Written by Doug Hoy.
As Art Goldsmith, Mike Macpherson from the Nature Conservancy, and I drove to the Ridge through the early morning fog, the landscape loomed out of the mist, a scene eerily reminiscent of the pall that must have cloaked it nearly 140 years ago. Pulling into Dave and Mary Forsyth’s yard, we found Joel Byrne, Maureen Carrière, and the Spicer Brothers with their nephew, already there and rarin’ to get started. So off we went, Dave in the lead, on an easy path that would gradually climb a height equivalent to Niagara Falls before looping back.
Almost immediately we nearly stepped in what we took to be bear scat. It didn’t look right for this berry-rich time of year, and the fish scales glinting in it should have tipped us off to the likelihood of otter origins.
As the calls of Blue Jays echoed through the trees, we could see patches of blue sky as the fog burned off and slanting rays of sunlight ignited the golden hues of September. The well-established path wound through small maples, White Ash and birches. Ironwood, a typical product of generations of cattle browsing, sprouted along the route. No, it’s Hornbeam, someone opined. No, a Blue Beech, ventured another. This confusion arises from the “official” common names of American Hornbeam (in the vernacular, “Blue Beech”) and Eastern Hop Hornbeam (vernacular “Ironwood”). Turns out we saw both: the former (Caprinus) with its smooth, blue-grey bark, and the latter (Ostreya) with its ragged bark overlaying the uncanny “muscles” bulging its boughs.
Whatever we called them, Banded Tussock Moths called them home, for we found several furry caterpillars arrayed on leaves or trunks. When we approached a large woodpile, the youngest member of our group knew what to do – turn over pieces of wood. He was rewarded with a Blue-spotted Salamander, a prize find for any young naturalist, and woodland veterans too.
The trail opened onto a meadow, delightfully overgrown with waist-high grasses and forbs of every description. Boneset was a standout, as was Marsh Milkweed, but the colour award went to purple New England Asters, standing out like royalty in a crowd. Bordering the meadow, European Buckthorn flourished in typical introduced-species fashion. A large yellow and black Orb-weaver Spider hung motionless in its sunlit, dewy net, perhaps waiting for one of the many equally yellow and black juvenile Harlequin Bugs infesting a nearby tree to drop in for breakfast.
Leaving the meadow, we strolled along the wide paths, finding Bottle Gentian hiding in the undergrowth and Yellow Hawkweed waving above it.
Elecampane, a relic from the long-gone pioneer farm, grew like monstrous dandelions in mid-path. Like Boneset it was used for an astonishing variety of ailments in the past, and it was a common herb garden plant. Skeptics might joke that it worked for some – we don’t seem as troubled by the ague, vapours, or dyspepsia as we once were. However, research has found that some modern horrors like antibiotic-resistant flesh-eating disease may be likewise tamed by Elecampane extracts, rediscovering what the farmer with his garden of “Horse-heal” already knew.
Dave wanted to show us his spruce plantation, so we bushwhacked our way into a dark gallery of bare but twiggy spruce trunks and needle-covered floor. It seemed dismal, but a small frog perched Gollum-like on a twisting tree root seemed entirely at home. We escaped the spooky forest and continued our gradual climb to the escarpment peak, passing by patches of Moccasin Flower leaves, Doll’s Eye, Indian Cucumber Root, and even a rare Hooker’s Orchid. For such a wet summer, we hadn’t seen many fungi: a small clot of Coral Fungus at the base of a tree, and a ladder of Velvet Stalk Mushrooms bursting from a split tree trunk.
The occasional giant tree trunk attracted our attention. These were very large White Pines, some still living, with the massive lower boughs that spoke of an open-growth life many decades before the present forest had sprung up. The land had probably been cleared for farming, perhaps pasture, with these few specimen trees left for shade. At the foot of one of these giants lay the much deteriorated carcass of a porcupine, the quills still threatening but long past mattering. As they sometimes do, the animal may have fallen from the tree to its death. What they lack in agility, porcupines make up with dogged determination to reach the tastiest treetop needles.
Although Dave’s lot extends across the Ridge about a kilometre, our meandering path easily doubled the distance we walked. Like good naturalists we managed to keep our speed down to a half a kilometre an hour, and so found ourselves at the edge of the steep escarpment bounding the property around noon. Here the pines and rocky expanses of lichens and mosses had a more northerly feel, as if we had somehow walked to another biome. At this point part of the group, pressed for time, took the “express” route back to the house, while the rest continued to naturalize through an idyllic September day.