Category Archives: Environment

Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains

By Richard Higgins

I was startled a few years ago when the man training me in CPR, a very safety-conscious person who had saved many lives, declared flatly that there were no accidents.

No accidents? What could be more preposterous, I thought. “What about car accidents,” I asked with moderated sarcasm, “don’t they fit the bill?

Car crashes are not accidents, he replied. “They always could’ve been prevented with adequate forethought or risk assessment. Yes, that could mean not passing, not taking a certain road or not driving at all, but if that’s the cost of your life, it’s worth it.” I grudgingly had to admit he was probably right.

Sandy Stott makes the case for prudence more firmly in his book Critical Hours: Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, a compendium of heroism and hubris in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. The hubris comes from hikers who perished (or nearly did) near those peaks, and over the course of the book their tales tumble together into an avalanche of poor choices and missed cues. The heroism comes from the hundreds of dedicated volunteers and professionals who test their own limits as they yank injured, dazed or frozen people from the jaws of danger again and again.

In recent years, search and rescue has become more necessary and more challenging, writes Stott, himself a seasoned hiker and former editor of the Appalachian Mountain Club journal Appalachia. The promise of safety from cell phones, locator beacons and other high-tech devices has made recreational hikers, and sometimes even experienced ones, overconfident. And the hell-bent, triathlon-before-breakfast extreme fitness culture has turned to mountains paths for endurance training.

Critical Hours is partly a history of hiking, from the Romantic era forward, and of search and rescue efforts when the hiking goes awry, as well as the culture behind each, partly an inquiry into why we ascend summits and partly a biography of Mount Washington—all wrapped around a series of rescue stories Stott analyses for lessons.

The mistakes take many forms: not knowing the weather forecast, hearing but ignoring it, being fooled by mildness at the base, setting off too late, being experienced or poorly equipped and leaning over a waterfall. A missed trail sign, glove dropped or twisted ankle can snowball into full-blown crisis. While most of those who make such mistakes live to tell about it, the rescues are not always pretty or even truly necessary. My favorite numbskull is the large man who reported a badly sprained ankle, which required alternating teams of 12 men to carry him down in a litter—and then, in the parking lot, pronounced himself better and got up and walked away.

Trouble above the tree line is not confined to the clueless or naïve, Stott tells us, noting that even Henry David Thoreau nearly lost the trail in a fog on Mount Washington. Even legendary climbers of the Whites are not immune. One famous hiker, Bill Curtiss, was so strong and fit at age 67 that doctors could not believe the deep musculature of his chest. Unfortunately, their discovery came during an autopsy. Curtis was consumed by winter’s fury atop Washington.

Stott is well equipped to narrate the tragedies.. Born into a family of hikers—his father performed one of the rescues in the book — he is steeped in the history and culture of the White Mountains. And insightful about why some of us are driven to extreme challenges.

He is very good at describing the twilight dimming effect of hypothermia of the body, how it slowly robs first our physical, then our mental, faculties. Indeed, the weather is almost a character in this book, and its personality is fickle and sometimes cruel as it teases or deceives us about its true intentions.

Self-awareness, the ability to see and take in actual conditions, regardless of preconceived thoughts or expectations, and alertness to potential perils, Stott says, is the only the way to avoid becoming an anecdote in any sequel to this book. A little fear doesn’t hurt either. In Moby Dick, the second mate, Stubb, declares that he won’t allow a man in his whaleboat who doesn’t have a healthy fear of the whale.

Those who ignore the perils will likely be rescued by the large and increasingly professional network of private and government rescuers. But these teams have their work cut out for them. Prometheus was in bad enough shape when he had merely stolen fire from the gods. Now that we, his descendants, have GPS, emergency locator beacons and various other high-tech gizmos, it seems inevitable that the vultures will have a lot more picking to do.

Richard Higgins is the author of  Thoreau and the Language of Trees.

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Apples

By Lorraine Martin

Some might wonder – why write about apples in late spring? Surely, that’s for the autumn, when we, here in New England, can think of little else. Well, perhaps it’s more that apple trees, rather than apples themselves, are speaking to me right now. 

Their distinct shape is particularly noticeable at this time of year in late spring. There they are, small, wide, kinda gnarly-looking, prepubescent, gawky and tween-like. I grew up in the southeast of England, where apple trees are common in the back-gardens (yards) of suburban homes. At least, we had one.

