Tag: WinterBearRising

It’s Carved In Stone

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Message from the early nineteenth century remains in place. Hand carved declaration memorializing the men involved in the construction of the bridge. No so different in style and material than petroglyphs from paleo times. Words replace symbols to convey a message deemed important to future travelers.

The stone plaque set in the fieldstone bridge over Cat Tail Brook is crudely chiseled with the date 1825 along with the name of the mason and men who directed its construction. 

The graves of the early settlers preserved in a small patch of land are marked with red shale stones, some with hand carved epitaph’s, other small, weathered stones barely decipherable, some messages completely eroded. 

A block of shale rests in the river with the inscription J N Stout along with the Roman numeral XVI. Well into the twentieth century, property lines were represented by rocks or trees with slash marks. 

The need to communicate is an innate human behavior, messages scribed on whatever canvas is available, whether it be scribbled on a napkin, roadside billboard, or graffiti on the side of a building. From the Chauvet Pont d’ arc caves of France and their well-preserved pictographs, to the Parsippany petroglyphs in north Jersey, each generation of humans, worldwide, expressed themselves in the most rudimentary ways, using whatever medium was on hand.  

My interest is in the paleo or pre-colonial people who lived in our area whose rationale for leaving signs and messages is no different than those seen today. Messages that were the precursor of books, told stories of the hunt or other rituals in pictographs, dendroglyphs and petroglyphs. Pictographs are paintings placed in a protected area, dendroglyphs were images carved into a tree who bark had been partially stripped, petroglyphs were figures carved or etched into stone, usually in the open for travelers to see. 

Just as the local Indians used trees to convey messages along travel paths, the desire for humans to communicate is as strong today as it was when paleo people walked the North and South Branch of the Raritan river. The search for petroglyphs is not confined to the realm of certified experts.

In the book, “Rock Art of Eastern North America”, the author notes the scarcity of primitive art in the eastern woodlands versus the numerous examples in the western states, primarily due to climate. As trees were the dominant canvasses of the woodlands, trees carved with dendroglyphs are not likely to be found. The rock strewn Sourland mountains would be a prime location for glyphs, while in the glacial scoured highlands of northern NJ, petroglyphs been authenticated.  

An example noted in the book explains dendroglyphs were located on well-travelled trails, river crossings and prominences. The topography of the land was also a factor as it restricted or directed travel around obstacles, along rivers or mountain trails. Humans as well as wildlife seek out paths of least resistance as well as places which provide a view. What traveler has not succumbed to the temptation to climb a huge boulder alongside a hiking trail? In paleo times that rock was a safe place to camp, seek refuge from a wolf, or ambush a deer. Some successful hunter might leave a mark to commemorate his luck. 

Without having read or heard of such a ritual, I would leave a coin where a deer fell to my arrow. I don’t know why I did that; no one will ever find that coin. Maybe a lingering primal behavior acted out to ensure my clan’s survival by telling another hunter, that the location was a good place to hunt. 

The South and North branch and Raritan rivers are prime places to look for petroglyphs on the shale cliffs. You are not likely to discover one, but certainly these would be the places to look. Indian artifacts abound and stories of local collectors are many. The cliffs protruding from the flood plain attracted passersby to the precipice, to see what they might see. We can only imagine a glyph carved into a nearby tree by the Unami clan, represented by the image of a turtle. Perhaps it marked territory, a place to camp or images of a turtle holding a tomahawk to signify a war party, as mentioned in the Rock Art book. Chance of finding artifacts at these outcroppings are greater than finding stone carvings.   

Knowing that our rivers were the highways of pre-colonial times, I cannot resist re-examining one particular, smooth red shale cliff, for the remains of an eroded petroglyph. That rare, smooth red shale canvas must have served as a primitive billboard with images of fish and deer taken by the Unami clan. I can’t find a sign, but I keep on looking at that cliff as if the imagined carvings were somehow transcribed to mental images perceived only by kindred spirits who traveled the same watery path.

I keep staring at this smooth cliff face along the river, hoping imagination will be the key to discovering an actual petroglyph. There is no way an early traveler could resist leaving a message on that unusual, smooth red shale tablet!
Further proof of the unbroken, innate need for humans to communicate along travel routes. Just as in paleo times a message board would be updated with symbols perhaps to show the results of a raiding party or successful hunt.

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.

Forever Summer

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Fresh picked bright red dewberries, packed in open top containers, cooling in the shade on a partially submerged rock, in a shallow flowing stream, elbows its way to mind when thoughts of summer arise.
Cattails grow in profusion and provide food for humans and animals. Golden cattail pollen used as flour is a summer treat, while its roots are edible year round. Burned for entertainment or mosquito repellent, the fluff of the brown heads have been to stop bleeding from deep cuts.

