Tag: columbine

Red Shale Cliffs Mark the River’s Course

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The sentinel red shale cliffs host a garden of moss, wildflowers and lichens as they stand watch over the meandering South Branch. The wandering river has its way after honoring the boundary set by this shale outcrop

The meandering South Branch has changed much of its course over the decades, restrained in its wandering, only by the presence of red shale cliffs that mark its course.

In an area of rolling hills, flood plain and the absence of field stone, the last thing you’d expect to see is a cliff. The cliffs are an exposed edge to the earth’s crust, forced above ground by never ending geologic activity along a fault line.

Growing up along the lower Raritan, there wasn’t a cliff to be seen. So when I ventured upstream in later years, the presence of a cliff was a big deal. It added drama to my paddling adventures. A genuine, bonafide cliff, like the ones you see on TV and in the movies, where heroes hung by their finger tips and from which villains fell to their death.

To top it off, these cliffs are red, well really maroon, which set them apart from any other cliffs, most of which are composed of hard gray stone.

I cannot paddle past one of these outcroppings without looking for some sign of a petroglyph. Shallow carvings made in stone by paleo inhabitants. What paleo hunter/gatherer would not leave some indelible sign on those giant billboards untouched by seasonal floods? Haven’t found any, but still keep looking.

One thing I did find is a shale slab underwater, etched with the name, “J N Stout”, followed by a roman numeral. Stout is a name common to the area of some of the earliest settlers. That inscription still remains a mystery. It would make sense to use that cliff as a boundary marker, even early 20th century deeds listed trees and rocks to mark property lines.

Surely there must be some sign from paleo travelers scratched into those cliffs. Perhaps when the light is right, a shadow of a deer or a turkey will magically appear on that red stone tablet, a testimony to a successful hunt from post glacial times.

While not finding ancient artifacts of human origin, there are ancient travelers who set down roots in the cliff face. To my amazement, columbine, a native wild flower, flourishes only on the cliffs and flowers in the April/ May timeframe.

Portions of the cliffs, shaded from the sun, will be covered with a carpet of thick, dark green moss and scattered patches of the pale green lichens, to compliment the dark maroon shale.

It was beneath one high shaded cliff, notched with narrow ledges, that I silently walked, searching for photo ops. The cliff on one side and the river on the other, separated only by a few paces, my steps were confined to one narrow trail.

Suddenly, the sound of frantic scrambling in the leaf litter on a small ledge just above, got my full attention. A red fox had been sunning comfortably, protected from the wind and safe from any danger. Now, as it scrambled to escape my presence, it slipped and fell, as leaf litter rained down upon my head. Fortunately, the fox regained solid footing and headed for parts unknown.

The cliffs held another surprise for me as I paddled by on a bright sunny day in the early spring. It was a time when large flocks of geese gathered on the river. In the distance, the river made a sharp bend to the left, directly opposite a high, bare faced shale cliff.

The noise the geese made was deafening, a misrepresentation of the few geese that were visible. The greater mass of the flock was out of sight, downstream of the bend. At first glance, the overwhelming noise, out of proportion to the geese that could be seen, amounted to an auditory hallucination and set the stage for what was yet to come.

As expected, the massive flock exploded into flight as I got closer. The sound was undiminished, though the geese were out of sight, below the river bend.

I suddenly realized I was watching the endless shadows of the geese that I could not see; fly across the face of the cliff.

Because the sound the geese made echoed off the cliff and only the shadows were visible, it appeared the shadows were the source of the sound. The cliff acted as a giant movie screen complete with sound track and shadow puppets in the form of geese.

So, it is with awe and expectation that I look upon the stalwart cliffs as timeless reference points, immovable sentinels that add beauty and dimension to the scenery along the North and South Branch, their tributaries and the upper Raritan River.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author. Contact jjmish57@msn.com. See more articles and photos at winterbearrising.wordpress.com.

A Special May Flower

Article and photos by Joe Mish

 

Looking up into the columbine flower’s mouth, I see a dove with wings spread or an angel. This diminutive wild flower is found in isolated patches among the red shale cliffs that line the South Branch. Who knew, other than hummingbirds, that such a treasured crown jewel was hidden along our river.

The red shale cliffs interrupt pasture and field along the South Branch to stand as an unchanging reference point, immune to progress and raging spring floods that swirl around them.

The exposed cliff face is characterized by a jagged appearance, with sections of smooth rock face the exception. Ancient floods have scoured rounded contours into the soft shale, to form shallow caves, nooks, crannies and alcoves. Like a human face with striking character, the cliffs beg more than a casual glance.

I cannot paddle by without desperately searching the high cliff face for ancient etchings or a petroglyph. Travelers from earliest times could not have passed up an opportunity to scribe their name or draw their hunting or fishing trophies into the smoother areas of these red shale sketchpads. It would be against human nature to leave no sign.

Unexpectedly, what I have found among the craggy shale cliffs is a species of native wildflower that begins to bloom in late April through May. Wild columbine is not found anywhere else, except in the crevices of the prominent shale outcroppings along the river.

Columbine is a finely structured red and yellow flower, in the shape of a crown with five distinct tubular projections. The openings of the five separate passages are shrouded in a common vestibule. Several stalks arise from one clump, one flower to a stem, opening faces downward. The plant is not found in profusion, just in scattered, isolated patches.

There are many commercial cultivars and species of columbine, so to be clear, the wild native columbine is Aquilegia columbine. The derivative of the name is interesting as, ‘Aquila’, is Latin for eagle, and columbine references the family designation of doves. Early taxonomists saw characteristics of both in the flower. It is said the ‘spurs’ resemble the open talons of a raptor and the face of the flower, a nest of doves. To me the spurs that project to form the crown remind me of the reversed leg joint of a grasshopper when viewed from a certain angle and looking up into the mouth of the flower, I see the form of a single dove with wings spread.

The columbine flower produces tiny round black seeds in late May that are indistinguishable from poppy seeds. Though the columbine blooms about the time the first migrating hummingbirds show up, I have yet to catch a hummer dining on the flowers but surely some returning hummers have the plants marked on their GPS.

How and when columbine first found anchorage in these cliffs is a mystery. In the absence of its known origins, I prefer to think of these flowers as inheritance from an ancient legacy of primitive plants. The first of which relied on wind for propagation and then, as if by the hand of an engineer, designed shape, color and form to take advantage of insect pollinators and local soil conditions. Could it be that flowers intelligently made use of the cliffs to mark their presence through the centuries where humans left no trace?

Wild columbine are the crown jewels hidden among the cliffs, that appear in the spring for a brief moment to enrich both pollinators and humans who stumble upon them.

Author Joe Mish has been running wild in New Jersey since childhood when he found ways to escape his mother’s watchful eyes. He continues to trek the swamps, rivers and thickets seeking to share, with the residents and visitors, all of the state’s natural beauty hidden within full view. To read more of his writing and view more of his gorgeous photographs visit Winter Bear Rising, his wordpress blog. Joe’s series “Nature on the Raritan, Hidden in Plain View” runs monthly as part of the LRWP “Voices of the Watershed” series. Writing and photos used with permission from the author.