Monday, October 8, 2018

Musings at the Woodlot

By Beth Sullivan
Today was a beautiful day. FINALLY! Blue sky, low humidity, but maybe a bit warmer than one might expect for October 5. I wasn’t complaining, because I was joined by about 10 residents of the Stone Ridge community for a hike on the Woodlot Sanctuary. It is an easy hike, and you can easily do one or both loops to add some walking distance. Today we opted for the very flat and lovely yellow loop.
For years I hiked with school age kids who have great questions and powers of observations. This was fun today because not only do these slightly more senior folks have the some of the same questions and great observations, but we had an opportunity to think more deeply as we conversed along the trails. Experience makes for great insight.
A great gang from Stone Ridge offered insights and meaningful discussions on the trails. Photograph by Chuck Toal.

Watching the ground

Today we seemed to focus a lot on mushrooms and some other unique plants that are most abundant in the autumn. They were impossible to ignore as they were everywhere we looked. Many of us have become more interested in edible mushrooms and foraging recently. It was a great opportunity to share ideas, experiences, and our combined knowledge of these amazing organisms. With adults I didn’t have to worry they were going to pick and eat them on the spot or try them another time. With kids I wouldn’t even use the word edible and wild mushroom in the same sentence. We saw the great variety of colors that are visible now, as well as singles, clusters, corals, and all types from turkey tails to boletes and many of the gilled varieties.
We also were able to explore the subtle differences in some of the plants that are saprophytic. They are true plants, unlike fungi which are in a kingdom of their own. But because they lack chlorophyll, they must take food from another source, and those sources are very specific fungi that live in the soil and dependent on being near the roots of other plants like pine or oak trees. A very interesting relationship. We found Pinesap, Indian Pipes and Beech drops.
But something else we talked about was history of the land: recent years, generations to centuries of land use, and back to ice age as there are glacial erratics on the property. We also talked about change-somewhat appropriate for Columbus Day weekend-What changes did Europeans bring centuries ago, and what were the woods like then?
I would never tell a school-aged child that this is edible.

Indian Pipe


Beech drops

A little of the past

We know the history of the Woodlot Sanctuary back several generations. We would have to dig deeper to go back to colonial times and uses. We noted the large stumps of trees cut decades ago to provide wood for the owners’ homes. We also noted downed trees that came down due to natural causes including hurricanes and invasive insects like gypsy moths. Sadly, we noted many trees exhibiting signs of stress and disease. We know there were many American chestnut trees on the property long ago, but now there are only a few small ones. Black birch, a favorite of “kids” of all ages for the root-beer smell and flavor, are showing signs of a disease that causes cankers to erupt under the bark, weakening the trees over time. We also saw the many beech trees, some massive and old, but most doomed due to yet another disease that is killing them off before our eyes. Many of the great oaks have been damaged by gypsy moths and drought years . The few hemlocks have been affected by the Wooly Adelgid. Whether it is virus, fungus, bacteria or insects, even this small woodlot forest is under siege. It is hard to imagine what it might look like generations from now.
The question arose: Is it due to climate change? Great question, great discussion. It is hard not to feel that on a warmer than normal October day, when we haven’t yet had even a light frost, that the plants are not affected. But even if the plants themselves can adapt to warmer weather and longer growing seasons, it is the diseases, the insects, that are surviving longer, with the warmth creeping farther north, affecting our forests. We also live in a world where our boundaries are more porous, which can be a great thing in many instances, but it also means foreign organisms, diseases, or insects can find their way into our woodlands where there are no natural predators or controls. Back to Columbus again.
It was fun to think of all the changes this small woodlot has already witnessed but a bit sobering to wonder what is in store for the next generations, of people who love the woodlands, and the woodlands themselves.
Please get out this lovely autumn and appreciate all that we have now. Some of the very best places are right in your own back yards, and Avalonia has preserved so many of them for us all to appreciate.
Great old beech trees are succumbing to ad disease.

We spend a lot of time looking at the ground for fun fungi.  Photograph by Chuck Toal.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan, unless otherwise indicated.

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