By: Richard Telford
In his 1978 book, A Walk Through the Year, Edwin Way Teale writes with eloquent simplicity, “Summer diversifies; winter simplifies.” In mid-January, after a light overnight snow, I spent a full morning walking the southern half of Edwin and Nellie Teale’s Trail Wood, now the 168-acre Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, administered by the Connecticut Audubon Society. I hoped to take advantage of the simplification of the winter landscape in order to better understand natural processes that are often hidden or even absent in the spring, summer, and early fall. Even in the heart of a particularly cold winter, the landscape teemed with life, with the remnants of ended life, and with the precursors of life to come.
Cutting through Firefly Meadow, due south of the Teales’ former 1805 center-chimney Cape Cod home, I crossed the small footbridge leading westward to Juniper Hill, the site of Edwin’s modest writing cabin, which he modeled after Thoreau’s cabin at Walden. The footbridge spans a spillway the Teales named Stepping Stone Brook; during times of overflow, it drains the one-acre pond the Teales had dug in the summer of 1964. Standing on the footbridge, my eye was drawn to the striking geometry of ice formations along the pond’s edge, the ice at this end of the pond kept thin by the moving water. Lines of needle ice ran parallel to one another like tightly packed feather barbs, intersecting at sharp angles with like formations, dendritic ice filling the open angles at these intersections. Polygonal forms etched the near surface—trapezoids, right and scalene and isosceles triangles—geometric expressions of the crystalline structure of ice.
Climbing Juniper Hill, I headed north along Shagbark Hickory Trail. I had hiked this trail one week earlier with my five-year-old daughter and had been surprised to see what looked like an eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched on a thick hickory branch that crossed the trail roughly twenty feet overhead. Viewed through 10×50 binoculars, the coloration pattern seemed unmistakable, though the blue was slightly more slate in tone and the feathers were fully puffed out, making it look overly stout. To my further surprise, I saw two more specimens in neighboring trees. Upon arriving home, I combed through my copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds and could find no obvious alternatives. Further, Sibley’s illustration of a bright adult female variation seemed a good match. Subsequently, I found the following passage in the December 23 entry in Teale’s A Walk Through the Year: “A bluebird of December […] flies above me over the snow-covered fields as I trudge home in the early sunset of this shorter afternoon. […]. Throughout the winter each year a few of these gentle-voiced singers drift about our Hampton region.” On my return trip to Trail Wood on this winter morning, I hoped I might repeat the previous week’s sighting, but the bluebirds were absent, as were any others with the exception of a lone pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) drumming unseen in the distance.
Continuing north, I found a small pool, roughly three feet in diameter, its shallow bottom lined with a monochromatic bed of white and scarlet oak leaves (Quercus alba and coccinea). Thin ice coated the surface, and here again was the mosaic of needle ice and dendritic formations, a reminder of the symmetry of natural systems. Beneath the ice, leaf litter and other organic detritus, broken down by fungi and various microorganisms, enriched the pool with nutrients. Algae coating the leaves did so further. With spring, these pools scattered throughout Trail Wood enlarge with melted snow and spring rains, transforming them into breeding sites for obligate and facultative species such as the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), distinguished by its yellow polka dots, and the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), often seen in its juvenile land-dwelling red eft stage. These small pools dot Trail Wood’s landscape like earthen kettles, made visible in winter by the leafless understory.
Approaching the Old Colonial Road, an east-west trail that is a remnant of Colonial-period horse travel in all its forms, I imagined the travelers who had crossed this way in the course of daily business, travelers who led hard-scrabble lives that likely lent little time for exploration of the kind in which I engaged that brisk morning. Teale notes in his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm that as of 1959, “The ground was still packed hard from the wheels of wagons and carriages and, some say, stagecoaches that once traveled over this long-abandoned way.” In fact, one remarkable feature of Trail Wood is the unusual variety of Colonial-period stone walls, many of which reflect not only utility but aesthetic artistry. These walls now provide extensive habitat, and for the New Englander they feel as much a natural part of the landscape as the mature canopies that have succeeded the once clear-cut fields. Here in my walk I was treated to the soft, baby-rattle sound of the light gold leaves of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), a sound familiar to any winter hiker of broad-leaf deciduous New England forests. The American beech is the only deciduous New England tree that does not drop its dried leaves until the following spring. Gazing in all directions, I could observe beech trees in all growth stages, their ubiquity reflecting the species’ shade-tolerance; only the winter landscape affords such a view.
After a brief traverse east along the Old Colonial Road, I headed north, quickly encountering Hyla Pond, a vernal pool named for its annual breeding population of Hyla crucifer, the spring peeper. Following Hyla Rill, the small stream that fills the seasonal pond with outflow from the three-acre beaver pond to the north, I reached the latter site after a ten-minute walk. Here too the winter landscape offered many insights. The double-humped beaver (Castor canadensis) lodge at the pond’s center rose from the stump-laden, snow-dusted ice. The damn at the pond’s southwestern edge elevated the water’s surface four or more feet above the neighboring ground, an extraordinary feat of engineering.
Tree clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum) and southern ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum), commonly referred to as fan clubmoss, sprouted from extensive root networks, forming colonies along the pond’s perimeter. Both plants, despite their conifer-like appearance, are considered fern-allies according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because, like ferns, they reproduce via spores. These two clubmosses blanketed the spaces between bigtooth aspen and red maple stumps, many covered with layers of shelf-type fungi; nothing goes to waste in natural systems.
These lopped stumps that yield both food and shelter to the resident beavers in turn become habitat to various saprobes, which, by hastening the decomposition of the dead woody material, replenish soil nutrients, cycling energy for future generations of scores of organisms.
The walk south from the beaver pond to Woodcock Pasture, just west of the Teales’ former home, contrasted former life with life to come. On the trail I found a nearly disintegrated coyote (Canis latrans) scat loaded with dense clumps of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) hair mixed with fragments of bone and dried cartilage, a common site at Trail Wood. Crossing Fern Brook, I noticed a single shoot of skunk cabbage rising from the water, an early sign of spring. Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) can flower as early as February, in part because it is thermogenic, meaning it can raise its temperature above the ambient temperature. In findings published in Science in 1974, R.M. Knutson reported that skunk cabbage can maintain an internal temperature up to 15 degrees Celsius in an ambient temperature of -15 degrees Celsius.
Further on, I found a few remnant shards from a white-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) nest tangled in the matted winter pasture grass. Crossing behind the old Cape Cod home, I walked west to the remnants of Edwin’s former observation blind, crossed Hampton Brook near a Colonial-era spillway, and walked up to Monument Pasture, so named for an early twentieth century rounded fieldstone monument erected by a former field hand named Hughes in honor of himself. At the eastern edge of the pasture, in an early successional buffer of red maple (Acer rubrum), pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) and black birch (Betula lenta) heavily choked by pervasive oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), I found the rain-rotted and crumbling envelope of a white-faced hornet’s nest. In summer this nest, enfolded in layer upon layer of snarled vegetation, would have been an unseen phantom, a benefit both to the colony itself and to any unfortunate would-be intruder. White-faced hornets are wisely feared for their stalwart defense of a wide nest perimeter. After crawling through dense tangles to photograph the nest, I emerged only to be given one final gift from the winter landscape. A pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) circled in tandem for a fleeting moment before turning eastward, their distinct profiles finally vanishing along the seemingly barren horizon that was not barren at all.