaging one after the other or take a leave of absence for weeks at a time. Temperatures gyrate wildly from one extreme to the other. Today the temperature high was 39 above zero (Fahrenheit), compared with single digit below day time temperatures from just over a week ago. These wild oscillations indicate a system that has become destabilized and is trying to find a new equilibrium. Since we are still injecting quantities of carbon dioxide and methane (octane fuel for weather systems) into the atmosphere, there’s no way to know what the new normal will eventually become. There’s always the possibility this is the new normal. We will all have to make the adjustment somehow.

Still, if the surveyors come and tell me that due to an error in measurement, I am actually living in Vermont, I will sigh with relief because it means that I won’t have to go through another one of those damned New Hampshire winters.

Between Fall and Winter

There’s a short span of time starting in early November until the first serious snow flies that isn’t quite fall anymore but isn’t really winter yet either. Technically it’s late autumn but to me autumn is when leaves change color and start floating to the ground creating a bright carpet on the forest floor.

Deciduous foliage has pretty much dropped to the ground by November except for a few that hang tough like the beech trees which cling to their leaves for most of the winter. Now the first tentative snowflakes begin falling but they don’t last long as the weather will often warm back up and melt them. Dry winds can also evaporate the thin layers of snows in a process called sublimation. Any fallen leaves quickly lose their color and become dull brown or even grey. The brilliance that made the autumn season so distinctive is gone.

Now it’s just a matter of waiting until the next snowfall comes that stays for the season (or until the next freak warm spell). Until then, everything seems to be in a sort of limbo, not quite winter, not quite autumn. The seed heads of various flowers such as goldenrod and asters sit quiet and grey, waiting. Many people are tempted to cut them down as eye sores but it’s better to leave them as birds will feed on the seeds as well as any insect larva hibernating in the plant stems. I find the seed heads have their own stark beauty, sometimes more striking than the flower they were formed from.

A wild grape vine established itself several years ago on the bank in front of the house. This past year it finally bore grapes. Unlike the extravagantly large seedless domestic fruit in the grocery store, wild grapes are compact, not much bigger than commercial blueberries. They are edible but the flavor is tart and large seeds take up about two thirds of the fruit. While there are multiple recipes for making wild grape jelly online, there weren’t enough grapes to make it worth picking so I left them for any hungry birds that happen along. Maybe next year when the vines have gotten bigger.

With the leaves gone, it’s now possible to look further into the woods and spot stuff you hadn’t noticed before. When out walking a few weekends ago I caught sight of a good sized white pine that had obviously been growing a while but was previously veiled by summer leaves. Now visible, I snapped this picture of it and dubbed it “Ent standing on head”.

But the thing that marks out this time of year is the avalanche of seed catalogs which start coming a week before Thanksgiving.

Most of them, I will never order from as I have just a few favorites that I regularly buy from; Territorial Seeds and Pinetree Catalog. In addition, the local Food Coop carries High Mowing Organic Seeds. Other stores will carry more conventional brands such as Burpee. The nice thing about the catalogs is that they bring a bright splash of color during this quiet time, making it slightly easier to ignore the lunacy that is the Christmas shopping season currently underway and daydream about my next garden instead.

Have a peaceful Holiday season.

Weird News

Now for something completely different. We humans are an incredibly inventive species. By that I don’t mean we’re great at devising new machines or developing abstruse scientific theories about the universe. I’m talking about our amazing talent for getting ourselves into all sorts of trouble. The Darwin Awards pay tribute to the ability of humans to remove themselves permanently from the gene pool in ways that leave us in profound awe and deeply grateful we didn’t do anything that dumb.

Of course the Darwin Awards only acknowledge those whose actions lead to their premature demise. There are of course numerous incidents of humans performing acts of remarkable blithering idiocy, abominable dumbness and just plain unadulterated mallet-headedness without getting themselves killed in the process. The vast majority of these incidents go mercifully unnoticed but a few manage to make it into the news and leave us scratching our heads in wonder.

