Nearly unbearable heat and humidity have pushed my male bloodhound (who we call James Fenimore Cooper) and I up this forested hill to the edge of a large stand of hemlocks. Here the shade blocks the sun and our higher elevation has put us into a gentle breeze that blows from the southeast. Light filters through the edge of this dark canopy where a few hardwoods, yellow birch, black birch, and red maple, hug the edge of this large conifer stand creating a zone with mixed hardwoods and conifers. Along the edge of this union there is a good stand of shining club moss that covers the ground. This emerald green ground cover is cool, somewhat soft, and beautiful to look at. I sit down, placing my back against a hemlock, and Cooper lays down and rolls over onto his back. He seems to be enjoying a view of the filtered sunlight through the overhead branches.
I’ve been moving slow today, the result of an accident where I broke my foot while playing with Cooper, and so beyond the oppressive heat and humidity the rest is most welcome and necessary. The contraption I wear on my foot is not comfortable but is necessary to protect the foot until it is healed. I am happy that I can move around, even a little, considering my present physical maladies. I’m not sure I would call it “lucky” but to have even a little freedom to move short distances seems somewhat fortunate considering the circumstances.
Cooper rolls off of his back and onto the side of his extra wide frame. He is a 135 pound gentle giant who enjoys life to its fullest. His nose works the air even though he is a very relaxed position as he scans the scents that mark this forest. Bloodhounds, unlike any other dog, completely survey the landscape with their noses much like humans would with their eyes. Both he and our female bloodhound, Adia, are capable of smelling miles out into the distance; a feat that we humans can only imagine. His acute smell picks up a scent and Cooper rolls over from his side to a prone position with his belly laying against the cool earth. He raises his nose up into the air, widens his nostrils, and pulls the scent directly into his olfactory sensors and this message is relayed to his brain where the message is interpreted. Cooper now stands, puts his large black nose into the air as the folds of his excess skin slide back along his very narrow skull. He looks warily towards the southeast. I suspect he smells a black bear or some other wild animal that could be interpreted as a possible threat. Cooper remains alert, although not in a totally overt way, and relaxes laying down with his nose pointed into the wind.
As I sit here I notice a large flat piece of schist which is our most prevalent bedrock in these parts. I flip this stone over with some effort to see if there are any interesting critters underneath its hard surface. Expecting to see centipedes or perhaps a red-backed salamander I am surprised to see a small earth worm. The terrific amounts of rain we have recently had have most likely forced this annelid to the surface where oxygen is available and darkness can still be found underneath the stone. Most earth worms are thought not to be native to the northeast. The theory is that the last glacier period, some 14,000 years ago, extirpated them. A mile thick slab of ice that completely tore up the landscape from the polar regions to the terminal moraine that is not Long Island most likely removed earthworms from our region. The ones that we have, it is speculated, were reintroduced for angling and agriculture mostly from European and Asian varieties.. There is at least room for some doubt about their complete extirpation in my mind as I am aware of Native American myths and lore that use these critters as part of the story. It seems as if these stories would have been lost as the native populations followed the glacial recession north because they would not have been relevant.
The earthworm that I see under the rock reminds me of a fantastic relationship between a particular kind of carnivorous fungi found in the soil and worms. Worms actually have a very sophisticated communication system where they give off pheromones called ascarosides to attract other worms. The fungi actually eavesdrop on these chemical signals to detect the earthworm’s presence. In response some of these fungi species actually build a web comprised of natural adhesives to trap the earthworms so they become easy prey: essentially food for the nutrient needy fungi. That worms communicate with some sophistication is simply amazing. That fungi can not only detect these signals but interpret them is almost beyond my imagination!
Considering all of this I slide away from the hemlock tree, which has been supporting my back as I have sat here, and lay down to look up through the branches at the hazy sky. A wonderful mix of yellow birch branches and hemlock branches are overhead. A gentle breeze allows the branches to lazily swing to and fro creating interesting patterns and openings with the blue sky as a back drop. As I gaze through this ever changing natural art display I remember that conifers, a member of the Gymnosperm group of plants, are very old-somewhere in the vicinity of 320 million years. These naked seed plants evolved in the Carboniferous area when our planet’s climate was very volatile amongst forests of giant ferns and allies that covered much of the Earth’s land mass. It is very interesting to note that Angiosperms (flowering plants) evolved from Gymnosperms. In fact, these relatively new flowering plants first evolved some 190 million years ago and since then have evolved into about 400,000 separate plants whereas Gymnosperms are much older and have evolved into about only 1000 different plants. Angiosperms survived by evolving and adapting with time and climatic change. Gymnosperms survived by adding to their genome structure, essentially adding characteristics to existing structure that help them to carry on through enormous changes spread out over eons and eons. That these two plant groups are so different and have a much different survival strategy is astounding. More proof that it is our planet’s diversity that contributes to all of the mutually beneficial relationships between plant, animal, and mineral; all things living and non-living.
Cooper stands up and raises his black nose into the air. His red hair ruffles as the breeze gets stronger. I take this as a hint from Cooper that it is time to move on. After I maneuver myself to my feet (not an easy task in this air cast) the two of us head back down the hill. As we get into the more open canopy the forest seems dank, hot, and humid.
Cooper runs ahead, his long ears trailing behind, as I follow a little bit slowly and cautiously.
Better late than never.
Originally written for the Heath Herald in July of 2013.