An hour past dawn, the source of daylight was still obscured, as if the sun took a holiday and to honor its daily commitment, left its dimmest bulb to light the overcast mid-summer day. The reference points of shadow and light, used to mark the progress of the day, melted in compromise to obscure the passing of time. The temperature change from night to day, that stirs the wind, was on this day, unable to raise a breeze. The stillness and faded light were precursors to either rain or bright sun, as the saying goes, “a morning fog burns ere the noon”. Either way, this quintessential day defines the comfortable retreat into the natural harbor of deep summer.   

Summer may be considered the offspring of the coordinated efforts of winter, spring and autumn. All preparation for a time, when new life and old, can strengthen and renew energy spent on elemental survival. Summer temperatures reduce the energy cost of life to maintain its existence. A savings that allows imagination and creativity to be directed to places other than immediate survival and to accumulate warm memories to heat the cold days of winter.  

Stacking the wood shed with summer memories leaves no carbon footprint, is considered renewable and burns as an eternal flame. 

Images of fresh picked bright red dewberries, packed in open top containers, cooling in the shade on a partially submerged rock, in a shallow flowing stream, elbows its way to mind when thoughts of summer arise. Enough berries to make two batches of jam, used to spread summer throughout the year, to share with family and friends. 

The light show performed by fireflies, in the meadow along the river, is a legacy act that reaches back in time to childhood and a world of wonder. The purpose of the display, critical to the lightning bugs, is lost to the magic of tiny incandescent dots of yellow light, floating in the air above the darkened meadow. Magic is the honey tasted by the mind that initiates a journey of exploration. Its direction and depth as unpredictable as the choreography of this mid-summer light show.  

Cattails are another image stored in the summer album of memories and trademarks. They grew in profusion along with swarms of mosquitoes which would forage for fresh blood when the sun went down. The summer heat would force neighbors outside to sit on porch steps, their presence betrayed in the darkness by the red glow of their burning cigarettes. The smoke was a deterrent to the mosquitoes, though restricted to smokers and anyone immediately downstream. Through primitive oral history, the legacy of burning sun dried cattails to keep mosquitoes at bay and safely light fireworks was kept alive. Cattails would be cut and brought home, muddy dungarees a dead giveaway that you roamed beyond the territory deemed safe by mom. The price of the harvest was a lecture from mom about being swallowed up by quicksand in the swamps. Cattails were picked while still slightly green as they could be stored over winter without losing their fluff. Courting danger, I would scramble up to the neighbor’s low, flat garage roof then take a running leap onto our peaked garage roof and set the cattails out to dry. After a week on the garage roof aged the cattails were ready to be lit and fend off the nightly aerial attack and defend the blood supply. Waving the burning cattail produced a cloud of smoke and unlike the anemic volume of cigarette smoke, could be directed upwind to wash over the legs or neck. Aside from the favorable aroma and copious smoke, you were sanctioned to play with fire and produce your own light show by waving the glowing brown magic wand, to create the illusion of circles, figure eights and words, which disappeared as if using invisible ink.   

The images and memories contained in your summer archives are yours alone, collected at a moment when time stood still, indelibly etched, to be released when the right combination of summer conditions align.

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.

Spring Flows Seamlessly Into Summer

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The gentle rain falling on the reflective water, lined with muted shades of gray and green foliage, combine to create a scene so peaceful, you must remember to take a next breath. 

The late spring rain continued without interruption into summer, though the shower only lasted two minutes. 

Somewhere within those two minutes, the earth’s position in its yearlong orbit around the sun, triggered changes in daylength. The change from spring to summer appears seamless though the end of one season and the beginning of the next is measured to the nanosecond. Life on earth has evolved to respond to the predictable ebb and flow of daylength. Light sensitive receptors direct chemical changes within the body affecting behavior and development as seen most obviously in trees and plants.   

The weeks before and after the arrival of summer hold the potential for producing magical moments of timeless beauty and peaceful retreat when nature takes a deep warm, relaxing breath and exhales.  

A whisper of mist and gentle rain partner to dim the light, hide the sun, and erase all perception of time. The chill of spring and warmth of summer agree to mediation, making either imperceptible to detect. The wind’s contribution is so minimal, the moisture and misty curtain of fog offer more than enough resistance to silence all sound and movement. The only detectable motion is that of an isolated leaf rising from genuflection, after the weight of accumulated moisture forced it to bow to gravity.  