First place in my book goes to a nameless individual who made his way into the local news a few decades ago. The event took place in the White Mountain National Forest, in the area known as the Kancamagus Highway. The main draw of this particular strip of highway is the spectacular display of foliage color which occurs in the fall, attracting many tourists to view nature’s beauty. There’s no distracting tourist traps or other eye-sore businesses to mar the scenery. There are a few rest stops for those who need to answer Nature’s call. They are rustic affairs, resembling cabins with toilets that don’t flush but empty instead into cesspits that are cleaned out by a company hired to handle these matters (nice work if you can get it…).

The particular incident I have in mind occurred when a family of tourists was driving through admiring the foliage when their teenage daughter indicated she had to ‘go’. They pulled into the next rest stop where the young lady went into the women’s facility. As she was preparing to make use of the toilet, she happened to look down into it when lo and behold she saw a man was down inside the cesspit looking back up at her. Those of you with teenage daughters can no doubt imagine the reaction this got. The New Hampshire State police were summoned (not local cops as this is a state park) and sure enough there was indeed a real live man down inside the cesspit.

Now, here’s the thing. In order to get him out, they had to call the business that cleans out the pit as the door leading into it was still locked from the outside. Which of course means there was only one way he could have gotten into the cesspit. Yes…

At any rate once the fellow was extracted from the cesspit, the question naturally arose as to why he was down there in the first place. His story went something like this (my apologies to anyone reading this who happens to be gay). He wanted to use the facilities but had heard those salacious stories about men of a certain gender preference who liked to use rest stops for their romantic trysts. Not wanting to be accosted, he retreated to the presumed safety of the ladies rest room. While changing his clothing, he inadvertently dropped his wedding ring down the toilet so there was nothing for it, he just had to go after it. That was his story.

There were several problems with his account. For one thing when the cesspit company did a search, no ring turned up. When the police did a background check on this fellow, not only did they find he was not married, they also found he was already very well known to the Maine police having been nabbed by them on numerous occasions as a habitual window peeper. So in reality our toilet diver was a sex offender (albeit a minor one). So off to jail he went.

The local New Hampshire WMUR news station (actually our only news station) reported at some length on this story, mainly obsessing about how incredible filthy he was when they got him out and how the police had to put plastic coverings in the squad car to protect the seats (I imagine it was a while before they got the car aired out…). Mostly the reporters seemed to be just plain gobsmacked that anyone would do something like this just to get a peek at naked rear ends.

A more recent story popped up in the news that very nearly edged this one out. That involved a rather dim lady from Colebrook New Hampshire who with the assistance of some equally dim minions went out in the wee hours of the morning and dug up her father’s grave. Why did she do this? Well, she was searching for the ‘real will’ which she had come to believe was buried with him (along with a bottle of vodka). Happens all the time, right? Apparently she felt she didn’t get what she thought she should have gotten for an inheritance. So there just had to be a ‘real will’ somewhere and it must have been buried with dear old Dad. So that justified the night-time cemetery visit.

It did no good for her to insist she had done this in a ‘respectful manner’ and her dad would have been ‘ok’ with this. The New Hampshire court system didn’t see it that way and, no surprise, she was sent to prison. These hijinks didn’t quite have the icky-poo quality of the guy in the toilet story but it did achieve a very close second place. However, the toilet diver may yet be shoved into second place as the grave-digging daughter has since gotten herself in trouble again. It’s becoming pretty apparent why Dad cut her out of the will. As it looks as if the story hasn’t fully played itself out, she may yet outdo herself and win top billing for weird news. Until someone comes along and tops even her….


“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” – Albert Einstein

Mushrooms, Toadstools and assorted fungi

Whenever the weather is a bit on the moist side, we can count on seeing members of that peculiar order of beings known as fungi. Whether you call them toadstools, mushrooms, or just pizza toppings these living organisms can be surprisingly eye catching or so innocuous that we miss them altogether.

