Under the Conifers

Shining Clubmoss

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.

James Fenimore Cooper stands alert!

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.

Black Bear.


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.

Foliose lichen clings to a tree.

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!

Hemlock evergreen foliage.

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.

A black bear strolling in the forest.


Originally written for the Heath Herald in July of 2013.

  • craftygreenpoet

    wow, fungi eavesdropping on earthworms! Amazing!

    I always like to find shade on a hot day, specially woodland shade

    Hope your foot recovers soon

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    My foot seems to be taking a turn for the better. Slow but steady wins the race. And yes, isn’t nature just daffy? I mean fungi eavesdropping on worms! Wow!

  • Emily Brisse

    Insightful and educational, per usual, Bill. I also was brought into your experience so easily by that first set of images. Beautiful description! Glad you are up and at ‘em in the ways you can be. Best to you!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    It’s always wonderful to hear from you Emily. Thank you for the compliment. I’ll be at ‘em until the end of my days.

  • Montucky

    Don’t you wish you could see the world through a dog’s nose!
    Tough time of the year to have your foot banged up, but it’s good that you can still move around a bit and that you have such beauty close to you!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I am lucky to live in a place that is both wild and beautiful. The foot is healing and I am impatient but it could have been a whole lot worse. And YES I would love to see the world through a dog’s nose, but especially a bloodhound who smells many many times better than other dogs.

  • http://everyday-adventurer.blogspot.com/ Ratty

    I never really thought of the way an earthworm worked. It’s actually very interesting. I don’t think I’ll ever think of them in the same way when I see one now. Now when I see one I’ll be considering all the possibilities of just what exactly they are.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    The Earth is full of surprises, isn’t it? When we ramble about in the wild we should always be prepared for a new adventure, a new perspective, a new way of looking at things!

  • Annie

    So glad you have been able to get out on these little wanders. They are so good for the soul.

    We have tons of earthworms here in the west. I’m always happy to see them when I dig in the garden. A sure sign that things are well where I can’t see.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    It is likely that most/many of your earthworms are native creatures given you live outside of the glaciated zone. Yes, it is terrific to know there is life where we can’t see it.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    I love how you really See everything around you. The ongoing evolution of all life and thus the symbiotic relationships between all things is fascinating and you certainly help us to see this. Love the photos. I have not seen a black bear this year, just scat in the orchard and meadow. I’m sure they’re looking forward to apples again… I had not thought of turning over a rock to check for all the wonderful life that spends time there. Thank you for that reminder.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Perhaps the main goal of my writing is to help others see the miracles of the natural world. In my view they are both not understood or appreciated by the general public. The funny part is most of my readers are people like yourself who already understand my point of view and have many of the same goals in mind. And then I realize in considering all of this that we are strengthening our resolve by supporting each other. I can really appreciate that.

  • shoreacres

    That last photo of the bear is amazing. It almost looks as though it’s infrared, but I don’t think it is. I thought at first it was taken in winter – no, not at all. And I suppose in that sense it’s the best kind of nature photograph – it makes us stop, think, ask questions, ponder.

    I’m sorry to hear about your foot, and I really do feel your pain – a couple of weeks ago I had a little mishap on the swim platform of a boat and thought I’d broken my nose. I didn’t – but it’s been a bit of a slow healer, too. I suspect since a bit more time has passed since the last comment, you’re probably doing well and are able to get around more easily. I hope so.

    Earthworms hold so many memories for me. They were a favored treat for our robins in springtime, and a favored bait when dad took me fishing. And of course it was one of the first things we dissected in biology class. We called them “nightcrawlers” – now I wonder if they truly were more active at night. We knew they were a sign of good soil, that’s for sure – and everyone encouraged them in their gardens.

    Your story about Cooper reminds me of the last time I brought home some wheat grass for my kitty. She does love her grass, but I thought I’d try and pull a fast one on her. She was asleep when I came home, so I put the grass out of sight, very high up. It wasn’t five minutes before my sleepyhead was up and in the kitchen, sniffing and meowing and standing up on her haunches to try and find her grass. I couldn’t believe that the scent of it was enough to wake her and get her moving – but it did. She knew it was there, and she was going to nag until I produced it for her! And some call them “dumb” animals!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I’ve just gained new respect for the scenting abilities of kitties! Hope your injured nose is feeling better. My foot finally seems to be coming around. I’m afraid I don’t heal as quickly as I used to. And yes, night crawlers are more active at night!

  • http://www.orientalgardensupply.com/index.php/catalog/product/view/id/49616/ ornamental conifer

    Thanks for sharing information…..keep it up………..

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    You are welcome. We live in a very beautiful world. Understanding it is part of the process in preserving it.

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