Friday, August 24, 2012

River Bends

You never know which way the river will go. You just slip into the water and hang on for the ride. 
For example, I went on a tree hunt last week. Since I live in the most heavily forested state in the union, you wouldn’t think this would be such a big deal. Heck, I don’t think I’ve been anywhere in New Hampshire where I couldn't see a tree. But I wasn’t just looking for any old tree. I was in search of a big tree. Specifically, a big hemlock. 

Anne Krentz, of the New Hampshire Big Tree Project, had emailed me and explained that the previous hemlock champion in my county was dying. She’d heard there were some big hemlocks in Sheldrick Forest, a property of The Nature Conservancy; did I, as a volunteer steward in the Forest, know of any?  

I confess that I’d never sought out big trees of any species. Sheldrick Forest hosts a magnificent yellow birch “candelabra” tree, a huge thing with six mossy stems. It’s one of my favorite trees ever, but because it is really a clump of trees grown together, it doesn’t qualify for the Big Tree designation. But, I told Anne, there certainly are some big hemlocks in the Valley of the Giants in Sheldrick. Sure, I’d help her look for a new champ. 

Anne  and another tree expert and I tramped around the Forest and measured a bunch of trees. The biggest hemlock we found measured eight feet in girth and 130 in height. As an afterthought, Anne had us look for a big red maple. We found one of those, too, seven feet around and 125 high. Two champion trees in one day—what could be better? 

Photo (c) Naturedigger
While Anne was finishing up her notes, I shuffled along the trail and came across some rather stunning white berries. They stood about two feet above the ground, on an attractive plant with astilbe-like leaves. I found another plant of the same type a few feet away. I’d never seen this species, so I took a picture and identified it from a description and sketch in a Peterson guide.  

Some people call it doll’s eyes, because of the black dot on the end of the white berries. But it’s more ominously known as white baneberry. Checking my guide to edible wild plants, I discovered that any part of white baneberry, if eaten, causes severe dizziness and vomiting. Darn, and I was going to see if I could grow some in my garden. 

I let Anne know about my identification. Next thing I knew, I got an email from a woman who is writing a book about poisonous plants. Could I guide her and her photographer husband to the baneberry? I never object to a visit to Sheldrick, so the following day we braved the tail end of a rain shower. Tara and Mark Johnson were fascinating people to know, and they got some terrific photos of the white baneberry, like the one above. And of the poison ivy rash on my ankle. No, I’m not sharing that picture. 

From big trees to poisonous plants to meeting four fascinating people.  You really never know which way the river will take you. But if you're open to the possibilities and willing to go down a few dead ends, you’re bound to end up someplace interesting.