On just such a day, when the world was huddled and dry and nature between breaths, I stowed my carbon fiber paddles, lightweight fishing rod into my Kevlar canoe, shouldered my pack and walked toward the river. The trail through the succession growth, transitioning from tilled crop field to woodlands, is hardly recognizable to a stranger despite years of use. Intentionally so, following a philosophy of, “leave no trace” my path roughly sought the shortest route, ever changing so slightly as shade and sun tolerant plants competed for dominance.  

Passing first through a canopy of red oak branches, spawn of the giant that stood tall for a century, the thin bare oak branches performed a scratchy tune on the boat’s hull which magnified the uncomfortable sound to disturb the silence. Once in the open, tufts of amber grass, darkened by the rain to a rusty orange color, took advantage of a once mowed path to dominate as if marking the center of a road. Rose hips, escaped from the garden, and multiflora rose, spread their tentacles across the path, redirecting travel to avoid the curved thorns and torn clothes.       

As the field grew, the occasional black walnut would tower above the spreading rose bushes, small red cedars, dried stalks of swamp milkweed and dogbane, to act as a lighthouse beacon marking the faint trail. 

Breaking free onto the open flood plain, the river came into view. Isolated sections of its banks retained a few sentinel trees interspersed by a variety of brush and wild celery acted as a tattered tapestry revealing patches of flowing water.  

The variety of trees and woody plants shared the same pale green color to suggest all were kindred spirits. In the distance looking down river, the fallow crop field allowed an unobstructed view beyond the bend in the river’s course, a quarter mile away. The green belt was notched at the bend by a tall American sycamore tree whose characteristic white trunk stood in sharp contrast as a neon landmark. Approaching the river at a breach in the eroded riverbank, I waded in and set the canoe on the still water below an island, which was once part of the pasture. The remains of tree stumps underwater, mid river, validated that the land was subject to the meandering river.  

I set my pack behind the center seat and tied it to the slotted gunnel on a length of paracord. One bent shaft paddle was unstowed and leaned across the front thwart. Once aboard, I sat for a long moment to feel the gentle current, energized by gravity, magically carrying me downstream into summer. The sight and sound of the water’s surface, dappled by sparse raindrops surging from the falling mist, was meditative. I leaned forward, paddle across my lap, head pulled deep into my hood, I peered out of an imaginary cave, dry and comfortable, satisfied to move at the pace of the slow current on a journey from spring into summer.  

Jack in the pulpit announces the coming of summer and the passing of another spring

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.

Raritan River Birthstone

Article and photos by Joe Mish

During one, six thousand year moment, in the eons of glacial expansion and retreat, the Queen of Rivers was born. So described by an early nineteenth century writer, inspired by the bucolic Raritan River. The beauty of the river’s pastural floodplain dotted with colorful native flowers and grasses, stood in contrast to the intermittent high, red shale cliffs. Spring floods scrubbed the red shale soil from its banks to turn the raging river into a semi solid crimson torrent. The contrast in color is dramatic where gravel lined upland streams tumble into the main river current.   

From sweet water freshet to the brackish tide water of its bay, the Raritan’s unimpeded flow expressed its seasonal moods in uninhibited water-colored brush strokes across the landscape, as if it were a living canvas.  

So, the Raritan River proper, as it is defined today, deserves the recognition of a natural wonder, a reference point in geological history, worthy of attention in a state marked by an ever changing manmade landscape. 

The Raritan’s headwaters arise from two major sources in the north, the South Branch from Budd Lake, and the North Branch from a swamp in Chester. The confluence of these two rivers join (in Branchburg) to form the Raritan River.

Facing upstream at the confluence, the river on the left enters from the south and is so named the South Branch, despite its origin in the north. The river on the right comes in from the north and is aptly named the North Branch.

If ever a natural wonder needed to be celebrated it would be the Raritan River. Toward that end I always imagined a rough stone marker of an age befitting the river queen’s origin be placed at the confluence, “the meeting place of waters”, Tuck-ramma-hacking”. Informal and primitive to match the uninhibited behavior of this ancient watercourse, a perfect partner to mark the celebrated river’s place of birth: a monument that will be submerged during spring floods and bear the scars of ice flows.  

I imagine a bronze plaque bearing the name of the river and its birthdate set among petroglyphs of animal tracks and wild flowers carved into the stone by local artists to represent the community the river serves.  

The spot for eventual placement of a “birthplace of the Raritan” marker

Bringing a dream to reality often turns to fantasy. At least now an attempt is being made to explore the possibility of placing such a stone at the apex of the North and South Branch Rivers. Through a network of well-placed friends, we have approached the state with this request to determine feasibility. A labyrinth of permits and permissions remains to be navigated if given conditional approval. At the very least, the ship has left the dock and we will soon learn if it is seaworthy.  