For a long time scientists lumped in them in with the plant kingdom since they certainly aren’t animals and like plants stay put in one place growing out of the soil. But when DNA sequencing began maturing and a look was taken, it was revealed that these humble life-forms actually belonged in their own order separate from plants or animals.

Along with mushrooms, fungi include yeasts, molds and are the primary decomposers of organic matter. While most fungus are unobtrusive, that doesn’t mean they are small. In fact the largest known organism on earth is not the whale or the redwood tree, but the honey fungus. To understand how it achieves this distinction, it is important to realize that the mushrooms we see are actually the fruiting bodies of the fungus itself which lives below ground. Referred to as a mycelium, it forms an odd network of hyphae which looks like thread and can grow to enormous proportions all out of sight. We only become aware of them when they form the familiar looking mushrooms we see sprouting seemingly out of nowhere.

There is tantalizing fossil evidence suggesting that early in Earth’s history fungus could form huge structures that dwarfed the early land plants. While the jury is still out on whether the fossils were actually fungi, it does conjure up images of a bizarre world unlike anything we’re familiar with today. If you want to know what an alien planet might look like, just look back in Earth’s past.

Modern fungus, while not as brobdinagian as their ancestors, can often be arresting in appearance. Last summer I found a young morel just popping out of the ground.

I revisited it the next day hoping to get a better picture. However it turns out humans are not the only ones who relish morels. Something had partially devoured the unfortunate morel and by the next day it was gone altogether.

Up in the woods a few years back I found a species of bracket fungus called turkey tail mushrooms growing on a small birch log.

The log itself was only about six to eight inches in diameter so they weren’t very big but their colorful appearance made them stand out. This species of mushroom has also caught the eye of medical researchers who are studying its uses in boosting the immune systems of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Many species of fungus has properties which make them valuable to humans. Yeasts help bread to rise and wine to ferment. But science has recently uncovered their most vital contribution in the form of Mycorrhizal Fungi which live in symbiosis with 90 percent of vascular plants and are essential to their survival. They make it possible for plants to take in nutrients in a way similar to bacteria in our guts help us to absorb nutrients. Mycorrhizal fungi help gardens grow better and help plants to establish themselves in barren areas. If you’ve been fertilizing your garden like crazy but still can’t get things to grow well, you may very well be missing this vital link. In fact excessive fertilizing has been linked to the suppression of these fungi, compromising the long term fertility of the soil.

Preliminary tests suggest that plants grown with inoculants are more vigorous and disease resistant that plants grown without beneficial fungi. However caution is advised about obtaining inoculant as many gardening companies have jumped on the bandwagon and are offering products of dubious value. Chances are good that unless your soil is really crappy, you already have these fungi. It’s just a matter of encouraging them. A few years back I purchased inoculant for my wax beans and peas. They grew well but after reading about the above, I have gone several years without using inoculant and discovered the peas and beans grow just fine. Whatever they needed was already in the soil so I’ve saved a bit of money that way.

There are countless resources both online and in books about this subject. If you have a little garden space, experiment a bit and see what results you get. With a little help from your fungi friends of course!

Insect Encounters

While out for my morning walk recently, I happened on an insect that I know well but have never seen before. Sitting on the sidewalk, was a cicada warming itself. Fortunately, he was polite enough to pose for his picture. This little fellow is most likely Neotibicen canicularis, the Dog-Day cicada.  He was just over an inch in length, large enough to catch my eye. I have often heard these insects on hot summer afternoons, their high-pitched whine coming from somewhere up in the treetops. But this was the first time I actually set eyes on one. They are an annual insect rather than a periodic species like the seventeen year cicada, so their calls are a yearly occurrence here in New Hampshire. I was often told as a child that you could determine air temperature by the length of time they would call, the longer their whine, the hotter it was, but I haven’t found much online info to really collaborate that.