Our back-garden was a delight; maybe 30x15ft, the neighbor’s stone garage making half a boundary to the left, a tall wooden fence and our coal bunker forming one to the right. The far end, for many years, looked onto what I saw as a big vacant “field,” but which was really an overgrown space in-between housing parcels, the last vestige of the field that existed before all the houses on “Longfield Road” were built. To me, as a young girl, this area which extended beyond the safe confines of our well-tamed garden, was a thrilling, wild, land of mystery, which the grown-up Thoreauvian in me still feels. My brother, 3 ½ years older than I, would camp out there with his friends, but only occasionally would I myself venture in.

I remember, it was this wildness at the back of our house which made our house unique to me. We were the only ones who had this extra “space,” and it gave me a sense of freedom from suburbia which I loved. Our house was also special to me because of the view from the front: from my bedroom window, as we were the only house with no house built directly opposite us, I could see way off into the distance, across the “Green Belt” fields, even spying, on a clear day, an ancient windmill in the next small town over.

My mother filled the front garden with flowers: roses, irises, red-hot pokers, daffodils and tulips, and she lined the pathway with pansies, and all manner of small, colorful plants. Roses were abundant in the back garden, too, and honey-suckle cascaded over the fence near the kitchen window, whose deep-scented aroma filled my girlhood summer evenings. But the back garden was dominated by two glorious trees: the apple and the pear. Mum and Dad planted the trees the year they moved into the new house, and the trees and the house aged together. Over the years, the garden filled up with red currant, black currant, and gooseberry bushes, even a huge, rambling blackberry bush whose soft, sun-warmed fruit was there for the snacking all summer long. But right in the middle stood the glorious, old, white-blossomed pear tree, alongside the pink-blossomed apple tree, both providing fruit and beauty from early spring to late fall. They grew taller and taller, wider and wider, and dad had to constantly prune, just to keep them manageable, until I noticed a turn; Dad couldn’t stop cutting, and the trees grew smaller and smaller, eventually, I realized, becoming a symbol for the axe-words which were cutting my parents’ hearts on the inside of the house.

And yet, the apple tree, along with all the other fruit in the garden, provided so much sustenance. Mum would say, “take the colander, and go get…,” and off I’d go, gathering apples for Sunday dinner’s pie, or rhubarb for that night’s “grutze.” Growing up in-between the wars in Germany taught my mother a thing or two about living off the land. Thoreau would have approved, I think. I now live in Stow, Massachusetts, or “Apple Country,” as it’s known. A transplant, just like the apple tree.

Lorraine Martin is the membership coordinator for the Thoreau Society.

 

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Transcendental Mushrooming

Lawrence Millman, (orange and brown cap) examines a mushroom that has teeth.

While the rest of the country was distracted on Super Bowl Sunday, a small band of Thoreuavians led by mycologist Lawrence Millman headed into the Estabrook Woods for the inaugural Super Cup Fungus Sunday.

To its credit, the group found nearly 60 different species on the Winter Mushroom Count, despite the snow and icy conditions.

Pursuing fungi on this particular grey New England day was an exercise in Thoreauvian Olympics. Much time was spent sauntering, which is akin to walking a step faster than a teenage boy (hoping to miss the school bus), yet slower than the octogenarian couple (aided by canes), who seemed to be skipping past us in the forest.

Millman and the mycophiles stooped, knelt, and stretched to examine every rock, log, tree trunk, branch, and pile of decayed leaves with a jeweler’s loop or hand lens. When they found a fungus or a mushroom, (Millman says its futile to make a distinction), each fungi hunter would regard it with great enthusiasm and call out to the others, and explain the significance of the discovery.

“Here’s a dog’s nose,” said Millman, holding up a fistful of the rare black fungus, as if it were ambergris. “It grows almost exclusively on old oak logs.”

Millman would know. He gave “Peridoxylon petersii” its common name “Dog’s Nose.”

During the entirety of the mushroom count, voices echoed throughout Estabrook Woods, eager to announce a find: “False Turkey Tail,” “Parchment,” “Brown Witches Butter,” “Milk-white Toothed Polypore,” and so on.

Did you know one variety of fungus glows in the dark woods like phosphorescence in the ocean? It’s called “Night Light.” Another is an orange jelly substance. You can smell it and touch it, but don’t eat it.

Lawrence Millman (standing) and (from right,) Emily Schmidt, Ryan T. Bouchard, James Mitchell, and Zaac Chaves study the fungi samples found in the field at Thoreau Farm. Photo credit: Joe Warfel

For the uninitiated, and even for the experts, there was a lot to learn on this walk. Millman and the others collected several samples, carefully slipping them into paper bags or carrying them in wicker baskets. There were eight fungi which needed further study to be identified.

