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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Dylan's First Link Trail Snowshoe Hike

For many more pictures from this hike, see the Picasa web album.

I hadn't been back to Oneida since December so both Dylan and I were looking forward to getting back to the Link Trail. I was particularly eager to try snowshoeing with Dylan. His parents had gotten him a pair a year or two ago, but I hadn't had any excuse to take him out on them.

We parked on the side of Quarry Road and I gave Dylan a little instruction on how to work the straps. I got my own somewhat more extensive bindings strapped on and we hit the trail. Dylan immediately started falling down and complaining, but not too loudly. As usual, I framed it as a learning experience -- a phase he'd have to go through in order to someday climb snow-covered mountains. I stressed that although wearing the snowshoes is tiring for him now, next time it will be easier.

Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota)

As soon as we got onto the trail I saw a great photo op: several Queen Anne's lace plants, each one cupping a small load of snow. I love plants like this that stand like sere watchmen through the winter. They manage to seem at once sad, funereal and graceful.

Here's some interesting information about Queen Anne's lace from the Wikepedia entry.

Like the cultivated carrot, the wild carrot root is edible while young, but quickly becomes too woody to consume. A teaspoon of crushed seeds has long been used as a form of birth control; its use for this purpose was first described by Hippocrates over 2,000 years ago.[citation needed] Research conducted on mice has offered a degree of confirmation for this use—it was found that wild carrot disrupts the implantation process, which reinforces its reputation as a contraceptive.[2] Chinese studies have also indicated that the seeds block progesterone synthesis, which could explain this effect.[citation needed]

As with all herbal remedies and wild food gathering, extra caution should be used, especially since the wild carrot bears close resemblance to a dangerous species Water Hemlock. The leaves of the wild carrot can cause phytophotodermatitis, so caution should also be used when handling the plant.

The wild carrot, when freshly cut, will draw or change color depending on the color of the water it is in. Note that this effect is only visible on the "head" or flower of the plant. Carnation also exhibits this effect. This occurrence is a popular science experiment in primary grade school.
The following is from the book A Guide to Nature in Winter by Donald W. Stokes. I stumbled upon it in the library today, and it's so delightful that I ordered a used copy from Amazon. I'm looking forward to reading from it to Dylan.
The seeds, small and lined with four rows of spines, are dispersed by animals, whose fur picks up the seeds as they pass by. Wild Carrot seeds can be gathered and steeped in hot water to make good-tasting tea -- fun to make after a winter walk. If you bite one of the seeds in the field you will find its flavor similar to that of cooked carrots. The seeds can be used as a spice; in fact, many plants from which we get spices are related to Wild Carrot, such as Caraway, Fennel, Coriander, Anise, and Parsley.

American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)

See the Picasa web album for more shots of withered seed pods and fruit.

My second photographic subject was a brindle seed pod. It reminds me of a Chinese lantern plant, although this was a shrub. I eventually found it in Graves's "Illustrated Guide to Trees and Shrubs".

Rocks blackened by manganese oxidation?

I looked up to the rock cliff to the left and saw another teaching opportunity. I pointed out the rocks to Dylan and told him that the rocks we've seen fallen along the trail came from up there. I said "Look at how some parts of the rocks are blackened, and some parts are light brown. The black parts are black because of oxidation. That's a chemical process that you won't understand for a long time, but the point is that when some things are exposed to air they turn black. The parts of the rock that have been exposed to air for a long time are black, but the light brown parts haven't. That's how you can tell that rocks broke off from those parts recently."

I know very little chemistry, so I wanted to check up on the assertion I made to Dylan that the black parts of the rock were black because of oxidation. A spot of Googling led me to the Pro Trails page on Petroglyph National Monument. The stones there, into which the Ancestral Pueblos carved their petroglyphs, certainly look similar to what Dylan and I saw. That page says that "The dark desert varnish on the face of the basalt rocks was caused by the oxidation of minerals such as manganese and iron."

