July 12, 2011

A Walk with a Naturalist

Last week I had the great opportunity to take a walk through Susan Sawyer's woods, a 30 mile drive from my house. Susan is a long time reader and commenter on this blog, a naturalist who has often identified plant species for us. She is on the staff of the Four Winds Nature Institute, a terrific organization that brings knowledge of the natural world to Vermont communities. It was such a treat for me to walk through a beautiful new woodland environment – and it's surprising how different it can be such a short distance away – and have Susan name mosses and plants and mollusks.

Climacium moss

I love the small world of mosses, their varied forms looking like miniature forests. I don't believe I've seen this little gem on my walks at home, with the thin-leafed "fronds" rising from a center.

Stair-step Moss

An aptly named moss, which sends its layers of growth upwards, step by step.

Pin Cushion Moss

The soft round forms of Pin Cushion moss invite a hand to caress them.

Bazzania Liverwort

I would have assumed that this was another moss, growing in separate rising textured green stalks, but it is in another family, the liverworts.


Goldthread is a very pretty little plant with glossy three-part leaves that carpets the ground. Susan pulled up a bit of root to show me how it got its name.

Striped Maple seeds

I have sometimes noticed some large leaves growing on waist high stems in my woods, but never knew what they were. It turns out that they are a type of maple, Striped Maple, named for the bark striped in black and dark green. It doesn't grow very tall, and in my woods hardly at all, because it's a favorite food of deer. I love the way the seedpods of this small tree dangle in a long line as though they were strung together for holiday decorations.

Indian Pipe

I love Indian Pipe and was aware of it before last week; it is so strange to see the startling white of its stem and nodding flower in the midst of the rich darks of the woods. In this photo they are just emerging, unfolding from a curled posture, looking like vulnerable new life or fetuses in the early stages of growth; they catch at my heart.

White Lipped Snail

Moving into the animal kingdom, here is a charming little snail, with lightly etched lines curving from the main spiral of the shell. It has found a tasty morsel to feed on.

Wood Frog Tadpoles

Because of the very wet spring, there are still large vernal pools in these woods (swarms of mosquitoes too) and this one was populated by hundreds of tadpoles of the spring croaking Wood Frog. Ordinarily, they would be much further along in their development than they are here, with only some showing their new tiny legs. Susan explained that they are able to gauge their environment; because the pool is so slow in drying up, they are taking their time to mature. I find that completely amazing, one of the marvels of adaptable life.


  1. Gorgeous woodland tour Altoon! We don't seem to have any of these in our forests. I think it might because they are so dry. LOVE the mosses! I have always dreamt of having a garden made totally of moss.

  2. These turned out wonderfully well, Altoon, especially considering how dark the woods are and how many mosquitoes were biting us --especially you! The recent book about a white-lipped snail (and other things, a memoir of illness and observation and love of nature)is Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. I recommend it.

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed the tour, Mary. It is certainly wet in Vermont and the mosses love it. A garden of different mosses would be lovely and subtle.
    Thanks for the reminder of the book, Susan; I would definitely like to read it. Happily I did get a good selection of strong images, despite the mosquitoes.

  4. Sounds like you had a great time. Aren't these mosses just cute enough to eat! I spent part of this afternoon weeding a moss patch that gets a lot of sun and the runoff from the fence roof. Very lush and lots of liverworts. The area where you were looks beautiful, and I can just imagine the lush cool green landscape you were walking through. Glad you are so good at capturing these tiny treasures with your camera for the rest of us.

  5. Linda, your moss garden sounds just lovely. Since around my house it's mostly sunny, I just have a few ground mosses.
    Susan's woods were beautiful and I was lucky to have taken such a walk.

  6. Thanks for a charming education and images/commentary that made me feel like I was reliving some favorite kid's books.
    Around Chicago, we have high Ph in our soils which is not ideal for most mosses. Also, when I see moss in a cloent's yard, it gives me a clue as to how bad the soil can be. I learnt from the amazing Bill Cullina (Dir. of Maine Coastal Botanical Garden) that mosses often thrive when they have no competition...which happens when soils are so poor that they can't even sustain weeds.

  7. Julie, I don't remember any childhood books about forests; it must be nice to have those memories.
    We tend towards acidic soils here, thanks in part to the acid rain coming from your part of the world. Sometimes mosses grow in my vegetable garden, especially under the asparagus hedge, so I make sure to put wood ashes on it during the Fall.

  8. Though you will see mosses in harsh conditions, not good enough for a garden, there are mosses that like any pH you can come up with, and some that aren't picky -- usually if you don't have mosses it's because there's too much competition (those big vascular plants shade them out and take up all the space) or they can't get the moisture they need. They don't really have roots or vascular systems, their leaves are only one cell thick -- they dry out very quickly. Here in Woodbury, thirty miles west of Altoon, we have quite limy soil, because of our underlying bedrock. It leads to more species richness than in acid conditions, because there are more nutrients available to most plants as the pH goes up. That's probably far more than you wanted! But do look for a tiny moss that grows in gravel parking lots and the spaces between sidewalks -- Bryum argenteum, like green velvet when it's wet and silvery-green when dry.