A stone, not yet chosen, has been promised and placement will be included. The river deserves to have a name and birthstone. Erroneously, the North Branch has official signage that declares it to be the Raritan River. If nothing else, it would be a worthy accomplishment to establish the correct identity.  

“Like a pine tree linin’ the windin’ road, I’ve got a name, I’ve got a name…..” go the lyrics to a song. What is in a name is respect. It is our nature to treat anonymity differently than familiarity.  Walk through a field, not knowing one plant from another, go from point A to point B and we naturally take a straight-line course. Eyes planted on the far side, anything in the way gets stepped upon. Guarantee that if a plant is identified to the trekker, whether it be fleabane or little bluestem, the path will be adjusted to avoid stepping on the now identified plant. So it is with names that emerge from anonymity, they project some kindred link that brings conscious thought to bear. A good reason to identify the Queen of Rivers and engender some new found respect for a natural wonder that will be here after we and our kin are long gone.

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.

Memories are Where You First Met Them

Article and photos by Joe Mish

This maroon shale cliff forming the river’s bend, serves as a memory retrieval bank for times gone by. I was canoeing with my late friend Jimmy, who caught and released a feisty smallmouth bass just upstream of that shale prominence. Memory storage may be why the shore of a river is referred to as a ‘bank’.

Over the course of time everything we experience is stored as a memory. Having limited capacity for recall, it is the most impactful memories that linger. By no means are memories ever lost, they are stored in pristine condition in unconscious archives. The key to recovery can be a scent, sight or a sound. Prompted by clues hidden in unrelated conversations, a single phrase or word can bring an experience back into sharp focus. Old, faded photographs of no particular beauty or composition can instantly bring the past into laser focus as the prompts to our memories are as individual as fingerprints.

So it is that each time I paddle the river, it becomes a physical journey through the accumulated memories collected over hundreds of miles, paddled on the same stretch of river. Each trip is like opening the old family album to add new photographs and seeing the older images as the pages are turned. It is as if a gravitational pull compels you to linger a bit longer in the realm of old memories.

There is hardly a location on the river that does not hold a memory for me. Digital images and photographs, abound, however, it is being present on the river that provides access to memories not captured by the camera or pushed aside by the endless flow of freshly minted memories.

Every time I pass the drainage above the mouth of Pleasant Run, my mind immediately plays the video of the snowy winter day I pulled out of the current into the safe harbor of a drainage stream to warm my hands under my arms. The heavy snow quickly covered me and my boat as I leaned forward, folded arms resting on my thighs. I felt safe and comfortable as the canoe was stabilized in the heavy slush and well within the six-foot-wide drainage stream away from the main current. The snow was almost a foot deep along the high bank and to my surprise a dark brown mink was porpoising through the deep snow toward the drainage and my canoe. The mink came within arm’s reach before it realized the convenient bridge and large lump of snow was an existential threat.

One summer day I had my young daughter in the bow of my canoe, as we approached the tower line near home, a large fish jumped clear of the water, hit the gallon jug of juice she was holding, bounced off the opposite gunnel and fell back into the river. Her expression was priceless, as was mine, to witness a scene that could only happen in a cartoon. Can’t pass under that tower line without reliving that moment! Though many years have passed, the clarity and even the emotion of that comedy is still retained in the tower line archives.

On an initiation canoe trip with my four-year-old grandson, I paddled close to a high shale cliff, as in my experience cliffs were a major attraction to young boys. Sure enough, Caleb was impressed and asked how to get to the top. Before I could answer I noticed a large animal on the narrow shelf at water’s edge below the cliff. We closed in on a supersized beaver munching some delicate vines growing on the cliff face. The beaver slowly moved into deeper water but not before swimming on the surface a few yards in front of the canoe. You will not be able to see it, but when I pass that cliff, it reveals a crystal-clear video of that priceless moment. Of course, the next day Caleb never mentioned the beaver to mom but was totally impressed by Grampy carrying the canoe over his head.

One early spring day after ice-out, the river was running high, and the only ice that remained was found in deep cuts into the bank where trees were washed away. As I rounded a sharp bend in the river, I kept about three feet off the left bank to avoid the main current. Immediately on my left was a large ice-covered cove about twelve feet into the high vertical bank. I could not believe what I saw! Standing in sharp contrast to the empty expanse of graying ice, was an otter!  As it ran toward me, I realized its only escape route was into the water next to my canoe. At less than two feet away I watched the otter dive into the fast-moving muddy water in the narrow space between my boat and the ice shelf. I thought I was hallucinating, perhaps hypothermic. I never saw an otter on the river before or since. Consider, this bend in the river projects the memory of my close encounter with an otter, exclusively for me. It is my personal archive, available to no one else.