Grace and I were dredging our memories of chemistry in an attempt to figure out exactly why an oxidation process would change the color of a stone. Eventually I found an interesting article about manganese and its several oxidation states. Then I looked at the Wikipedia entry on desert varnish, which says the following.
Desert varnish forms only on physically stable rock surfaces that are no longer subject to frequent precipitation, fracturing or wind abrasion. The varnish is primarily composed of particles of clay along with iron and manganese oxides.[1] There is also a host of trace elements and almost always some organic matter. The color of the varnish varies from shades of brown to black.[2]
So although the rocks along the trail certainly look like they were discolored by the same process of manganese oxidation, I'd need to talk to a geologist or a chemist to be sure.

Common barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

Gosh I love the intellectual process sparked by traipsing about a trail and looking at stuff that catches my eye. And this particular process was spurned by the most unintellectual of exclamations: "Red!"

For decades I've found that what one finds in nature is exponentially proportional to how hard one looks. In spring after the snow melts and the residue of winter coats every surface, it's easy to look at the landscape and see nothing but brown. Likewise, when the leaves have dropped and the world seems to have devoted all its energy to quiescence like a sullen child, it's easy to see nothing but stark white overlaid with shades of grey. But that's just us casting our own mental shadows onto a system that knows nothing of our dourness. Nature is always processing. Nature's always got plenty of red.

Don't believe me? In the spring take a moment to look past the road scum. Gaze into the brush. Focus on the midground. Look for that hazy strip of red -- the constellation of reddish tinges from all the buds on all the shrubs focusing their energy like a legion of tiny green barbarians painting themselves in preparation for the frenzied yearly assault on entropy.

But you don't have to wait until spring. Hop in the car and park along Quarry Road. Hike a little ways southwest on the Link Trail. At first you'll just see white and grey. I did. But if you're like me, you'll notice a little red and then start seeing more. Before long you'll be seeing a barrage of red: red that jumps out at you, screaming at you, daring you to call it "quiescent".

And if you're like me, you'll be drawn to the source of the red: thorny shrubs, each with a host of ruby berries still hanging from them. You'll take lots of pictures. Then, later, as you're spending hours going through more than nine hundred pictures and choosing which ones to show people, you'll fume at yourself for doing so.

Then you'll get curious as to what exactly the buggers are. It'll bother you that you've seen them all your life and all you really know is what your father told you: don't eat them because they might be poisonous. So you'll Google "thorny shrub red berries" and several variations on such wording. You'll find nothing.

Eventually you'll find yourself at your local library thumbing through copies of Peterson's "Field Guide to Trees and Shrubs" and Graves's "Illustrated Guide to Trees and Shrubs". On page 119 of the latter you'll find the following.

Then you'll do a bit more Googling and feel a sense of wonder. The Wikipedia entry for Berberis vulgaris is so fascinating that I'm posting a big chunk of it here.
Culinary uses

The berries are edible, and rich in vitamin C, though with a very sharp flavour; the thorny shrubs make harvesting them difficult, so in most places they are not widely consumed. They are an important food for many small birds, which disperse the seeds in their droppings.

A widely available Russian candy called Барбарис (Barberis) is made using extract from the berries, which are pictured on the wrapper.

The Zereshk (زرشک) or sereshk is the Persian name for the dried fruit of Berberis vulgaris, which are widely cultivated in Iran. Iran is the largest producer of zereshk and saffron in the world. Zereshk and saffron are produced on the same land and the harvest is at the same time.

The South Khorasan province in Iran is the main area of zereshk and saffron production in the world. Barberry cultivation in Iran is concentrated there, especially around Birjand and Qaen. About 85% of production is in Qaen and about 15% in Birjand. According to evidence the cultivation of seedless barberry in South Khorasan goes back to two hundred years ago.[1]

A garden of zereshk is called zereshk-estan.