However I did find information indicating that the chirping of crickets is related to air temperature. The male cricket rubs part of his wing, which has a special structure called a scraper, against the other wing to make his distinctive sound. How frequently he makes it depends on how warm the air is. There are a variety of species in New Hampshire but the one I mainly see is the field cricket.

When crickets hatch out, they already resemble the adults but lack wings and are referred to as nymphs. They go through a number of moults before they achieve full size. One summer when an addition was being built for the place where I work, the construction activity stirred up a large number of these nymphs who because they were so small, were able to work their way into the building and the next thing we knew, we had tiny crickets running or hopping all about. One of the workers got upset at the sight of people trying to stomp them as she thought they were cute (which they are kind of). So she spared no efforts capturing the little guys and releasing them outdoors unharmed, where presumably they went on to live a long fruitful life, doing whatever it is crickets do besides chirping. I’m not sure she really endeared herself to her coworkers but she did generate a lot of good karma for herself.

Along with the usual bugs one sees during the summer, occasionally an odd one will pop up. Several years ago, I was washing up in the bathroom. I had the window open but the screen up (ThankGodThankGod….) when I heard what sounded like the Mother of all Bumblebees. An enormous beetle came and landed on the screen (outside..ThankGodThankGod!). This behemoth was easily over an inch and a half long, maybe two inches, like a June bug on steroids. Since I could only see the underside of it, I was not able to identify it and for obvious reasons felt no inclination to open the screen to get a closer look at him (yeah, yeah, I’m a wuss…). I gave the screen a twang with my thumb and forefinger which usually makes any unwanted insect visitor vanish like a ghost. Not this fellow. He was so big I was able to follow his progress as he pitched down into the back yard.

I wonder if that silly bug will remember he can fly?


No, guess not.

It’s hard to be sure what species this was as I only saw his underside. But there are some possible candidates. One is the rhinoceros beetle, Xyloryctes jamaicensis.

This distinctive looking bug grows to about 38 millimeters, and is found in southern New England southwest to Arizona. Given global warming, it’s possible a few have made it up here to Northern New Hampshire. Another possibility is the Eastern Hercules Beetle Dynastes tityus.

This species is found from New York state south to the Gulf states, so it’s not too far away from New Hampshire. Another is the Giant Stag Beetle of similar proportions, the male boasting huge antler-like mandibles. The bug I saw had no such mandibles so if it was a Stag Beetle, it would have been a female. These insects are said to be harmless, though they might give you a good pinch with their mouth parts.

Many years ago, my mother told me she had seen a bee cut out a piece of leaf and fly off with it when she was in the backyard. Curious, I went out and watched for a while. Sure enough, a small dark colored bee came visiting the jewelweed blooming beside the house.

She neatly cut out a small semi-circle of leaf and flew away clutching it in her legs. It helped explain the mysterious chunks cut out of various leaves I had seen. Leaf cutters bees are native bees, solitary, who do not make honey like honeybees but collect pollen to make into little pollen balls as food for their young. They use the cut-out leaves to line their burrows where they lay their eggs.

Sadly I haven’t spotted any in action recently.  Native bees here as elsewhere in the country are in distress. I have seen fewer and fewer bumblebees in recent years. Even the little sweat bees seem to be lacking this year.

I hope this alarms you as much as it does me. These valuable little pollinators are the canaries in the coal mine. What is happening to them will also be happening to us. Much can be done to reverse this trend; the planting of native flowers, reducing or eliminating pesticide use are two important things we can do. We won’t be just saving their lives, we’ll also be saving our own.

“Not a single bee has ever sent you an invoice. And that is part of the problem – because most of what comes to us from nature is free, because it is not invoiced, because it is not priced, because it is not traded in markets, we tend to ignore it.”
– Pavan Sukhdev, United Nations report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity.

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Footnote: I’m happy to announce my second story The Doctor Who Went Over The Mountain has been published in the latest issue of “Into The Ruins.” Many thank to Mr. Joel Caris!