Memories are where you first met them, they are safe from prying eyes and remain where you last left them. The storage capacity is infinite and the keys to unlock them are everywhere.

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.

Fencing Hummers

Article and photos by Joe Mish

A small patch of red monarda grew wild in one corner of the fenced in garden, survivors of at least one deer who decided their minty flavor to be a perfect palate cleanser.  Much to the dismay of the late season hummingbirds, their over browsed food source left fewer opportunities for nourishment at a critical time, just prior to migration south.

The ownership of this last loaf of bread on the shelf, further intensified the territorial disputes that typically take place among hummers.

A young of the year male was feeding on the monarda, his dining strategy was to circle to the right, probing each scarlet tubule, then pulling back to hover for a moment, before repeating the flight pattern around the next floral head. Suddenly a second immature male appeared and the two began aerial acrobatics almost too fast to follow. Each bird disputed the property claim of the other. After close face to face sparring, they took off out of sight, separated by no more than a few inches.

It was impossible to differentiate one darting hummer from another, though the aggressor appeared to be the same bird, how many different challengers was in question.

Five minutes later another hummer appeared and began to feed with uncharacteristic speed, as if knowingly violating another’s territory, stealing as much as it could before the expected challenge from the self-proclaimed owner.

As expected, the challenge ensued. This time the interloper was inside the garden fence while the claim owner hovered outside the fence. So intense was their dispute, each floated in place commencing an aerial duel, with their needle like beaks, separated by the fence. It was a high noon showdown with unloaded weapons, as neither could be intimidated nor vanquished. The spectacle continued for a full minute until the aggressor realized the futility of his efforts and flew over the wire barrier to engage the trespasser. The two fencers immediately dropped their foils in favor of high aerial maneuvers to settle this territorial dispute.

While most hummingbird disputes consist of posturing, and aggressive aerial pursuits end harmlessly, another unexpected threat targeting hummers lurks among the flowers. The brown Asian preying mantis, an introduced species, will on occasion attempt to take and kill an unsuspecting hummer.  Having read about the relationship of mantis and hummer, it seemed a rare occurrence of low probability until one early September afternoon.

A female hummer was feeding on the blooms of native red cardinal flower. Being aware of how individual hummers have their own feeding strategy, circling always to the right or left, pulling back for a moment before going on to the next flower or just moving on to the next bloom without a slightest hesitation, I noticed something odd about this hummer. She seemed to take sideways glances diverting attention from the business at hand. Sure enough, there was the focus of her attention. A light brown Asian preying mantis whose body length exceeded that of the hummer. Likewise the mantis appeared aware of the hummer and waited to strike. As the hummer worked the flower, she always maintained awareness of the mantis and at one point faced it directly. All ended well for the hummer, though it is easy to imagine a new fledged hummer falling victim to this insect predator.

Two hummers in this image, one perched, the other making an intimidating fly by.

As delicate and diminutive as hummingbirds appear, they are tough, aggressive creatures whose late summer-early fall southward migration defies the imagination. Hummers are as close to magic and myth as anything in nature. The ability to hover and maneuver with almost invisible wings and float in the air probing brilliantly colored flowers, while robed in iridescent feathers that seem more metallic than organic and change color with movement, surely earns mythical status. As is within a hummer’s personality, it will often initiate a face face introduction as it stays suspended in mid air inches from your nose, looking directly in your eyes. It is a wild thought that the hummer has captured the image of your face as readily as you hold his image in memory, to be recalled and reviewed, perhaps in a future pleasant dream, whose memory fades upon waking, leaving only the hint of a smile on your lips.  

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

Scent by May

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The gentle month of May steps out of character to finally terminate winter’s lease on the land. May does what March and April were unable to do and does it with authority and grace. 

Winter has been served an ironclad, last frost warning, and nature celebrates. Delicate plant life now bursts from its dormancy to join their hardier kin who dared unpredictable early spring conditions. 

Floral scent now fills the morning air to conjure pleasant memories of warm weather suppressed by winter doldrums.  

Walking through the meadow grass, canoe balanced on my shoulders, the scent of multiflora rose fills the air. My path meanders around these thorny bushes and prickly eastern redcedar as if I were bouncing around in a pinball machine. 

As I walked into the wind, aromatic meadow grass replaced the floral scent of the scattered bouquets of wild rose. A three-strand barbed wire fence, intended to keep generations of dairy cows honest, now delineated the lush meadow, but could not contain the whimsical direction of the perfumed air. I slid the boat under the sagging bottom wire, laid face down on the grass and inched to the other side. 

The river was flowing gently, sun sparkling off its rippled surface which lay just beneath a parallel current of air which carried, intermittent quantums of the unmistakable perfume of black locust blossoms. 