Zereshk is widely used in cooking, imparting a tart flavor to chicken dishes. It is usually cooked with rice, called zereshk polo, and provides a nice meal with chicken. Zereshk jam, zereshk juice, and zereshk fruit rolls are also produced in Iran.
The entry goes on to describe the plant's use in alternative medicine and its historical impact on the United States wheat crop. The USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System entry for Berberis vulgaris goes into more detail on this subject.
Eradication efforts and effects on local distributions: Soon after the introduction and escape of common barberry in New England, colonists determined it was responsible for dramatic reductions in wheat crop yields [28]. Common barberry is an alternate host for cereal stem rust (Puccinia graminis). As a host, common barberry provides an inoculum source and a sexual reproduction site for stem rust (Leonard 2001 cited in [71]). When common barberry grows near cereal crops (‹330 feet (100 m) away) (Roelfs 1985 cited in [71]), it can support the development of new genotypes able to adapt and attack rust-resistant crops (Leonard 2001 cited in [71]). Earlier reports suggested that common barberry in urban areas was also able to spread stem rust to other grasses that eventually passed it on to wheat crops [80], suggesting there was no safe distance between common barberry and cereal crops. During epidemic stem rust outbreaks, wheat yield losses up to 70% were reported [71]. In 1916, stem rust was considered the principal reason for a 200 million bushel reduction in wheat yields for Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana [80].

In the 18th century, the New England colonists of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island wrote laws restricting the planting and spread of common barberry. Over time many other states developed laws against the sale, transport, and planting of new barberry (Berberis spp.) plants and for the removal of established plants. It was not until 1918, after "devastating" wheat losses to stem rust, that federal laws and funding were devoted to eradication. Eradication projects and funding between 1918 and 1942 led to the destruction of 309,645,502 landscape, escaped, and nursery plants from the 964,000 mile² (2,497,000 km²) eradication area that included nearly all of the North American spring-wheat growing areas [28]. Between 1935 and 1950, there were 150,087,197 common barberry or American barberry (B. canadensis) shrubs destroyed in West Virginia [84]. By 1956, nearly 500 million barberry shrubs were killed on 149,318 properties in 19 states [12]. Widespread barberry eradication was "gradually phased out" by 1980 [71]. It is important to note that scattered common barberry populations persist in several areas of North America, and the potential for long-distance seed dispersal by birds makes monitoring and early detection of common barberry important to long-term control.
It's amazing to me that I can walk out onto the trail and obtain a profound connection to world and local history through the simple expedient of looking up teasel, St. John's wort, Queen Anne's lace or Common Barberry.

Dylan bracing himself against one of the fallen rocks that I'd told him about at the beginning of the hike.

Dylan got tired quickly, as you'd expect of a kid who's not used to snowshoes. He asked to turn around before we got to the quarry. At about that time I noticed a lot of vertical cracks in the rocks on the southern slope, so I took advantage of another teaching opportunity.

I said to Dylan "You know why the rocks fall off those cliffs? When it rains, the water goes down into the cracks in the rocks. And then when winter comes and it gets cold, the water freezes and expands. Do you know what that means?"

Dylan immediately answered "It gets bigger." Ah. I remember this feeling. It's the differential between adult perception of time and youthful passage of time. I still think of Dylan as four years old, but he just turned six. A lot of neurological development happens between four and six--a lot of neurological development that I've taken part in. Who knows, maybe I'm the one who told him what "expands" means during an earlier hike.

So I continued with my explanation of how water fills cracks in the rocks, freezes, expands, and makes the rocks fall apart. I remember my father telling me this. I love coming full circle.

Snowdrift ridge along the top of the slope and the northern edge of the trail

This wavy soft-serve snow crest prompted me to attempt the most-difficult-to-teach lesson of the day. I pulled a trick I used to pull on Morgan when she was about eight years old and I was attempting to teach her the concept of surface-area-to-volume ratios. I said to Dylan "I want to tell you about something but it's very hard to understand." I never even got to the "I'll try if you think you're ready to listen" part. He said something like "I want to hear it."

So I tried to translate what I know about the behavior of particles suspended in a fluid stream into kidspeak. Which is tricky, because "I just barely passed" is the polite version of the description of my performance in the fluid dynamics course I took eighteen years ago at Cornell. The not-so-polite version is "I was so completely clueless that I never should have passed at all."

What came out was something like this: "The wind comes up the slope and then, here where the ground flattens out, the wind slows down because it has to fill this whole space. And when the air is going slower, it can't hold as much snow, so it dumps it right here along the top of the slope."

There'll be more teaching opportunities.

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