One woman was pleased to locate a little brown mushroom, or LBM, as Millman (who is also an Arctic explorer and writer) and the other fungi folks affectionately call it. The LBM was found under a cluster of pine needles, yet the group was more interested in the black specks of fungi or “White pine splotch” found on the tips of the needles.

“Are there truffles in these woods?” asked one of our companions.

“Yes, but not the kind you’re interested in,” said Millman.

Millman is loathe to identify which mushrooms are edible. And, won’t.

“Edibility is the least interesting aspect of a mushroom,” he said.

One of the hunters, the editor of the Boston Mycological Club Bulletin, explained to me sotto voce that many expert foragers will go along for years happily consuming mushrooms without incident, until the one time he or she mistakenly eats a poisonous one and either gets violently ill or dies.

The hunt stopped dead in its tracks when it encountered a pine tree encased in a veneer of dried sap and lichen.

One of the mycophiles, a grad student, took his loop and examined the tree for fungus with the stance of a dermatologist  looking over freckled skin for a bad mole. It was a painstaking process, but he went about the task with extreme patience and was able to discern specks the size of black pepper. Yes. It was fungi, sprinkled along the bark.

This young man and the other mushroom counters on the walk reminded me of  Henry David Thoreau — stopping, studying, examining, and recording the natural world around us, and doing so with great joy.

If “Joy is surely the condition of life,” there was evidence of life all around us on the Winter Mushroom Count.

What did we find in Estabrook Woods?

SUPER CUP FUNGUS FORAY: INVENTORY

by Lawrence Millman

ASCOMYCETES

Bisporella citrina (Lemon Drops)

Camarops petersii (Dog’s Nose Fungus)

Chlorociboria aeruginescens (Green Stain)

Crinula caliciiformis (anamorph of Holwaya mucida)

Holwaya mucida

Hypoxylon sp.

Lachnelulla resinae var. resinaria

Lophodermium pinastri (White Pine Splotch)

Mollisia cinerea (Grey Cup)

Orbilia inflatula

Phaeocalicium polyporaeum (Pygmy Parasite)

Propolis farinosa

Rhytisma americana (Tar Spot of Maple)

Rosellinia subiculatum

Sarea resinae (Resin Cup)

Sarea difformis (Black Resin Cup)

BASIDIOMYCETES

Amylocystis lapponia

Cerrena unicolor (Mossy Maze Polypore)

Collybia sp.

Conferticium sp.

Cylindrobasidium sp.

Daedaleopsis confragosa (Thin Maze Polypore)

Dacrymyces sp. (Orange Tree Brain)

Datronia mollis

Dendrothele nivosa

Exidia recisa (Brown Witches Butter)

Flammulina velutipes (Velvet Foot)

Fomes fomentarius (Tinder Polypore)

Fomitopsis betulina (Birch Polypore)

Fomitopsis pinicola (Red Belted Polypore)

Galerina cf. marginata (Deadly Galerina)

Ganoderma curtisii

Gloeophyllum sepiarium (Rusty-Gilled Polypore)

Gloeoporus dichrous

Haplotrichum sp. (Botryobasidium anamorph)

Hydnochaete olivaceum (Olive-Toothed Polypore)

Irpex lacteus (Milk White Toothed Polypore)

Marasmius pulcherripes

Marasmius sp.

Mycena galericulata

Mycena cf. leaiana (Orange Mycena)

Mycena griseoviridis

Mycena sp.

Mytilinidion cf. parvulum

Neofavolus alveolaris (Hexagonal Pored Polypore)

Panellus stipticus (Night Light)

Phellinus ferruginosus

Plicatura crispa (Crimped Gill)

Schizophyllum commune (Split Gill)

Spongipellis pachydon (Spongy Toothed Polypore)

Stereum complicatum (Crowded Parchment)

Stereum ostrea (False Turkey Tail)

Trametes conchifer (Nesting Polypore)

Trametes suaveolens (Anise-Scented Polypore)

Trametes versicolor (Turkey Tail)

Tremella sp. (Witches Butter)

Trichaptum abietinum (Purple Toothed Polypore)

Trichaptum biforme

Xylobilus frustulatus (Ceramic Parchment)

 

Total: 59 species

Here is the list of Super Cup Fungi:

Chlorociboria aeruginascens (Green Stain)

Orbilia inflatula

Bisporella citrina (Lemon Drop)

Mollisia cinerea (Grey Cups)

Sarea resinae (Orange Resin Cup)

Holwaya mucida

Sarea difformis (Black Resin Cups)

Lachnelulla resinae

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Environment, General, Henry David Thoreau, Living Deliberately, Nature, The Roost