Though my olfactory senses were immersed in the current of scent, I had to walk further into the river to set my boat in water deep enough to float, with me aboard. I had to walk-in ankle-deep water to the main channel and each step sent a cloud of muddy water downstream, while upstream, the water ran clear. A pickerel frog escaped my intrusion by lying motionless on the bottom of the shallow water. His spots blending in so well among the small stones. Fresh water clams showed telltale depressions in the mud that revealed their presence. I stopped for a moment to pull up a clam, check to see if it was alive and set it back down to watch it bury itself out of sight.

I had been dragging my boat by a short bow line through the shallows. As I near the main flow and deeper water the current swung the stern downstream. I pulled the boat back up to the center seat to set my paddle in against the forward thwart and snapped my spare into clips mounted on the seats’ pedestal. Then secured my pack behind the center seat with a figure eight knot and two half hitches. Swinging the boat around with the bow now facing downstream, I gingerly got in, sat down, picked up the paddle and just drifted for a long minute before I made a correction. I began to slowly paddle downstream, careful to take in a 360 view. The clear water, blue, cloudless sky, both lush overgrown river banks and the water ahead all held my interest.  

May is the time of year to see young creatures of all species and thier parents gathering food to feed hungry pups or kits freshly weaned.  

The first week in May I saw and photographed a mink transferring her kits to a new den. That was certainly unexpected. Fox will also move pups from one den to another.  One den with six pups, situated in the pasture, was abandoned after two weeks. The pups were moved further uphill and closer to human habitation. As the meadow was really a flood plain, the vixen made a smart move, perhaps for the wrong reason, but her pups did survive the next week’s flood.

A high vertical bank, perhaps constructed by a muskrat and remodeled by a groundhog, now served as harbor for a daydreaming raccoon. A masked face momentarily peered out as a face might be seen glancing out behind the sheer drapery of a window in a high-rise city building. Yellow, white and purple flowers screened the den’s doorway.  

Further downstream a flightless great horned owl perched in a tangle of a fallen tree beneath a red shale cliff. It was now old enough to ‘branch’. The stage where the owl leaves the nest and begins to walk, climb and flap its wings, strengthening them for a first attempt at flight.

The sights sounds and smells that appear in late spring under the banner of May, whether from the perspective of the rivers or backyard gardens, are the first floral wrapped gift box, filled to the brim with new life, to be opened after winter’s reign has ended. 

Let there be light

Article and photos by Joe Mish

The eternal cosmic clock, rewound by the choreographed dance of celestial bodies, precisely marks the rebirth of light and the start of winter.

The runway for January’s landing is lit nine days before, during the winter solstice. The lights grow brighter as the spinning earth tilts in relation to the sun. This delicate earthly pirouette is anything but a solo performance. Only in a state of cosmic equilibrium, held firmly in place by gravity, can the possibility of life occur.  

The relative stability of atmosphere and repetitious seasonal changes found on earth, provide the predictability and time, life requires to evolve and adapt.  

While the January first rewind is a human convenience, all life forms, humans included, have evolved to key in on the periodicity of increasing and decreasing day length.  Light, along with atmosphere, temperature, and gravity dictate the detailed specifications that must be met to exist. Life on the other hand, has no bargaining power and must somehow develop a form that embraces all the requirements set forth by the cosmic design as found on earth. 

Successful adaptation is critically dependent on the stability of environmental conditions. Life forms whose ability to adapt, lags behind the speed of change, simply go away. The constant effort to achieve existence,  results in an almost infinite variety of life, whether it be a blade of grass or an elephant. Each develops unique mechanisms to deal with seasonal changes in atmosphere and light.  New life forms are constantly being discovered while other life forms go extinct.

I find it amazing our existence depends on heavenly bodies, light years away, hurtling through space in well-choreographed orbits controlled by gravity. Even more amazing is how oblivious humanity is to its existential condition, hanging only by an invisible thread. Though cosmic events are out of our control, its link to our existence sparks imagination and wonder. The curiosity that arises when we look toward the heavens has a gravity of its own which draws us in to seek deeper knowledge. Imagination and creativity are set afire when faced with a gap in information. We are compelled to temporarily bridge the unknown with subjective theory, a vestige of our innate survival skills.  

As humans we are surrounded by natural wonders whose intended or unintended purpose is to fire our imagination and fuel our creativity to enhance our survival. In that way nature is teaching us how to fish as well as providing our daily bread. 

Wise words spoke of rendering to Caesar and following that advice we celebrate January first as a nod to society. Let us also be inspired by the brightness of January traced back to the winter solstice and that moment of perfect equilibrium between light and darkness. A celebration of the moment life began to stir on a planet spinning in the blackness of an infinite universe bounded only by our imagination.

