Falls

The forecast for today was for 90°F in western Massachusetts, so I planned to go for a morning walk and then hide in the house for the rest of the day.  I was waylaid for a bit by the discovery of an undescribed beetle species in one of my bags of leaves, and it was already uncomfortably warm out by the time I got outside, but I decided to go ahead with the plan anyway.  I hadn’t thought about where I was going, but I felt called to a spot a few miles away, where I hadn’t been in a year or so.  When I arrived, I still wasn’t sure why I was going there; in the past I had mainly gone to study animal tracks, but when I gazed down at the bare, muddy banks of the Connecticut River, I was not at all drawn to them, and I was sure that wasn’t it.  I began to wander along the road, and I immediately came to an enormous patch of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)–a spring wildflower I had been wanting to see this spring, but I hadn’t been aware of a good place to see it in my immediate area.

Dutchman’s breeches (or britches, as I prefer) is one of the true spring ephemeral wildflowers: in a few weeks, the whole plant will be gone without a trace–except for the distinctive, pink, bulblet-covered rhizomes.

As I was admiring and photographing these flowers, an old woman rode by me on a bicycle.  She said hello as she passed.  I continued to make my way down the road (I didn’t leave the road because it would literally have been impossible to walk without trampling the Dutchman’s britches), and pretty much every spring wildflower I could hope to see was right there–including the last few bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) flowers.

Before long I came to a dirt road heading up the hill, and as I turned to follow it I saw the bicycle woman crouching in an old cellar hole, shoveling soil into a large coffee can with a trowel.  I walked over to the cellar hole and called down to her, “Nice soil here, huh?” She took off her headphones–said she was listening to liberal talk radio–and told me this house had burned down in 1938, and that the leaves from the trees collect in the cellar hole to make great topsoil.  She asked if I was taking pictures of wildflowers, and she said I was too late to see bloodroot, but if I went down to the river and to the other side of a chain link  fence, I could see some Dutchman’s breeches.  I said I’d check that out later, but first I wanted to go up the road and see the falls.  “Falls?” she said, and I said yeah, they’re right up the hill here (the falls are no big secret; we were on Falls Road, after all).  She said she’d never been up that way, but that you’d need water to have falls anyway.  Sure, it’s been dry lately, but I figured it was worth the 30-second walk to have a look.  Soon, the roar of the falls was loud enough to drown out all the singing toads that had permeated the air up until that point.  They looked pretty good to me.

As I stood taking in the falls, a man appeared above them, then made his way downstream, declining to make eye contact.  When I turned my attention to the snowflake-like flowers of a miterwort (Mitella diphylla) plant next to me that was just beginning to bloom, he positioned himself to snap one photograph, and then made his escape.  Though he was never closer than 20 feet from me, his cologne overpowered the earthy scents of the stream for a few minutes after he left.

I set down my bag and camera and approached the falls, tiptoeing around broken bottles in the stream, and let the water run over my head.  Then I lay down in the damp mosses and liverworts behind the falls for a while.  Once I felt sufficiently cooled off, I sat in the sun for a few minutes and drank in the delicious breeze, listening to the lilting song of a Louisiana waterthrush as it moved up and down the stream.  Finally, I began meandering back downstream, continuing to admire all the flowers, full of life and vigor in defiance of the drought and heat.  I hurried along when a crowd of shrieking, splashing college students arrived in the pool below the falls.  Walking past the pond where the toads were singing, I heard the subtle, creaking croak of a lone pickerel frog among them.

Trout lilies (Erythronium americanum).

Dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius).

Syrphid fly (Syrphidae: Sphegina) on toothwort (Cardamine diphylla).

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure why I decided to write about these human encounters here. I guess I was just struck by how people can be in the same place at the same time and have completely different experiences.  In any case, as I walked back toward my car along the river side of the road, I spotted a big patch of ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)–like the Dutchman’s britches, something I’d been meaning to look for this spring but hadn’t gotten around to it.  Most had already fully unfurled, but a few were still in fiddlehead form…

…at which point I decided it was time for lunch!

About Charley Eiseman

I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.
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4 Responses to Falls

  1. troymullens says:

    WOW. Great adventure story today. Terrific photos. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sarah says:

    Just a little ways north of you in Putney VT, we had the same species flowering this past weekend. I didn’t know about the rhizomes – thanks for sharing that. Here’s the scene up here: http://musingsfromdave.blogspot.com/2012/04/words-fail-me.html

  3. Hello Charley: A friend from the VT Entomological Society (VES) recommended your Bug Tracks, and I’m enjoying your comments and photos very much. Appreciated the “Falls” and comments about your human as well as arthropod encounters. We rarely see Dwarf Ginseng up here, so I didn’t recognize the flowers. I hadn’t seen the Dutchman’s Breeches corms before, either. Thanks for reminding me to photograph the Ostrich ferns in my yard that are just a few inches high now. They’re growing on a seepy hillside with sawdust from the former lumber mill that still stands nearby (the barn anyway.) Your description of the woman “harvesting” some of the leaf compost made me smile. Nice to know someone else is making use of the “black gold.” I teach composting and have been known to gather some for my gardens, too. With your permission, I’ll mention her in my workshops when people ask me about easier ways to make compost. “Let it be.” works, too.
    If you ever wander up into Vermont, I’d love to share a woods walk with you. My specialty is edible and medicinal plants…and I’m learning more about plant/insect interactions through the VES field trips (See VermontInsects.org for newsletter & schedule of free events)…and you. Laurie D. :-)

    • Hi Laurie– Feel free to mention the compost woman in your workshops! I am in Vermont periodically to perform with a Burlington-based band that formed when I was in grad school at UVM, so I’ll keep you in mind.

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