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.

Coloring Time

Article and photos by Joe Mish

Self portrait of a paddler navigating a sea of goldenrod during the late September color blast. Much care was taken to not get yellow on the black canoe.

The rise of Venus in the early morning eastern sky is the celestial harbinger of a pre-autumnal dawn. As if a conductor raising her baton to stir the first musical strands of an orchestral performance, Venus instead, transforms sound into symphony of color.

As the dark sky lightens, a fluorescent orange orb slowly struggles skyward appearing to have escaped from the earth’s fiery core.

Once free of the earth’s grasp, the sun’s blaze orange begins to fade, dissolving in the atmosphere, melting into a wild spectrum of ever-changing pastel tints. Tints that concentrate in intensity as they fall to earth and color the late summer greenery with splashes of vibrant golds, yellow and purple variants.

The summer green mantle, which covered open fields for the past three months, was worn as a uniform of sort to make differentiation among grassland vegetation a difficult task.

With the imperceptible fading hot breath of late summer, vast expanses of vibrant yellow appear, as goldenrod reveals itself as an actor would at the end of a play. Depending on the species, goldenrod’s display of brilliant yellow may vary even further with soil conditions. NJ.GOV/pinelands lists six species of goldenrod, a feast for late season migrating pollinators.

Splashes of vibrant purple fresh from dawn’s display of pastels, stand in brilliant contrast to appear as delicate embroidery in the expansive blanket of golden yellow and green. Purple loosestrife, an invasive non-native plant, has established itself along the river and moist, overgrown pasturelands. Though loosestrife blooms from June to September, its presence in late-summer, is for some reason, more spectacular, perhaps its vibrant color is now more intense.

Artists use light and composition to direct attention to the main subject and then allow that focus to diffuse and absorb all the fine details so critical to support the entire work of art.

In nature we see the same strategy, which speaks more to revealing the innate human thought process than it does to suggest nature exhibiting intent. That thought aside, the beauty that surrounds us, is in itself, best felt emotionally rather than seasoned with logic and rationality.

The broad bold colored brush strokes painted across wide swatches of meadow and grassland are sufficient to capture attention and compel a search for the finer details.

Standing tall above the rest always garners a first glance among the crowd. Common mullein is another late season bloomer, pale green, tending to gray, with a long thick wooly stalk upon which a whorl of yellow flowers appears. The plant has many medicinal and practical uses. It seems the color yellow, dripped from the rising sun, is natures favorite, after green and blue. Ask which came first, insects evolving to adapt to yellow flowers or yellow flowers dominating because of insect choice.

Another example of fine art is Joe-Pye-Weed. Again, a tall plant which bears a large globe of tiny flowers tinted light pink to purple. The color taken directly from the evolving pastels displayed at dawn, even freezing the subtle movement seen as colors travel their spectral paths allowed by visible light. That long moment of change, as if time was captured in the still portrait of a Joe-Pye-Weed floret.

Ironweed is another common wildflower blooming in late summer. Small patches of this tall plant bear fluorescent dark purple flowers. The color stands in contrast to the earth tones of brown, tan, gray and green that dominate nature’s palette.

Cardinal flower, a native wildflower, blooms in moist areas in late August to September. Appropriately named, this plant bears several dark red cone shaped flowers that glow with such intensity and depth comparable to fresh drops of blood. The intense red coming directly from the glowing orb seen at dawn as it breaks free of the earth’s molten core.

Late summer and early fall are marked by changes in color. Colors previewed and mixed in the sky from effluent of the rising sun. As these colors emerge on the landscape, they mark the passage of time as effectively as a modern day calendar.

Instead of relying on standard numeric measures of time, we might say, the red is on the cardinal flower and the purple is on the iron weed and in doing so we color time.

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.

Thin Blue Lines

Article by Joe Mish. Aerial images taken on flight provided by Lighthawk compliments of No Water No Life

A plaque, inset in a concrete bridge constructed in 1923, spans the nameless stream, which now appears on the map as a thin blue line.
The last image shows the stream as it exists today, just before it empties into the South Branch of the Raritan.

If all the water that ever flowed from the Raritan river drainage could be measured, its contribution to the depth of the ocean would be impressive. Think of that watershed as a collection agency for the world’s oceans.

The South Branch flows into the confluence from the right, the North Branch from the left. They combine to form the Raritan River. This natural formation was an important landmark to the Lenape Tribe, which referred to this place as Tucca-Ramma-Hacking, “the meeting place of waters.”

An aerial view of the Raritan River clearly shows its two main branches, the South Branch and the North Branch. From the perspective of the confluence, its two main branches get their name, despite both arising north of their meeting place. The confluence marks the beginning of the Raritan River.

A closer look reveals the larger tributaries which feed the main branches; Rockaway creek, Black river/Lamington River and the Neshanic River, all of which are clearly noted on maps.

No less important are the numerous smaller brooks and creeks whose contributions are significant and whose names may appear only on old maps or engraved on marble plaques set in structures that bridge their banks. Peter’s brook, Chambers brook, Pleasant Run, Prescott Brook, Assicong Creek, Minneakoning Creek, Holland Brook and the First, Second and Third Neshanic Rivers, are identified on some maps though only Holland Brook has one sign along its nine mile winding course. Hoopstick and Bushkill are lesser known streams, within plain view, that bear no identifying signage and are often represented as nameless blue lines.

There are dozens more minor streams whose names appear nowhere except in obscure archives. Each one eventually feeds not the Raritan or its two main branches above the confluence. Knowing someone’s name is a sign of respect.

Calling someone by the wrong name can be embarrassing. However, the signs that misidentify the North Branch of the Raritan River as the Raritan River proper, have failed to embarrass those responsible for posting such signs.

Many smaller seeps and springs whose names have been lost to the ages add to the accumulated flow. Driving along the Lamington River for instance, there are endless watery traces arising from springs within the woods that empty into larger tributaries. Many are just moist creases worn through the soil over time, which collect rainwater and snowmelt to supplement the downstream daily flow.

Maps show endless springs, which make the cartographers final draft as thin blue lines. Often a network of converging shorter lines, each with a defined beginning, join to form larger streams like Pleasant Run and Holland brook.

Obscure water sources fascinate me simply because their anonymity and remote locations arouse my curiosity about the natural communities that might exist in such rarely visited places. Their presence represents a convergence of habitat types that attract birds and wildlife. Though they bear no labels to honor their faithful contribution to the next blue line and ultimate confluence, their importance must not be overlooked.

Many springs which appeared on old maps, no longer exist, eliminated by construction of sewer lines or otherwise diverted or filled in. As maps are revised and generations fade, these streams exist only in a cartographer’s archive.

My appreciation for these disappearing thin blue lines was heightened when I recently discovered that as a kid I walked over Slingtail brook every day on the way to school. At some point this little stream which bore a name, was diverted through a sewer line under the pavement. More amazing, even older residents had no memory of that stream, its presence and name lost to the ages. I did find a reference to Slingtail Brook in the Woodbridge, New Jersey newspaper archives dated 1939. The property through which a portion of the stream flowed was up for sale. A clause by the seller stipulated the brook not be diverted or covered over.

“Conveyance will be made subject to the following condition: That the course of Slingtail Brook as now existent, be not changed or diverted from its course or that said stream and flow of water therein be not blockaded, dammed or otherwise restricted.

Take further notice that the Township ………… “

Fords Beacon, May 12, 1939”

Somewhere in time the requirement that Slingtail remain unmolested, was lost to progress and legal wrangling. Such is the fate of so many smaller streams, especially when their names only exist in oral history and no signage marks there presence.

One small trickle of a stream that has miraculously retained its nature and name, is Cattail Brook.

Cattail brook arises from a convergence of network of bubbling springs, supplemented by runoff from rain and snowfall. It begins as hardly more than a trickle, directed by gravity, from the south facing ridge of the heavily wooded Sourland Mountains, near East Amwell, NJ. Cattail brook gives birth to Rock Brook, a tumultuous and moody stream that joins the more sedate Bedens Brook on its way to the Millstone River. The Millstone joins with the Raritan River to make its final contribution to the earth’s deep blue oceans.

Rock Brook derives its character from the influence of gravity and its bed of stone, which can change its mood from this idyllic mountain brook into a raging torrent

An extended winter freeze, preserving snow from a previous storm beyond its expected stay, was interrupted by a thaw and heavy rain. The melting snow joined the torrential downpour as it flowed over frozen ground to collect in every shallow crease leading to the river. The water’s velocity was enhanced by the decreasing gradient of deep well worn pathways etched into the earth.

The banks of successfully larger streams barely contained the accumulation of water delivered from the network of anonymous thin blue lines. Acting as a single entity, the collection agency, if you will, of the Raritan River drainage, faithfully delivered its contribution of sweet water to the world’s salty oceans.

The Raritan River becomes the Raritan Bay downstream of the New Jersey Garden State Parkway Bridge. With a poetic flourish, the salt water bay and lower Raritan River are stained blue, saturated with the blue ink used to represent the thousands of nameless pale blue lines drawn on maps of the extensive Raritan River watershed.

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.

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